How to Handicap the Kentucky Derby

Girvin (photo by Jordan Sigmon).

Girvin (photo by Jordan Sigmon).

Surprise, surprise! It turns out the harness racing guy also knows how to handicap and analyze the thoroughbreds.  I, too, have been captured by the Kentucky Derby allure, which shines brightly upon my reflective eyes.

I won’t explain why exactly the Kentucky Derby is so significant, primarily because thirty other people have likely listed the same aspects but in varying orders (I’ve never met a single person who regularly drinks a mint julep). Plus, I’m not one to be enveloped by pageantry. All you have to do to figure that out is look at my hair.

Enough about me, though, let’s talk Derby!

Once we reach this time of year, my cynicism is unearthed with the utterance of the phrase “Who do you like to win the Kentucky Derby?” Partially because of my handicapping background, as well as my understanding of the gambling opportunity the Derby represents. Of course, people still fall for the number one flaw when approaching a horse race (even one as big as the Kentucky Derby) — they try to pick the winner.

Folks, it’s a lot more than that and I like to think that if I can grasp these concepts as the bumbling arm-pit smelling buffoon I look like, then you, the more educated reader, can too.

“Now Ray, I thought the whole point of handicapping was to pick winners?”

 That definition of handicapping is too inflexible. Handicapping, overall, is a gauging process; it’s weighing a horse’s ability in comparison to another’s. People misconceive the idea of picking the winner because, on most occasions, it lands them on the favored horse: a California Chrome, an American Pharoah, or a Classic Empire and, sure, the former two did win the Derby, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

For now, and especially with the shape of this year’s Derby, the handicapping and gambling sects intersect. Considering the years when the best, e.g. favored, horse did not win the Derby (Union Rags in 2012, Dialed In in 2011, Lookin At Lucky in 2010, etcetera) along with the heightened chaos factor of having twenty three-year-olds run a distance most have never attempted, taking the lowest odds in the race is not necessarily in your greatest interest.

Yet, in years where there have been California Chromes and American Pharoahs, the races from the outset usually revolve around them and their ability, making them venerable favorites. But taking the so-called “best horse” gives you no chance to catch an Animal Kingdom ($43.80) or an I’ll Have Another ($32.60). All in all, you are better off trying to look outside of the favorite, because, unless fueled by some powerful instinct, the value is just not there.

“Value? Well, Ray, how do I find value in the Kentucky Derby?” 

1906programThe value of anything has to come from deep inside your soul. It has to have a sort of meaning or connection with the spirit that is not comparable to anything else.

I’m totally kidding! It’s all about the odds. Any one of the horses running for the roses is capable of crossing the finish line first… except Fast And Accurate.

Okay, even Fast And Accurate is capable of winning the Derby, and that’s the skeleton of this concept. A horse’s capability to win the Derby isn’t solely dependent on the races they’ve won previously. If it were, then we should expect horses like Classic Empire, Always Dreaming, Irish War Cry, etc. to always win the Derby — and that’s what the odds will reflect.

Value in the Derby, to me, has always been anything above the 10-1 threshold. Trying to catch the good horses overlooked by the flair of their more accredited competitors, it’s quite easy to catch overlays using this standard, especially since 20 betting interests means inflated odds.

“Odds and such are great, Ray. But how do I find these overlooked horses?” 

In years past, we’ve witnessed a long shot drought because some horses are selfish enough to become superstars (looking at you, Pharoah!). Favorites Orb (2013) and California Chrome (2014) have also made the last few Derbies boring on the betting line.

But, boy, does that change this year!

We have good horses, we have moderately decent horses — we even have the world’s first pirate horse (Patch). This year’s Derby offers a true smorgasbord of betting opportunities, for sure, and hopefully you’ve fasted long enough to take full advantage of this gambling buffet!

I say — at least on the win end — ignore Classic Empire, Always Dreaming and McCraken. Though they won their Derby preps in “impressive” fashion (except for McCraken), their performances hold major caveats, most of them around the fact that the race set up for them. Now, this does not say that it couldn’t play into their favor once again, but it’s unlikely.

Because we can somewhat quantify the favorites wins to be fairly equivalent to the ability of the rest of this field, we are left with volatile favorites that signal us to look elsewhere.

Essentially, no Kentucky Derby prep really stood out this year, meaning we then can’t elevate the performances of horses who, for instance, might’ve finished second in the Santa Anita Derby or eighteenth in the Nebraska Futurity or whatever (note: there is no such thing as the Nebraska Futurity). Because of this, we can also quantify the winners of each of the significant preps to also be equal within this playing field. This standard makes horses like Irish War Cry, Girvin and Gormley underlays.

That’s the class-end of the Derby, however. All that’s left for this race is trip — trying to figure out who will be where when, for how long and if they’ll come back, whenever that will be.

With rain forecasted Kentucky Derby day, the Churchill track may play towards horses that prefer to race from off the pace. Orb did so on an off track in 2013, as did Animal Kingdom on damp going in 2012, and, oh, of course, Mine That Bird in 2009.

You remember him, right — Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, the best horse in the race?

