JC / Railbird

Kentucky Derby

2015 Kentucky Derby

Preps: Schedule, results, and replays (includes Beyer speed figures)
Reference: 2015 prep and historical criteria spreadsheet
Churchill: Official Kentucky Derby website

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.”

Peak Pharoah

Dick Jerardi on American Pharoah (subscription only):

Some think the Derby might knock him out. I see it another way, that the Derby may have gotten American Pharoah the fitness he never was able to get this winter. If you think about it, he had less preparation than any horse in the race and won anyway. The Derby had to be worth five workouts. I think his career-best performance is coming May 16 at Pimlico.

That’s my bet. American Pharoah had to exert himself to win last Saturday. The effort should sharpen him for the Preakness.

Victor Espinoza whips American Pharoah down the stretch of the 2015 Kentucky Derby

Victor Espinoza’s whip use on Pharoah during his Derby run will be reviewed (beware, that’s a Courier-Journal paywall-popup link):

Chief state steward Barbara Borden told The Courier-Journal on Wednesday that Kentucky racing officials plan to look at the stretch run and Espinoza’s tactics again, though, “We watched it many, many times prior to making it official, and that wasn’t anything that got our attention.”

Borden said there’s no set limit in Kentucky for how many times a jockey can whip a horse during a race. As for American Pharoah’s Derby win, she said the ride “didn’t stand out to us to be super excessive.”

Kentucky’s rules on riding crop use allow plenty of latitude, requiring “a jockey who uses a riding crop during a race shall do so only in a manner consistent with exerting his or her best efforts to win,” and specifying that the rider:

Show the horse the riding crop and give the horse time to respond before striking the horse;

(b) Having used the riding crop, give the horse a chance to respond before using it again; and

(c) Use the riding crop in rhythm with the horse’s stride.

See section 15 of the KHRC regulations for the full text.

The issue of how many times Espinoza struck American Pharoah came up when a Bloomberg recap by David Papadopoulos appeared the morning after the Kentucky Derby with the sensational headline, “American Pharoah Whipped 32 Times in Victory” (both New York Times reporter Joe Drape and Daily Racing Form correspondent Jay Privman also noted the number of strikes in their post-race analysis). Papadopoulos’ point was more about what the whipping said of Pharoah’s effort and his chances for the rest of Triple Crown season, although you can read some judgement of Espinoza’s tactics in the comparison with Joel Rosario on fourth-place finisher Frosted:

Beyond being aesthetically unpleasing to watch, so many blows can take a lot out of a horse, each one acting as a forceful prodding to try harder. And at some point, they stop being effective. Stronger-finishing jockeys, like Joel Rosario, who rode fourth-place finisher Frosted, rely much less on the stick to drive their horses to the finish line. Rosario hit Frosted only four times as he surged toward the leaders late in the Derby.

For comparison, Espinoza struck California Chrome approximately 20 times on the way to his win in the 2014 Kentucky Derby. All after the eighth pole, and mostly timed to Chrome’s stride. He was still a bit free-handed with the crop, but less desperate, as Chrome was in the lead from earlier in the stretch.

In a conversation about whip use on Twitter, Sid Fernando commented “[U]ntil Bloomberg guy counted, AP whip didn’t even register to me as [Rachel Alexandra’s] did [in the 2009 Woodward].” That may have been the last time there was a high-profile flap about how much a jockey used his crop in a stakes race. Rachel Alexandra was struck 21 times by rider Calvin Borel on her way to winning. As Steven Haskin wrote then for the Blood-Horse:

Did Rachel need to be hit 21 times? Only Borel can answer that. Unlike the British stewards, American stewards pay no attention to such things, so we’ll just have to assume Borel felt the situation was desperate enough to resort to such measures.

I suppose we’ll have to assume the same about this year’s Derby.

Not the One

Sam Walker is keen to keep any Triple Crown talk for American Pharoah real, based on his Kentucky Derby performance:

… while they didn’t start quickly, they were actually slowing down at the line and the winner came home in a steady 26.57s, which doesn’t bode fantastically well for his chances in the final Classic, the Belmont Stakes over 1m4f, which has been crushing Triple Crown dreams since 1978.

This may seem a glass-half-empty appraisal of a very smart horse winning a Kentucky Derby, but the glass has been overflowing from half-full for long enough with this horse. As the Triple Crown comes closer to fruition it’s worth injecting some realism into his prospects.

Steve Davidowitz is thinking along the same lines:

Coming back in two weeks to run in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore, Maryland is one reason I wonder if he can pull it off. Frankly, the relatively short time between races could expose American Pharoah’s key vulnerability.

