Kentucky Derby entrant Game Winner is ridden during a workout at Churchill Downs Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 4. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Kentucky Derby entrant Game Winner is ridden during a workout at Churchill Downs Wednesday, May 1, 2019, in Louisville, Ky. The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, May 4. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)|Associated Press

Kentucky Derby Week: Garrity doesn’t judge by speed alone -- it also matters how the race was run

The fourth and final installment of his series on handicapping the Kentucky Derby. Check back Saturday morning for his picks.

Chris Garrity

Earlier this week, we looked at how horses qualify for the Kentucky Derby, and how a little-noticed change in 2013 has had a huge impact on how the race is run. Yesterday, we looked at the importance of speed figures in identifying legitimate Kentucky Derby win contenders. Now, for the final installment of our Derby handicapping series, we will try to put it all together, and we will do so by looking at the only thing that really matters: How can we use that information to handicap this year's race? How can we leverage it to pick a Kentucky Derby winner?

There are two angles to this: One is looking at how the speed figures were earned. The second is whether the projected shape of the race, as we see if, will allow a horse to run his best race. Once again, we'll take a look at past races to work our way through this.

As we noted earlier this week, in 2001, a horse named Songandprayer, prompted by other no-hope sprinters, ran the fastest opening half-mile in Kentucky Derby history. Because of the fast early fractions, the speed all collapsed, and the late-running Monarchos won the race in a click under two minutes, the fastest winning Kentucky Derby time since Secretariat.

In 2002, a horse named War Emblem won the Illinois Derby at now-defunct Sportsman's Park. He won by leading all the way, and the final time was very fast, but even for the times, the Illinois Derby was strictly the bush leagues. It was partly because War Emblem did not come from Kentucky, California, or New York; partly because nobody respected him; and partly a hangover from the way the 2001 Derby was run -- the generals, as the saying goes, are always fighting the last war -- but when War Emblem went right to the front in the 2002 Kentucky Derby, no other horses challenged him. Allowed to run loose on an easy early lead, War Emblem did what he was very good at: He ran fast all the way, winning the race by a comfortable four lengths, again in very quick time. In winning the Kentucky Derby, War Emblem had virtually duplicated his Illinois Derby effort: he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 112 at Sportsman's Park; at Churchill Downs, he ran a 114.

Now, imagine for a second that instead of being allowed to lope on the lead, War Emblem had been pressed from the start, had been forced to run much faster in the first part of the race. Would he have won? Probably not. Would he have earned such a big speed figure? Certainly not. But would that have meant that his figure of 112 in the Illinois Derby was fraudulent? It may seem counter-intuitive, but the answer to this is also no.

We look at speed figures as a way of measuring a horse's effort in any given race. But not all races are the same. In some, horses have to work very, very hard. In others, they have it relatively easy, running relatively comfortably for most of the race -- and virtually all horses run the fastest when they are relaxed for as much of the race as possible.

In analyzing the speed figures of the runners in the Kentucky Derby, we must put the figs in perspective: we must look at how the horse ran in the context of the race. And the most important context, in terms of final times, is the pace of a race. If a horse earned a 90 in his final prep race, and he benefited from a perfect pace and trip setup, 90 might be the top effort the horse is capable of making. But if the horse ran a 90 under very adverse conditions, he may be capable of running much, much better when he's not swimming upstream, as it were. This is a crucially important aspect of handicapping any horse race, but it is doubly important when dealing with 3-year-olds in May.

But putting the figs in context is not enough, and the next step is the one that defies mathematics and stumps the stats geeks. We must take the abilities of the horses entered, and we must project how we think the race will be won, and we must make a determination of whether our projected race shape will hurt or hinder a horse's chances. If a horse runs his best races when he can make a big closing move into a fast early pace -- Tacitus is a good example in this year's field, as was Haikal, at least before he got scratched -- then do we think that the race will actually set up that way and benefit him? Or do we think that the early pace of the race will be slow, and that therefore the horse will have no chance? It's the same deal with other kind of runners: We need to assess the relative abilities of the horses, then project the way we think the race will be run, and then project which animals we think that projected race shape will benefit.

This is putting it all together, and it is a frustrating, maddeningly complex, enormously fun endeavor. And it is a miles better method than any kind of rote arithmetical system, or trying to discern patterns into horse's performances like reading tea leaves. With all due respect to our esteemed colleagues on this website, this is the most complex, most rewarding intellectual challenge in the gambling world. We frankly love it.

How we will be applying these precepts to this year's race? We'll give you a hint: Purely from a speed figure standpoint, Maximum Security has "Derby Winner" written all over him. Not only has he earned a Beyer Speed figure over 100, he's done it twice -- and in back-to-back races. Going solely by the numbers alone, he could be a pick worthy of mortgaging a kidney.

The questions, though, are how those figures were earned, whether they represent his real ability, and whether we expect the way the 145th Kentucky Derby will be run will allow him to run this kind of figure again. To find out, you'll need to come back to this website on Saturday morning, where we will give you our detailed analysis of the entire Kentucky Derby field, as well as breakdown of all the magnificent stakes on the undercard. We will see you then.

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