Can Omaha Beach become the 7th straight favorite to win?
We spent the better part of our young life, and the entirety of the early period when we were a serious handicapper, being embarrassed by the results of the Kentucky Derby. We had put in our time in the handicapping coal mines, as it were, and had done well, at least occasionally, but when it got to the first Saturday in May, we would be revealed, over and over and over again, to be a total idiot. We would handicap our guts out, look at pedigrees, watch replays over and over again -- and in those days, watching replays was much more difficult and time-consuming than it is now -- and year after year, we would be wrong. Spectacularly, embarrassingly, completely wrong.
Being wrong stung, of course, but it stung for a beautiful reason: When it comes to betting on horses, there is no equivocacy. You're either right or you're wrong: and we were wrong -- every year. We remember having a beer with our mom, who's in her 80s now and a certified saint, and she turned to us, probably after some absurd animal won the Derby, and said, "You follow these horses all year, and that's the best you can do?" The Kentucky Derby has a way of humbling all of us.
What we did not fully comprehend at the time was the impact the no-hope sprinters in the race had on the final outcome. It was easy to toss them as win contenders, which we did, but we did not grasp how the fast pace their presence guaranteed skewed the final results of the race. They could not and did not win, but they had an enormous impact on the final outcome, and the winner very frequently was not the most talented horse, but the horse who was able to take advantage of a race shape that is very unusual, almost unique, in top-shelf American dirt racing. It is inarguable that Point Given was a better horse than Monarchos, and it is equally unarguable that Afleet Alex was a better horse than Giacomo: that Point Given and Afleet Alex both won the Preakness and the Belmont proves this. But in the Derby, Monarchos and Giacomo were the winners, and it was the pace, and the no-hope sprinters that set it, that dictated the results.
But the 2013 change in who gets into the Derby, the point system we described yesterday, has had a profound impact on who can win the race. Put bluntly: the no-hope sprinters, the horses who set the table for the chaotic results, are no longer there. And gone with them is the fast early, chaos late style that shaped the results of so many Kentucky Derbies.
The results of this change have been dramatic: between Spectacular Bid in 1979 and Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, zero favorites won; between FuPeg in 2000 and 2013, just a handful of other favorites won (Smarty Jones, Big Brown). And in all those years there were results that seemed to defy explanation: Mine that Bird and Giacomo, for example, both won the Derby at 50-1, and neither won a major race the rest of their lives.They will forever be Kentucky Derby winners, but there it is undeniable that their wins were flukes.
But since the points system was implemented in 2013, the favorite has won every year: The chalk is 6-for-6 since. It's been a dramatic, and mostly unnoticed, trend.
Does this mean that the favorite, Omaha Beach, will win the race this year? No. It's still a horse race, and anything can happen.
But it does mean that we can handicap it as a "normal" race, without overly worrying about total chaos. In 2005, Giacomo and Closing Argument finished first and second at 50-1 and 70-1, respectively; the exacta paid nearly ten grand, and the $1 super paid something like $800,000. It was keno on the hoof. The new points system makes these kinds of results much, much less likely.
This is worth keeping in mind as we handicap this year's Derby. We will be back tomorrow with a look at this year's field.