Last week I posted brief comments about the Florida Derby. I warned that the overwhelming (4-5) favorite, Greatest Honour, was unlikely to win. Indeed, Greatest Honour managed to grab only a minor third-place award in that race.
Most bettors, as well as Greatest Honour’s trainer Shug McGaughey, assumed the stretchout from 8.5 furlongs to 9 would benefit this powerful late runner. As I detail in my book The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby, disappointment often displaces success when distance is added and the quality of competition increases. Early speed emerges as the true measure of class. Slow starters like GH settle for Place and Show honors at best.
This pattern not only played out in the Florida Derby last week, it also took hold in the Louisiana Derby, won by nonfavored speedster Hot Rod Charlie. And the icing on the cake for me that weekend was a similar prediction in the Fairground Oaks, where late-running favorite Clariere finished a non-threatening second to my choice in the race.
With that recent history in mind (as well as my research into the past 29 years of Kentucky Derby runnings), I suspect you’ll see that paradigm playing out in at least 2 of the 3 major Derby prep races today.
The Wood Memorial Stakes
The likely favorite in the Wood is Risk Taking, a well-bred colt from a high-profile barn. Coming off a few big wins with one of the country’s top riders in the saddle, Risk Taking seems like a small risk for bettors. However, his late-running style leaves him vulnerable to a top-level speedster.
The Santa Anita Derby
The morning-line favorite here is Bob Baffert’s Medina Spirit. The picture here isn’t quite as clear. After posting a front-running victory in the Grade 3 R. B. Lewis Stakes, he was a runnerup in the Grade 2 San Felipe after tracking the eventual winner. Judging by his running position in these races, you might question my assessment that he’s a late runner. But the interior fractions are enlightening.
His front-running score was accomplished with a half-time of 1:12.20. When the pace quickened to 1:10.40 in the San Felipe, Medina Spirit found himself in third place well behind the leader. A similar pace scenario will necessitate him launching a late rally once again. As in the San Felipe, he’s likely to come up short.
The Bluegrass Stakes
Last year’s 2-year-old champ Essential Quality will display his usual late-charging theatrics as the heaviest favorite of the day. If there’s one slow-starting favorite likely to prevail in the three preps today, it’s Essential Quality. I say this not solely because of his multiple graded stakes wins, but because of the lack of any habitual speedster among his foes. Once again, Essential Quality could circle a field of promising young horses who don’t live up to their promise. It’s not an outcome I’d bet on, but it wouldn’t surprise me to see him prevail.
Looking Ahead to the Kentucky Derby
One thing that would surprise me, though, is that if any of today’s race favorites went on to victory in the Kentucky Derby. It would take a radical change in their running styles for any of them to match the Gold Standard I lay out in The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby.