• Kentucky Derby Recap & Triple Crown Preview

    POSTED May 11, 2013
    The Effect of Pace 

    I talked a lot about the effect that pace can have on the outcome of a race prior to the Kentucky Derby and I think the Derby itself graphically illustrated some of the points I made — or tried to make.

    Of particular interest to me was Vyjack, who entered the 139th Run for the Roses after recording two subpar early speed rations (ESRs) in the Grade I Wood and the Grade III Gotham.

    Although poor ESRs don’t necessarily entail Derby irrelevance — horses that earned a positive ESR in their latest prep went winless for the sixth year in a row this year, but Golden Soul did hit the board — they can seriously compromise the chances of certain horses.

    As it turned out, Vyjack was that kind of horse.

    (Click on image to enlarge)
    Though the son of Into Mischief is clearly a closer (say that five times fast), notice that he was within three lengths of the leader at the first call in four of his five races prior to the Derby. However, he was able to establish that forward position by running behind some awfully soft fractions (witness all the red ESRs)… which is why and how his troubles began.

    Let me explain: The Kentucky Derby, you see, typically features a -10 ESR, meaning that for a horse like Vyjack to be within three lengths of the lead at the first call, it would need to record an ESR of about -7.

    Vyjack had never earned an ESR that low; in fact, his lowest ESR prior to the first Saturday in May was a -5, which he recorded on Dec. 9. And that race produced the worst late speed ration (LSR) of the gelding’s career to that point — despite the fact that he won impressively that day.

    So what happened in Louisville?

    Well, Vyjack established his typical position early — he was 3 ½ lengths back at the first call — but either the horse, or the jockey (Garrett Gomez), or both, got suckered by an abnormally fast pace (the -16 ESR recorded by pacesetter Palace Malice was the second-lowest since 1896); as a result, Vyjack started much faster, relatively speaking, than he was accustomed to and backed up like a public restroom at a chili cook-off.

    Now, don’t get me wrong: horses can and do perform well even when they are taken out of their comfort zone… but they are the exception, not the rule.

    (Click on image to enlarge)
    Handicapping the Triple Crown

    Once, as I reclined on an easy chair, sipping a Michelob Ultra (gotta watch the carbs), with a copy of the Brisnet Ultimate Past Performances spread out on my lap, I was asked to explain what I was doing. Smiling, I took another swig of beer and attempted the impossible.
    “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 handicapping races 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 Orb’s quest for the Triple Crown beginning in earnest next Saturday, now seems like a good time to share my bathrobe betting approach to the Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

    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:

    * Since 1932 (when the order of the Triple Crown series was at last set), 30 of 72 Preakness winners (41.7 percent) had previously annexed the Kentucky Derby, good for an 10.76 percent return on investment (ROI).

    * In the history of the Preakness Stakes (dating back to 1873), favorites have won 69 times (51 percent) and returned approximately $2.32 for every $2 wagered, a 16 percent ROI.

    * Over the last 17 years, eight horses improved their latest Beyer 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.

    * 10 of last 12 Preakness winners paid less than $9 to win.

    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. Thus, 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.

    * A few recent bombs notwithstanding, the Belmont Stakes has actually been relatively formful, as the post time favorite has won 55 of 130 runnings of the race (42.3 percent).

    * Only three of the past 14 Preakness winners who competed in the Belmont posed for pictures again in NY (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 22 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.
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