JC / Railbird

Kentucky Derby

2016 Kentucky Derby

Prep schedule: Includes leaderboard, charts, replays, speed figures
Reference: 2016 prep and historical criteria spreadsheet
Churchill: Official Kentucky Derby website

Niche Work

Dave Hill spends Kentucky Derby weekend with Las Vegas horseplayer Alan Denkenson and things take a poignant turn when the bets don’t come in:

“I’ve been having a bad year. I’m starting to entertain the possibility that I could really go broke,” Dink says, without a hint of sentimentality. “Then again, if I don’t go broke there’s a 50 percent chance that I’m going to turn 75 and be making $4 bets in the sportsbook like these other guys. I mean what else am I going to do? Waz can go into stocks, into finance. I can’t do anything else. I’m 62 years old and this is all I know.”


The 2016 Kentucky Derby field turns into the Churchill Downs stretch
Turning into the stretch of the 2016 Kentucky Derby.

Nyquist earned a Beyer speed figure of 103 for winning the Kentucky Derby, the highest Beyer of his career; his TimeformUS speed figure came up 123. However you measure his performance on Saturday, it was a peak, and trainer Doug O’Neill looks like a pretty smart guy for bringing his Uncle Mo colt to Churchill Downs in condition to move forward off two prep races, only one of which was around two turns. I thought Nyquist would come up short for that very reason, especially if the early pace as as strong as projected.

Just like Ed DeRosa, though, running down what he got right and wrong about this year’s Derby, I have no regrets:

RIGHT: Nyquist was the best two-year-old and best three-year-old. This might sound like a funny brag considering I didn’t pick him to win the race, but at 2-to-1 keying a 14-to-1 exacta I have no regrets about opposing him on top because even if I had picked him to win I still wouldn’t have won anything on the race at that price with (my actual pick) Exaggerator second. But the respect for Nyquist’s talent was clearly there. I just gambled against it trumping the rest of the group.

WRONG: Picking against Nyquist. From a horseplayer perspective, it’s easy to forgive the pick against—especially considering how well Exaggerator ran—but the fact is everyone wants to pick the Derby winner, and I had my chance after having Nyquist on top all year.

The winner went to post at a price of 2.30 and paid $6.60 — Nyquist’s odds were the lowest for a favorite since Point Given in 2001, and lower than the odds of the three winning favorites since 2013 — Orb’s price was 5.40 that year, California Chrome’s 2.50 in 2014, and American Pharoah’s 2.90 in 2015.

Here are the incremental fractions for the Derby from the DRF chart:

The 2016 Kentucky Derby fractions
View the official Equibase chart (PDF).

Danzing Candy hustled to the front and led the field through the first three quarters in times of :22.58, :45.72, and 1:10.40 before yielding his position to eventual third-place finisher Gun Runner and then Nyquist, who assumed the lead entering the stretch and wrapped up the 1 1/4 mile Derby in 2:01.31. He did run his final quarter three seconds slower than he did his first, but that he was in front at all is what’s impressive, as Mike Watchmaker points out:

He was the only true survivor of a Derby pace that completely fell apart, and Nyquist did much more than merely survive.

Every other horse involved in the Derby pace either collapsed, or out and out disintegrated. But not Nyquist. He kept on with dogged determination the way champions so often do, and he safely turned back a runner-up in Exaggerator who had this race set up for him …

Watch the replay:

Derby recaps: Now Nyquist has real respect as he sets out to exorcise a Triple Crown demonNyquist wins the Kentucky DerbyNyquist answers call, reignites Triple Crown chase with Derby winNyquist stays perfect with Kentucky Derby victory. He ships to Pimlico on Monday for the Preakness.

Derby 142

Picks for the Kentucky Derby card are up on Hello Race Fans. Today’s best bet — or, at least, the one horse almost no one wants to play against on the undercard — is Tepin in the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile. The 2015 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner is 3-for-3 so far this year and she’s looked nothing but indomitable. She may be the one certainty in a day of deep fields.

Nyquist is 2-1 in the early Kentucky Derby wagering, below his 3-1 morning line. Some handicappers may feel uneasy about the undefeated champion’s chances (I’m among them), but money on the favorite has been steady.

Kentucky Derby Time

I was feeling the American Pharoah hangover. I didn’t have a Kentucky Derby horse, I was more interested in the Oaks — why not take a year off from this one race with its oversized field and tendency to chaos after we finally, finally get a Triple Crown winner? The feeling passed with the draw. Just like that, 20 horses slotted into the starting gate, and the excitement came back.