Off-the-pacers in this race consist of Girvin, Gormley, Gunnevera, Practical Joke, J Boys Echo, Tapwrit, Hence, Lookin At Lee and Sonneteer.

But, what usually benefits these stalkers is having a fast pace to sit behind. In 2013, Orb drafted behind horses as Palace Malice set a torrid pace and, in 2012, I’ll Have Another sucked behind a hot tempo established by Bodemeister. Oh, and in 2011, Animal Kingdom stalked behind Shackleford. Oh, and…

(Ray continued to list situations where a horse coming from off the pace was aided by a speed prompter. Several years have now passed.)

Lemme catch my breath for a second… alright, as for pace this year, the stalkers will be heavily reliant on someone being able to pressure Battle Of Midway, who was pressed to set a fast pace in the Santa Anita Derby which suctioned Gormley into the mix. Yet, Battle Of Midway might be challenged by State Of Honor, Fast And Accurate, Always Dreaming or Irish War Cry as they jockey (nice pun, huh?) for position towards the front.

Perhaps, considering the above, we should favor one of our off-the-pace choices?

“Perhaps we should, Ray. But that’s so many horses! How do I narrow them down?”

We must rate their abilities against one another.

“But you said this wouldn’t get complicated!” 

It hasn’t, faithful reader, because all that we have already inferred is clearly on the past performance page. All we have done is compose trends of horses’ trips judging off most of their races. This is only, like, one-tenth of a step deeper into the Matrix.

Things to consider:

WinTicket1944Not all closing efforts are universally impressive. For instance, Gormley sweeping up to win the Santa Anita Derby was because he acquired the right setup for the position he was in, thus we can interpret that win as a “perfect trip” and look elsewhere.

Girvin had similar setups in winning the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. While he was off of more moderate paces, the one downside to him is he has possibly developed a quarter crack, which could be an issue (assuming he doesn’t end up scratching on Derby day, which is entirely possible).

Gunnevera and Practical Joke appear to be the strongest closers in the field. Gunnevera, attempting to come from off the pace at the conveyor belt that is Gulfstream Park, still managed to finish third in the Florida Derby. Pace will be his ultimate enemy, though, since he, like Lookin At Lee and Sonneteer, will most likely be dragging towards the back of the field, depending on some sort of battle on the front in order for his ability to be fully cultivated.

Practical Joke should be racing from the prime Derby-winning position. Tending to sit towards the middle of the pack, he would be close enough to benefit from a moderately-fast-but-greatly-taxing pace on the lead. Though he hung in his second-place effort in the Blue Grass, Irap also was in the prime position to win based on the bias of the day at Keeneland, which favored horses sitting fairly close to, if not on, the lead. He will just have to time his move correctly, as he prematurely chased after the leaders midway up the backstretch in the Blue Grass.

All we’re left with from here are J Boys Echo, Tapwrit, and Hence. Of the three, Hence is probably the strongest closer, though he benefitted greatly from a blistering pace set in the Sunland Derby. His launch to the lead, however, best displayed his ability from a stalking position, however much it may have been prompted by the fast fractions.

J Boys Echo and Tapwrit appeared flat in their final preps, though they both were victims of the Keeneland bias. The question for them is whether or not they can bounce back from those efforts, which should factor into the price demanded from them.

“Ray, it seems like you’re just telling me who to like in the Kentucky Derby, though. How am I supposed to know who I like?” 

It definitely appears that way, but I’m also attempting to demonstrate one line of thinking approaching the Derby. Being able to look at the past performances, dissect horses’ abilities and class, and tying that all together into finding the prime contender based on potential odds is the key to handicapping and playing the Kentucky Derby. It’s never as simple as the best horse winning the race — well, except for California Chrome, American Pharoah, Orb, Nyquist…

(Ray continued to list counter examples that ultimately disproved his point.) 

I have to disagree, omniscient narrator, they are just exceptions. You can take Classic Empire or Always Dreaming if you think they’re value. However, you should know that, especially with a Derby like this year’s, there is no clear-cut winner. So, try to dig. Scavenge for that price and play it in the hopes that the greatest horse to show up that day will be yours.

Who do YOU like in the Kentucky Derby?

Ray Cotolo
Ray Cotolo is a seasoned handicapper and harness writer. At 17-years-old, he has worked in the harness racing industry for approaching a decade. Known for his creativity, humor, and eccentric personality, he works to promote harness racing while also entertaining. He is also known as the son of harness-racing guru Frank Cotolo and focuses primarily on the pari-mutuel side of the sport, invested in seeking value.

Ray hosts the weekly radio show “North American Harness Update,” which combines his talents to both entertain and aid the public in discovering overlay contenders from the highest-stake harness races to the cheapest overnights at Truro Raceway. He strives to put on the greatest show possible for all audiences along with his co-host, Mike Pribozie. It airs from 9-11pmEDT on SRN One.

Outside of racing, Ray is a playwright, writer, and, debatably, a comedian. He has performed and written sketch comedy while attending high school, as well as plays and varying side projects. He continually updates his Twitter account, @RayCotolo, with thoughts either pertaining to or not pertaining to harness racing.

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