The 134th Kentucky Derby: It’s a Matter of Parity

Every year, despite thin credentials and limited demand, I write up my analysis of the Kentucky Derby.  It’s always been wrong, but I’d like to think it’s always been interesting.  In the past, I’ve circulated my tripe by email, but having been strongly encouraged not to do so this time around (a soft “NSFW” issue), I had to find another home for my hopeless equine blatherings.  My dear friend Granulous was kind enough to permit another digression on his blog.  So here we go!

Street Sense surges past my top choice Hard Spun to win the 2007 Derby

Handicapping the Derby is never a simple matter, unless you’re a “C&E Handicapper”, like my mother, for instance.  My mother could no more read the Daily Racing Form past performances than I could read the Iliad in Greek, but she’s had great conviction in her Derby picks in past years.  That’s because she always does what a recent article in Bloodhorse magazine suggests we all should do at Derby time — employ visceral handicapping.

Visceral handicapping is not just a substitute for a lifetime misspent on distractions like family, a profession, religious commitments, and sleep — it is a groping for karma.  It involves quieting the mind and allowing the complicated flow of Derby information to wash over one’s soul, hoping that some tidbit or angle will cling to it, like leftover Velveeta cheese on the lid of one’s trout fishing box.

In recent years, it might have meant picking War Emblem (2002) in the wake of 9/11, or being a huge enough Sting fan to know that Giacomo (2005) was named after his son.  For me, borderline failed actuary and Catholic who can never decide whether to follow the call of science or spirituality and therefore usually ends up ignoring both, visceral handicapping this year means answering the call of a nitwit insight I’ve been forcing myself to downplay for years now, at great cost to myself and my readers.

Anyone who reviews the past performances for this year’s Derby (and can decipher the incredible trove of data provided) will tell you two things: first, that this is one of the weakest crops of 3-year-olds to go to post in the Derby in many years, and second, there is tremendous parity among these underachievers (with perhaps one exception, to be discussed below).

Loyal readers of this blog know that if you want a word to mean a minimum of two things, this is the place to come, because on, no subtlety goes unexplored.  The other meaning of the word parity that I have in mind is mathematical — the evenness or oddness of a number.  I’m surprised I haven’t seen this discussed elsewhere, because handicappers are a ferociously superstitious crowd, but look at the last 11 winners of the Kentucky Derby.  Count the number of letters in the horses’ names.  Every single one is an odd number.

This, mathematically, can basically be viewed as 11 coin flips in a row coming up the same.  Assuming this is a 50-50 proposition (it has to be close to that), the chance of this occurring is one in 2 to the 10th power, which multiplies out to less than one tenth of one percent.  Somebody who did more than cram for the tests please tell me how many standard deviations that is.  It’s a lot of them. 

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking.  I’ve told a few folks this theory already, and I don’t need to guess what they’re thinking: they told me.  “You’re an idiot.”

Well, fine.  I’m an idiot.  But this year, I’m not going to be the idiot who makes a great pick with an even number of letters that runs up the track.  Here’s my recent history:

2007: 8-letter Hard Spun, ran second to perfect trip Street Sense  

2006: 18-letter Sweetnorthernsaint, the favorite, ran seventh

2005: 10-letter Afleet Alex, second choice in the betting, ran third to a 50-1 shot, and then went on to win the Preakness and Belmont for fun

2004: 16-letter Read the Footnotes, ran seventh after being a charging third coming off the final turn

Enough is enough.  This year, it’s going to be an odd horse for me, come hell or high water.  My first-cut criteria for Derby selections this year are: (1) must have odd number of letters, (2) must have a 100 or better Beyer Speed Figure in a race of at least one mile, (3) must offer odds at least 10-1.  In a normal year, this would probably still leave me with at least 5 horses to look at, but not this year. 

With the weak field, there are only two horses who fully satisfy the filter:

  • Eight Belles (5), a filly running with the boys for the first time, trained by Larry Jones, who also trained my top pick last year, Hard Spun
  • Recapturetheglory (18), the winner of the Illinois Derby, whose name admittedly has a lot of visceral appeal, and whose trainer Louie Roussel fits the pattern of recent winners — he doesn’t have a lot going on, and this is the horse he’s really focusing on

As drawn as I am to the latter, I just can’t get there with Recapturetheglory.  Like Cowtown Cat last year, he’s the frontrunning winner of a paceless Illinois Derby who appears to need the lead to win, and one thing I can guarantee you is that this horse is NOT going to be on the lead.  He’s drawn the hideous 18 post for the race (assuring a grueling, ground-losing sprint from the gate to get into position), which has been a deal killer for other recent front runners (e.g. Brother Derek in 2006).  And what’s worse is that he has the world-record holder at 6 furlongs to his left (the 13 horse, Bob Black Jack, another recent case of seconditis for me as my big win bet at 6 to 1 in the Santa Anita Derby evaporated three jumps from the wire when Colonel John’s big stride finally kicked in — more on him later).  Now add to that that you have the front-running favorite, Big Brown (the 20 horse), coming flying from his right, and you have a formula for disaster.