I still don’t have a Kentucky Derby horse, but I do have a few links to share:

1. The prep and historical criteria spreadsheet is updated with the 2016 field. For the past two or three years, I’ve thought it was time to revisit some of factors, such as the key preps, or the reliance on Beyer speed figures, but as a quick reference and a check on exuberant handicapping, the info holds up.

2. Keep the sheet open in a tab while you read why you shouldn’t pick Nyquist.

3. Who else should you play? Hand your Saturday party guests the Hello Race Fans Kentucky Derby cheat sheet to answer that question.

4. The Thomas Herding “Patterns of Motion Analysis for the Kentucky Derby” report is great reading each year — it’s a different way to think about each of the starters, and how they’ll react to being in a 20-horse field, that breaks through all the usual angles. This year’s edition is as insightful as ever about a crop that everyone seems a little stumped by, even if Kerry Thomas and Pete Denk are as flummoxed as observers at Churchill Downs have been by this year’s UAE Derby winner: “Lani moves very methodically yet runs with a strange Jeckyl-and-Hyde intensity,” they write. “This is a very unique profile.”

5. Sure, Lani has a unique profile. But is it a winner’s profile? If you’re looking for an reason to bet him, then Jon White’s Kentucky Derby strikes system gives you one — he has only a single strike against him. Lani also has one of the best pedigrees for the distance, says Valerie Grash.

6. Unless there’s a scratch and Laoban draws in, the Derby pace looks like:

7. The Bathing Index. (If Mo Tom wins, I’m a convert.)

The Marvel

From Tim Layden’s Triple Crown epilogue:

… Pharoah’s performance in his recent resumption of training would seem to indicate that he remains at the top of his game. “The only time he’s ever come back to the barn blowing and tired was after the Derby,” says Baffert. That race, according to Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza, remains a marvel. “He was empty with a half mile left in the race,” says Baffert. “I mean empty.” Espinoza says, “I started riding him at the half-mile pole and I’m like ‘Holy s—! What’s happening here?” Says Baffert, “You got a horse that’s empty, and wins the Kentucky Derby, that’s a great horse. People told me, ‘You’ve got to run against older horses.’ Trust me, I’m not worried about older horses. Not with this guy.”

It’s begun — as the legend of American Pharoah’s Triple Crown win grows, it’ll be the Kentucky Derby that increasingly stands out as his greatest challenge, the race that defines his accomplishment.

The 99 Percent

Johnny Weir hadn’t even been born when the modern Kentucky Derby telecast was conceived. The challenges of 1982 look a lot like 2015:

Many were dubious at the time about the value of an extended telecast, but ABC stood fast. “There are very few sports that the American public follows so little, but becomes so interested in for one race,” host Jim McKay told the Dallas Morning News. “There’s a tremendous amount of familiarization to do on the day of the race. There’s the horse, the owner, the jockey, and the trainer, and it’s important to do as much as possible on who they are and where they came from.”

Sportscaster Howard Cosell summarized ABC’s production strategy a bit more bluntly to the Washington Post: “You have to be willing to alienate — or at least talk at a sophisticated level they’re not at all pleased with — the serious horseplayer,” he explained. “You can’t be concerned with them. You have to worry about the 99 percent who are watching just because it’s the Derby.”

It’s interesting how much the televised approach to the Derby has spilled over into year-round racing marketing (for example: America’s Best Racing).

Pop, Pop, Pop

Steve Haskin on the 32 strikes debate:

Did Victor Espinoza overdo his use of the whip in the Kentucky Derby? It would certainly appear that he did. In his mind, was it abuse or mistreatment? Of course not …

So, while Espinoza is guilty of overuse of the whip on Stellar Wind, and arguably American Pharoah, and deserves to be punished, incidents like that are going to continue unless we adopt policies like the one they have in England. Not because of any cruel intent, but because of the natural act of using the whip to urge on a horse. You can’t just tell a jockey to stop something he’s done all his life. You have to make penalties serve as an inducement where he at least thinks about what he’s doing and learns to control his actions. The British jockeys have learned it; so can ours.

It sounds as though the stewards’ review of the Kentucky Derby is over:

“We have [reviewed the ride again] and we have the same feeling we had after the race was over: It’s within the boundaries of our regulations. He did hit the horse quite a few times but it was all within the rules of the state.”

Calvin Borel explains why jockeys may use padded crops more:

“You have to hit them six times to one times to the old crop; that’s what it amounts to, because they really don’t feel it,” Borel said. “With that kind of crop [padded], you have to — not hit them hard — but keep popping them.

“Riders hit them more often probably because of the pop, pop, pop; it keeps making noise. And it probably looks worse. With the regular whip, you get their attention when you hit them one time.”

