At the beginning of this year, (yes, we are almost in March folks), we proclaimed it the beginning of Derby Season. So, to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, we need an entire "season" of racing to hone our handicapping skills. Now, if you are thinking it's too late, don't, because this season is comprised of those preps races providing the first four finishers with points, whereby, those having the most points at the end of Derby season will eligible to be entered in to the Kentucky Derby. So, think of Derby Season as a meal. We just finished a very long round of appetizers, namely, all those prep races or 10-point getting races. Last weekend we moved into the second course of this meal, the 50-point getting races.
By now, we should have our Derby Prospect list at a manageable level. (No, you don't have to rank them. Just keep a list so you have horses to follow.) Hopefully this list was built using the handicapping tools available to us. For example, we have the past performances for each horse on our list, but since most three-year-olds have very limited race experience, we dove into their pedigree's as well. What we found looking at the pedigrees of those horses worthy enough to be on our Derby Prospect list is that there are several important bloodlines prominent in past Derby winners, that probably appear in this year's hopefuls.
With the start of the 50-point getting races, we have another handicapping aid at our disposal. This tool being the ability to visualize how these prep races will unfold. In order to do this visualization, you're going to need your to use your whole brain, the part where you understand what use certain numbers in the past performances can be to us and the part of our brains where imagination lies waiting to be used. (Yes, your imagination is needed, don't scoff.)Here's what we mean. Looking over the field for both 50-point getting race from last weekend, the Risen Star at the Fair Grounds and the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, pedigrees were only one tool to use in your handicapping of these races. Remember trainers aren't pointing their Derby prospects to races, such as, the Risen Star or Fountain of Youth. No, they have their sights set on the Kentucky Derby and the other Triple Crown races that follow. So, even though we have looked at the pedigrees of the horses entered in these prep races, and found some very nicely bred ones too, that breeding may not fully show until the first Saturday on May, to the hopes of their trainers. So, what do we do to handicap these races you ask?
We have to find out what horses have a defined running style at this point in their short racing careers. How can we do that when most of them haven't race much, you sigh? Isn't that why we did all that homework looking up pedigrees, you continue? Don't worry, all that homework will pay off in the end, but for now, if you're handicapping these prep races, you need to look at running styles in order to visualize how the races will unfold. You mean by finding out the running style of a horse like I've Struck a Nerve, the 135-1 winner of the Risen Star, I would have won a bundle, you exclaim? Not exactly, since you probably still would have landed on the favorites, but your approach may have differed.
Unlike the Fountain of Youth run on the same day, but at Gulfstream Park, the Risen Star set up like a turf route. The Fountain of Youth was run with a fast pace early, which caused the heavy favorite, Violence, to run into that pace and expend a lot of energy early, which allowed a horse with a closing kick, like Orb, to prevail. For the Risen Star, if you looked through the past performances of those entered, you would have noticed there were no speedy horses that would assume the early lead and set the kind of pace found in the Fountain of Youth. And that's what happened, they kept passing off the lead to one another. Proud Strike took the early lead and said to Code West, "no, you take it". He takes it for a while until Oxbow comes along and it passes to him. But Oxbow tells Code West that he doesn't want, and passes it back to Code West. Now, while all this passing back and forth of the lead was going on, the horses in mid-pack or at the back were just strolling along, bidding their time waiting for that very long Fair Ground's stretch.
You may have thought the favorite, Normandy Invasion, would have been in that patient group. You would have come to this conclusion because of that 10-length closing move he had in the Remsen Stakes, where he lost by a nose to Overanalyze. Off this race, you could have decided his running style was that of a closer, even though he had only three career starts going into the race, However, if you go back to the race chart of the Risen Star (remember race charts are another handicapping tool we talked about earlier in Derby Season), then you would have read things like: "broke slow"; bobbled"; "angled in"; lugged out"; "rank"; "drifted five wide" and "seven wide into the stretch". These are all descriptions typically used when describing a race run by a green, inexperienced horse.
Alright, that explains Normandy Invasion, but what about Palace Malice? He was right next to the winner coming down the stretch, you ask? Well, we recommended looking at past race replays, as well as, the race charts as handicapping tools, right? So, if you looked at the head-on replay of the race, you would have seen how Palace Malice ducked in when I've Stuck a Nerve came by. This move sideways, instead of straight on, is again typical of lightly races horses, and considering Palace Malice had only three starts coming into the race too, it isn't surprising. The question for us is: how much have these greenly running horses learned from the race. Will they move forward from it?
I've Struck A Nerve certainly moved forward from his past races. He was one of the most experienced runners in the field with 8 starts. The thing that may have threw you off, was the fact he didn't break his maiden until after he ran in two stakes races. One of those stakes was the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, where he finished 9th. Now, it's difficult enough for a young horse to jump from maiden races, where the runners are all non-winners, to races where they are facing all winners, let alone a Grade 1 event, the highest level of all race types. He went back to the maiden ranks after that try, only to finish 3rd. Then he went to another stakes, this one not graded however, and finished 4th. He finally broke his maiden in the next race and followed that effort with a respectable 2nd place finish in the Sugar Bowl Stakes at Fair Grounds in December. He makes his three-year-old debut in the 10-point getting Derby prep, the Grade 3 LeComte at the Fair Grounds and finishes 4th. So, going into the Risen Star, we can ascertain he likes the Fair Grounds having broken his maiden there and finishing well in his two subsequence races there, which were both stakes.
If you went back to the race chart of the LeComte or saw the replay, you may have seen him racing greenly, fighting his jockey, wasting energy on the backside. However, for the Risen Star he had a new rider, one of the best turf riders around to boot, and remember how we said the race set up like a turf route? Well, what better rider to have than a turf expert? Jockey James Graham certainly got his mount to relax on the backstretch and he didn't panic when the horse fell behind at the start. Instead, I've Struck a Nerve steadily moved up from to to 5th to 1st. Now, does this mean he's got to be favored in the Louisiana Derby? No, but he certainly won't be running at those odds again!
The thing is: how much education did the favorites in the race get? Enough to keep them on your Derby Prospect list maybe? Also, we get use to seeing trainers debut their Derby prospects at two in MSWs until they win. Then they have a layoff until they turn three and race a sprint allowance or make their first attempt at going two-turns in a race. If they find success in this races, then they make their stakes debut. So, when we see a three-year-old like I've Struck a Nerve, we immediately don't consider them because they don't follow this traditional pattern of Derby prospects. So, don't beat yourself up. Look over your Derby prospect list. Make some adjustments based on the races run so far and try your hand at visualizing how the next 50-point getting Derby prep races will unfold. And remember, if you need help in understanding all the nonsense we have been talking about here, just read our book: The Anatomy of Horse Race Handicapping or visit www.fun-at-the-track.com for a needed compass if you're lost on the Derby trail.