Some of you may recall that last year, my mother issued a Five-Star Monster Lock alert on Cowtown Cat.  The horse “washed out” in the post-parade — the horse equivalent of stage fright — and finished dead last.  This year my mom appears to be leaning, unsurprisingly, toward Cowboy Cal (another seconditis flare-up for me from the Blue Grass Stakes).  As much as I’d like to see Recapturetheglory and Cowboy Cal run well on Saturday, you could very well see them battling it out for 19th in the stretch after getting fried to a crisp on the front end by Big Brown and Bob Black Jack.

So it’s the filly for me, and why not?  The karma is everywhere — an odd horse who’s an odd horse.  She’s won four straight, has a stalking style that often plays well in the Derby, she drew the favorable 5 post, and she had a great workout last weekend over the Churchill Downs surface. 

A filly hasn’t won the Derby since Winning Colors wired the field as the co-favorite in 1988, but if there were ever a year for an ambitious distaffer to get up for the roses, this is the one.  Because all the speed in this race is to the outside (posts 13, 17, 18, 19, 20), those horses are going to have to work hard to get to the lead, but aren’t likely to set a super-hot pace.  This is the pace scenario that pertained in several recent Derbies (2003, 2004, 2006, and last year).  In each of those years except last year, a stalker with a ground-saving trip got the job done.  (Last year we had the incredible rail-skimming ride of Calvin Borel on Street Sense, which is really worth a gander if you want to get your Derby juices flowing.)

One other karmic insight on Eight Belles.  Her name is an evenness decoy, what, with the number Eight in it.  Further, if you heard the name without seeing it, you’d think it was ten letters, assuming Belles was spelled “Bells”.  These are crucial insights.

A quick thought on betting Eight Belles.  Fillies are curiosities in these big races, and they attract a lot of “my mother” style betting attention on occasion.  This could be particularly true given that the winner of the 2007 Belmont Stakes was Rags to Riches, the first filly to win the Belmont in over 100 years.  Eight Belles is 30-1 on the Daily Racing Form morning line.  You really deserve to get that on a filly to win the Derby.  You might not.  But what is likely is that the place and show bets are still properly rewarded (they are “overlays”, in handicapper parlance).  Eight Belles could pay only $40 or so to win, but the place payout could still be as high as $25 or more.  The smart bets, something I’m rarely attracted to, may well be the place and show.

The other runner I’ll be throwing the kids’ college money at is Smooth Air (12), trained by Bennie Stutts, Jr., who has never before saddled a horse to run for the roses.  Smooth Air finished a solid second to Big Brown in the Florida Derby, and would have gotten through my filter with two more Beyers points in that race.  He’s been progressing well, and his trainer has been putting him through a regime of long training runs to get some “bottom” into him.  He’ll be a solid price in the 20 to 30 to 1 range, and could surprise with the right trip.  He also appears to like the mud if it comes up ugly on Saturday — the forecast is a bit dodgy.  Let’s also not overlook the visceral appeal of the odd-lettered 12 horse winning the 12th-in-a-row odd Derby.

A few quick words on the favorites — the horses I need to beat:

Big Brown (20) looks like a freak on paper, like Curlin did last year.  He’s 3-1 on the morning line, and could go off even lower.  The last horse to win the Derby off three lifetime races was the filly Regret, in 1915.  If you want to back Big Brown, you have to watch the replay of the Florida Derby; it is unbelievably impressive, and it’s exactly what he’s going to have to do to win on Saturday.  If he can clear the field from the 20 post and go wire-to-wire, then get your Triple Crown rally cap on.  I’ll be betting against this outcome.

Colonel John (10) has won over the masses with his visually impressive victory in the Santa Anita Derby, and he has 11 letters in his name.  But he’s 4-1 on the morning line and not likely to drift that much higher in actual betting.  He’s training brilliantly at Churchill, but the horse has never run particularly fast and has never run a race on natural dirt — all “synth” to date.  (I won’t bore you with the raging debate over dirt vs. synthetic and the impact of synthetic surfaces on Beyer speed figures.)  The names that come to mind when looking at the Colonel are Saarland, Harlan’s Holiday, Scat Daddy, and Nobiz Like Shobiz.  A lot of hoopla, and the horse clunks it up for 7th.  Let him beat me.

Pyro (9) is the deep closer’s choice this Derby, having run two fast races behind Juvenile champion War Pass last year (War Pass got hurt).  He won his first two starts in 2008 and then laid an egg in the Blue Grass Stakes at synthetic track Keeneland.  He’s 6-1 on the DRF line and looks like an underlay to me.  A one-run closer going backwards needing a hot pace to run into and unlikely to get one is simply not getting my money at single-digit odds.

