Last year’s winner Rich Strike was not in Jordi’s preview paper due to a late scratch the day before so remember to follow along on Derby Day with Jordi Visser on Twitter, @jvisser_weiss. Jordi plans to share real-time updates of betting odds, top picks, and any late changes ahead of the most exciting two minutes in sports!
The first Saturday in May is here so it is time for Kentucky Derby 149 and the 50-year anniversary of Secretariat’s victory in 1973.
Last year’s Derby was a crazy one. I spent my usual months following potential derby horses and collecting data both visually and quantitively. Then a horse is added after I write the paper and that horse wins at 81-1. Rich Strike will not be forgotten soon and his impact on bettors in the Triple Crown will remain as well. People always love betting the longshots, and those who did bet him or had thought about it, will for years to come. This longshot win in the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown, combined with the FanDuel generation betting at home, resulted in all horses going off at odds lower than 15-1 in the final two legs of the Triple Crown, the Preakness & Belmont. I expect this recency bias to spread the betting around as everyone wants to bet the longshots which will create value in the race.
On to this year’s race. Since Seattle Slew won the Triple Crown in 1977, I have either watched or attended the Kentucky Derby each year. It has become my favorite annual sports day with activities from 10:30 a.m. ET until 7:30 p.m. ET. Each year I write this paper, I hope the time spent handicapping the race will help you enjoy the day and the race even more. The goal of course is to help you be profitable. But more importantly, and I will reiterate what I wrote in the first piece years back, it is to encourage those of you who have never attended the Derby as over 150,000 people do every year, to do so at least once in your life. The Kentucky Derby has survived the test of time and is a true piece of Americana. It gathers friends and families from all over the country as they come back to see each other and enjoy a day of laughter, excitement, and in some cases overindulgence. It is like a prom, reunion, and Mardi Gras wrapped up into one and you can visit all three parties in a single day that feels like it never ends. Not to mention that every 30 minutes it becomes like New Year’s Eve with a ball dropping as another horse race goes off. This creates a break of 1-2 minutes of suspense and excitement. No matter what your age is, the Derby makes you feel young for the day, and in this age of millennials where experiences are being valued and where it is harder to keep people’s attention span, remember this is the most exciting two minutes in sports. The day itself is 480 minutes, and it is a day of memories that will last a lifetime! The Derby is a bucket list experience not to be missed.
My father owned racehorses for part of my childhood and was my inspiration for this annual write-up. He taught me how to handicap a race at an early age. From a young age, this experience served as the beginning of my journey using data analytics to make better decisions. This handicapping approach is the same way I approach all aspects of the decisions in my life and my day job as the CIO of an asset management company. There have been many books about poker and decision-making, but handicapping a race is very similar to handicapping the markets. There are narratives about why people like horses. There are analytics in the racing program and all the different speed ratings available. Finally, parimutuel betting in a horse race means the ultimate odds are driven by the bettors’ decisions just like multiples of the stock market are driven by investors’ expectations and change as people’s decisions change. My father taught me to listen to the narratives, go through my analytics, consider racing and training patterns, and watch the movements of the odds. Then, based on my handicapping, I compare my own probabilities of the horses winning with the odds that the rest of the bettors have set and look for value. This is very different than how most people approach the race in a “Who do you think will win?” approach. You are looking for opportunities or value where over time your edge will win out.
For a race like the Derby, you have the opportunity to do your homework and look at historical trends and statistics that have mattered over time. This approach towards value is even more necessary given the size of the field, the inexperience of the horses, and the number of bettors who only bet on this horse race each year. Recently, favorites have dominated but historically over the prior 148 runnings, this race offers value. With this mindset, my analysis in past years has been to break the handicapping down into five categories and use historical statistics to eliminate horses that appear too slow, lack the necessary experience or don’t appear to have the endurance for the grueling journey. Then I look at the horses that are remaining and look for value based on the odds. The five categories are: 1) Style 2) Stamina/Pedigree 3) Experience/Class 4) Current Form/Progression and 5) Speed.
Since 2013 when the Derby point system, a value system that determines who is qualified for the race, first came into play through 2018, six consecutive favorites won the race. In contrast, the last three years have seen horses win the race at odds higher than 8-1 so it seems like the history of the Derby to search for value is mean reverting. Hopefully, the breeding, training and jockey adjustments to the points system has brought us back to more of the historical derby winners of higher odds.
The payout in the six years between 2013 – 2018 dominated by the favorites and the eight winning favorites over the last 23 years, and now including Rich Strike, has been over 24 dollars so it does pay in this race historically to look for value. This highlights the point I made in 2019 on the normal value for the winner. Going back further to the 1980s and 1990s, amazingly NOT ONE favorite won the race and only three times during that period did the favorite even come in second. Before the recent string of winning favorites, only four won in the 33 years from 1980 to 2012, so although we have seen more favorites winning recently, history tells us the run of favorites was an anomaly and you can still find value in the Derby.
To start the analysis each year, I focus on the likely early pace of the race. The early pace and the overall expected shape of the race is always a big part of race handicapping. For the Derby, given its distance and the bunching of horses, many will lose the race by the half-mile pole, depending on how fast or slow they run. Last year the 1st quarter of the race was the fastest ever at 21.78 seconds. That first quarter is a pinball-like dash by 20 horses to get into position by the first turn. There is a famous Derby saying, “you can’t win the Kentucky Derby in the first 50 yards, but you can lose it.” Historically, horses have benefitted from being away from the early pace. However, since the point system went into place 11 years ago, the horse crossing the finish line first has been no further back than 3rd with a quarter mile left to go except for Orb in 2013 who was 5th at that point and Rich Strike in 2022 who was 17th. Before the recent trend of needing to be near the pace to win, from 2004-2013, at the half-mile, the eventual winner was no closer than 4th place with the average being in 11th. Four of the 11 winners were 16th or worse at the half. Over the last 33 years of the Derby, a total of 11 of the eventual 33 winners were more than 8 lengths behind the leader at the ½ mile mark, so again, hopefully the Rich Strike year was some mean reversion.
Until last year’s extremely fast early pace led to a closer winning, the recent trend of horses with early speed being able to win the Derby seemed to be best explained by the lack of pure sprinters in the race. This is a direct impact of the changes to the new point system that gives more points to the horses who endure longer races at the end of the prep season. Some horses are better suited to distances of a mile or less and the points system has helped keep those out of the race. Although, there is a logical side to that, it also should mean that more horses with stronger endurance who come from behind with a late run should get in the race as well. Maybe, most of the best horses in recent years prefer to run close to the lead and this is just about a narrative created based on results rather than real data. To check this, I used the Brisnet, a racing analytics site that provides running style designations, to see how may legitimate closing horses have been in the Derby during this streak. I will explain why this is important for this year later. From 2013-2021, there were 35 horses that ran in the Derby designated as closers. Not one of those 35 was a favorite. Only four have had odds less than 10-1. Fifteen of the 35 had odds of 30-1 or higher. This year will be different with many of the favorites having a come-from-behind running style which should make the race more exciting as they turn for home.
This year again, most of the true speed horses in early preps are not making it into the Kentucky Derby. The race is really lacking any true obvious speed horses. This opens up the likelihood of a slower early pace, unlike last year’s record first quarter time which allowed Rich Strike to pass tiring horses. There is always a chance that a lack of speed will change a trainer’s decision on how to run and if this happens, we might see some horses competing for the lead early at a faster than expected pace. But purely based on the data we have, I would expect a slow to moderate pace.
The major theme for this year, making this a very competitive race, is the range of the top speed figures for the horses. Like in all races, speed matters and this year there is very little separation between the fastest and horses near the slowest. I have never seen a field where the highest Brisnet speed for each horse is in such a tight range. If you throw out Two Phil’s 107 speed figure as an outlier on a synthetic surface, there is only an 8-point gap between the second horse and the last. I also use Thorograph for speed ratings and this is the tightest year for these ratings that I can ever remember. With speed this close, the other categories will be important to handicapping fair odds this year.
