JC / Railbird


In the Money

Courtesy Churchill Downs: Kentucky Derby trainer records 1898-2012 (PDF).

Among the stats included in the file linked above are most starts and most wins by trainer. Considering just currently active trainers, both lists are topped by D. Wayne Lukas, who’s had 45 starters and four wins in 31 years. Bob Baffert is second in wins, with three from 23 starters in 16 years. Those two are also the leaders with Derby starters finishing in the money — 35% of Baffert starters have hit the board, 22% of Lukas’ starters. Todd Pletcher is second to Lukas in total number of starters, with 31 in 12 years, but fourth, with 13%, when it comes to finishing in the money.

Pletcher will likely be first when it comes to number of starters in the 2013 — he has six possible contenders among the top 24 on the latest Derby points list (PDF). Baffert has three Derby points leaders, Lukas two.


There’ll be no getting away from it:

“We’ll have to answer all those Apollo questions,” Pletcher said, after describing Verrazano’s debut Jan. 1 and his projected route to Churchill Downs. Indeed, the undefeated Wood Memorial favorite broke his maiden on New Year’s Day. If he gets to the Kentucky Derby, he’ll be attempting to become the first horse who hadn’t started as a 2-year-old since Apollo to win the Derby. That was in 1882.

Every other Derby rule has been broken, but raced-at-2 still holds. Earlier this year, handicapper Jon White wrote about its 137-1 record and noted that:

Going all the way back to 1956, horses who did not race at 2 are a combined 0 for 49 in the Kentucky Derby. During this period, just five horses who did not race at 2 managed to even place or show in the Run for the Roses …

The 0 for 49 in 56 years stat points up a weakness in the rule — when we talk about contenders who didn’t start as 2-year-olds, we’re talking about a small group, even in recent years. Going back to 2003, only nine starters out of 192 didn’t race as juveniles. And of the five unraced-at-2 starters since 1956 who finished second or third in the Derby, two did so in the last five years.

Returning HOTYs

When Wise Dan makes his first start of the year at Keeneland on April 12, don’t bet against him. Returning Horses of the Year are 16 for 21 since 1972:

Favored returning HOTYs are 16 for 20. With a return of $43.50 on $40 bet, that makes favored returning HOTYs just about the surest bet in racing.

(The chart above is an updated version of one that appeared in a lengthier post about betting returning champions in March 2010.)

1:15 PM Addendum: So, how might you play Wise Dan? Hello Race Fans has some tips on factoring favorites, and singling and spreading.

The Synth Difference

Matt Hegarty reporting from the Racehorse Welfare and Safety Summit:

The latest analysis of the data also continued to show a statistically significant difference between the rate of catastrophic injuries on artificial surfaces when compared with dirt surfaces and turf surfaces. Over the past three years, horses running on synthetic surfaces have suffered catastrophic injuries at a rate of 1.3 per 1,000 starts, whereas horses running on turf had a 1.6 rate and dirt horses had a 2.0 rate, slightly higher than the overall rate of 1.9, according to researchers.

We can’t keep ignoring the facts: Synthetic surfaces are safer. Any serious discussion about or initiative for reducing fatalities must include synthetics.

The Home Track Advantage

Jon White looks ahead from Super Saturday to Santa Anita:

The Breeders’ Cup was held at Santa Anita in 1986, 1993, 2003, 2008 and 2009. In those five years, 31 Breeders’ Cup races were decided on Santa Anita’s main track. Horses coming off a race in New York have won just one of those 31 races for a miniscule 3.2% strike rate. That one winner was Lady’s Secret, who captured the 1986 Distaff after having won the Beldame in her most recent start. Lady’s Secret was voted 1986 Horse of the Year and entered the Hall of Fame in 1992.

Yikes. I knew the record was poor, but that’s a stark stat.