Well, there you have it.  If you wanted to lose $50 on Saturday — who wouldn’t — here’s how you might go about it:

– $5 to win on the 5

– $10 to place and show on the 5

– $5 to place and show on the 12

– $1 exacta box with the 5, 6, 12, 13 (I like Z Fortune and Bob Black Jack even though they’re parity-challenged)

– Just for fun, a throwaway $1 trifecta with 5 over 12 over 6, 9, and 13

This year’s suggestions are more likely to send you home with some money in your pocket, as contrasted with prior year attempts to procure a down payment on a trailer via hopeless leverage.


– Past Performances:

– DRF’s “Derby Watch” (a great one-page summary):

And finally, the field for the 134th running of the Kentucky Derby, the most exciting 2 minutes in sports (or really life, for that matter):

    Horse M/L       Horse M/L
1   Cool Coal Man 20-1   11   Z Humor 30-1
2   Tale of Ekati 15-1   12   Smooth Air 20-1
3   Anak Nakal 30-1   13   Bob Black Jack 20-1
4   Court Vision 20-1   14   Monba 15-1
5   Eight Belles 15-1   15   Adriano 30-1
6   Z Fortune 15-1   16   Denis of Cork 20-1
7   Big Truck 50-1   17   Cowboy Cal 20-1
8   Visionaire 20-1   18   RecapturetheGlory 20-1
9   Pyro 6-1   19   Gayego 15-1
10   Colonel John 4-1   20   Big Brown 3-1

I’m so stupid giddy and fidgetty now I can barely function.  Good luck to all on this blessed first Saturday in May.  I hope my heart doesn’t burst with neurotic joy before 6:04pm EDT.

Yours in lunacy,

Timothy Peach, FSA

Defender of the Faith

Posted in Poetry. 6 Comments »

6 Responses to “The 134th Kentucky Derby: It’s a Matter of Parity”

  1. Robby Rowe Says:

    The reason why 4-1 is attractive is because Colonel John is going to win. Big horse with a late kick training well is usually a recipe for success. Winner usually pops there best beyer on Derby day, making beyer speed figures somewhat obsolete at least for the Derby. 10 position is good. Worry about the jockey but willing to take that risk.

  2. Steve Becton Says:

    I will start this comment by stating that Tim Peach has taught me everything I know about horse racing. His statistical awareness is uncanny and his memory for names of past winners and losers of horse races is freakish. I am also a disciple of his odd number wins theory. That said, is there any clearer betting guidance than not going along with Tim’s Derby picks? His history of picking Derby losers might be as long as the losing streak of the even number letter horses. As a side note, was he really valedictorian at G-town?

    Anyway, pick Smooth Air and make some big money! He’s the only proven mudder in the field and its going to be messy at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

  3. Mark E. Says:

    My condolences, Tim.

    Quite honestly, what do you do with the payoff in that situation? Burn it?

  4. Timothy Peach Says:

    Just awful

  5. halle becker Says:

    hey tim – I am terry’s girlfriend halle..I am also a horse owner and am totally devastated byt the fall of eight belles – I am not usually a fan of females but this gal had heart and cool – was very relaxed and ran a tremendous race thought was that 17 hands is an awfully tall race horse..the tragic ending could not have been more unusual ..if she had leg probelems they would have never raced her. i am a toal animal person and I am deeply saddened by the loss of this young horse..I have picked the winners last two years and always went wiht the horses with heart – I had Big Truck the number 7 horse as a favorite – he got swiped by another horse during the race and kept on plugging – hope to meet you soon – terry thinks you are tops. regards- halle

  6. Timothy Peach Says:

    Halle — thanks for the note. Terry is a great guy, and a blast to work with!

    I contemplated writing an epilogue post here, but I don’t want to add another lengthy, trite lament to an already overdiscussed tragedy. It is what it is — it was terrible and heart-rending, but it happens. As in human competition, what usually happens are more minor injuries that end racing careers but put the horse on a trajectory for a pleasant life (breeding!, hanging out on the farm, becoming a walker for other racing horses, blah blah blah, as you know).

    I think a lot of folks who aren’t that into the sport think it’s all brutal and heartless, but the truth of the matter is that horse owners/trainers love the animals more than anyone does. They push the horses to compete at the highest level, but when something like this happens, it’s absolutely devastating for them.

    There are no easy answers on how to make the sport safer, but I think it’s awfully glib of the Sunday morning quarterbacks to start spouting off about lax standards. The folks in horse racing have devoted a ton of time and money to figure out how to balance safety and the integrity of the sport. There is a lot of abuse and plenty of shady players, of course, but that’s true of every competitive endeavor. It’s a complicated matter.

    At any rate, I’m looking forward to the Preakness, conflicted on whether to hope for a live Triple Crown at the Belmont or for an upstart (like a Bernardini) to step up and put Mr. Dutrow in his place. But above all, I’m hoping it’s an exciting affair where all the action is over when the horses cross the finish line.

    Take care and I hope to meet you soon!

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