2015 Kentucky Derby: Learning from History

Roger LeBlanc for LazyBettorUSA.com

[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2015 at smashwords.com. American Pharoah, the top choice in this preview, won the Kentucky Derby, with my second choice, Firing Line, finishing second.]

Don’t know much about history? Welcome to the Lazy Bettor Guides crash course in Kentucky Derby history and a look at how the recent past might shape the immediate future.

With top contenders American Pharoah and Carpe Diem bearing names that refer back to ancient Egypt and Rome, the 2015 Derby practically begs you to look to the past for answers. And with the starting gate popping open soon, you have no time for trivia or melodramatic biographies.

The best option you have is to read my book, The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby. It highlights the most relevant aspects of the race’s history since 1992. The focus is squarely on performance. It’s a slender tome, fit for busy citizens of any bustling empire. And rather than quizzing you on the history lessons within its pages, I provide you with all the important answers.

You’ve chosen the second-best option. But this short summary only skims the surface of the Lazy Bettor approach. And although the general principles are the same in this quick guide as in the book, I use a rougher estimation technique than I present in the book.

If you find this abbreviated guide useful in picking this year’s winner, I recommend deepening your understanding of the Kentucky Derby race dynamics by purchasing the complete book. It’s a quick and fun way to steer yourself around 20 horses’ worth of news, geneology, workouts, opinions and other distractions.

So seize the book and then seize the first Saturday in May every May!

Grasping the Key to Derby Success: Race Profiles

In college I was a walk-on to an NCAA Division 1 cross-country team. During workouts I often set the pace and finished strongly enough to be among the top third of runners. I held great expectations for myself.

Then came race day. Rather than clicking off their miles in five and a half minutes, my teammates and rivals churned them out in under five minutes. The comfortable workout pace that served me so well vanished as quickly as the sharp retort of the starting gun. I found myself at the rear of the pack soon after the start and lost ground every mile thereafter.

In an actual race, the profile of the runners I competed against changed from the “slow early and average late” pattern of the workouts to “fast early and fast late.” And with that change in pace came a radical change to my place in the hierarchy of runners, from near the front to lagging in back. With an uptick in my effort to remain close to the pack early, my personal pace profile became “average early and utterly exhausted late!”

Like many early-spring Kentucky Derby prep stars, I was a strong runner when allowed to run the first half of a race at a pace I found comfortable. And like recent wannabe Derby winners such as Verrazano, Uncle Mo, Union Rags and others, I got trampled when the real running began.


Friesan Fire (7-2 favorite in 2009 Derby)

2/7/2009 Risen Star…………………1:14.0 while 2 lengths off the lead; wins by 2 lengths

3/14/2009 Louisiana Derby……..1:13.3 pace while 1/2 length off lead; wins by 7+ lengths

5/2/2009 Kentucky Derby……….1:13.4 pace; trails the 1:12 leader by 9 lengths; runs 18th (I know the feeling!)


Over the past 24 years of Kentucky Derby history, many highly regarded 3-year-olds experienced the same Waterloo moment Friesan Fire did. When the pace picked up, the strong performances ceased.

Some horses fall from grace in their final Derby prep. Others, like Friesan Fire and Verrazano, sustain an illusion of competitiveness all the way into the Derby starting gate.


Verrazano (8-1, 4th choice in Derby)

3/9/2013….Tampa Bay Derby…..1:12.1 pace; wins by 3 lengths

4/6/2013….Wood Memorial……..1:13.3 pace; wins by 3/4 of a length

5/4/2013….Kentucky Derby……..1:10.3 pace; tires by the half and finishes 14th of 19


How do you spot these highly regarded pretenders? Actually, somewhat easily.

If you divide a race into two segments (early/late), you can figure out which horse can handle an honest Grade 1 pace. And if you look at history, you can define what an “honest” pace is, as well as determine what qualifies as a “fast” finish.

You don’t need much more than those early/late numbers to isolate the top Kentucky Derby contenders in any given year.

