Racing fans get so much information about horses in the Kentucky Derby that it’s easy to overthink.
I’ve never felt so stupid as I did after the 2002 Derby, in which one of the entrants possessed a vastly superior Beyer Speed Figure plus a change of trainers to one of the best in the business. Such qualifications should have made him look like a standout. But I somehow ignored War Emblem and his new trainer Bob Baffert. When he paid $43 to win, I vowed I’d never again overlook the basics if a similar situation ever arose.
In Saturday’s Derby, there is a colt whose most recent speed figure towers over his rivals’ and whose running style ought to give him a significant tactical advantage. I’m not going to be distracted by any handicapping subtleties. I’m betting on Goldencents.
The colt proved his merit in the Santa Anita Derby when he faced two formidable Baffert-trained rivals, Super Ninety Nine and Flashback. Baffert had decided that Super Ninety Nine needed the early lead to be effective, so the speedster set an aggressive pace, running a half mile in 46.48 seconds, while Goldencents pressed him. When Goldencents disposed of the leader, the favorite Flashback made his move — but Goldencents resisted the challenge and pulled away to win by 1 ¼ lengths.
This is a hard way to win a race — duel with a good speed horse and hold off a good stalker — but Goldencents did so and recorded a fast time. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 105 that was several lengths superior to all of the other major Derby preps. Orb earned a 97 winning the Florida Derby, Verrazano a 95 in the Wood Memorial, Revolutionary a 93 in the Louisiana Derby, Overanalyze an 88 in the Arkansas Derby.
The unanswered question about Goldencents is whether he can carry his speed 1 ¼ miles. Even trainer Doug O’Neill has harbored some doubts about his stamina. But the colt’s speed is going to be an advantage Saturday, for the Derby is undergoing a significant change that many fans and bettors haven’t recognized yet.
Over the years, the field at Churchill Downs has regularly been populated by sprinters who set such a fast early pace that they compromise the chances of every horse racing near the lead. As a result, the Derby has been a race for stretch-runners. Since 2000, six winners have rallied from 10th place or farther back, while only one front-runner, War Emblem, won during that period.
Churchill Downs this year revised the rules that determine which horses get into the Derby field if more than 20 are entered. It scrapped purse winnings as the criterion and instituted a point system based on performance in the major prep races. Fast, faint-hearted colts used to get into the field because of the money they had earned in sprints. Now these animals don’t qualify, and they are absent from Saturday’s field. Under such circumstances, the Derby pace ought to be slower, horses racing near the lead won’t be enervated, and stretch-runners will have more difficulty catching them.
Goldencents likely will sit just behind the probable pacesetter, Falling Sky, poised to take over when the leader falters. Verrazano, who may be the favorite, ought to have a similarly easy trip, but I am prepared to take a stand against Todd Pletcher’s undefeated colt. In contrast to the difficult circumstances Goldencents faced in his final prep race, Verrazano enjoyed a perfect trip in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. He sat behind a 77-to-1 shot who set a slow pace, a half-mile in 49.62 seconds. When the leader began to weaken, Verrazano was in perfect position to surge away from the field. Instead, he had to work hard to win by less than a length in slow time. Verrazano looked like a budding superstar earlier in the winter, but now he appears to be on the downgrade.
Four others in the field could be considered serious contenders:
●Itsmyluckyday scored two impressive wins at Gulfstream Park this winter (earning speed figures of 104 and 102) before finishing second in the Florida Derby. Trainer Eddie Plesa says his colt wasn’t fully cranked up for that race, and if Itsmyluckyday returns to his best form, he can win. He has enough speed to sit close to the leaders. His morning-line price of 15-1 would be a value.
●Orb rallied to defeat Itsmyluckyday in the Florida Derby. His running time was moderate, and he’ll need to improve in order to win Saturday, but he certainly could do so. Trainer Shug McGaughey’s runners are typically late developers. Daily Racing Form clocker Mike Welsch says that Orb has been training brilliantly at Churchill Downs.
●Revolutionary made eye-catching rallies in winning the Withers Stakes and the Louisiana Derby, though his opposition was weak. His come-from-way-behind style may not work in his favor Saturday.
●Normandy Invasion looked like a potential star as a 2-year-old, but he has had difficult trips in both of his starts at 3. He was compromised trying to come from behind in the slow-pace Wood Memorial, yet he finished less than a length behind Verrazano. The Goldencents-Normandy Invasion combination would be my preferred exacta play.
Many of the others in the 20-horse lineup appear badly overmatched. This likely is not a year when a long shot will pull off a shocking upset. Handicapping logic ought to prevail. In view of my personal record betting America’s most famous race, I should hesitate to make this statement, but the outcome of the 139th Derby looks obvious.