2014 Kentucky Derby Preview

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Strong But Wrong: An Overview of the Major Kentucky Derby Prep-Races

Unlike the 2013 prep season, most 2014 Kentucky Derby prep races at 1-1/8th miles sported final times faster than this decade’s average for each race. Only the Louisiana Derby and Blue Grass Stakes registered slower-than-average times. Many bettors might conclude from the numerous brisk clockings that a standout 3-year-old champ awaits coronation.
To that I say, “Whoa! Don’t dump logic from the saddle and run off guided by nothing but a faulty premise.” Although this class of 3-year-olds is faster than average, no member of the class qualifies for the Gold Standard I describe in The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby.
NOTE: See Stat Blast Chart #1 at LazyBettor.com for a comparison of this year’s winning prep-race times and the historical averages. You’ll also see how the winners of this year’s Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby, Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby compare to the prep-race efforts of former Kentucky Derby winners like Fusaichi Pegasus, Barabaro and others.

Experienced handicappers know not to rave about superb final times earned on turf or synthetic surfaces. They’re aware that the easy early fractions horses run on these surfaces often produce outsized rallying efforts and artificially inflated final times.

Dirt races, conversely, extract more early energy from contestants, produce slower final furlongs, and result in slower final times on average. But here’s the crazy part: experienced handicappers DO rave about outsized final times earned by horses who win turf-style races on dirt.

By “turf-style races on dirt,” I mean races in which the frontrunners ran slow early and all the top finishers come storming down the stretch in rapid time. That describes nearly every 9-furlong prep winner this year, including the likely Derby favorite California Chrome.

As impressive-looking as those late rallies are (and as impressive as the resulting final times are), this pace profile in major prep races fails to produce many Kentucky Derby winners. In The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby, I apply 22 years of Derby prep race results to define the pace scenario that Derby prospects must prove capable of handling.

Only Bob Baffert’s lightly raced Chitu exceeded my preferred pace mark in a 9-furlong prep race (the Sunland Derby). However, his final-furlong time of :13.30 registers as painfully slow. My research suggests that his well-farriered hooves will turn to equine anchors in the final furlong of the Kentucky Derby.
These pace-related realities shove all the top 2014 horses out of my Gold Standard. A few of this year’s prep-season stars earned admission into the less reliable (but still highly profitable) Silver Standard, though. And two horses who fall short of the Gold and Silver standards fit my third approach and offer a better return than the letter-of-the-law qualifiers.

I wrote The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby for beginners as well as experienced handicappers. It’s a quick and substantive read. You still have plenty of time to breeze through its pages and determine quickly and easily who this year’s standouts really are. I think you’ll find the book enlightening and enriching. And it will steer you away from betting on the strong-but-wrong contenders on the first Saturday in May.

A Quick Glance at the 2014 Derby Preps

Here’s a chronological review of the 2014 Kentucky Derby prep races seen from a lazy bettor’s perspective.

January: Not Just for Jogging Anymore

The stakes-level 3-year-olds began with a bang when Cairo Prince captured the Grade II Holy Bull stakes at 1-1/16th miles at Gulfstream Park. He sat just behind rapidly moving frontrunners, took control at the top of the stretch and won by more than 5 lengths. He looked great extending his lead to the wire, and the pace and final times were solid.
I agreed with the general consensus that Cairo Prince deserved to be the Futures Book favorite going into February. The strong rating I gave to him and to the race was confirmed later in the season, as four other contenders in that race came back to win graded stakes races: pacesetter Coup de Grace came back to win a graded stakes sprint, Intense Holiday won the Risen Star Stakes, Mr. Speaker won the Lexington Stakes and Wicked Strong won the Grade 1 Wood Memorial.
Holy (Bull) mackeral! That’s a top-quality field that Cairo Prince defeated. Unfortunately, Cairo Prince will miss the Kentucky Derby because of a late-season injury. Intense Holiday and Wicked Strong are still on track for the race, though.

February: Lethargy, Mediocrity, and then BAM!

February gave me shivers, as I watched the slowness of the Withers. In this Grade III prep in New York, a rivalry was born: Samraat dueled with Uncle Sigh and narrowly defeated him. The pace and final times came up average at best, leaving me convinced neither horse had yet developed into Derby material.
Meanwhile out in sunny southern California, Candy Boy came off the bench and off the pace to defeat two faint-hearted frontrunners from the Bob Baffert barn: Chitu and Midnight Hawk. I identified Midnight Hawk as a false Derby prospect before the race, and his weak stretch effort confirmed that judgment. Midnight Hawk continued to fail in the stretch nearly all the way to May, as he got nosed at the wire on April 20 in the lower level Illinois Derby. Chitu held well for 2nd place in the RB Lewis. It was a good effort considering this was his first attempt around two turns, but he showed no proclivity to relax. Despite being gifted with a manageable early pace, both Baffert entrants failed to hold off the closing Candy Boy.

A trio of minor preps (the Southwest Stakes, Risen Star Stakes, and El Camino Real Derby) generated some buzz even though the winners struck me as definitely not buzz-worthy. Intense Holiday, a late-plodding runner, outnosed weak foes in the Risen Star. Tapiture impressed some folks with his big win in the equally moribund Southwest Stakes, and Tamarando proved best vs. Derby pretenders in northern California. None of those winners repeated their early-season success.

Quality and potential returned with gusto at the end of the month, again at Gulfstream Park. Wildcat Red and General A Rod engaged in a wild pace battle in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, and both held off the closers to finish heads apart at the finish. Wildcat Red took the top spot, and his pace and final times were superb!