New York prepped horses do a bit better finishing in the money in main track Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita, with 17 running either second or third in the five years the BC has been held at the SoCal track. The main track race in which New York prepped horses have done the best at Santa Anita is the Juvenile Fillies — five New York fillies have finished in the money. New Yorkers also did their best on the Santa Anita main track in 2008 and 2009 — the synthetic surface years — when five and four, respectively, finished in the money, particularly in the Filly and Mare Sprint (2nd and 3rd, 2008), Distaff (2nd and 3rd, 2008), and Dirt Mile (2nd and 3rd, 2009).

Stakes Inflation

Chris Rossi on the graded stakes bubble:

As foal crops have declined, so has the number of race days for a total of 6,250 race days lost since 2006. Yet the number of stakes awarded graded status has remained level: 475 awarded in 2006 and 474 awarded in 2011. This failure to adapt to the new racing landscape has resulted in an increase of 14% in the number of races awarded graded status.

The 2016 projection should strike fear in everyone involved in breeding and selling American Thoroughbreds. Without correction, short fields and ducking connections won’t be just the bane of bettors in the very near future.

(Neither the Paulick Report nor Equidaily like to pick up Raceday 360 pieces, but both should aggregate this one.)

The Seen and Unseen

As the rubric for Eric Mitchell’s Blood-Horse column asks, what’s going on here? In his latest, Mitchell surveys the trainers of the Lasix-free juvenile starters owned by those who pledged to run their 2-year-olds without raceday drugs and finds promise in their results. He also offers some stats:

A chart on this page shows how the non-Salix horses have been performing. Between July 20 and Sept. 5, a total of 749 2-year-old races were run in the U.S. and Canada. Among the winners of those races, 660 (88.1%) ran on Salix and 89 (11.9%) did not.

Among horses that finished in the money, 87.4% raced on Salix and 12.6% ran without the medication.

Interesting. But what do the numbers mean? Very little, without knowing in which, of the 749 juvenile races surveyed, all the starters were on Lasix (those races should be excluded from analysis*; as should, on the off-chance any such event occurred, any race in which no starter was on Lasix), or without knowing the breakdown between the total number of starters on Lasix and not on Lasix. A second chart accompanying the column, focusing on the 2012 Saratoga juvenile races, gives that information, but crucially leaves out the percentages: 20.4% of starts were Lasix-free; 11.2% of winners were.

Not to draw conclusions from the above — there are too many factors in play. As trainer Kiaran McLaughlin told Mitchell, “I just don’t win first time out.” But the numbers hint at a possible answer for the question of whether or not Lasix is performance enhancing, and what its role should be in training and racing. Another potentially illuminating angle on that question would be to look at the 2-year-old earnings for the Lasix-free owners — are their accounts depressed as a group? As compared to previous years? What’s the cost of eschewing raceday medications so long as Lasix remains legal?

A few weeks ago, Tyler Hamilton excited attention with the release of his book, “The Secret Race,” and its revelations about cycling’s doping culture:

The book is the holy grail for disillusioned cycling fans in search of answers. In a taut 268 pages, Hamilton confidently and systematically destroys any sense that there was ever any chance of cleaning up cycling in the early 2000s, revealing the sport’s powerful and elaborate doping infrastructure. He’s like a retiring magician who has decided to let the public in on the profession’s most guarded techniques.

(Before I go any further: Yes, Hamilton’s book is about illegal drug use in cycling, and Lasix is a legal drug in horse racing. I do not conflate the illegal and legal except in considering how decisions to use a drug or not may be distorted by perceptions of advantages employed by others to win.)

For Michael Shermer, the book highlights “the hidden price” of doping:

This is the real harm to those athletes who did not want to dope, who were given the choice to dope and opted out, who pulled over to the curb on the boulevard of broken dreams, stripped off their race number, and packed it in to go home, in most cases back to menial jobs or to finish high school or start college. Who are these cyclists? Tyler names a few in his book, but in most cases we have no idea who they are because they are the unseen ones, those whose potential was never realized because they never had the chance to compete cleanly against their peers.

Realizing potential is one of the arguments used to justify Lasix — stakes caliber horses who bleed abroad may be sent to the US to run, for instance, because their condition can be treated and their careers can continue. Lasix reveals these horses’ full abilities, goes the thinking; to deny them a legal treatment is to make them the unseen ones. And that’s really the question behind the raceday Lasix debate: Which horses should be unseen? Those who can run Lasix-free, or those who can’t run without Lasix?