The Early-Race Segment: Defining an Honest Pace

In The Lazy Bettor’s Guide, I work with the stopwatch format, such as 1:12.3, instead of explaining the nuances of creating pace and speed figures. Here I’ll convert that stopwatch time to an easily digestible number and, again, skip the explanation of how I derive it. What’s important is to remember the numbers that qualify as “fast.”

In my pace model, 89 serves as a good standard for “fast early.” Keep that number in mind as you scroll through the pace profiles I list for this year’s entrants and for the winners and losers in years past.

The Late-Race Segment: Defining a Fantastic Finish

After lots of research I found that 89 also serves as a reliable standard for “fast late.”

Under certain circumstances, I accept an 88. However, an 88 often signals a Derby contender’s inclination to weaken in the stretch. That 88, which is slightly above-average but not great, says a horse can go either way in the Derby stretch: hold on for victory or weaken badly. Firing Line sits on that fence this year. Keep reading to see which side of the fence I see him landing on.

Again, as you see the early/late numbers in the upcoming sections, the desired (and undesired) profiles come into focus. For now just keep that 89 in mind.

Using History to Solve the Kentucky Derby Mystery

When you hear the words “Kentucky Derby history,” you probably think of old men in baggy knickers with handlebar moustaches watching the odds being written on a big chalkboard. Or of Hollywood portrayals of one-eyed jockeys and penniless trainers.

The more significant Derby history, if you intend to bet on the race, is the history of pace figures and final times. This history is much more nuanced and revealing than the dramatization of factoids and personality conflicts from a century ago.

Like Hollywood producers, most Kentucky Derby analysts ignore the history of pace and final times. Unlike the horse-racing epics of Hollywood producers (but still misguided), the analysis offered by most experts is deeply rooted in the present, focusing on comparing one current contender to another. Such comparisons feature a single speed figure that attempts to equalize the final times of Derby prep races run at various tracks.

Many bettors, perhaps most of them, trust these speed figures as if Moses hand-delivered them to their favorite data provider. Here’s a news flash: speed figures are neither inscribed on stone tablets nor infallible. And Moses don’t Tweet.

All adjustments to raw final times require the figure wizard to make subjective judgments. Subjectivity is like a drug. A little bit can be a great aid or lend great insight to the user. Too much…well, that can produce distorted figures that tempt you to toss the fragile family nest egg onto the backs of overrated horses.

Consider the horses entered in past Kentucky Derbies who own the top 8 speed figures in prep races since 1992:

  • Bellamy Road (7th in 2005 Ky. Derby)
  • Millenium Wind (11th in 2001 Ky. Derby)
  • Sinister Minister (16th in the 2006 Ky. Derby)
  • Holy Bull (12th in 1994 Ky. Derby)
  • Serena’s Song (16th in 1995 Ky. Derby)
  • Unbridled’s Song (5th in 1996 Ky. Derby)
  • Readthefootnotes (7th in 2004 Ky. Derby)
  • Skip Away (12th in 1996 Ky. Derby)

There’s not a single Kentucky Derby winner in the bunch. And none of them even came close to running second or third. It’s a small sample, but it shows a huge failure of speed figures to improve upon raw times in this scenario.

I’ve used speed figures with great success at times. I like them because they often save me a lot of work. And the people who calculate them are among the brightest handicappers in the business.

But using raw times is as easy as using single-number speed figs if you take time to track or test those figs at all. (And you should.) Further, recent Derby history shows that using raw times works just as well, if not better, than speed figs when evaluating Derby contenders. You just have to mix in a heaping tablespoon or two of nontrivial history.

To make a close comparison of speed figures and raw times, here are the horses with the top 8 raw finish times in 9-furlong Derby prep races since 1992:

  • Indian Charlie (3rd in 1998 Ky. Derby)
  • Bellamy Road (7th in 2005 Ky. Derby)
  • Skip Away (12th in 1996 Ky. Derby)
  • Balto Star (14th in 2001 Ky. Derby)
  • California Chrome (1st in the 2014 Ky. Derby)
  • Free House (3rd in 1997 Ky. Derby)
  • Adonis (17th in 1999 Ky. Derby)
  • Silver Charm (1st in 1997 Ky. Derby)

Using the unadjusted raw times produced 2 Kentucky Derby winners and 2 show horses (25% win and 50% in the money). Again, it’s a small sample, but it outperforms single-number speed figs (0% winners and 0% in the money) significantly.

