Roger LeBlanc for LazyBettorUSA.com
[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in 2016 at SmashWords.com. The 2016 Kentucky Derby winner, as predicted in this preview, was Nyquist.]
The 1997 Kentucky Derby.
That’s the first time I doubted the old saw, “Slow and steady wins the race.” You had the late-running Captain Bodgit favored over the speedy Silver Charm. Silver Charm won that one, running near the lead the whole way. The slow-and-steady Captain rallied impressively but came up a neck or two short.
I should’ve questioned the wisdom of that old fable sooner. Perhaps as early as 1989. Back then the heavily-favored closer Easy Goer relaxed early, got into gear too late and ran second to the West Coast–bullet Sunday Silence. I might have bet the wrong side of that one. But hey, I figured things out about a decade later. Better late than never.
In The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby, I illustrate the dominance of early-speed horses in the Kentucky Derby over a 22-year span. No need to create flash drives full of Excel spreadsheets or plaster your garage walls with two decades’ worth of racing forms. I did that part for you. Just treat yourself to a fun read and discover a reliable, time-tested approach to picking Kentucky Derby winners.
Speed doesn’t just win the Kentucky Derby. It rewards bettors of that race generously. You can find all the glitzy details in the book, but here’s a quick summary of speed’s effectiveness for horse and handicapper.
The Lazy Bettor’s Guide: Results from 1992 through 2013
Gold Standard: 25 starters in 14 races, 9 winners, 207% ROI
Silver Standard: 25 starters in 19 races, 6 winners, 413% ROI
The success of these methods continues. The three Gold Standard qualifiers in 2015 finished first, second and third. No horse met the Gold Standard in 2014. That race was won by the only Silver Standard qualifier, California Chrome.
This year presents a special challenge. Strictly speaking, no horse qualifies as a Gold or Silver standard bet in 2016. Does this pave the way to the winner’s circle for a slow- starting, late-running, stamina-laden horse? Or do we ignore those types and follow the strategy that has paid dividends for decades?
2016 Prep-Race Winners: Revenge of the Tortoises?
News Flash #1:
Authorities are investigating a recent rash of tortoise attacks at major race tracks. The heavy-footed beasts absconded with millions of dollars in purse money earmarked for faster animals. Officials from major racing publications say the most likely explanation is that “These turtles are pretty damn fast!”
News Flash #2:
Officials from major racing publications are wrong.
Because of “News Flash #1,” the tortoise-style winners of major Derby prep races once again will attract more Kentucky Derby wagers than they deserve. That means you’ll find fair odds when betting on the speedsters.
Don’t be swayed by the cash and accolades pouring in for Creator (winner of the Arkansas Derby), Brody’s Cause (winner of the Blue Grass Stakes) and Exaggerator (winner of the Santa Anita Derby). In the Kentucky Derby, “slow and steady” seldom defeats “fast and ready.”
Here’s my view of these recent winners:
- The Arkansas Derby: After his usual slow start, Creator launched a slow but steady rally to win. The limitations of his plow-horse heroics are reflected in his winning time. Creator is one of only three horses since 1995 to win the Arkansas Derby in a time of 1:50.0 or slower.
- The Blue Grass Stakes: The late rally of Brody’s Cause proved to be the winning move. He now joins two other slow-pokes as the only horses since 1990 to win this race (on dirt) in a time of 1:50.0 or slower. Further back in his resume, however, he shows a fast win as a 2-year-old. This tortoise sometimes has a bit of hop in his step.
- The Santa Anita Derby: Here Exaggerator created the biggest buzz of the season with his long and flashy late drive in this race. He looked positively motorized as he blew past a tiring herd of underachievers. Beware: this was both his only win in a 2-turn race and the only time he didn’t lose ground in the stretch of a 2-turn race. Exaggerator’s winning time is the slowest (on dirt) since Tiago won this race in 2007, back at the start of the Taylor Swift era.
All these details paint a Derby landscape with slow horses in the foreground and gray clouds hanging overhead. With the possible exception of Brody’s Cause, don’t expect to see any of the horses I mentioned in the winner’s circle of the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby.
Searching for Top-Notch Speed
Now I’ll paint a brighter swath of the landscape. I’ll detail the truly fast horses in the 2016 Derby.
I mentioned that no horses qualify for either the Gold or Silver standards this year, “STRICTLY SPEAKING.” When I wrote my book I didn’t intend for it to be a “systems” book, where readers blindly follow prescribed steps. I wanted to describe a perspective for analyzing the Derby that differed from conventional wisdom. I defined parameters so the success of my approach could be measured.