In an interview I did on Twinspires Radio in mid-April, I told host Derek Simon that I considered the Fountain of Youth to be the key prep race of the year. We Miss Artie came out of this race to win the Grade II Spiral Stakes, and Medal Count came back to win the Grade III Transylvania Stakes before finishing 2nd in the Bluegrass.

March: In Like a Lamb, Out Like a Tiger

Withers winner Samraat opened the month by winning the Gotham Stakes over rival Uncle Sigh. The duel between the two proved thrilling, but the pace and final time stirred just a yawn on my part. Both horses remained solid minor leaguers in my estimation.

The thriller of the month was the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. The usually patient California Chrome blasted to the lead in sizzling time and never looked back. The come-home fractions were slow, but the overall time was very fast. This California homeboy with a sprint pedigree thrust himself to the top of nearly everyone’s Derby list with this performance. I tended to agree with the majority opinion, but I suspected that the ultrafast surface deserved almost as much credit as the horse for the superb final time.
Most of the mid-month races also came up slow. Bob Baffert developed another weak Derby prospect as Hoppertunity won the Rebel Stakes in slow time. Todd Pletcher tossed another hat into the Derby ring when Ring Weekend stole the Tampa Bay Derby on the lead. Here the pace was solid but the final time was slow, suggesting Ring Weekend had problems lasting the distance or rationing his speed. (And yes, the two are closely related.) Then the previously mentioned We Miss Artie failed to impress anyone when winning the Spiral Stakes by a nose in slow time.

Just a day after Artie’s victory crawl in the Spiral, Chitu blazed gate to wire in the Sunland Derby. As in the RB Lewis, Chitu’s come-home splits registered as slow, re-emphasizing possible distance limitations and a serious running-style flaw for this Derby candidate.

The Louisiana Derby proved slow and weak this year. The winner, Vicar’s In Trouble, registered a time slower than the race average over the past several years. This Louisiana bred overachiever appears over his head in the Kentucky Derby.

The Florida Derby held a bit of excitement as General A Rod and Wildcat Red again battled through the early stages. This time around, both horses slowed the pace to save some punch for later in the race. Their rational approach failed to produce a victory, though, as upstart Constitution snuck through a rail opening to prevail over Wildcat Red by less than a length. Early-season hero Cairo Prince attempted to close into the dead pace but flattened out around the top of the stretch. General A Rod also had nothing much to give down the lane. Curiously, the trainers and jockeys of these top horses all seemed to use this race as a Derby practice run, holding back their mounts early and saving their best for the stretch.

Unfortunately, Cairo Prince and Constitution both suffered injuries in April and will miss the Kentucky Derby.

April: Slowing Down Early to Smell the Roses Late?

The Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct came up faster than average, with Wicked Strong blasting past the tiring frontrunners. The pace was rapid, with lightly raced Florida shipper Social Inclusion turning up the heat on Uncle Sigh and Samraat. The former proved incapable of stepping up to the big leagues, but Samraat held well for 2nd place. The winner perhaps proved capable only of passing tiring horses, but he accomplished that in a time faster than the 10-year average for the Wood.
In the Santa Anita Derby, California Chrome reasserted his dominance. After tracking a slow pace, he flew home in brilliant time to win by a full 5 lengths over late-running Hoppertunity. Early-season hero Candy Boy (winner of the RB Lewis) tried a new tactic, getting into the mix early to pressure California Chrome. He faded to 3rd place, making Hoppertunity look a bit better than he really is. The slow pace still casts a shadow of doubt in my mind about California Chrome, but he does qualify as a legitimate Derby prospect under the Silver Standard outlined in my book, The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby.

In the Arkansas Derby, Pletcher’s lightly raced Danza sprung the upset over somewhat talented but grossly overrated prospects. His time was respectable, hitting the 10-year average. The pace came up strong, with the pacesetters falling apart late and Danza picking up the pieces. Danza will enter the Kentucky Derby starting gate with just 4 lifetime starts and only one race longer than 7 furlongs on his resume.

Finally, the Bluegrass Stakes produced a winner who might not travel on to the Kentucky Derby. Dance With Fate rallied from far back to win in average time over the late-rallying Medal Count. Dance With Fate’s connnections view him as a much better horse on turf and synthetic surfaces and hesitated to confirm him as an entrant in the Kentucky Derby. As of now, he will run.

My hope for seeing a Gold Standard qualifier in this year’s Kentucky Derby rested on the shoulders of Bobby’s Kitten in the Bluegrass Stakes. This turf star needed to prove he could run effectively on a surface other than grass and that he could ration his tremendous speed. He failed miserably. As a result the Gold Standard lacks a representative for the 3rd straight year.

Summary

Once again, no horse emerged from the prep season as a Gold Standard qualifier. That leaves me and readers of my book to settle for Silver Standard and Fab Four qualifiers. The good news is that those methods tend to produce longer-priced winners than the Gold Standard. They’re worth searching for.

From 2000 to 2013, the Silver Standard alone produced 4 winners in the 7 years that didn’t have a Gold Standard qualifier. And the ROI has been huge. In 2005, Giacomo paid $102.60. Barbaro paid $14.20 in 2006. After losing years in 2007 and 2009 and Gold Standard winners in 2008 (Big Brown) and 2010 (Super Saver), the Silver Standard pegged Animal Kingdom for $43 in 2011 and I’ll Have Another ($32) in 2012.

You can quickly and easily discover who the qualifiers are in 2014 by reading The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby. It’s a fast, fun and fact-filled read that leads to long-term Derby profits. Also, check out LazyBettor.com for more articles and Derby facts.