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Handicapping the Kentucky Derby

Updated: 4/15/04

While the Kentucky Derby is a tremdous pageant and spectacle to watch, it is an absolute bear to handicap. Here are a few guidelines that will help narrow down the fields a bit. Please note that these are aimed toward picking a winner only but may give you some insights for horses to use in the exotics too. For an analysis of this year's contenders using these angles plus a few others, check back after post positions are drawn on April 28.

  • Don't pick a horse with a trainer or jockey making his first trip to the Derby. The stress of the media blitz is generally too much for them and they will make fatal mistakes.

  • Don't pick a horse with a new jockey. You really need to know your horse in a race like that so it isn't the place to pick someone getting on the horse for the first time. You might be able to make exceptions to this for some of the top jockeys but I still regard it as a negative factor even then.

  • Although it has been broken in recent years, picking a dual qualifier is still a good idea. Don't let it blind you to other horses though as the way trainers are running horses is changing and the Experimental Free Handicap won't be as important in the future, in my opinion.

  • Don't ignore dosage but don't follow it blindly. Look for a horse with a dosage profile that is highest in the middle giving it the classic bell shaped curve look. Try to stay away from horses with no stamina numbers (the two right most position in the profile). Where you should make exceptions is for horses with "young" pedigrees, ones with mostly younger horses in the early generations that haven't made it into the chef de race list yet to contribute to dosage figures. You can check out dosage profiles for each horse here. This year there are quite a few with nice dosage profiles, but the two that jump out to me as the best are St. Averil and Tapit.

  • Stay away from horses with no two year old starts and/or fewer than 6 starts lifetime. This may change in the future though because horses are not racing as much in general as in the past.

  • Your pick should have finished in the money in his last pre-Derby start. Since 1957, only Sea Hero and Thunder Gulch have broken this and they were both 4th in their final prep. A strong late move in that race is a big plus.

  • Your pick must be a stakes winner and have run in at least one 1 1/8 mile prep race. He must have either 3 or 4 prep races since January 1st, no more, no less.

  • Don't pick the post time favorite or the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner. They just don't win, at least not since 1979 except for 2002 when favorite Fusaichi Pegasus won.

  • Pay close attention to the horse's Churchill Downs workouts. Bullets there are important as are 5 furlong or longer works.

  • Horses with good tactical speed and the ability to stalk have preference over pure speed or rally from way back types. Proven ability to handle bad traffic situations is a plus.

  • Stay away from geldings. No gelding has won since 1929 except Funny Cide in 2003. Flip side of this is not many geldings are entered as horses good enough for the Derby are rarely gelded.

  • At least one race on a Kentucky track is a plus. Eliminate horses who have raced poorly at Churchill Downs in the past as some horses just hate that track.

  • If D. Wayne Lukas or Bob Baffert enter more than one horse, beware the one they doesn't hype. Thunder Gulch and Charismatic are perfect examples of this.

  • The Derby has a huge field, up to 20 horses, so traffic is a big problem. Remember that anything can happen with all the bumping that will go on.

Find the horse who fits the most of these criteria and you might just find the Kentucky Derby winner. For another opinion on handicapping the Derby, check the 10-step program updated from KY Hoofs a few years ago using the horses for 1998. And you might want to check out this article from American Turf Monthly on Derby handicapping angles.

Photo ©2003 Cindy Pierson Dulay, licensed to About.

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