That said, the weakness of raw times is their inability to equalize performances across tracks. Here’s my suggested workaround: don’t try to do that. At least not in the standard, labor-intensive way. Instead, compare apples to apples and then compare one orchard to another. (That metaphor becomes clear in the next section.)

I started this chapter by pointing out that most Derby analysis focuses on comparisons of the current contenders. That approach requires subjective adjustments to equalize performances at different race tracks. You’ll be happy to know there’s another approach, one that reduces the number of judgment calls a handicapper needs to make or rely on.

Handicapping Beneath the Bright Lamp of History

To get a different view of how this year’s prep stars stack up to one another, you can compare each entrant’s times to the times registered in prior years for the same prep races. You just compare this year’s winner (of, say, the Wood Memorial) to previous winners of the same race. They all ran the same distance on the same track at the same time of year, with mostly inconsequential changes to the racing surface.

Think of it this way: if a particular racetrack ran 10 trial races at the same distance on the same day, you’d have no problem recognizing the winner with the fastest time as the superior horse. That’s almost what I’m describing here. It’s just that the trials take place at the rate of one race per year.

That’s a much better apples-to-apples comparison than you get with speed-figure models. Those models evaluate the relationship of winning times recorded on multiple surfaces at different distances across dozens of class levels at every racetrack in the country through every season of the year. And they do so by reducing all these disparate stats to a single number. It’s kind of an apples-to-deluxe-berry-mix comparison with an occasional kiwi and mango thrown in. And then blended.

So let’s get specific and use a very particular set of raw winning times to evaluate this year’s Derby contenders. First, you make a list of the winning times for a particular race over the past 10 years, or 15, or 20. Whatever you think is sufficient. Write down the times from fastest to slowest.

Simply plug the current year’s winner into that list and note where he ranks. A horse with the 2nd fastest time in the past 15 runnings of the Arkansas Derby (such as American Pharoah) might be better than a horse who won the Wood Memorial in just the 12th best time for that race (like Frosted).

As a way to verify the rankings you end up with for current-year winners, create an average winning time for each prep race. If you use the past 15 years of results, toss out the two fastest and two slowest times, and average the remaining 11. Or just add the 7 or 8 fastest times and then average those. Repeat the process for each major Derby prep.

You can then compare the average winning times for each race to gauge how much faster or slower one track is than another. Again, you face all the perils that come with small sample sizes, but you’re comparing Grade 1 horses of the same age running at the same distance at the same time of year. That’s a very specific and reliable comparison.

For each major 9-furlong Derby prep race, I calculated an average winning time in two ways. Both approaches produced similar relationships among winning times at tracks hosting those prep races.

Here’s the list. Beneath each race’s average winning time is the final time of this year’s winner and where that horse’s effort ranks among the past 15 runnings (on dirt only):

Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park): 1:49.1

American Pharoah: 1:48.2 (2nd) 

Bluegrass Stakes (Keeneland): 1:49.1

Carpe Diem: 1:49.3 (10th)

Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park): 1:48.4

Materiality: 1:52.1 (15th)

Louisiana Derby (Fairgrounds Racetrack): 1:49.4

International Star: 1:50.3 (12th)

Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita Park): 1:48.1

Dortmund: 1:48.3 (6th)

Sunland Derby (Sunland Park): 1:47.3 (3-year average only)

Firing Line: 1:47.1 (1st)

Wood Memorial: 1:49.1

Frosted: 1:50.1 (12th)

When ranking individual winning times, the top prep-race performers line up this way:

  • Firing Line: Best time ever for Sunland Derby
  • American Pharoah: 2nd best Arkansas Derby in the past 15 years
  • Dortmund: 6th best Santa Anita Derby time in the past 15 years

The weakest performances were as follows:

  • Materiality: Slowest Florida Derby in the past 15 years
  • International Star: 12th slowest time for the Louisiana Derby in past 15 years
  • Frosted: 12th slowest time for the Wood Memorial in the past 15 years

To verify these conclusions, adjust each horse’s winning time to account for the slowness or glibness of the track surface.

