Trying to dope out a Derby winner can be like trying to figure out who will be the best varsity basketball player by watching the freshman team play.
Handicapping any horse race -- dirt, turf, long, short, whatever -- involves projection. What serious handicappers do, when looking at the past performances of the horses comprising the field in any race, is look at how they’ve run in the past, and try to interpret that information to figure out how the next race will unfold. If a horse won his last start getting loose on an early lead, earning a big speed figure in the process, the horseplayer must determine whether a similar scenario is likely to occur the next time, or if the horse will get caught in a speed duel that will leave him gasping for air at the top of the stretch. This is the crux of what we handicappers do: we use available information to try to predict the future.
And sometimes we guess. While there are some factors that can be fairly reasonably quantified through handicapping, some things cannot, and we are reduced to guesswork. Will a horse who has thrived in sprints be just as good going around two turns? Will a horse with excellent form on grass do as well on conventional dirt? We can use information to try to flesh out these questions, but that does not change the nature of the deal: an educated guess is still a guess.
We see the value of projection, and how foolish it can make a handicapper look, in just about every Kentucky Derby. Virtually every entrant in every Kentucky Derby has never run a mile and a quarter before, and we have to try to figure out whether they can handle it. But a separate question, and one that is probably even more important, is development: 3-year-olds in the spring are like teenage boys, and some keep growing, and keep improving, while some do not. Trying to dope out a Derby winner can be like trying to figure out who will be the best varsity basketball player by watching the freshman team play.
We mention this because this year, as everyone knows, the Kentucky Derby is the first Saturday in September, not the first Saturday in May. 3-year-olds are at a massively different point in their seasons, and in their development, now as opposed to in the spring: four months may not seem like that much time to you or to me, but to these horses, a lot has changed.
How will this affect this year’s Derby? Handicapping the race in September should require much less projection, because while these colts are still not finished products -- most horses continue to develop until their 4-year-old season -- they are much nearer to the final destination than they were a few months ago. Put bluntly: look at the past performances, and what you see is probably what you will get. It seems that one or two horses make big improvements in the Kentucky Derby, running 20 or 30 lengths faster than they ran in any previous race, but we think the race being in late summer makes that much, much less likely than in a normal year.
This would seem to bode well for Tiz the Law, whose form towers over the rest of the field, and who as a result figures to go off on Saturday as the shortest priced Derby favorite since Spectacular Bid. Will he win? Will the smart play be to bet against him?
We will take a look at these questions in the next installment of our Handicapping the Derby series.