Well, so much for good intentions. I laid out the plan as specifically as I could. Now I’m stuck without a neat-and-tidy example. I have to tweak the Lazy Bettor commandments slightly this year to zero in on the speed.
Two situations in particular arose that I don’t address in the book:
- Nyquist, the most accomplished horse in the field, ran only one real prep race. It’s rare for a top contender to enter the Derby so lightly prepared.
- Destin used the Tampa Bay Derby in mid-March as his final prep race. It’s unprecedented for a trainer to get to St. Paddy’s Day with his #1 Derby hope and say, “Yep. We’re good. Just pour me another one.”
The resulting lack of data makes the task of picking a winner tougher this year. The fastest horses didn’t get the usual time to work up to performance levels that meet my high standards.
The workaround I’ll use is to compare horses who came closest to my standards to another reliable standard: average winning times for each prep race. I used the same approach in my “2015 Kentucky Derby Preview.” Here’s what I came up with then.
2015 Winning Times for Major Prep Races (on Dirt) vs. Avg. Winning Times
Arkansas Derby: American Pharoah 1:48.2 (avg. 1:49.1) = +4
Sunland Derby: Firing Line 1:47.1 (avg. 1:47.3) = +2
Santa Anita Derby: Dortmund 1:48.3 (avg. 1:48.1) = -2
Blue Grass Stakes: Carpe Diem 1:49.3 (avg. 1:49.1) = -2
Wood Memorial: Frosted 1:50.1 (avg. 1:49.2) = -4
Louisiana Derby: International Star 1:50.3 (avg. 1:49.4) = -4
The chart shows last year’s Kentucky Derby contained just two horses who ran faster than average in major prep races. They finished first and second. The chart also put the trifecta and superfecta within reach.
I used the same approach to see how this year’s cast of top actors stacks up to history and to one another. You can see in the following chart that three horses ran really fast in major prep races this year:
- Destin ran 5 fifths of a second faster than average in the Tampa Bay Derby.
- Outwork ran 4 fifths faster than average while finishing second to Destin in the Tampa Bay Derby.
- Nyquist ran 2 fifths of a second faster than average in the Florida Derby.
Here’s what this year’s winning times look like compared to the historical average of each race.
2016 Winning Times for Major Prep Races (on Dirt) vs. Avg. Winning Times
Tampa Bay Derby: Destin 1:42.4 (avg. 1:43.4) = +5
Tampa Bay Derby: Outwork 1:43.0 (avg. 1:43.4) = +4
Florida Derby: Nyquist 1:49.0 (avg. 1:49.2) = +2
Breeders Futurity: Brody’s Cause 1:43.1 (avg. 1:43.2) = +1
Florida Derby: Majesto 1:49.4 (avg. 1:49.2) = -2
Arkansas Derby: Creator 1:50.0 (avg. 1:49.1) = -4
The chart also suggests Brody’s Cause is the best of the late runners this year. He ran slightly faster than average on a muddy track at Keeneland last year. He’s got a better shot than any other late runner, but he needs to beat history and a few high performers to win the Derby.
The chart gives you a pure, fact-based definition of “fast.” Toss out trivia like sire, trainer, jockey, and alluring soap-opera stories about the owners. These horses ran fast.
Outwork added further legitimacy to this approach by popping out of the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby to win the Grade 1 Wood Memorial in his next start. Brody’s Cause did the same by regaining his above-average 2-year-old form well enough to win the Grade 1 Blue Grass. The other two fast horses (Destin and Nyquist) will go straight to the Derby off of their superb efforts.
With history as our guide and speed as our grail, let’s take a deeper look at the real contenders. As I explain in the book, nearly all Derby winners proved to be fast both early and late in at least one of their prep races. How many of these overachievers qualify on that count?
Splitting Hares: Destin, Outwork and Nyquist
It’s time to meet your possible money-makers.
Destin, the highest-ranking horse in the chart, set the track record at Tampa Bay Downs when he won the Tampa Bay Derby. The clocking was no fluke. In his prior race, he won the Sam Davis Stakes with the second-fastest time in that race’s history. For two consecutive races he has smashed through the “average” category and blasted his way to small-town fame. Can he repeat these performances on the grand stage at Louisville? Or is he just a big fish in a small pond?
