Monday, May 4, 2009

10 Takeways from the Kentucky Derby

1. The Kentucky Derby is the only major sporting event regularly won by the common man

Sometimes Kentucky Derby trophies are handed to wealthy breeders such as Paul Mellon and Frances Genter, who are justly rewarded for decades spent improving the breed. And on rare occasion they go to a wealthy newcomer who pays millions for a horse like Fusaichi Pegaus. And yet deliciously often, the Kentucky Derby is won by a horse that was purchased for a pittance, such as Seattle Slew, Real Quiet, Funny Cide and now Mine that Bird, who was originally bought for $9,500. The “dollar and a dream” fantasy is very much alive at the Kentucky Derby.

2. Pace Makes the Race

The early pace in the Derby was insanely fast, considering the track condition. With a half-mile to go, Mine That Bird was still more than three seconds behind the leg-weary leaders. While it looked as though he accelerated down the stretch, he merely ran an even pace all the way around, and the other contenders were staggering in the home stretch.

3. There is only one Bo-rail

From the very first race on the Derby card, horses that ran along the rail pulled away at the end of the race, while those who swept wide into the stretch faded. Riding the rail is always the shortest way around, but on Saturday, it took on added advantage, as the ground was clearly firmer near the rail than in the middle of the track. ESPN analyst and former jockey Jerry Bailey noted it several times. This left many fans wondering why every jockey didn’t emulate Calvin Borel’s rail-skimming ride aboard Mine That Bird. But such a ride takes patience and courage, and Borel reported that his small horse barely fit through some of the holes, and indeed scraped the rail at least twice. It was as remarkable a ride as you will ever see, and if they ran the same race tomorrow, few other riders would have the moxie to do what Borel did.

4. Sealing a racetrack yields inconsistent performances.

Since horse began racing on dirt, horse bettors have had to try to divine which horse would run well when rain turned the track muddy. But in the past 20 years, when a track is soaked and more rain is called for, many track superintendents “seal” the track – in effect, steamroll it and pack it tightly so that further rain will not seep in. Then, as the big race nears, the track is harrowed. Supporters of sealing believe it creates a more even and safer surface, a noble goal. But few doubt the proposition that even some horses who do well in the mud may flounder on a sealed racetrack. Friesan Fire and Dunkirk are just two horses that ran inexplicably poorly on Saturday’s surface.

5. Experience does matter

Many purists have shuddered in recent years as the Derby was won several times by horses who defied convention, whether by having fewer lifetime races or more rest than previous winners. But Mine That Bird had run 8 times before the Derby, starting his career in July of last year, and most of the horses who finished in the top half of the field fit the same profile. Meanwhile, favorite Friesan Fire finished next to last off his 7 weeks of rest, and second choice Dunkirk also finished well back in his 4th lifetime start.

6. With many trainers, it is still the case that a horse will show improvement in his 3rd start off a lay-off

This maxim has long been true, but has lost some of its currency in recent years. Nowadays, many trainers have their horses fully primed for every race, because they race them only a handful of times per year. But with throwback trainers like Chip Woolley who actually still believe in letting a horse race himself into shape, there is no better time to bet on their horses than the third race back off a layoff, which is where Mine That Bird was on Saturday.

7. Mine That Bird Ran an Extraordinary Race.

While many pundits will forever speculate why some horse ran poorly on Saturday, the fact is that the final time for the race was excellent, given the muddy track. While comparisons from one race to another are difficult to make, Mine the Bird ran much faster than Smarty Jones, Go for Gin, and Sunday Silence did when they won the Derby on a wet track. And few questioned whether any of them were worthy of the title of Derby champion.

8. Horses who jump up from obscurity don’t always go back there.

Derby upsetters like Giacomo, Lil E. Tee and Gato Del Sol enjoyed little, if any, glory after their two minutes of Derby fame. But Canonero II, Derby champ of 1971, perhaps the most obscure Derby winner of all, next won the Preakness Stakes. While he then finished 4th in the Belmont Stakes and lost his first 7 races the following year, he validated his brilliance when he defeated three-year old champion Riva Ridge in the Stymie Handicap at Aqueduct racetrack, setting a track record in the process. I think there are more big wins in Mine That Bird’s future.

9. There is a huge carryover into Churchill’s Wednesday card on both the Pick Six and the Super High Five.

More than $100 million was bet on Saturday’s racecard. Mine that Bird’s shocking upset meant that no one picked the winners of 6 races in a row, nor the top 5 Derby finishers. More than $1 million carries over and will be paid out to people who hit these bets on Wednesday. And so many of the veteran handicappers who at 6:30 on Saturday night swore they will never bet again are today buying a Racing Form for Wednesday. And that is because.......

10. There is no breed of human being more indomitable than a horseplayer.