The Kentucky Derby has been run over a sloppy, wet or muddy track four times since it adopted its qualification point system in 2012. That could be the case again Saturday, with rain expected to blanket the Louisville area for much of the week until post time. The Accuweater forecast gives an 80 percent chance of rain on Saturday, with a 16 percent chance of thunderstorms — following a rainy day on Friday — necessitating an alternative handicapping scheme if a muddy or sloppy track indeed develops.
No. 6 Messier, my pick to win, is a solid choice rain or shine, but poor track conditions should improve the chances of No. 11 Pioneer of Medina, an enticing thought with his odds at 30-1 on the morning line. Both horses will feature in my trifecta and superfecta approach in wet or sloppy conditions.
Pioneer of Medina’s speed figures have been on the rise in each of his past four starts, two of those Grade 2 stakes races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. One more step forward would give him speed figures competitive with some of the best in this field. Plus, he tends to outrun his odds, a solid wagering opportunity in any horse race. Pioneer of Medina won an optional claiming race at 7-1, then he rounded out the superfecta in the Risen Star Stakes at almost 34-1 odds. In his latest race, the Louisiana Derby, he came in third at almost 16-1.
Todd Pletcher’s colt also has an advantageous running style for a sloppy or muddy track. Historically, one-dimensional front-runners have not performed well in the Kentucky Derby mud. They have not hit the board — finished first, second or third — in any of the past four Kentucky Derbies contested over a non-fast track, and do not figure to be competitive here, either.
Instead, focus on horses that race either as a stalker (a horse comfortable on the lead or following the leader one to three lengths back) or a presser (a horse that prefers to run four to seven lengths behind the leader in the middle of the pack). Pioneer of Medina has been either first or second at the half-mile mark in each of his four route races on dirt — races more than a mile long — winning two of those and finishing third and fourth in the others.
Complicating things, 17 of the 20 horses in this year’s Derby have never raced on a sloppy, muddy or wet dirt track (four more have raced on a dirt track labeled good, which means the surface is either drying out or has had recent, but not substantial, rainfall). That means we need to dig deeper and focus on horses inheriting an abundance of speed in their pedigree, also known as the horse’s dosage index, a numerical expression of a horse’s pedigree first published in the Daily Racing Form in 1981.
To draw our interest, a horse will ideally have a dosage index of 3.00 or higher, similar to recent winners in the slop such as Orb (the 2013 winner, with a 3.21 dosage index), Always Dreaming (the 2017 winner, with a 5.00) and Justify (the 2018 winner, with a 3.00). Country House (2.69) won the Run for the Roses on a sloppy track because of the disqualification of Maximum Security (3.00) in 2019.
Happily, Pioneer of Medina has a dosage index of 3.00, with plenty of classic traits inherited from his paternal line.
His sire, Pioneerof the Nile, was the runner up in the 2009 Kentucky Derby and the sire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Pioneerof the Nile is also a son of Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, who begot Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming (who won that 2017 race on a sloppy track), and 2012 Kentucky Derby runner-up Bodemeister. Pioneer of Medina’s great-grandfather, Unbridled, includes Kentucky Derby winners Grindstone and Mine That Bird among his progeny. Mine That Bird won the first leg of the Triple Crown at 50-1 on a sloppy track in 2009.
Betting on a long shot will never look perfect, but Pioneer of Medina appears to have the tools necessary to surprise everyone in the rain or mud on Saturday.