The art of Zen allows one to tap into an inner calm while crisis ensues all around. Of course, it is almost impossible to recreate chaos, so Zen must be practiced in more peaceful times. For our Kentucky Derby purposes this means measuring one’s self in small, weekly increments known as “the Derby prep season.” The broadcasts for these events are common, the fields average to large (unlike the double-barreled Churchill Downs Derby gate) and provide many handicapping lessons. Lessons that should be taken in varying degrees, not rushes to judgment.
For me, the Derby prep races must be viewed live. Why this is, I’m not sure. In the era of immediate, accessible replays all over the internet, one would think the need for watching any horse race live to be more of an extravagance, than a necessity. But for planning ahead and winning that Derby bet, the 30 or so minutes leading up to the gates opening provide essential pieces of information that must be considered for any wager, such as:
How are the horses reacting to the large crowds
Ordinary saddling or problems in the paddock
Are the horses being led out and warmed up smoothly
Body language of equine and human connections
As I watch all the derbies, beyond the anticipation leading to the bell ringing and the announcer’s call, I would say I am taking in all that happens. The ebb and flow, the natural progression from being led from the stables to the paddock, saddling up, the call of, “Riders’ up,” and finally onto the track are all encompassing moments. The broadcast, not the broadcasters are important. Heck, I would even recommend turning down the sound to national televised events or watching an on-track broadcast through the many advanced wager sites. (NBC Sports has the most important preps on either its flagship station or its cable equivalent further up the dial.)
There are only a handful of the big prep races left starting with this weekend’s Louisiana and Florida Derbies. In the following week’s the Wood Memorial, Santa Anita and Arkansas Derbies and the Blue Grass Stakes will follow. Each has something to offer, not everything you need to know, just something. Unfortunately, some among us will glom onto one big win, speed figure or event that focus your wagering lens onto this year’s Kentucky Derby winner too far in advance.
While the races leading up to first Saturday in May are important there should be lingering questions for us to answer such as:
Does winning at nine furlongs mean a horse can win running 10 furlongs for the first (and most likely) last time in his career?
How racing against 7 to 13 foes translates into banging and bumping among 20 entrants?
The weather, as in, if it rains on May 5, will the horse respond positively to mud in his face?
Bad luck, bad timing, bad post or bad rides, can this particular horse overcome them?
Just as importantly, you’ll need this piece of handy advice: most of the time, prior events are not always instructive toward future events. While this may seem like a head-scratcher, it may make perfect sense with the following illustration borrowed from The Black Swan, a book on the theory of catastrophic events and how unwilling or unable we are in predicting such.
Author/philosopher/skeptic, Nassim Nicolas Taleb paints this picture of our reliance on prior information to poorly predicting future events. A turkey spends a leisurely life on a farm; he has no wants, no needs and no worries. The turkey gets used to the farmer’s daily call and his share of feed. After consistent and constant feeding the turkey is happy and expects his feed on day 365, based on the prior 364 days. What a surprise when the turkey meets the ax, not the feed tub and ends up on the dinner table for a Thanksgiving feast. He never saw it coming!
In recent years the Kentucky Derby has displayed “Black Swan” type of finishes – unexpected by most or shall we say winners at odds more than 20-1 such as, Animal Kingdom (2011), Mine That Bird (2009), Giacomo (2005) and Funny Cide (2003). Very few publicly forecasted these “upsetting” winners simply because of a reliance on past performances that pointed to a more predictable winner – also one with much lower odds.
The common denominator in all these finishes was a reliance on a winning race three to five weeks earlier used as the chief indicator of Kentucky Derby success. Incredibly, despite historical information to the contrary, too many of us – handicappers, gamblers, fans, reprobates – put too much stock in the most current form of Derby contenders. Turkeys, we certainly almost all belong to their club because year-after-year the favorite choices are touted over those with just as much of a chance due to breeding, recent improvements in form and the delicate nature of those believed to be better.
With a bang of the gong, a moment of reflection, it’s time to uncover what is to be revealed today... It is foolish to rely too heavily on the races to be run over the next three weeks in deciding your Kentucky Derby winner.
Take notes sure, watch the replay a few times, but only to help you formulate what is to come, not determine it. Keep your mind open to the possibilities of a racing picture that is still far from complete. And while media attention provides a pool of attention that borders on delirium, you must remain calm below the hyperbolic waves that swirl above. For now, you know that today’s results will not accurately predict May’s win, only inform it - unless of course, you’d like to emulate our friend the turkey.
These races scheduled at varying tracks for tremendous amounts of money matter – they are used, at the very least, to determine which horses get into the Churchill starting gate on May 5. A win may even confirm a feeling or demonstrate a super athlete not be dismissed, but remember the Kentucky Derby post positions have yet to be drawn, the weather on that day is unknown and the thousands of afflictions that delicate Thoroughbred is apt to fall under still have time to develop.