The 2015 Kentucky Derby Preview

Don’t know much about history? Welcome to the 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.

By purchasing this Preview, 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!

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 fast/fast horses, look at the pace/final figures for recent Kentucky Derby winners (three Gold Standard horses and Animal Kingdom, a Silver Standard qualifier):

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 well-bet 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 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
Materiality…………………85/95 (in his allowance win)
Carpe Diem………………..85/94
Far Right……………………84/93

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.

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….

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….

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.)
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)
iring 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)