Espinoza’s Take

Tim Wilkin talks to jockey Victor Espinoza:

Q: You hit American Pharoah with the whip 32 times during the race. There are those who have said that was a bit excessive. Your take?

A: No. I was doing it to encourage him, nothing else. I wanted to encourage him, keep him focused and keep him straight.

Also: Owner Ahmed Zayat is high on Pharoah in advance of the second leg of the Triple Crown. “I think he breathes different air than everyone else … he won the Derby, and I think he’ll be better in the Preakness.”

Recent Preakness Winners

Preakness Stakes winners and their post-time Preakness odds, 1984-2014. Kentucky Derby winners who also won the Preakness are in bold:

KYD = Kentucky Derby finish / PRK = Preakness finish / * = Favorite

I don’t anticipate this year’s Derby winner going to post as anything other than the Preakness favorite, although by how much he’ll be favored is a question.

12:30 PM Addendum: Not to keep on about jockey Victor Espinoza whipping American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby, but it’ll be a factor for a sizable number of handicappers who will consider Espinoza’s hard use a measure of Pharaoh’s Derby performance, influencing the colt’s Preakness odds.

UK racing analyst James Willoughby adds an international perspective to the recent discussion, writing in the Thoroughbred Daily News:

The number of strokes was arguably not the most egregious aspect; rather, it was the overwhelming impression that Espinoza was working on the horse — not with him …

It is no longer going to wash to say this is the way it has always been done or we know what is best. Just like every other pursuit in the world, racing must have a robust, well-considered defense for its practices which can remain true to racing tradition without being hidebound by it.

Indeed, whatever the local values held about the sport, surely nobody would stand up for hitting a horse without giving it time to respond.

As a starting point, that’s a good one.

Willoughby refers to a 2011 study of riding crop use (PDF) in the UK conducted by the British Horseracing Authority, which concluded:

1. The use of the whip in Racing – providing strict controls are effectively enforced – remains appropriate and necessary for the safety of both jockeys and horses …

2. The current whip guidelines and penalties for those jockeys who breach the Rules on whip use are not an effective enough control and deterrent in their current form.

Strict new rules went into effect following the 2011 review, and were revised in 2012 to allow for more judgement on the part of riders and stewards. The updated rules allow jockeys to use their crops eight times in British flat races; any strikes past that number trigger a stewards’ review. Eight. That’s about a quarter of the hits Espinoza gave American Pharoah.

Whipping the Issue

Pull the Pocket on Victor Espinoza’s heavy hand in the Kentucky Derby:

I don’t know why we make things so difficult in horse racing: 32 is excessive by any measure. That’s against a rule, thus you penalize him. Next year, if you don’t want to see the same thing on national TV, you pass, or alter the rule beforehand and let the jocks know in the room that excessive use will result in a 14 day suspension. That would not allow the jock to ride in the Preakness. The jocks — who are professionals — will fall in line and your problem will be solved.

Except the people charged with keeping the rules don’t seem to see an issue with what happened. Although there are plans to review Espinoza’s whip use on American Pharoah, “clearly this is a discretionary issue,” chief steward Barbara Borden told Marty McGee (DRF paywalled, sorry). If there’s a point to press, it’s in the rule that a horse be given time to respond after being struck. As I said elsewhere, it didn’t look as though Pharoah got that.

Trainer Bob Baffert also downplayed how Espinoza used his riding crop on American Pharaoh, saying during the NTRA teleconference on Tuesday:

“I never noticed it during the race, and then … I read something yesterday. I went back and looked at it. The horse — first of all, the whips they use now, they’re so light … and he was just keeping him busy, because … the horse was not responding when he turned for home … he just was keeping him busy, and he was flogging him and hitting him, but he hits him on the saddle towel. He doesn’t really hit that hard, so he was just keeping him busy.”

It’s “flogging,” but it’s not a problem. And for the most part, watching most races, I agree, especially about allowing riders discretion — jockeys say the crop is required for safety and control, and because they’re the people putting their mobility and lives on the line in each race, theirs is the perspective that most matters. The crop also has a place in encouraging a horse. But neither control nor encouragement get in the way of articulating and enforcing limits.

Related to whipping not being a problem (in a slightly different way), here’s a quick post Dana Byerly put together last fall when Santa Anita was considering a change to its whip use rule (the new rule, which restricts riders to three consecutive strikes before they must pause, passed statewide in November).

6:45 PM Addendum: Santa Anita stewards have fined Espinoza $300 for a whip violation. He broke the skin of Stellar Wind in the Santa Anita Oaks on April 4, as reported by the state veterinarian in the test barn post-race. Trainer John Sadler tells the Blood-Horse, though, “This is the first I’ve heard of it and I don’t remember noticing any marks on the horse then.”

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