Kentucky Derby 2013: How to Handicap the Big Race

Kentucky Derby 2013: How to Handicap the Big Race
Photo: Eclipse Spotswire

It's quite conceivable that Eagles band members, Glenn Frey and Don Henley, could have easily written about the Kentucky Derby as opposed to relationships, when the songwriting duo penned the line "Who can go the distance, we'll find out," in their song titled, "The Long Run." The question is posed to handicappers at this same time each season as they try to assess a 20-horse field of developing 3-year olds, all trying to win the Run For The Roses. Never an easy task.

The assembled cast have proven themselves worthy of participation by virtue of accumulating the top twenty points via the preparatory races run throughout the winter and spring. Certainly, those horses that have either won or have run close in preliminary stakes that can be accepted as definitive: Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes, Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby and Louisiana Derby, should be strongly considered. Although, it would be rather hasty to define the U.A.E. Derby as definitive, the point value awarded the top four finishers (100 pts to the winner), is on par with the other six, so I'll include the race in my examination.

The Kentucky Derby isn't just any race folks. In fact, as a matter of opinion, I feel there is no other horse race on American soil that compares, and therefore, my criteria for Derby handicapping is heightened. I always start off by remembering a line from one of Jim Quinn's many fine handicapping books: "Pedigree plus performance gets the roses."

From there, and before I even begin to even apply the core factors of class, form and speed, which helps eliminate horses that don't belong, and presents me with a more manageable number, I call into play another primary factor that is imperative for analyzing the Derby: BREEDING. A horse must have the inherent genetic ability to get the mile-and-a-quarter distance. Never before have any of these contestants run this far, and for many of them after the Derby is over, it's highly unlikely they will be asked to travel this far again. Success in prep races at 9 furlongs is not enough to predict how a 3-year old will perform at the classic distance of 10 furlongs. This additional eighth of a mile is what truly separates the contenders from the pretenders. We all know the Derby is won or lost in this last furlong, therefore, analysis of the horse's pedigree is absolutely necessary in predicting this ability, or inability. An easy way to determine if a horse has stamina producing bloodlines is through the Dosage Index. It has proven to be the best tool in evaluating this factor. A horse that qualifies will have a Dosage Index equal to or less than 4.00. Predicting which horses are prepared to endure and excel in this last furlong leads to success at the betting windows.

Next, I'll try to envision how the race sets up "pace-wise." We must examine the running style of each of the hopefuls and come up with a likely pace scenario. However, the proper breeding, coupled with a preferred running style are still not enough to ensure success in America's most prestigious horse race. The eventual winner should also possess a solid foundation, one that was carefully prepared, and planned for a peak effort on Derby day.

Whether a horse tries to wire the field on Derby day, or attempts to pass tiring rivals, that animal will need to finish well if it's going to win. So, another piece of criteria I like to incorporate in my handicapping evaluation, is to consider the horses that own one of the top-two closing fractions.

Other factors, trainer, jockey, post position and suitability to the surface, incidental in everyday races, now loom extremely important on the first Saturday in May. More often than not, the winning horse will come from a top barn and have a top notch rider aboard. Derby week is crazy, and trainers need to make sure the insane-like atmosphere does not impact their runner. The jockey is even more important than the trainer on this day. It takes a talented and experienced rider to make split second decisions which will ultimately decide the fate of his mount during the running. Of course, first-time trainers and riders have won this race, but I prefer to give the edge to the experience. As we await post draw, be aware that horses (especially front-runners) that have the misfortune of getting assigned an outside post may have to be quickly hustled away from the gate to ensure good position before entering that wild first turn. As for suitability to the surface, there are always entrants in the Kentucky Derby that have also been prepped on synthetic and/or turf. A preference for those surfaces may not transfer well over the Churchill Downs dirt track. Pay close attention to those horses that in prior races have raced well over the Churchill strip or have even won on it. As the saying goes, "horses for courses." Derby workouts become the focal point in the mornings leading up to the race, so pay close attention to the works over the Churchill dirt. Clockers and members of the media are always on sight, and will give credence to horses who look good and appear to be handling the surface in a positive manner.

Finally, weather and track surface conditions will also come into play, but those intangibles won't be known until race day

So, where does this all leave me in my assessment for the 2013 Kentucky Derby? Well, I'm slowly starting to assemble this massive puzzle. However, I still may not come up with the 3-year old likeliest to win, but at this stage of my handicapping five days out, I certainly know what 3-year olds truly belong, and in the long run, can hopefully answer the distance question.

Meet Nick Costa


Nick became instantly hooked on horse racing when his father first took him to the racetrack when he was 5-years old. As a racing fan, he's attended several Kentucky Derbys, Belmont Stakes and Breeders' Cups, and has visited several racetracks throughout the United States and Canada.


Back in the year 2000, Nick became a licensed owner and is currently still involved with the sport in that honored capacity. In 2010, Nick added another dimension when trying his hand at writing about horse racing for Horse Racing Nation, and thanks its readers for their support.

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