If it does not — should American Pharoah come through that important 1 3/16 mile race with still another victory — he will be taxed to the limit trying to handle the 1 1/2 mile Belmont Stakes against fresh horses …

Oaks-Derby 2015 Wrap

How’s this for a coincidence? Both the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby winning trainers omni-ed (finished first and third) in their races, Larry Jones with Lovely Maria and I’m a Chatterbox on Friday, Bob Baffert with American Pharoah and Dortmund on Saturday. And what a story it would have been had 52-year-old jockey Gary Stevens, second in the Derby with Firing Line, been Oaks-winning 56-year-old rider Kerwin Clark’s counterpart.

Sometimes the angle on both classics is upset and surprise; this year it was about being at the top of your game. Form held, in that the Kentucky Oaks winner, yet again, passed through the Fair Grounds. And in that the Kentucky Derby winner was the post-time favorite for the third year running. The Oaks win was the third for Jones since 2008, all with fillies owned by Brereton Jones. The Derby win was the fourth for Baffert, and for an owner, Ahmed Zayat, with a string of near-misses, including one in 2009 with the sire of this year’s winner. For Clark, the Oaks winner was his first Grade 1-winning mount, and the rider was the third to get his first Grade 1 win on one of Jones’ Oaks fillies. For Victor Espinoza, the Derby winner was his third, his second in two years.

“For me to get this opportunity at this time in my life when 15 years ago I had decided I was just going to stay in Louisiana and finish my career out there and just disappear quietly into the sunset,” mused Clark, “I got lucky.”

Espinoza knows the thrill. “I feel like the luckiest Mexican on Earth,” he exulted when Donna Brothers rode up for his first post-race interview, and then he praised his horse. “[American Pharoah] has been a special horse since the first time I rode him. He has a lot of talent and is an unbelievable horse.”

Talent enough to win the Triple Crown? We’ll find out over the next five weeks. Baffert said the plan is — of course — to continue on to the Preakness. His stablemate will do the same. “If Dortmund turns the tables on [American Pharoah], so be it,” the trainer told Jonathan Lintner of the Courier-Journal.

Such equanimity. He can allow himself that after getting both to Churchill Downs and winning with Pharoah. “I’m just relieved, very relieved,” Baffert said to DRF correspondent David Grening (subscription only):

“You know coming in here you got that kind of horse, and he showed it today. Pharoah probably didn’t run as well as he can, but he’s such a good horse. I’m just glad he got through here.”

American Pharoah was given a Beyer speed figure of 105 for the Kentucky Derby, the same figure he earned winning his final prep, the Arkansas Derby. TimeformUS awarded him 127 (post updated to included this link 5/7/15).

Fractions for the Kentucky Derby from the Daily Racing Form chart:

The DRF incremental times for the 2015 Kentucky Derby

Looking at the chart, it’s striking how consistent the top three finishers were through the first six furlongs. It’s a very even race. Dortmund (the leader, as predicted by the TimeformUS pace projector) took the field through a moderate first quarter in :23.24, a half in :47.34, and the first three-quarters in 1:11.29, and what had been a tight group near the front the first time past the grandstand separated into the three front-runners and the rest by the final turn. For a nice illustration of how the race unfolded, compare the official chart (PDF) points of call with the Blood-Horse pictorial race sequence.

Watching the replay, what’s most noticeable is how wide American Pharoah is turning into the stretch. Trakus has him covering 29 more feet than Firing Line and 69 more than Dortmund. Minor ground loss doesn’t seem like a bad trade for such an easy trip — the winner was unimpeded all the way around:

The final time for the Derby was 2:03.02, and American Pharoah’s margin at the wire one length over Firing Line. Espinoza had to go to work on him with hands and whip (something Larry Collmus picked up in his call, noting Pharoah was “under a ride”), and he responded. It wasn’t a brilliant victory, but a solid win, the kind that reveals a horse’s mettle. Pharoah is tough.

For that matter, so is Firing Line, who I unfairly and wrongly (so wrongly) discounted when handicapping. The Sunland Derby winner had finished second to Dortmund in their two earlier meetings, and the pair went to the front together in the Kentucky Derby, keeping both busy. “I not only have to turn the tables on Dortmund with Firing Line, but I’ve got to figure out a way to beat American Pharaoh,” Stevens said during a Reddit AMA two weeks ago, talking about his Derby strategy. “I’ve already figured out a way to beat Dortmund! For my plan to work, I’ve got to be in the right place at the right time.” Credit the rider with pulling off at least half his plan — Firing Line headed Dortmund turning into the final quarter and finished two lengths ahead of the previously undefeated colt. If Firing Line did anything wrong, it was that he didn’t switch leads in the stretch (via @randy_moss_TV).

