Spotting a Derby Winner

Courtesy of Becky Johnston

The last twenty years should bring these things to mind when you handicap the Kentucky Derby 1) Did the horse run his best race in winning his last prep or did he run good enough to win, leaving something in the tank 2) If he did run his "best" race did it come at least 4-5 weeks out from the Derby?  Let's take a look at the plan in action:

In 2008 Big Brown and in 2006 Barbaro fell into the latter category, the rested Derby winner.

Barbaro ran into a challenging foe, Sharp Humor, in his last prep, the Florida Derby.  Had this race been just 2-3 weeks out, would we have seen the same effort in Louisville?

Barbaro's Florida Derby April 1, 2006


Barbaro's 2006 Kentucky Derby


Big Brown had a relatively easy time compared to Barbaro's Florida Derby, but it was well documented that the colt had problems with his feet and the gap between the Gulfstream event and his win in Louisville was about the same as Barbaro's which worked out well.


Big Brown's Florida Derby March 29, 2008


Big Brown's 2008 Kentucky Derby


Ready to Pop

Now let's take a look at some of the horses that saved their best performance for the first Saturday in May and, in many cases, caused bettors to back off the horse they had favored for weeks.

Street Sense in 2007 was coming off a head-scratching performance in the Bluegrass Stakes with a field many felt he should have dominated, but those of us that look for a performance just like this were licking our chops.  Unfortunately, there were many of us that felt the same way.


Street Sense's 2007 Bluegrass Stakes


2007 Kentucky Derby


In Funny Cide's Wood Memorial Stakes in 2003, watch for the slight surge back after Empire Maker passed him and the fact that he was down inside.  It is easy to look back now and realize he was sitting on a big race, the key is to see that beforehand.


2003 Wood Memorial Stakes


2003 Kentucky Derby


The 1997 Santa Anita Derby was run a full week ahead of the Bluegrass Stakes.  The Bluegrass winner was the very talented and lightly raced Pulpit.  Although the Claiborne colt had some issues going into the Derby he went into the race as the favorite, neither Free House, winner of the Santa Anita Derby nor Pulpit would take the roses, but it would be a colt that ran good enough to win his final prep, but not quiet.

1997 Santa Anita Derby


1997 Kentucky Derby


The 1996 Derby rattled off another longshot winner.  Although he was beaten in his final prep, Grindstone turned in what was clearly a good effort, but not his best.  The focus after the race concentrated too much on the horse that beat him (Zarb's Magic) and his quality rather than the fact the runner-up was lightly raced and sired by the 1990 Derby winner Unbridled.  He should and did relish 10-furlong distance. 

Here is the 1996 Arkansas Derby


1996 Kentucky Derby


It was widely accepted that horses that did not care for the old dirt surface at Keeneland could drastically change form when they got to Churchill Downs.  The free-wheeling front runner Wild Syn took them gate to wire in the 1995 Bluegrass, but it was an unplaced effort by Florida Derby Winner Thunder Gulch that caused many to cool on the Chestnut son of Gulch.

1995 Bluegrass Stakes


Thunder Gulch would rebound with a terrific win in the 1995 Derby on a much different track.

1995 Kentucky Derby


Many people still aren't sure why Sea Hero won the 1993 Kentucky Derby except that just about everyone wanted to see Paul Mellon get a Derby winner.  A look at his last race, the Bluegrass Stakes, gave some indication that this two-year-old Grade 1 Winner might be able to compete in Louisville.  Watch for the son of Polish Navy down on the rail in the stretch with a steady run while Derby favorite Prairie Bayou runs what you might consider a peak race.

1993 Bluegrass Stakes


1993 Kentucky Derby and blinkers off for Sea Hero


Arkansas was the scene for the last match-up between Pine Bluff and Lil E Tee before the 1992 Kentucky Derby.  The Loblolly colt got the better of Pat Day's steed, but it would be another story in Louisville when they both would face the European Arazi. 

1992 Arkansas Derby


Pine Bluff finished a mysterious fifth while Lil E Tee gave Cal Partee the thrill of a lifetime on the first Saturday in May.

1992 Kentucky Derby


Both Theories at Work:

2005 gave us a great contrast in the things we are looking for.  Afleet Alex won the Arkansas Derby in bang-up fashion.  The question, did the jockey whipping and urging the horse after he had surely secured the victory leave the lemon squeezed a little dry?

2005 Arkansas Derby


On the other hand, Giacomo ran a race that in hindsight set up perfectly for him.  He didn't expend too much, but he wasn't destroyed in the race either.  He gave every indication that the distance would not be a problem for him, but still this one took a stretch.

2005 Santa Anita Derby


The two met up in Louisville and both had troubled stretch drives, but one looked to have a little more energy left in the tank.

2005 Kentucky Derby


The Disappointments:

Some of the horses ran huge races in their final preps.  Running the Derby seemed a mere formality, but the fates weren't with them.

2003 Empire Maker (2nd) won the Wood Memorial

2001 Point Given (5th) won the Santa Anita Derby

1994 Brocco (4th) won the Santa Anita Derby and Holy Bull (12th) won the Bluegrass Stakes


This year:

Which group will the Unbridled descendants Dunkirk, Old Fashioned, and Pioneerof the Nile fall into?  Will a foreign invader like Desert Party or Midshipman, another son of Unbridled's Song, better Arazi's eighth place finish in 1992?  Could a filly like Stardom Bound take the weight advantage to victory.  The champion filly is another descendent of Unbridled through her sire's dam.

It is just too soon to tell.

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