Handicapping the Triple Crown
“I’m handicapping, trying to pick the winner of a horse race,” I said. “I love crunching the numbers — the trainer/jockey stats, speed and pace figures… the whole nine yards. It’s a great thrill to select a horse and then watch it win, especially at long odds. Yesterday, for example, I liked the…”
I stopped. Clearly, the Wal-Mart security guard was not a racing fan — nor, I gathered, were the majority of passing shoppers, who looked at me like they’d never seen a guy in a bathrobe hanging out in the furniture department before.
Needless to say, I haven’t been within 100-150 yards of that Wal-Mart since — I can’t remember precisely what the court order mandates — but I still like to relax when I handicap. And, with the quest for the Triple Crown beginning in earnest next week, now seems like a good time to share my bathrobe betting approach to America’s premier three-race series for three-year-old Thoroughbreds.
Where: Churchill Downs (Louisville, Kentucky).
Race Distance: 1-1/4 miles (10 furlongs).
Run annually on the first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby is, perhaps, the single most recognizable horse race in the world (even Wal-Mart security guards have heard of it). With full fields of up to 20 entrants, heavier-than-usual weight imposts (126 pounds for colts and geldings, 121 pounds for fillies) and a challenging 10-furlong distance, the Derby also represents one of the greatest prognostic puzzles since childproof bottle caps.
Over the past 31 years, just four betting favorites have worn the roses and double-digit payoffs have abounded, led by Mine That Bird ($103.20 in 2009), Giacomo ($102.60, 2005), Charismatic ($64.60, 1999) and Thunder Gulch ($51.00, 1995).
Despite the high-flying payoffs, however, consistent winning patterns can still be found. Consider:
* From 1990 to 2010, nearly half (47 percent) of all Derby winners earned a lifetime-best Brisnet speed rating in their final prep race and 95 percent of them recorded a career top in one of their last three races (Sea Hero in 1993 is the sole exception).
* Every Derby champ since Iron Liege finished fourth or better in its last race. Interestingly, Iron Liege won in 1957 partly because legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker misjudged the finish line aboard Gallant Man, who consequently lost by a nose.
* Pay attention fans of Dialed In and Nehro: Since 1975, 23 Derby winners (85 percent) were in front or within five lengths of the leader at the first call of their last race.
Bottom Betting Line: The key thing to look for in a potential Kentucky Derby winner is improvement. As a friend of mine always says: “Three-year-old horses are like kids in high school, capable of maturing overnight.” When viewed in this light, the upset scores of Charismatic, War Emblem ($43.00) and Funny Cide ($27.60) are not so hard to comprehend, as all three ran much better in their final Derby preps than they had earlier in the year.
The ability to stick close to the pace is also important. Yeah, people remember the dramatic stretch charges of steeds like Mine That Bird, Ferdinand and Monarchos, but typically such late heroics are the result of early insanity. Ferdinand rallied following a :45-1/5 opening half, while Monarchos waited patiently as Songandaprayer and Balto Star carved out the fastest four- and six-furlong splits in Kentucky Derby history.
Where: Pimlico Racecourse (Baltimore, Maryland).
Race Distance: 1-3/16 miles (9-1/2 furlongs).
The Preakness Stakes is run just two weeks after the Kentucky Derby and often features a large contingent of Derby runners. Not surprisingly, these horses tend to do very well in Maryland, making the Preakness the most formful of the Triple Crown events. The numbers:
* From 1932-on (when the order of the Triple Crown series was at last set), 29 of 70 Preakness winners (41 percent) had previously annexed the Kentucky Derby, good for a 7.9 percent return on investment (ROI).
* In the history of the Preakness Stakes (dating back to 1873), favorites have won close to 50 percent of the time and produced a positive ROI.
* Over the last 20 years, eight horses improved their latest Brisnet speed figure by five points or more while winning the Run for the Roses. Of those, only one — Silver Charm in 1997 — went on to capture the Preakness.
Bottom Betting Line: In direct contrast to the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness is all about established form. Sure, improving horses can win — witness Bernardini in 2006 — but, for the most part, Preakness victors are horses that have already proven their quality, i.e. Lookin At Lucky last year.
Hence, it is wise to start one’s Preakness handicapping by examining the Derby starters in the field. Try to determine which of them were helped or hindered by the way the race was run in Louisville, as Preakness history is replete with form reversals — both positive and negative — resulting from a change of tactics from one Triple Crown race to the next. For instance, after many criticized Gary Stevens for moving too soon into hot fractions in the 2001 Kentucky Derby captured by Monarchos, the veteran jockey kept Point Given well off a much slower pace two weeks later and won for fun in Baltimore.
Where: Belmont Park (Elmont, New York).
Race Distance: 1-1/2 miles (12 furlongs).
The oldest (it’s been run since 1867) and longest (1-1/2 miles) of the Triple Crown contests, the Belmont Stakes takes place three weeks after the Preakness. In 1973, it provided the backdrop for what was arguably the greatest performance in Thoroughbred racing history, when Secretariat won by 31 lengths in two minutes and 24 seconds — a time that has never been equaled.
Some interesting facts about the Belmont:
* Although it’s been called “The Test of Champions,” recent winners of the Belmont Stakes haven’t exactly reminded racing fans of Citation or Seattle Slew. Since 1993, Belmont victors have won just 25.8 percent of their subsequent starts (25-97) — after having won 39.3 percent of their races beforehand (59-150).
* A few recent bombs notwithstanding, the Belmont Stakes has actually been relatively formful, as the post time favorite has won over 40 percent of the total runnings.
* Only three of the past 14 Preakness winners who competed in the Belmont posed for pictures afterward (Tabasco Cat in 1994, Point Given in 2001 and Afleet Alex in 2005).
Bottom Betting Line: Value is the name of the wagering game in the Belmont. Though favorites have performed well in the final leg of the Triple Crown, they have, as a rule, been horribly overbet, leading to a loss of about 21 cents on the dollar. Worse yet, odds-on choices are just 12 of 31 overall and 0 for 7 since 1979. Hence, it is imperative to look for horses that appear better than their quoted odds, i.e. overlays.
Also, be sure to watch all the contenders’ races leading up to the Belmont and eliminate runners that seem unable to relax or those that are excessively fractious at the gate. Several high-profile Belmont busts, like War Emblem and Smarty Jones, exhibited these toxic traits before attempting to take a bite out of the Big Apple — and all proved rotten to the core.
The Derby In-Depth
For more great Kentucky Derby information, be sure to check out “Derek Simon’s 2011 Kentucky Derby Guide,” which will be available through Brisnet starting this weekend. For just $10, you’ll receive:
* A cornucopia of Kentucky Derby stats (that’s right, a cornucopia).
* Horse-by-horse analysis.
* Past performances for each likely entrant, including my own unique pace figures (ESRs and LSRs).
* Fair betting odds for each contender.
* Individual pedigree grades and commentaries, as well as in-depth breeding analysis.
* The much-anticipated results of the Simon Historical Investment Technique for the Kentucky Derby (last year, the method tabbed Super Saver).
* An updated article on the “Bounce Theory” and how it relates to the Kentucky Derby.
* My own wagering strategy to make some loot in Louisville.
* A look back at one of the most controversial Derby finishes in history.
* Pace analysis of the big race.