Recall that Street Sense owned the prior stakes record for the Tampa Bay Derby. And he used that superb effort to kick off his short and successful Kentucky Derby campaign in 2007. This year’s Tampa Bay Derby included 5 stakes-winning three-year-olds. Two of the horses Destin defeated (Outwork and Brody’s Cause) won Grade 1 stakes races next time out. Everything about this year’s Tampa Bay Derby screams “Quality!” Don’t downgrade Destin because of the venue!
In The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby, I don’t list surface adjustments for Tampa Bay Downs. No horse had ever used Tampa’s premier race as a final Derby prep. To equalize Tampa Bay Downs’ surface with that of Aqueduct, Oaklawn Park and other major venues, I suggest subtracting 3 fifths of a second from the final time for Destin, with 2 fifths subtracted from the half time.
With this adjustment Destin’s half time is 1:11.2 (fast) and his final time is 1:42.1 (very fast). That puts him solidly within the Silver Standard parameters in my book. With likely odds of 8-1 or higher, he’ll enter the gate as this year’s best betting value.
His first try around two turns came in that talent-loaded Tampa Bay Derby, which he nearly stole on the lead. In his next race he survived a wicked early pace duel to win the Grade 1 Wood. He’s definitely fast early.
Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez both think highly of this horse. Velazquez chose to abandon the mount on Destin to ride the inexperienced Outwork in the Tampa Bay Derby. He then chose to ride Outwork rather than to keep his regular riding assignment on Zulu in the Blue Grass Stakes. He chose correctly then. Might he be proven right again?
And here’s an endorsement of Outwork you might have missed. In the final Churchill Downs Futures pool, prior to his win in the Wood, Outwork attracted massive support in the last hour of betting. Despite Outwork being idle that weekend and having no stakes wins, his odds plummeted from 43-1 to 30-1. In comparison, his more accomplished stablemate Zulu, idle that weekend after a strong 2nd-place finish in the Fountain of Youth, remained a steady 33-1 throughout the whole weekend of betting.
Unfortunately Outwork’s short career has prevented him from learning how to ration his tremendous speed. Both of his 2-turn efforts show that he’s slow late. Keen-to-lead horses like this have been the worst bets in the Kentucky Derby over the past 24 or more years. About 80 of these types have combined to win the Derby a not-so-grand total of one time.
Pletcher has been working on teaching Outwork a bit of patience in morning workouts, and things seem to be going well. I can’t recall any habitual frontrunner successfully changing stripes on Derby day, but maybe Outwork can become the first. With few early speed types in the race, Outwork could work out a highly favorable trip. At odds of 15-1 or higher, he’s a tempting option.
The likely race favorite comes to Louisville with a satchel full of stakes trophies. And in his most recent victory he got a lot faster. The half times for his three victories around 2 turns look like this:
He registered that 1:11.2 in the Florida Derby at Gulfstream, where the winner’s average pace the past 5 or 6 years has been 1:12.2. Even better, despite that tremendous increase in early acceleration, Nyquist finished strongly in the Florida Derby, with a final furlong of 12.73 seconds. (Anything under 13.0 is pretty fast.)
The great California Chrome followed a similar pattern two years ago. Chrome posted two wins at a mile or longer when pressing weak frontrunners in 1:12.0 or slower. Chrome then showed us the goods two races prior to the Derby with a blistering half of 1:09.2 in the San Felipe. He handled that increase in pace and his competitors with ease. As it turned out, Chrome was just toying with inferior horses in his first few route tries. Surely Nyquist has been doing the same. But we haven’t seen that breakout pace explosion with Nyquist yet. Just a smaller pop that appears to be the precursor to a new high.
If O’Neill had given Nyquist one more prep race, we’d know for sure whether he’s in the same league as California Chrome. Nyquist looks capable of rising to that level, but do we have enough evidence to bet that he will? (See the “Precedents and Betting Sense” section for the answer.)
Maybe the correct way to look at all this info is to conclude that no horse qualifies as a Gold or Silver standard horse. Period. That opens the door for a top-notch late runner. A rare circumstance, but maybe that’s what we face this year.
I’m not the expert on judging which tortoise will outrun the other tortoises. That specialty doesn’t pay very well. However, if I decided to apply my principles strictly and rule out any “spirit of the law” qualifiers, my money would be on Brody’s Cause to outrace every other plodder in the field.
