A lot has been made about the unimpressive final time of the 2014 Kentucky Derby.
As you may know, Old Rosebud won the 1914 Kentucky Derby in a faster time (2:03.40) than this year’s edition (2:03.66), which is pretty remarkable considering how much slower final times were a century ago.
For instance, the two six-furlong races on the 1914 Kentucky Derby card went in 1:14 and 1:13.40. In 1914, the Churchill Downs track record for six furlongs was 1:11 flat. On the 2014 Kentucky Derby card, a Maiden Special Weight race won by Masochistic went in a sizzling 1:08.85.
Obviously, final times are meaningless by themselves. You have to account for the speed of the racing surface, and when you do, the 2014 Kentucky Derby was still a relatively slow race.
Some have argued that the Churchill Downs dirt surface slowed down for the Derby. However, if that's the case, it clearly sped right back up for the final two races on the card. A 15-mile per hour stretch headwind also distorted the relationship between the final times of races at other distances. Most figure makers have inflated their Derby figure in order to account for the stretch head-wind, and the race still comes back relatively slow.
But all that is beside the point when you consider that California Chrome (or any horse) does not have to run fast to win a race, just fast enough, and there’s no question that California Chrome is the fastest horse going into this week’s Preakness Stakes. He had the fastest last-out Brisnet.com Speed Rating going into the Derby, and his 103 Derby Speed Rating is the fastest last-out rating of any horse in the Preakness.
What's more, California Chrome won the Kentucky Derby the hard way. Anyone with even a basic understanding of dirt racing knows how important early speed and tactical speed is. Horses who possess those stylistic gifts enjoy a huge advantage over one-dimensional closers and plodding-type of horses.
However, that is simply not the case in the Kentucky Derby. You can find many recent examples of stretch-running types and hapless plodders who ran the races of their lives in the Derby only to immediately revert back to their previous form in subsequent races. E.g., Golden Soul, Ice Box, Giacomo, Impeachment, and Steppenwolfer.
What you very rarely see are early-speed-type horses who run the race of their life in the Derby, and revert back to their old form.
Why do I say that California Chrome won the Derby the hard way? Because he was never further than two lengths back at any call in the chart.
Here is a chart of every Derby winner of the previous 25 years. It is arranged to show the maximum deficit horses had to overcome in order to win, as well as how the horse performed in the Preakness Stakes in his next start:
Removing Barbaro and Grindstone from consideration, the stats look like this:
This reality has created an agonizing dilemma for me. I desperately want to bet against California Chrome in the Preakness. I am certain that he enjoyed an ideal trip in the Kentucky Derby, and though a dominant winner of the race, he still turned in a performance that demonstrated some regression from his Santa Anita Derby win. I don't believe he justifies heavy favoritism in the Preakness, especially on short rest. However, recent history suggests that the Preakness isn't the most ideal spot in which to bet against a horse like California Chrome.