When I’ll Have Another defeated Bodemeister in the Kentucky Derby, many handicappers (including me) thought it was obvious that the loser had run the better race after setting an extraordinarily fast pace.
But this opinion was not unanimous. Sagacious observers such as Daily Racing Form columnist Jay Hovdey and TVG Network analyst Todd Schrupp argued that the winner was the best horse. Hovdey maintained that racing fans always tend to glamorize failed efforts in the Derby, a phenomenon he described as the “cult of the noble loser.”
Moreover, the blogosphere was filled with nasty comments suggesting that members of the pro-Bodemeister camp were making alibis after losing a bet. The popular reasoning was: I’ll Have Another won, so he’s the best horse; he’s the best horse, so he’ll win the Preakness.
Many of these people appear not to understand the rudiments of handicapping. When serious bettors evaluate what has happened in a race, they don’t necessarily focus on who won and who lost. They understand that outcomes are determined not only by horses’ talent but by race dynamics — pace, traffic trouble, ground loss, all the things that constitute a horse’s “trip.” They try to consider all of these factors in order to judge after the fact who ran best, because that conclusion may be the key to betting a future race — such as Saturday’s Preakness.
In the bestselling book on probabilities, “Fooled by Randomness,” author Nassim Taleb says that to evaluate a particular outcome we must consider its “alternative history” — other outcomes that might reasonably have happened. He was writing principally about investments, but the concept is relevant to horse racing.
If, in a theoretical world, the 2012 Kentucky Derby were contested 100 times, it would be run in a variety of ways and produce a variety of results. One of the less likely scenarios might be this one: I’ll Have Another gets a perfect trip after breaking from post 19, saving ground on the first turn and avoiding any traffic trouble, while many of his main rivals are encountering adversity. If they run the Derby 100 times, I’ll Get Another may get such an ideal trip only a few times; it’s wrong to leap to a definite conclusion about his superiority based on the scenario that unfolded on May 5.
Handicapping the Preakness demands a clear-eyed analysis of the Derby. All of the realistic contenders at Pimlico are colts who ran at Churchill Downs, and NBC’s aerial-camera shot made it possible to see them all from start to finish. Here’s what I saw:
Daddy Nose Best (10th in the Derby) and Optimizer (11th) both “steadied,” according to the official charts, but any mishaps were either invisible or inconsequential. They had no excuses.
Went the Day Well (fourth) had some traffic trouble early in the race, raced wide on the final turn and outkicked everybody else to finish fourth. On paper it looks like an impressive performance. But when longshot Prospective bobbled in front of him in the early stages of the race, Went the Day Well was already in 17th place and the incident cost him virtually nothing. His flying finish was an illusion often common in the Derby. After a hot pace, the field is slowing down in the stretch, and somebody almost always passes the deadwood with what looks like a powerful late run.
Creative Cause (fifth) raced wide all the way. Joel Rosario took him into the five-path on the backstretch and kept him there while launching a mid-race move on the turn. In contrast to Went the Day Well, who did his running when the leaders were exhausted, Creative Cause was trying to accelerate while the leader Bodemeister was still strong. His three-length loss wasn’t a bad effort.
Bodemeister (second) didn’t race wide or encounter traffic trouble, but his was nevertheless the toughest trip of all. Because of the presence of the ultra-fast Hansen and Trinniberg in the field, he had to run a half mile in 45.4 seconds to seize and maintain the lead. He didn’t have the luxury of slowing down to a moderate pace as he did when he captured the Arkansas Derby by 9 1 / 2 lengths. If he had been able to set a slower pace, or if I’ll Have Another had encountered some adversity, Bodemeister would have won. Run the Kentucky Derby 100 times in an alternate universe and he’ll capture a plurality of them.
At Pimlico there is only one reason to question Bodemeister, and it has nothing to do with his talent. The colt has crammed his whole five-race career into the span of four months, and the exertions may have taken a toll on him. After the Derby, trainer Bob Baffert said, “I was worried that he might be wiped out and stay in the back of his stall for three days and sulk.” But Baffert believes his colt has bounced back and is ready to run at the level he did in the Derby.
Assuming that Baffert is right, Bodemeister ought to benefit from a perfect set-up in the Preakness. The defection of Hansen removed the most formidable other speed horse from the field. I’ll Have Another will probably try to put some pressure on Bodemeister, but Baffert’s colt figures to get a comfortable early lead — a huge advantage in any race.
Who can beat Bodemeister? While I’ll Have Another and Went the Day Well probably ran their optimal races in the Derby, Creative Cause did not. Most clockers didn’t like the way he had trained at Churchill Downs; he had a difficult trip in the race itself, yet he lost by just three lengths. He is a consistent, seasoned runner who defeated Bodemeister earlier in the winter, and under neutral conditions he might do it again, but not when his rival gets an uncontested lead.
Bodemeister wins the Preakness in a runaway, with Creative Cause second and I’ll Have Another third.
For Andrew Beyer’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/beyer.