Free Kentucky Derby Memorabilia: Three Worn-Out Saws

It’s springtime! Dreams of Kentucky Derby fame dance in the heads of hundreds of thoroughbred owners and trainers. In March and April they’ll maneuver their best three-year-old horses through qualifying races, shooting for enough points to land a spot in the 20-horse Derby starting gate.

U.S. bettors, accustomed as they are to 8-horse fields, see the 20-horse Kentucky Derby as a chaotic stampede. And the situation’s novelty creates many faulty assumptions about how to identify the winner. As the first Saturday in May draws near you’ll repeatedly hear the following advice:

  • Don’t bet on a horse stuck in an outside post.
  • Lean toward horses with experience in large fields.
  • You can’t make money betting favorites in 20-horse fields.

You can get these vintage saws for free on most websites hawking Kentucky Derby opinions. No credit card needed. But in this case vintage simply means worthless. You can improve your chances of picking a Derby winner by shining a statistical light on each of these sketchy proclamations.

Horses in Outside Posts Overachieve

Since 2000 eight out of 19 Kentucky Derby winners launched their winning bid from post 15 or wider. Those post positions hosted only 27% of the contestants but produced 42% of the winners, several at generous prices:

  • 2000 $6.60  #15 Fusaichi Pegasus
  • 2001 $23.00  #16 Monarchos
  • 2004 $10.20 #15 Smarty Jones
  • 2008 $6.80  #20 Big Brown
  • 2011 $43.80  #16 Animal Kingdom
  • 2012 $32.60  #19 I’ll Have Another
  • 2013 $12.80  #16 Orb
  • 2015 $7.80  #15 American Pharoah

Inside posts, which hold the tactical advantage of saving ground, become a liability in large or competitive fields. Bumping. Crowding. Stress. You can conjecture about the cause, but you can’t refute the results.

If 19 reprisals of the Kentucky Derby fail to convince you that large or competitive fields flip the tactical advantage from inside posts to outside ones, consider the 2019 U.S. prep races. In the first 13 two-turn races, the winner started from one of the two outside posts seven times! And this year’s results mirror those in prior years, as you can see from an article I wrote in 2014 at LazyBettor.com, “It Came From the Outside Post!

Large-Field Racing Experience Not Required

Recent history shows that small prep-race fields don’t impede Derby success and that large-field experience counts little.

In 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify faced just six horses in his most crowded pre-Derby start. In the Kentucky Derby he defeated Good Magic, even though that horse won the 14-horse Bluegrass Stakes and a pair of 12-horse races. A year earlier Always Dreaming took on nine rivals in his most crowded pre-Derby endeavor. Racing near the lead in the Derby, he must have asked himself, “Crowd? What crowd?”

After his maiden victory American Pharoah never faced more than seven horses in his Derby preps in 2015. Orb won the 2013 Kentucky Derby despite facing an average prep-race field size of less than eight.

Many Derby winners from prior decades owned large-field experience, but U.S. field sizes have been shrinking. Should you downgrade an overachieving horse because the racing industry is in decline? Also consider that Derby qualifying rules implemented six years ago tilt the tactical advantage to early-speed horses who race safe from crowding near the head of the herd.

Favorites Prevail More Often in Large Derby Fields

You’ll often hear the warning, “It doesn’t make sense to bet the favorite in a 20-horse field.” Maybe that’s accurate in Irish steeplechase racing, but the assertion lacks statistical support in the Kentucky Derby.

The Derby favors favorites. With a current six-race winning streak and 10 wins since 2000, this century’s Derby favorites have outgalloped the general 35% success rate of favorites in the U.S. by a whopping 17%.

Why the anti-favorite polemic from pundits? Those dead set against Derby favorites likely overrate results from a 20-year dry spell from 1980 through 1999. But that 20-year winless period is sandwiched between 20-year periods of 40% or higher win rates. And you’ll find Derby favorites winning about 40% of the time throughout the race’s history.

The question remains whether large Derby field sizes produce fewer winning favorites. Take a look at average field sizes and favorite win percentages for the past four decades:

  • 1980s: 17.1 horses; 0% winning favorites
  • 1990s: 16.7 horses; 0% winning favorites
  • 2000s: 18.7 horses; 40% winning favorites
  • 2010s: 19.7 horses; 66% winning favorites

As field sizes increased over the past 30 years, so did the favorites’ win percentage. And it’s not just the result of recent rules changes. The 1920s ranked fourth in average field size, and that decade also churned out 40% winning favorites.

The reality is that 20 Grade-1-caliber three-year-olds don’t exist in any year. But few qualifying owners bypass the chance to party on racing’s most prestigious stage. Twenty spots are offered and 20 spots will be filled, even if only five or six top-level horses exist.

Ignoring an accomplished Derby favorite because he faces 15 overmatched rivals instead of just six or seven amounts to a lost opportunity. The return-on-investment figures prove the point:

  • ROI of favorites 2000 to 2019: +133%
  • ROI of favorites 1970 to 2019: +18%

Don’t interpret these statistics as a directive to always bet the Derby favorite or to just bet on horses drawn wide. Just view these facts as a reminder to never buy a saw without first checking its teeth.

Roger LeBlanc is the author of The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby and The Punter’s Tale (A Bettor’s Quest for Racetrack Profits). You can read more of his work, including his Derby predictions, at LazyBettor.com.

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