Searching for overlays in the virtual Kentucky Derby

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

April 29th, 2020

The 2020 Kentucky Derby has been postponed to Sept. 5, but racing fans are still in for a treat on the first Saturday in May.

Starting at 3 p.m. ET, NBC will televise a special broadcast highlighted by a “virtual Kentucky Derby” pitting racing’s 13 Triple Crown champions against each other in an ultimate showdown of racing legends.

The event has piqued the interest of handicappers and racing historians alike. A press release announcing the race notes the computer simulation makes use of “data algorithms including historical handicapping information about each horse, which helps to determine the probability of their potential finishing positions.”

This suggests handicappers with a penchant for analyzing racing history will have an edge in predicting the outcome.

In advance of the race, Ed DeRosa of has compiled his own morning line odds for the virtual Kentucky Derby, listing fan favorite and record-shattering Triple Crown winner Secretariat as the 6-5 favorite. The gritty Affirmed, the nearly unstoppable Citation, and the speedy Seattle Slew are his co-second choices at 8-1.

But while Secretariat is the most logical winner, there’s no telling what will happen when the computer simulation takes over and distills the details of every Triple Crown winner into cold, hard data. DeRosa’s odds consider the tendency for racing fans to favor more recent and widely-recognized champions at the expensive of older, but not necessarily slower runners.

As a result, DeRosa lists a couple of genuine superstars at enticing prices. If I were betting on the virtual Kentucky Derby, I’d be adding these two colts to all of my tickets:

Count Fleet (15-1): If Secretariat is the gold standard by which Triple Crown winners are measured, Count Fleet has to be considered a close second. Secretariat swept the Triple Crown by the aggregate margin of 36 lengths, but Count Fleet was just as dominant, claiming the Derby by three lengths, the Preakness by eight, and the Belmont by 25 lengths. His final time in the Belmont (2:28 1/5) was the fastest on record at the time, and all told the speedy Count Fleet won 16 of his 21 races, the same as Secretariat. Expect Count Fleet to be a formidable front-end presence in the virtual Kentucky Derby.

Whirlaway (20-1): Considering Affirmed, American Pharoah, Citation, Count Fleet, Justify, Seattle Slew, Sir Barton, and War Admiral all preferred to race on or near the lead, Whirlaway should receive a favorable pace setup in the virtual Kentucky Derby. A two-time Horse of the Year, Whirlaway was a picture of consistency, winning 32 of his 60 starts while cracking the trifecta 56 times. A powerful late runner, Whirlaway won the Kentucky Derby by eight lengths (which remains the joint record to this day) and was breathtaking in the Preakness, passing the entire field with a brilliant burst of acceleration on the far turn. If the pace is hot, Whirlaway can hit the board at the expense of more heralded Triple Crown champions.

Based on DeRosa’s morning line odds, which horses do you think are overlays in the virtual Kentucky Derby?

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