Final Derby Thoughts: Contenders & Pretenders

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Derek Simon

April 30th, 2015

Lessons From 1981

In his first book, Picking Winners, Andrew Beyer scoffed at the notion of a “killing pace.”

The 1981 Kentucky Derby changed his mind.

While apologizing for dismissing the importance of pace in the first place — his negative thoughts on the subject have been removed from newer editions of Picking Winners — Beyer presented the 1981 Run for the Roses as proof positive that the way a race is run can, in fact, affect its outcome.

“If I wanted to test the influence of pace, I might have designed an experiment like this: Have the early leaders in the Kentucky Derby run the fastest first quarter-mile in the history of the race and judge its effect,” Beyer wrote in The Winning Horseplayer.

“ … The Derby field was filled with brilliant speed horses, notably Proud Appeal and Cure the Blues. They all went charging for the lead, and a bullet named Top Avenger got it, running the quarter in 21-4/5 seconds — the fastest fraction at Churchill Downs in 107 years — and the half-mile in a swift :45-1/5. Every horse who was near this breathtaking pace collapsed. The horses who were running 1-2-3-4-5 after three-quarters of a mile finished 19-10-18-16-17. As they backed up, all the stretch runners and plodders passed them. The first five finishers at the end of the Derby were horses who had been running 15-19-10-17-20 after three-quarters.

“The winner, Pleasant Colony, was a genuinely good horse, but nondescript plodders like Woodchopper and Television Studio had rallied to finish ahead of superior horses like Cure the Blues and Proud Appeal by margins of 20 or 30 lengths,” Beyer pointed out. “The outcome of the Derby seemed to have relatively little to do with the ability of the horses; it was much more the result of pace.”

I started thinking about that ’81 Derby as I looked over the entrants for the 2015 edition of the race.

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In a recent column, “Predicting the Kentucky Derby Pace,” I noted that previous renewals of the most exciting two minutes in sports featuring five or more horses with 7-8 Quirin speed points generally meant a very brisk pace was in the offing. In 1981, there were seven such steeds and the early speed ration (ESR) was a -15 — the fourth-lowest (fastest) in Kentucky Derby history.

This year, there are a half dozen horses with 7-8 Quirin speed points: American Pharoah, Dortmund, Firing Line, Materiality, Stanford and Upstart.

And even though I believe Dortmund is strictly the one to beat, I plan on having a few tickets comprised almost entirely of stone-cold closers like War Story and International Star— you know, the kind that I’ve been telling my Kentucky Derby Betting Guide readers and podcast listeners rarely win on the first Saturday in May.

Because, as Beyer pointed out over 30 years ago, sometimes the outcome of the Derby has “relatively little to do with the ability of the horses” and more to do with the pace of the race.

How Good is Mubtaahij?

Given all the talk about Mubtaahij (some folks I greatly respect, love the horse), I decided to take a second look at his win in the UAE Derby on March 28. Primarily, I wanted to know — at least approximately — how fast the son of Dubawi ran that day.

Luckily, there is a horse we can use as a barometer: last year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome.

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Notice that in his best races over the past year, California Chrome has averaged a Brisnet speed figure of 104.7. So, if we assume that he ran a similar figure in a runner-up performance in the Dubai World Cup, we should be able to deduce Mubtaahij’s BSF from four races earlier at the same track.

Let’s start by looking at the final time of the UAE Derby and the Dubai World Cup, with a quick shout-out to Trakus for the excellent work it does in recording not only the finishing times but the sectional times as well (which will come into play in a moment):

UAE Derby – 1:58.35 for 1,900 meters.
Dubai World Cup – 2:03.24 for 2,000 meters.

With this information, we can get a rough idea as to the 1,900-meter time of the World Cup simply by subtracting 1:50.53 (the 1,800-meter split — see, I told you it would come in handy) from the final time of 2:03.24, dividing the result by two, and adding it to 1:50.53.  

Thus, using my daughter’s Common Core math, we get a grapefruit to the power of a banana plus three chipmunks… wait, that’s not right — let me grab a calculator.  Aah, much better: The estimated 1,900-meter time of the Dubai World Cup is 1:56.88 (1:50.53 + 12.7 ÷ 2).

Granted, this is a very crude technique and probably has the more mathematically-inclined among you weeping and gnashing your teeth, but remember: we are only looking for a reasonable guesstimate as to the time.

So, we’ve learned that Mubtaahij ran approximately 7 ½ lengths slower than California Chrome (more weeping and gnashing of teeth over my use of the old one-fifth-of-a-second-equals-a-length rule) on March 28.

This equals approximately eight points on the Brisnet scale, leaving us with a 97 (104.7 – 8 ≈ 97) BSF for the “Meydan Mauler.”

Top Last-Race Brisnet Speed Figures

BOLO (98)
MR. Z (92)

Contenders & Pretenders

On my latest podcast, I gave my list of Kentucky Derby win contenders and win pretenders and, with the field now set and the post positions drawn, I thought I would update my list.


American Pharoah: Although I’m generally bearish on this guy, he’s unquestionably a contender.

Bolo: He was wide in the Santa Anita Derby after a solid showing in the San Felipe.

Carpe Diem: He’s got improving late speed rations (LSRs) to go along with an advantageous off-the-pace running style; big chance.

Dortmund: Has everything a Kentucky Derby winner needs — speed, class, heart and a great trainer; the one to beat.

El Kabier: Recorded the only positive ESR of his career in the slow-paced Wood and responded with one of the worst performances of his life. Expect him to bounce back in a big way with faster splits up front.

Firing Line: Earned a race-best -10 ESR in the Sunland Derby. In the past 22 years, 35 horses have come to Churchill Downs with a last-race ESR of -10 or better and four — Silver Charm (1997), Big Brown (2008), Mine That Bird (2009) and Animal Kingdom (2011) — have won.

International Star: He’s one of those out-of-the-clouds closer that never win the Derby… except maybe this year.

War Story: I absolutely love the fact that this guy consistently moves on the turn; my longshot special.


Danzig Moon: Exits a weak prep in which he was lightly-regarded — on the fringes.

Far Right: Son of Notional will be on my “pace meltdown” ticket, but it’s hard to see him getting up for the win.

Frosted: I wouldn’t be surprised if he runs well, but I think a regression in Louisville is far more likely.

Itsaknockout: Horses coming off of poor performances simply don’t win the Derby.

Keen Ice: His lousy showing in the Louisiana Derby is hard to overlook.

Materiality: The Curse of Apollo and a disadvantageous running style make a winner’s circle photo on the first Saturday in May unlikely.

Mr. Z: He’s usually in the hunt, but he’s not in Arkansas anymore.

Mubtaahij: I’m rooting for this guy, but I still have serious doubts about his ability to adapt to a much faster pace than he’s been accustomed to.

Ocho Ocho Ocho: He’s likely to be sent early from his rail position, contributing to what already figures to be a fast pace.

Stanford: Even Jim Harbaugh couldn’t help this guy.

Tencendur: Big improvement in the Wood has me thinking “bounce.”

Upstart: Really tough call, but past races suggest that son of Flatter may have distance limitations.

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