Analysis: What I'm looking for in Kentucky Derby 2020 prospects

January 09, 2020 11:45am
Analysis: What I'm looking for in Kentucky Derby 2020 prospects
Photo: Chelsea Durand/NYRA
While prep results and points will ultimately set the 2020 Kentucky Derby, along the way it's easy to get caught up in the positivity of seeing so many winners. When thinking ahead to the first Saturday in May, after all, only one horse can prevail, and who doesn't want to get a leg up on handicapping America's most-famous race?

In any case, here's a closer look at what I'm searching for from 3-year-olds on the trail as it relates to the Derby at this point.

As obvious as this sounds, the best sign of a legitimate Derby contender is in the numbers. Ever since the advent of Beyer Speed Figures, they've become more prevalent in handicapping, to the point where Brisnet, TimeformUS and Equibase make their own figures, too, allowing us to compare on different scales.

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, sometimes this factor gets overlooked because fans know every horse from his replays and results better than average. Speed figures can go overlooked.

Last year, of course, Maximum Security held the high Beyer Speed Figure from his Florida Derby (G1) win and crossed the wire first in the Kentucky Derby.

In this crop, Independence Hall's 
101 Beyer Speed Figure and 122 TimeformUS Speed Figure in the Nashua Stakes (G3) at Aqueduct stand out, although he did regress in the Jan. 1 Jerome Stakes to an 83 and 102, respectively.

Dennis' Moment also deserves recognition for the 
97 Beyer and 118 TimeformUS number earned in his maiden win at Ellis Park last September. He followed up that effort by taking the Iroquois Stakes (G3) with a 90 and 115 in easy fashion, stirring up early hype over his talents.

While Dennis' Moment threw in a clunker in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, if that race is crossed out due to the bad start and quirky surface, we already know he's fast and could move forward.

One 3-year-old struggling in this category is the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Storm the Court, who only earned an 87 Beyer in his win after hitting in the mid-70s in previous starts. While that 87 isn't far off what Dennis' Moment ran in his stakes, horses are typically cranked up for their best efforts in the Breeders' Cup and turn in a nice winning number.

Another factor to emphasize is speed. Since switching to the points system and emphasizing two-turn preps, the Derby has often been won by those with the ability to set the pace or lay close. Without any real sprinters around to give the leaders a hard time, quality routers with early speed hold the advantage.

Orb in 2013 was the last horse to win as a deep closer, and he got lucky when a blinkered Palace Malice decided to go crazy up front.

This go around, Storm the Court, Dennis' Moment and Independence Hall all possess early speed.

One hyped 3-year-old without that speed is Maxfield, who recently returned to training after scratching from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The Breeders' Futurity (G1) winner is not certain to make the Derby, but if he does, his closing style is a negative. He'll have to deal with more traffic.

One horse who needs more early speed is Shoplifted, last month's Springboard Mile winner. In the American Pharoah Stakes (G1) last September, he lagged at the back in ninth through the early stages and only closed for fifth. Then he lagged in seventh for most of the Breeders' Cup.

If Shoplifted makes the Derby, the lack of pace combined with no huge speed figures would make him an immediate toss unless he shows improvement at age 3.

Because the Kentucky Derby features a 20-horse field and favors speed in the points-era, breaking sharp is a required quality, too, in choosing the right horse on top. One misstep out of the gate could lead to getting shut off.

Even though Independence Hall owns some speed and a big figure, the major strike against him is his slow-breaking habit. In his maiden win at Parx Racing, he got away slow, and in the Jerome Stakes he lunged at the start before recovering and pressing the leader. Those are red flags to consider.

Breaking slow and recovering in a six-horse field is a much easier task than in the 20-horse Derby.

As another example, Tiz the Law's slight bobble in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) last November arguably led to him getting pocketed in traffic. He also stumbled at the start of the Champagne Stakes (G1).

As with other negatives in young horses, these issues may disappear with more experience with more gate work and races.

Moving on, Derby trail preps with spaced-out margins between finishers are preferred as opposed to ones with blanket finishes.

When Maximum Security won the 2019 Florida Derby (G1), three lengths separated him and Bodexpress, and another 3 ½ lengths came between Bodexpress and Code of Honor. That's a healthy margin on dirt.

In the same race, the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) winner Harvey Wallbanger finished eighth at an underlaid 8-1. Noticeably, his Holy Bull win ended in a blanket finish as he defeated the 128-1 longshot Everfast by one length, with a neck separating Everfast and Maximum Mischief in third. One length separated Maximus Mischief and Epic Dreamer in fourth.

Only 4 ¾ lengths separated the first six horses in Harvey Wallbanger's Holy Bull. That is not the sign of quality.

While Maximum Security has risen to become one of the major stars in horse racing, Harvey Wallbanger hasn't won since the Holy Bull.

On last point to make: It is always nice to see talented Derby prospects respond to hand rides in their prep races, as opposed to needing several whip strikes.

In the 2018 Santa Anita Derby, Justify handled his main opponent, Bolt d'Oro with ease, even after Bolt d'Oro came under an all-out ride. Justify won the Derby on his way to becoming a Triple Crown champion, while Bolt d'Oro folded to 12th and did not look like the same afterward.

Independence Hall won his Nashua Stakes impressively by 12 ¼ lengths under his own power, which makes his slow-breaking habit all the more frustrating.

In contrast, Storm the Court won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by a head under a drive over Anneau d'Oro, a horse without a dirt win.

Now, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile is a tougher race than the Nashua. But the two of them also received luck when Dennis' Moment stumbled out of the gate, eliminating the most talented horse. The feeling is that Storm the Court will regress as time goes on, while others will move forward.

The Kentucky Derby is the only race we all seem to handicap for months. Think about these factors as new prospects emerge, and remember to hold your win prospects to an exceedingly high standard, especially in the race's points era.


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Meet Reinier Macatangay

My first time at the racetrack came as a 5-year-old kid at Santa Anita Park. For most of my younger life, that was the only track I attended other the occasional visit to Hollywood Park. 

Years later, after graduating California State University, Stanislaus with an English MA, I began writing for Lady and the Track. From late 2014-2016, my articles were seen on a weekly basis and covered handicapping, interviews with well-known racing personalities, fashion and more. 

The handicapping style I use concentrates on pace analysis. Some horses are compromised by the pace. Others are helped. Handicappers just starting out cannot easily see how pace affects the finish, so with this blog, I hope to help those unsure of how to apply pace into their handicapping and post-race analysis. 

On an unrelated note, I enjoy video games and attending anime or comic-book conventions. I am currently based in Kentucky, but spend a lot of time traveling between there and California.

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