Sunland (1:47.3 average) is 3 lengths faster than Santa Anita (1:48.1), which is 3 lengths faster than Gulfstream (1:48.4), which is 2 lengths faster than Aqueduct, Keeneland and Oaklawn (1:49.1).

Despite the slower average at the Fairgrounds (1:49.4), I rate that track equal to the 1:49.1 trio. (In this case, I consider slow horses to be the cause of the slower Fairgrounds average, not a slower track surface. I also limit my Sunland Derby caculations to the past three years, which were ridiculously faster than all the years prior to that. That’s the extent of my subjective decisions here.)

So Dortmund’s 1:48.3 at Santa Anita becomes a 1:49.1 at Gulfstream and a 1:49.3 at Aqueduct, the Fairgrounds, Keeneland and Oaklawn. That makes him slower than American Pharoah (1:48.2 at Oaklawn) and equal to Carpe Diem (1:49.3 at Keeneland).

Firing Line’s 1:47.1 at Sunland becomes 1:47.4 at Santa Anita (much faster than Dortmund’s 1:48.3) and 1:48.4 at Aqueduct, Fairgrounds, Keeneland and Oaklawn (much faster than everybody’s time except American Pharoah’s 1:48.2 at Oaklawn).

In doing this, you clarify the hierarchy of this year’s entrants using the facts of history. Not much subjectivity in that. And already you see a divergence from the picture painted by speed figures.

Beyer speed figures rank the Derby contenders this way:

  • Materiality (Fla. Derby)
  • Upstart (Fla. Derby)
  • Dortmund (SA Derby)
  • American Pharoah (Ark. Derby)
  • Firing Line (Sunland Derby)
  • Frosted (Wood Mem.)
  • Bolo (turf)
  • Tencendur (Wood Mem.)
  • International Star (La. Derby)
  • Carpe Diem (Blue Grass Stk.)
  • Stanford (La. Derby)

The two strongest raw-time horses, American Pharoah and Firing Line, land 4th and 5th in the Beyer hierarchy.

BRIS speed figures differ slightly from the Beyers:

  • Frosted (Wood Mem.)
  • Dortmund (SA Derby)
  • Tencendur (Wood Mem.)
  • Materiality (Fla. Derby)
  • Upstart (Fla. Derby)
  • American Pharoah (Ark. Derby)
  • Carpe Diem (Blue Grass Stk.)
  • Bolo (turf)
  • Firing Line (Sunland Derby)
  • Ocho Ocho Ocho (Delta Jackpot)
  • El Kabeir (Wood Memorial)
  • International Star (La. Derby)

Again, American Pharoah and Firing Line get little respect for popping the springs on the timer. They’re rated inferior to the top two finishers in the Wood Memorial, to the top two in the Florida Derby and to Dortmund.

In short, Beyer and BRIS speed figs rate the slow-moving Florida Derby and Wood Memorial as the strongest prep races. They both downplay the significance of the fast final times of the Arkansas and Sunland derbies.

And, for the record, here’s the ranking if you use raw times with the adjustments I outlined for historical differences in track surfaces:

  • American Pharoah (Ark. Derby)
  • Firing Line (Sunland Derby)
  • Dortmund (SA Derby)
  • Carpe Diem (Blue Grass Stk.)
  • International Star (La. Derby)
  • Frosted (Wood Mem.)
  • Tencendur (Wood Mem.)
  • Materiality (Fla. Derby)
  • Upstart (Fla. Derby)

Raw final times with a simple track adjustment turned the speed-figure rankings upside down. Which view of this year’s Derby contenders is more realistic?

A few observations about the recent history of the Wood Memorial and Louisiana Derby might help you decide.

From 1998 through 2001 every winner of the Wood Memorial hit the wire in under 1:48.0. But from 2006 to this year, every winner came home in 1:49 or slower. Five of the past 10 winners came home in 1:50 or slower, including Frosted this year. What is slowing down the Wood runners, a change in surface or a decline in talent?

