Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Guest Post: What does it take to win the Derby?

--Brian Ludwick, WinStar Farm Bloodstock Analyst

Don’t look now, but the last three winners of America's most famous horse race all failed to reach the Beyer Speed Figure century mark prior to Derby day. Animal Kingdom (94 top), Super Saver (98 top) and Mine That Bird (81 top) all Beyered in the 100+ range on the big day and two of the three--Animal Kingdom and Mine That Bird--came right back to run nearly identical numbers in the Preakness.
   So, are we now looking for a 3-year-old that creeps up on his best form, and then explodes with his best effort on the first Saturday in May? After all, each year, trainers and owners are constantly quoted as saying they don’t want their horses over the top before the big day. Racing network analysts echo the same sentiment almost daily in the months leading up to the showdown in Louisville. Surely they all can’t be wrong, can they? Yes, they can. In fact, there is no more popular misconception about what it takes to win the Derby than this wildly popular, yet totally unsubstantiated theory.
   In the ten years preceding the above mentioned trio, only Giacomo (2005) failed to boil the Beyer thermometer prior to the Derby. In fact, working back from Big Brown in 2008, seven of the 10 surpassed the 100 Beyer mark multiple times prior to the Derby. Here is a list of those previous ten Derby winners. The first number in parentheses is their winning Derby Beyer number. The second number is that horses’ highest pre-Derby Beyer:

Big Brown (109-106)
Street Sense (110-108)
Barbaro (111-103)
Giacomo (100-98)
Smarty Jones (107-108)
Funny Cide (109-110)
War Emblem (114-112)
Monarchos (116-105)
Fusaichi Pegasus (108-111) 
Charismatic (108-108)

   These numbers clearly illustrate that most of the Derby winners had already run a number very close to, and on four occasions, even equaling or surpassing what they needed to run on Derby day itself. It stands to reason that a young 3-year-old being asked to run 10 furlongs in the spring is going to need some pretty significant preparation if he is going to bring home the roses.
   A famous golfer, upon shaking hands with the others in his group on the first tee, said something to the effect of: “Gentlemen, I hope you brought it with you, because you aren’t going to find it out here.” He was, of course referring to a good golf game and well, the same applies for the 20 runners that load into the Churchill starting gate every spring. If they haven’t yet “found it,” they had better have come pretty darned close!
   Okay, I know what some of you are thinking--what about Mine That Bird? How did a horse that had never run better than an 81 Beyer suddenly jump up and win the Kentucky Derby with a 105? This little gelding was a very good juvenile in Canada winning three consecutive stakes up north before bombing in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He also picked up the services of Calvin Borel, a rider who, better than any other, understands the vastly different dynamics of this unique race. Having been seated 10 paces or so from the wire that afternoon I can tell you that Mine That Bird really caught the eye from a physical well-being standpoint. On three different, occasions I found myself glancing down at my Daily Racing Form to see who the 8 horse was. He was only a pocket-sized horse but he was bursting with good health.
   Can I offer up an intelligent explanation for how all of these factors added up to a 25-point forward move? No, I can’t. The 135th Kentucky Derby remains, for me at least, the most confounding result I have ever witnessed in a major stakes race. Some horse racing riddles are not meant to be solved.
   The one glaring Beyer increase on our list was Monarchos’s 11-point move forward. I believe it can be explained in part by the fastest opening half-mile in Kentucky Derby history--a ridiculous :44.4 split. That unrealistic four furlongs set the table for a stretch-runner and Monarchos answered the call. It is also worth noting that the son of Maria’s Mon had put together three very good stretch-running efforts leading up to the Derby with Beyers of 103, 105 and 103, and thus had a great foundation from which to work.
   The ill-fated Barbaro came into the Derby with form that was far better than it looked on paper. Beyer numbers assigned for turf races are always a few points lower than their dirt counterparts because, due to the nature of grass racing, there is far less “wiggle room” between good performances and ordinary ones. The same is somewhat true of synthetic racing, but that is another discussion for another day. Still, Barbaro had registered a 102 Beyer in only his second lifetime start on the turf as a juvenile! In a year when outside stalking trips from wide posts spelled doom in nine-furlong races at Gulfstream, Barbaro overcame that sizeable bias to win the Florida Derby a shade cozily. He arrived at Churchill a picture of health, worked like a monster a week out and, with every right to move forward, did just that for trainer Michael Matz.
   There is no doubt that Derby and pre-Derby Beyer numbers have declined significantly over the last three years. The list of contenders six weeks out from the 2012 renewal reveals a large group of horses that have Beyered in the mid-high 90s range with a select few--six actually, that have barely poked their heads above the 100 mark in non-sprints. Those six are Algorithms (105), Creative Cause (102), Secret Circle (102), Bodemeister (101 twice), Scatman (101) and El Padrino (100). Unfortunately, this group is now down to five with the injury to top-fig earner Algorithms.
   There are three sets of serious Derby preps still to be run and it’s a safe bet some of those races will yield some 100+ Beyer numbers. Still, this group is shaping up more like the aforementioned groups of the last three years than the ones from the 10 years before that. At this stage at least, I believe we’re looking at a Derby day Beyer in the low to mid 100’s range.

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