Possible wet track should play small role in picking your Kentucky Derby horse
Churchill Downs' main track has a reputation for being fast-draining, often not needing much work by maintenance crews to get back to fast after absorbing a lot of water. That's important to note considering the long-range forecast for Kentucky Derby weekend has not been promising in the least.
As of Wednesday afternoon, weather.com has Louisville under threat of rain on Thursday (100%), with showers on Friday (90%) and Saturday (70%). Presumably, the track crew will get the main track closer to fast than not by Derby post time early Saturday evening if the precipitation has tapered off and there's a significant drying breeze. But if it isn't?
There have been just eight Derbies contested on a track listed other than fast in the past 50 years. Here's a closer look at those winners:
Orb (2013) -- The mild 5.40-1 favorite was competing for the first time on an off track, listed as sloppy, but ran to form off recent wins in the Fountain of Youth (G2) and Florida Derby (G1) by rallying for a 2 1/2-length victory.
Super Saver (2010) -- Won by 2 1/2 lengths on sloppy going as the 8-1 second choice. Ran on off tracks in his first two outings, finishing second over good conditions in his debut and then romping by seven lengths in the slop for his maiden win.
Mine That Bird (2009) -- A 50-1 shocker in the slop by 6 3/4 lengths, he had placed in only one of two prior starts on dirt (both fast) and was named Canada's champion juvenile after winning four of five over Woodbine's Polytrack.
Smarty Jones (2004) -- The undefeated 4-1 favorite kept the winning streak intact, scoring by 2 3/4 lengths. A popular win, it came three weeks after his 1 1/2-length victory in the Arkansas Derby (G1) on muddy going.
Go for Gin (1994) -- Had raced on off tracks five times prior to his 9-1 Derby upset in the slop. While he finished no better than second in three tries over good and muddy conditions, he thrived in the slop at two, breaking his maiden by 10 1/2 lengths and then winning an overnight stakes by 9 3/4 lengths.
Unbridled (1990) -- A distant third in a minor Arlington stakes run in the slop at two, he was third in a muddy edition of the Blue Grass (G2) before taking the Derby by 3 1/2 lengths at 10-1 on a track listed as good, a condition seemingly more to his liking.
Sunday Silence (1989) -- Bravely dredged through the mud at Churchill on a bitterly cold day to win by 2 1/2 lengths as the 3-1 second choice, but had prevailed in the slop when taking an entry-level allowance sprint at Santa Anita that January.
Dust Commander (1970) -- Competing on a good track, the Illinois-bred remained in razor sharp form nine days after upsetting the Blue Grass at odds of 35-1 in the slop. He had also broken his maiden in the mud at Delaware Park the previous July, and rolled by five lengths on Derby Day at a 15-1 mutuel.
Previous positive (third or better) off track form proved useful, but wasn't required in all cases. With the exceptions of Dust Commander and Mine That Bird, the other six were among the top five betting choices in their respective races and would have been regardless of surface condition.
Horses in this year's Derby without positive or any off track experience are Fast and Accurate, Always Dreaming, State of Honor, Girvin, Irap, J Boys Echo, McCraken, Irish War Cry, Practical Joke, and Patch. Note that list includes three of the top four morning line favorites. For what it's worth, Fast and Accurate and State of Honor are both synthetic surface winners, while Girvin nearly won a turf stakes.
Just because a horse hasn't had previous experience on off going doesn't mean he won't take to the conditions. Mine That Bird's upset, a case in point, still appears illogical from a handicapping perspective. However, the more important takeaway is that form has generally held up in the rare cases the Derby has been run on wet going.
The bottom line is that if the track is less than fast for the Derby, it probably should have only a very minor influence on your decision on who to back for the win. Unless the horse has flunked completely on an off track, and arguably the only qualifier this year in that regard, modestly so, is Irap, you're better off sticking to your normal handicapping.
Wet track results don't have to be wacky, and as we saw with Giacomo, logic can sometimes be thrown out the window just as easily on fast tracks, too.