History says it’s the latter. Fourth place is the best finish by any Wood contender in the Kentucky Derby since the Wood’s times slowed down radically in 2006. That suggests weak horses competed for top honors in the Wood and then failed to run competitively in the Kentucky Derby.

The Wood has become a testing ground for weak winter stakes horses up north and a last-chance dance for disappointing stakes runners from Florida. My guess is that with Derby prospects running fewer preps, trainers don’t want to risk wasting a conditioning opportunity for their top horse because of foul weather. Instead, they send their 2nd-tier or struggling horses to the Wood and keep their better prospects in warm climates in April.

This year both Frosted and Daredevil landed in the Wood after subpar performances down south at Gulfstream. Frosted’s slow final time while winning the Wood convincingly makes perfect sense. It makes just as much sense in this historical context as Daredevil’s poor effort and ensuing vacation.

The Fairgrounds also fails to attract the best 3-year-olds these days. The post-Katrina Derby hopefuls always fail to impress after they leave New Orleans. Slow times there undoubtedly result from the lack of interest in Fairgrounds stakes races on the part of the best US trainers. If Pletcher, Baffert or others show up at all, they send prospects who are rather low on their list of potential stakes winners.

Raw times predicted the poor showings of all Wood and Louisiana Derby runners in the Kentucky Derby in the past 10 years. They’ll probably be correct again this year.

I suppose Materiality, winner of the horribly slow Florida Derby, warrants a few comments. For Materiality to be rated as just an average winner for that race, you have to justify a nearly 20-length adjustment to the final time. To rate him as superior to all other prep winners (or most others) requires about a 25-length adjustment! I think the Everglades has a smaller track variant than that.

Remember that the Gulstream surface was listed as “fast” that day, with no bad weather affecting the surface. Also keep in mind that Frosted’s slow time in the Fountain of Youth a few weeks earlier failed to become even an average time when winning the Wood Memorial a month later.

Most likely the track and the runners at Gulfstream were both a bit slower than normal this year. Most likely Materiality and the Florida Derby runnerup Upstart won’t run well in the Kentucky Derby.

With the topic of final times sufficiently covered, let’s move to the other important piece of information you need to contrast and compare: the pace figure for each horse. Who will be made so uncomfortable by the early pace that they’ll fail to finish as well as they did in their prep races?

Analyzing Pace and Final Times

In The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby, I define the raw pace time a Derby contender must be able to handle. Here I assign it the number 89. Think of it as 89 on a scale of 100, although it’s not quite that neat a calculation.

To make this section short and clear, I also assign a number to the final-quarter time that qualifies as “fast late.” That, too, is an 89. Also, recall that I sometimes accept an 88. More on that in a moment.

A horse who can run 89 or better early in the race and at the end qualifies as a Gold Standard horse in my book. No horse qualified for the Gold Standard in 2011, 2012, 2013 or 2014. This year there are three.

(I also award that designation to the Dubai shipper Mubtaahij, whose times are recorded differently than in the US. That’s a subjective designation on my part, which brings the total number of Gold Standard horses to four.)

To paint a better picture of the strength of these fast/fast horses, look at the pace/final figures for recent Kentucky Derby winners:

  • 2014 California Chrome…….93/91
  • 2011 Animal Kingdom………90/97
  • 2010 Super Saver………………89/90
  • 2008 Big Brown………………..93/90

And for comparison, look at Derby prospects who lost even though they qualified as “fast” in one segment or the other:

  • 2014 Wicked Strong…………86/94
  • 2013 Verrazano………………..77/98
  • 2013 Goldencents……………..92/81
  • 2012 Union Rags………………80/98
  • 2011 Dialed In………………….85/91
  • 2011 Shackleford……………..90/87
  • 2010 Lookin At Lucky……..81/96

You can see that the balanced and superior speed of horses with both segments at or above 89 is tough to beat.

You also see that horses who run fast in only one segment consistently disappoint. You see fast/slow (Goldencents), fast/avg. (Shackleford), avg./fast (Wicked Strong and Dialed In), and slow/fast (Union Rags and Lookin At Lucky) all failing to win.