*Credit to @o_crunk for bringing this point up via DM.

“The Statistics Are Somewhat Hopeful”

Jeff Scott checks the stats on Saratoga’s Lasix-free juvenile starters:

The 141 Lasix-free 2-year-olds were distributed over 71 races; only nine were post-time favorites. As a group, they accounted for 10 wins, 13 seconds and 14 thirds. With all the variables involved, it is difficult to assess the significance of these results. The sample is also a very small one. It can be said, though, that many 2-year-olds performed well without Lasix this summer at Saratoga. And that is good news for anyone who doesn’t like to think American horses can’t compete without this medication on race day.

Noted: “Bled” isn’t a chart comment on any of those races.

What the Winners Paid

Another 2011 classic, another upset.

Considering the Triple Crown season just ended, I thought it’d be interesting to look back at the win prices for the five Grade 1 Derby preps (Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes, Arkansas Derby*), and the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont for the past 10 years:

Winning favorites are indicated with a gray background.

This year stands out for the both the highest average win mutuel ($34.01) of the past decade and for being the sole year in which no favorite won in the five preps or a classic. The next highest average ($32.05) was 2004, when Smarty Jones dominated Oaklawn and the first two legs of the Triple Crown, while Friends Lake and Castledale sprung upsets in the Florida Derby and Santa Anita Derby, respectively, and Birdstone shocked everyone in the Belmont.

Price-wise, 2006 was the least surprising year, with the lowest average win mutuel ($11.68); chaos still had its moment, when Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro broke down shortly after the start of the Preakness Stakes. The $27.80 paid to Bernardini backers was the highest price of the season.

Of the three classics, the Preakness has the lowest average win pay ($10.40), with six winning favorites, four of those Derby winners. The other two winning favorites were Rachel Alexandra in 2009 and Afleet Alex in 2005, contenders rightly tabbed as superior to upset Derby winners Mine That Bird and Giacomo.

Only one favorite has won the Belmont Stakes in the past 10 years, and that was Afleet Alex in 2005. Handicappers look for longshots in the Derby, but the Belmont has delivered a higher average price ($43.61) and a healthy ROI in recent years — if you had bet $2 to win on all 110 Belmont starters since 2002, you would have almost doubled your money.

*Grade 2 through 2009.

Trending Down

Alan posted a sharp analysis of the Florida Derby over on Left at Gate, noting that the Beyer speed figure of 93 given to Dialed In for the just-there win “is a good 6-8 points lower than one might like to see from him at this point.” It is, but the figure is also one that’s become quite typical of Derby prospects.

If you look at the Beyer speed figure earned by each Derby starter in their final Kentucky Derby prep (column PR-BSF in the spreadsheet below) from 1998-2010, you’ll notice a pretty steady decrease in the number of 100+ BSFs appearing in prep past performances. In 1998, only two starters had not earned a triple digit figure in their final prep or in one of their two prior starts as a 3-year-old (columns 2ND and 3RD below). In 2010, only two came into the Derby with a BSF of 100, and only three — Devil May Care, Sidney’s Candy, and Jackson Bend — had even earned a BSF of 100 in their careers.

Listed in order of finish. X = no BSF available.

As a group, the average Beyer speed figure earned by Derby starters in their final Derby prep has declined from 101 in 1998 to the low 90s in recent years:

Average Kentucky Derby field last-out BSFs, 1998-2010.

This year, only six Derby prospects have rated a BSF better than 100 as 3-year-olds, and only The Factor (103, Rebel) and Soldat (103, allowance) have done so at a distance greater than a mile. With the Wood, Illinois Derby, and Santa Anita Derby all this weekend, it’s likely at least one winner will break through with a solid triple digit figure. Eskendereya did so in 2010, getting a 109 in the Wood, a figure that would have stood out in Derby entries if he hadn’t sustained a career-ending injury before he could get to Churchill. It wouldn’t have done much for the field average, though, which was a mere 93.

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