(Posted April 27) This year’s Kentucky Derby — the 143rd — will once again be telecast and simulcast in Michigan, this year on Saturday, May 6. Post time will be about 6:34 p.m. For the 22nd straight year, legally you can bet on it at either of Michigan’s two remaining pari-mutuel tracks, Hazel Park Raceway and Northville Downs. Hazel Park will also offer live races on Derby Day.
Of course, you can also legally bet on the Derby online. With a little bit of planning and a credit/debit card, you can set up a prepaid account with a number of Internet betting sites and then watch the race in the comfort of your living room, office, field tent or jail cell.
KENTUCKY DERBY HISTORY
As everyone in the racing world knows, the 2015 Derby produced a winner who went on to win the sport’s first Triple Crown in 37 years — American Pharoah. Last year, everyone wondered whether there could there be another such phenomenon, back-to-back. Many fans may not realize that when Affirmed won the Triple Crown (starting with the Derby) in 1978, he became the second half of a two-horse tandem (Seattle Slew in 1977) who were the first back-to-back Triple Crown winners in racing history. After a nearly four-decade drought, could the same phenomenon happen again?
No. The favorite, Nyquist, won the Derby, but he failed to win all three of the Triple Crown races.
So we’re back to normal, waiting for another Triple Crown winner. Looking at this year’s Derby field, does it remind us of the past four years, when the favorites all won — not only Nyquist but American Pharoah in 2015, California Chrome in 2014 and Orb in 2013? Or will it be more like 2012, when a 16-1 longshot named I’ll Have Another pulled an upset? Or what about 2003 when Empire Maker was a prohibitive favorite over all other horses? No, he didn’t win.
In other words, Derbys are like snowflakes — they’re always the same, yet they’re all different. The race is always run at Kentucky’s Churchill Downs, it’s always a mile and a quarter, the horses are all 3-year-olds, and, in recent years, the field has always been huge — up to a maximum of 20 entries. But everything else is different and varied — trainers and jockeys and, especially, which horses they’re handling, and track conditions, as well as the past performances of all the contenders.
KENTUCKY DERBY STATISTICS
Let’s start with this question: In trying to pick a winner in 2017, should we pay attention to statistics? For example, should we stick with the “The System,” employed for three decades by The Detroit Free Press’s former racing writer?
This “System” has been unconventional but fun — and it sometimes predicted dark horses (figuratively) that have done far better than expected in Triple Crown contests. Examples include the 8-1 upset champ in 1990, Unbridled; 1993’s 12-1 longshot winner, Sea Hero; and the first-place winner nearly two decades ago, Silver Charm. Either “The System” or Bill Ballenger picked the favorites to win in both 2007 and 2008, and they did.
The System always consisted of four components — the Dosage Index (DI), the Center of Distribution (DI), the Jockey Club’s experimental free handicap or “weight ratings” (EWR), and performance in nine-furlong Derby preps. A few caveats:
* The EWR, which is a way of evaluating young horses after their 2-year-old racing seasons, has slowly slid towards irrelevancy. The fact that more and more owners and trainers are restraining their steeds from competition as 2-year-olds made it nearly impossible to measure their potential entering their brief campaigns as sophomores in the four months leading up to the first Saturday in May. As a result, in most of the last 18 Derbys the winner was NOT rated within 10 pounds of the EWR pacesetter. The 2-1 favorite in 2000, Fusiachi Pegasus, is the perfect example. Monarchos, a 17-1 longshot in 2001, is another.
* The DI/CD index also became a less accurate predictor than it used to be of which horses CANNOT win the Derby. So far, since the Derby began in 1875, only half-a-dozen winners had dosages higher than 4.0; however, all of those were relatively recently. They were Real Quiet in 1998; Charismatic in 1999; Giacomo in 2005; Mine that Bird in 2009; California Chrome in 2014; and, almost unbelievably, American Pharoah in 2015.
*Finally, The System’s time-honored tie-breaker was on-track performance. Did all of the favored horses finish “in the money” (first, second or third) in a nine-furlong Derby prep? 52 of the past 57 Derby winner have done so.
So, do we junk The System? Finally, yes, we’re scrapping it — in a world of “What have you done for me lately?” the System has failed to produce consistent winners for too long.
THIS YEAR’S KENTUCKY DERBY: PICKING A WINNER
There is one more complicating factor — in 2013, Churchill Downs moved to a “point system” to determine who qualifies to run in this year’s Derby, scrapping the previous system of graded stakes earnings. Now, points are earned by the top four finishers in 36 designated Kentucky Derby prep races, and at this point we can’t even be sure what horses will actually be allowed to start. There’s also the wild card possibility that an entered horse may be scratched on the eve of the race — past favorite A.P. Indy is a prime example. And let’s not forget that the all-important post positions haven’t even been assigned yet.
The Ballenger Report is blogging here before the morning line (the odds on all entries at the start of Derby week) is established, but it looks like Classic Empire, the 2-year-old champion and winner of the Arkansas Derby, and Always Dreaming, winner of the Florida Derby, are likely to be the co-favorites at roughly 5-1. By comparison, American Pharoah was the favorite in 2015 at odds of 2-1.
Some other good colts that you should check out are three upset winners whose most recent triumphs came on the same day, April 8 — Irish War Cry, winner of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct; Irap, who won the Blue Grass States at Kentucky’s Keeneland; and Gormley, who surprised the field at California’s Santa Anita Derby. Another good horse is McCrackin, who disappointed in the Blue Grass and is listed at 9-1 for the Derby.
If TBR has to make a choice, go with Classic Empire, who seems to have recovered from an ankle injury early this year. At least pick him to show, and you should win something even though he’ll make you nervous — he’s a late closer.
Looking for a longshot? How about the 16-1 Irish-bred Thunder Snow, who won the United Arab Emirates Derby on March 25 and has never raced in the U.S. The old “System,” which we have just scrapped, would have disregarded this colt’s chances, but now that we’re free-wheeling it maybe he deserves a closer look.
Any way you cut it, the biggest challenge for all of these horses will be negotiating their way through and around 19 other steeds, as opposed to the skimpy fields they’ve faced during the past four months.
And they’re off!