I present only an abbreviated list of each faulty type. I promise you, I could fill pages that demonstrate the inferiority of such half-fast profiles.

So let’s see who fits the fast/fast race profile in this year’s field.

I’ve adjusted the raw times to account for the differences in track surfaces noted earlier. If the the fastest raw times occur with a fast/fast profile, you have a potential Derby winner.

Here are the race profiles of this year’s top contenders (including a few who qualify as fast in only one segment):

  • American Pharoah………92/92
  • Firing Line…………………95/88
  • Dortmund………………….89/89
  • Materiality…………………85/95 (in his allowance win)
  • Carpe Diem………………..85/94
  • Far Right……………………84/93
  • Frosted………………………76/99

History tends to repeat, so let it be your guide. American Pharoah (92/92) and Dortmund (89/89) are the only two pure fast/fast horses.

In my book I make an exception to the “89 late” standard if a horse ran “superfast” early. Firing Line fits that model with a superfast pace figure of 95. For him, you should accept an 88 late, which is a strong finish when you consider how much energy he burned early. His race profile of 95/88 matches that of the previous “superfast” qualifier Silver Charm, who won the Kentucky Derby in 1997.

That leaves you with 3 Gold Standard, fast/fast horses. Plus the wildcard Mubtaahij, who surely looked fast/fast in Dubai. You can’t bet them all and expect to make much (or any) profit. It’s time to get creative.

Betting the 2015 Kentucky Derby

As I write this, American Pharoah is expected to be the Kentucky Derby favorite at odds around 5-2. Dortmund is the likely second choice, perhaps at 4-1. Both Mubtaahij and Firing Line should offer much better odds, maybe 8-1 and 15-1, respectively.

American Pharoah’s overall figures are clearly the best. The 92/92 profile places his Arkansas Derby win among the top 5 prep-race performances on dirt since 2000. And he achieved that without ever being hustled or shown the whip. And while being eased up shortly after passing the sixteenth pole.

Rather than simply accept the short price on him, try to position yourself for a huge payoff with the longer-priced qualifiers in exotics and then use American Pharoah as a “saver” win bet. If your longshots fail, you probably can count on him to get your money back plus turn a small profit.

To improve your bottom line, toss out Dortmund. In any other year, his 89/89 would be outstanding. This year, it’s the third or fourth best performance, and he’s likely to be the 2nd betting choice. He’s the most likely underlay of the four fast/fast qualifiers. Also, his final furlong of 13.05 seconds in the Santa Anita Derby rates as very slow. Given that, Dortmund’s 89 late figure seems likely to sink to 88 or less with the extended distance and increased competition in the Derby.

I recommend keying Firing Line and Mubtaahij in exotics. If your budget is small, play them in Daily Doubles, using several or all the horses in the race prior to the Derby.

If you do a good job at covering all possible winners in the first leg, you’ll be looking at a large payoff if Firing Line or Mubtaahij wins the Derby. Back up that potential bonanza with a win bet on American Pharoah, betting enough to cover your Daily Double bets and turn a small profit if American Pharoah prevails.

For example, if you spend $20 in Daily Double combinations and hold live tickets going into the Derby, betting $20 to win on American Pharoah at 5-2 gives you a shot at a consolation payoff of $70 if you miss the doubles. That leaves you with a $30 profit after a nice little joy ride!

For those with a larger budget, consider employing a similar strategy while keying Firing Line and Mubtaahij in Pick 3 or Pick 4 combos. And, again, cover American Pharoah to win if your exotics combos are alive going into the Derby.

I gave this advice to readers of my website last year, and it worked out well enough. Those taking my advice held live Pick 3 tickets with my 3 recommended longshots in the Derby. They ended up with a small profit when those longshots lost to my top choice, California Chrome.

And if all your exotics combos are dead when the Derby rolls around this year, bet the heck out of American Pharoah, and toss a few dollars on the qualifier with the longest odds (probably Firing Line). History will be on your side.

To read a more detailed analysis of this great race and to gain a deeper understanding of the race profiles of its winners and losers, purchase The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby at LazyBettorUSA.com. It’s a fast, fun and fact-filled read that leads to long-term Derby profits.