No excuse for Dortmund — he just didn’t have that last furlong in him. Frosted ranged up late and almost got him for show. “He’s a really good horse and he ran like it today,” said jockey Martin Garcia after the Derby. “He always comes to run; that’s the kind of horse he is. He got beat today by really good horses. That can happen.” The question going forward is, did he reveal a distance limitation, or — with the experience — will he be able to handle 10 furlongs in races such as the Travers or Breeders’ Cup Classic?

Back to the Kentucky Oaks: Lovely Maria earned a Beyer speed figure of 94; TimeformUS gave her 105. She drew away for a 2 3/4 length win (PDF):

Her victory is lovely, for so many reasons.

Odds and ends: American Pharoah is a handsome animalthat was quite a Derby winner’s circle celebration … “justice of sorts in Pharoah’s win.”

Derby Day 2015

10:15 AM Update: #12 International Star has scratched. Here’s the statement from owner Ken Ramsey, via the Churchill Downs press office:

“The state vet got there this morning to check him out and did not like the way he jogged down the shedrow. Our blacksmith took the left-front shoe off and there was definitely some heat on the inside quarter of the left-front foot. Something’s brewing in there, probably an abscess. There’s nothing major wrong with the horse whatsoever. We think we’ll probably have him ready to come back for the Preakness but time will tell.”

Fans of three-time rail-riding Kentucky Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel got bad news on Friday: It was announced that El Kabeir would scratch from today’s race with a foot abscess. El Kabeir was in post 7; the horses before him will shuffle in from the rail, leaving post 1 open for the third year in a row. (Not that the move improves Ocho Ocho Ocho’s chances, at least from this corner’s view. He’s one of my tosses, along with Materiality, Itsaknockout, Keen Ice, Frammento, Bolo, War Story, and Firing Line.)

Okay, so how to play today? What do you do with likely post-time favorite, American Pharoah? He’s 5-2 on the live Kentucky Derby odds board as of 9:15 AM. Both Nick Tammaro and Steve Haskin have value tips. Says Tammaro:

In wagering on this particular Kentucky Derby, the approach of betting against American Pharoah in the intra-race exotics is advisable. Protecting with him in multi-race exotics is feasible, and profit can be maximized by him missing the top slot in trifecta and superfecta wagers.

Haskin suggests another approach:

[I]f you’re looking for good exacta with American Pharoah, I’ll go with Frosted, Firing Line, Bolo, and Danzig Moon, and if you want to be really daring, you can box the last four just in case.

Picks for the Kentucky Derby and undercard stakes are up on Hello Race Fans. Past performances for the Derby are available via the HRF cheat sheet.

Derby Profiles

Four to read this Kentucky Oaks day: The New York Times catches up with Stonestreet Farm’s Barbara Banke, co-owner of Carpe Diem. The Wall Street Journal talks to Kerry Thomas, whose study of racehorse psychology adds a rich dimension to Kentucky Derby handicapping. (His profiles of this year’s field are available on Brisnet.) Bloomberg meets Tapit, the $300,000 sire. So sweet: Dortmund’s backstory will make you say “Aw!”

Mike Welsch’s observations on the 2015 Kentucky Derby field are now up on DRF (subscription only). I’m on the Dortmund bandwagon, and so was pleased to read the noted works-watcher’s comments on the Big Brown colt: “[H]e really seems to be flourishing since his arrival in Kentucky.” Fantastic.

His final Derby work, completed at Santa Anita, was powerful:

For such a big 3-year-old, he accelerates with ease:

Dortmund is a huge horse, 17 hands tall. (The same as … Zenyatta.) There’s thinking among handicappers that he is too big to adjust as the Derby chaotically unfolds. Baffert disagrees vehemently. “He’s quick, he’s an athlete,” the trainer says. “And he’s got an incredible stride.” Some experts have compared Dortmund to Point Given, who was also huge, but Baffert says, “[Point Given] took a while to get going. That’s not Dortmund.”

Needing time to gear up is so not Dortmund’s style that he’s expected to be up front in the Kentucky Derby, per TimeformUS’s pace projector:

TimeformUS pace projector for the 2015 Kentucky Derby showing Dortmund, #8, on the lead

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