After a bad effort in the Tampa Bay Derby (there’s that race again), BC dominated the stretch run of the Blue Grass Stakes. Although his winning effort was slow, his prior Grade 1 win (as a 2-year-old) was fast. He seems primed to improve again in his third race of the year. With the vastly underrated Luis Saez in the saddle and 15-1 or better on the board, I could almost be converted to the Cause.
Precedents and Betting Sense
As enticing as the odds might be on Outwork and Brody’s Cause, those horses fit into categories that perform horribly in the Kentucky Derby. Outwork runs slowly late, and BC runs slowly early. Neither shows any ability to put two fast halves together. I see them as talented horses appearing on the wrong stage.
That leaves us with Destin and Nyquist.
Destin bucks history by coming off an 8-week layoff. Nyquist bucks history by having only one long prep race. These are odd and somewhat unprecedented Derby campaigns. But some precedents are more important than others. These two horses measure up to past champions and surpass their current rivals in other, more important ways.
Both demonstrated in actual races that they possess enormous talent. And both displayed a high level of fitness in their most recent appearances. Pay no attention to the light prep schedules. They’ll be ready to deliver their best.
When trainer Michael Matz announced Barbaro wouldn’t race in the six weeks between his 2006 Florida Derby win and the Kentucky Derby, racing purists predicted the unprecedented long layoff would destroy his chances. Barbaro won the Derby by 6 widening lengths. So I’m OK with Destin and Nyquist being somewhat idle lately.
Nyquist owns another significant similarity with Barbaro, who was one of my winning Silver Standard qualifiers. Their fractions and running positions were nearly identical at every call in their Florida Derby wins. That makes Nyquist, at least in his final prep, equivalent to or better than a prior Silver Standard horse.
So why do I make Nyquist an honorary Gold Standard horse when I denied that honor to Barbaro?
Replays show that Nyquist ticked off these fractions with far greater ease than Barbaro did. Barbaro was all out to win by less than a length. In comparison Nyquist looked like he was taking a walk in the park.
Also, the level of competition is lower this year than in 2006, when 5 horses entered the Kentucky Derby sporting half times faster than 1:11.0. This year Nyquist faces only one such beast, a likely quitter named Danzing Candy. He’s unlikely to be worn down chasing a fast pace. In this respect Nyquist finds himself in the same shoes as Smarty Jones, the 2004 Kentucky Derby winner. That year, Smarty faced just one horse whose adjusted pace figures were faster than his own: a likely quitter named Lion Heart. The likely quitter quit, and Smarty Jones prevailed easily.
The performance-based similarities between Nyquist and prior Kentucky Derby stars establishes him as a Gold Standard bet. Both history and the relative quality of competitors this year lead to that logical and measurable conclusion.
Using the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law, here’s how I rank the top contenders this year:
- 2016 Gold Standard Qualifier: Nyquist (projected, not actual)
- 2016 Silver Standard Qualifier: Destin (projected, not actual)
- 2016 Fab-Four-Furlong Qualifiers (most effective when
- no horse qualifies for Gold or Silver): Mor Spirit, Nyquist, Gun Runner
I haven’t mentioned the Fab Four Furlong method, which works best when no horse qualifies under the other methods. The fastest qualifier under that method is Bob Baffert’s Mor Spirit. As the horse with potentially the most explosive 4-furlong burst, he becomes my third choice.
I recommend betting about 70% of your Derby wagers on Nyquist. The next-biggest chunk should be on Destin to win. Then throw a small amount into Mor Spirit and your favorite exotics. Perhaps a Nyquist/Destin exacta box or a trifecta box with Nyquist, Destin and Mor Spirit.
Here’s one possible configuration, which gives you $68 on Nyquist to win out of $100 in total bets:
- $60 Win on Nyquist at odds of 3-1 or higher (36% of Gold Standard horses won since 1992; higher % when only 1 in the race)
- $16 Win on Destin at odds of 6-1 or higher (26% of Silver Standard horses won since 1992; lower when facing Gold Standard horse)
- $6 Win on Mor Spirit at odds of 14-1 or higher
- $1 Exacta box with Nyquist, Destin, Mor Spirit ($6 total)
- $1 Exactas with Nyquist and Destin in 1st with Nyquist, Destin, Mor Spirit, Outwork, Brody’s Cause, Tom’s Ready, and Majesto in the place position ($12 total)
If you want to bet Daily Doubles and Pick Three combos, I recommend using Destin or Mor Spirit in Pick Threes for a possible enormous payout and using Nyquist only with a key horse you feel sure about in another leg.