How to Pick a Kentucky Derby Winner

Classic Empire

Jay Pryce

Tuesday, May 2, 2017 3:47 PM UTC

Tuesday, May. 2, 2017 3:47 PM UTC

Do you need help picking a Kentucky Derby winner? You’re not alone. The 2017 field is a crapshoot underneath the two or three top choices. Let’s look this over and uncover a winning wager, shall we?

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A great deal of public interest, both nationally and internationally, make this America's most lucrative horse race with humongous pools and potentially life-changing payouts. The rewards have been so-so in recent years with the post-time favorite crossing the finish line first in three straight. With a watered-down field, and potentially watered-down track—weather forecasters are predicting a 70 percent chance of rain or higher Thursday-Saturday—bettors may see a return of a long-priced winner in the 143rd edition of the Run for the Roses. Maybe not Mine That Bird type money, when jockey Calvin Borel guided the 50-to-1 long shot to victory in the slop in 2009, but a return closer to what bettors wish for.


Top Contenders

Regardless of the track conditions, it’s tough to look past the two shortest-priced horses in the field: Florida Derby victor Always Dreaming (+450 at 5Dimes) and 2-year-old champion Classic Empire (+650). The former, trained by Todd Pletcher, has hardly taken a misstep in his career. The son of Bodemeister went off the second choice in the famed Gulfstream prep and easily handled the G1 field, beating a pair of Derby entries in the process: Gunnevera (+850) and State of Honor (+5500).

Classic Empire, meanwhile, is the class of the field, having won the coveted BC Juvenile (G1) and BC Futurity (G1) in 2016. Battling some injuries and training issues as a 3-year old, the Mark Casse-trained colt rebounded from a third-place finish in the Holy Bull (G2) to win the Arkansas Derby (G1) on April 15. McCraken (+700), Irish War Cry (+750) and Gunnevera round out the top five betting choices at 5Dimes.


Handicapping 101

Approach the Kentucky Derby as an outlier race. Asking young, developing horses to run a mile and a quarter, versus 19 of their peers, against a demanding pace, and in front of 150,000 screaming spectators is abnormal in American horse racing. For many entries, the race is the greatest physical and mental challenge they'll face in their entire career.

Just being fast isn't going to win you the race. That's why horse players consider a myriad of different factors when handicapping the Run for the Roses. These include speed, breeding, pace, class, trips, trainer and jockey combinations, horse names, favorite numbers, post positions and any other superstitious rituals one may bring to the table. Below are some popular Derby angles for you to consider when handicapping your selections:

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Whether one uses Andrew Beyer's figures, Brisnet, Thorograph, TimeForm, or some other metric to determine speed, this Derby is slow on paper. The popular Beyer Speed Figures, in fact, show only two cracking the 100 mark in their career (Classic Empire 102, Irish War Cry 101). BRIS ratings dole out a few more triple-digit runners, and looking for a higher number of their final prep is key to singling out a winner. According to James Scully at Twinspires, Mine that Bird is the only Derby champ in the last 25 years that failed to post a 96 or higher BRIS mark in their final tune-up. If you subscribe to the trend, toss out Gunnevera (95), J Boys  Echo (93), Tapwrit (87), Malagacy (93), Fast and Accurate (86), Untrapped (90), Lookin at Lee (94) and Sonneteer (94).



Pace makes the race. Many trainers will opine that the speed-event taking place in the first quarter to half a mile of a race ultimately determines the outcome. Horses prefer a specific running style, whether on the lead, off the lead, in the middle, or closing from deep, to get the most out of their abilities.

Quirin Speed Points (QSP) is a valuable tool to forecast the pace. This is a position rating measurement ranging from 1-8 that determines a horses' propensity to run at or on the lead up to the first call. Out of the last 17 Run for the Roses, only two winners owned a QSP less than three (Orb, 2013 & Street Sense 2007). In total, just five have spoiled the exacta bet. Most of the horses in this group are deep, closing types that may not have as much natural speed, a longer stride, or other factors which prevent them from challenging the leaders to begin a race. In dirt route tests, like the Derby, this is sometimes a disadvantage, as young horses may have difficulty managing the large field, coping with dirt thrown in their face, and finding that final gear down the long home stretch to pass leaders typically benefitting from an easier trip. In fact, 11 of the last 14 Derby winners were stalkers, meaning they ran a horse or two off the lead and were forwardly placed throughout. Horses with QSP's at 2 or less for the 2017 Derby include Hence (1), Girvin (1), Gunnevera (1), Sonneteer (2), Untrapped (2), and Tapwrit (2)



Many horseplayers like using pedigree types and the dosage index (DI), a popular breeding classification system, to determine the balance of speed and stamina in a horse's bloodline when handicapping the Derby. Since 1940, only seven horses with a DI greater than 4.00 have won the race: Strike the Gold 1991, Real Quiet 1998, Charismatic 1999, Giacomo 2005, Mine That Bird 2009, American Pharoah 2015, and Nyquist 2016. Notice the pattern here? All of the winners have come in the last 25 years, challenging the time-tested angle. Why the change? Some argue shifting philosophies inbreeding over the last few decades targeting speed over distance is altering the landscape. Many also point to over-medication, steroids, and other drugs tainting the scene. There are other hypotheses as well, but whatever the causes, it might be best to ignore this factor currently. For those who can’t ignore the numbers, Always Dreaming and Classic Empire each own a DI of 5.00


Betting Tips

If the track comes up wet on Saturday, toss a few super long shots up top. Anything can happen in the mud. Otherwise, don’t go crazy searching for longer-priced horses to win. Only 20 percent of Derby winners have come home at +1100 betting odds or more all-time. Only 14 winners, in fact, have crossed the wire paying better than +2000 since 1875.

Do not underestimate recent form and whispers of a “live” horse when considering a winner. Since 1970, over 80 percent have finished 1st or 2nd in their final prep race. Oddly, since 1991, no winner has come in 3rd place last time out.

If playing multi-race exotics, such as the pick-3 or pick-4, where selecting winners is required for a series of races, set yourself a wagering limit and look to single a horse in one of the legs. Research has proven one gains positive expected value in the long term. Cast your net wide for the Derby.

Since 1992, according to Derby guru Derek Simon, horses who went to post with odds greater than +1500 in their pre-Derby start are 0-for-68 donning the Roses. Only three have even finished in the money. Essentially these are runners who the public considered outsiders to even make the Derby, and a bit over-classed in the face of their peers. Sorry, Irap (+2000) and Fast and Accurate (+8000).

Another interesting angle dug up by the curator of the DRF Formulator is that since 2003, horses coming out of the Wood Memorial (Aqueduct) have not finished in the money once. This may have to do with the class of the field diminishing when the Florida Derby changed its running date in the mid-2000s. Irish War Cry may lay waste to this trend.

 Our Wager

We’re aiming for a four-horse exacta box as our primary wager. Always Dreaming and Classic Empire anchor the bet, and should be included on the top of everyone’s ticket. McCraken is also tossed in there, and may offer up the most value of all entries come post time. The son of Ghostzapper needs to stay close enough to the pack early to make a run late. McCraken’s breeding suggests he’s a mudder, and may benefit from any nasty track conditions as well. Our fourth selection is the John Shireffs-trained Gormley. The West Coast contingent is quiet this year, though we would be remiss to leave one of the ticket. California-trained horses have won the last four years in a row. The Santa Anita Derby champ ran his best race in the slop winning the Sham (G3) back in January.

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