Last year I started the approach of putting together my odds for each horse based on my handicapping so value could be seen on race day. Remember, everyone wants to pick the winner of the Derby but the goal over time is to win money, and value is an important component of this. For the 2023 Kentucky Derby, these are my odds.
The main thing that sticks out is Forte being second in my odds and well above the morning line odds and that no horse has lower odds than 6-1. To clarify how to think about value, I think Forte has the second-best probability to win the race at about 11%, or 8-1. He is likely to go off closer to 4-1, or about 20% chance of winning at race time. There is no value for me on Forte to win. Use these odds at race time to see where I think there is value.
Now on to the elimination round which you can likely figure out from the odds. Let’s start by using the seven statistics that have helped identify the winner in past years. Fifty of the last 54 winners had a win as a 2-year-old. Thirty-four of the last 42 winners had a win as a 2-year-old at a distance of at least a mile. Thirty-five of the last 45 winners had a 3-year-old stakes win. Fifty-eight of the last 65 winners had at least one stakes race win before the Derby. Seventy-eight of the last 87 winners had six or more starts before the Derby. Twenty of the last 22 and 25 of the last 31 winners had a final 1/8 in final prep of fewer than 13 seconds and 23 of the last 30 winners had a final 3/8 of less than 38 seconds in final prep. Even longshot winner Rich Strike had 5 of these 7 statistics last year. When you combine missing these with not having shown the speed necessary to finish in-the-money, I will start by throwing out Jace’s Road, King Russell and Cyclone Mischief.
The rest of the elimination will be based on the 5 categories I mentioned earlier.
1) As I mentioned earlier, STYLE is very important for the Derby. It is a grueling race with a huge field filled with inexperienced and unqualified horses. There are always traffic problems which most of these horses have not seen. Many of them have never had horses in front of them and dirt kicked in their face. You want to avoid horses that are likely to get into a speed duel and also avoid the deep closers who are grinders without tactical speed. Out of the horses remaining for style, I will eliminate one of the Japanese horses, Mandarin Hero. Mandarin Hero was impressive in the Santa Anita but he was lucky to get the trip he got in that race and I don’t see that happening again and don’t think he is in the class of these.
2) Because of the length and grueling nature of the race, STAMINA/PEDIGREE is a necessity. Pedigree and late speed have always been important for the winner. For stamina, we will look at their pedigree and we will also compare the velocity of their final furlong relative to their final three furlongs. Regarding pedigree, one amazing statistic is related to a horse’s sire line. Since 1990, almost 50% of the winners of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes have been descendants of Mr. Prospector. Last year two of the three triple crown winners, Rich Strike and Early Voting were from Mr. Prospector sire lines. This year there are seven in the race with similar pedigrees. Moving on to the importance of late speed, one of the best analytics for finding horses that will be able to handle the 1 ¼ mile Derby is to see how they closed in their final prep race. The important levels have been under 13 seconds for the final 1/8 mile and less than 38 seconds for the final 3/8 mile. In addition, before Rich Strike last year, there is one statistic that has worked for the prior 30 winners, including the longshot winners: Mine That Bird, Giacomo, and Country House. This data analytics measurement I am referring to is a velocity measure I created to see how much a horse is slowing at the very end of the final prep race by measuring the rate of change within the final 3/8 mile. For this, I take the final furlong time and subtract the average of the final three furlongs to see how much the horse slowed in the final 1/8 mile. The last 30 winners all had a difference of no more than .40 seconds. You are looking for stamina and being able to finish fast but also at a consistent speed suggests that the extra 1/8 mile will not be a problem. Fifty-four of the last 63 in-the-money-horses also meet this requirement. The 2020 race is not included in this historical calculation because of the strange distances in the races before the Derby. The winner of the 2021 Kentucky Derby, Medina Spirit, is included despite being eliminated as we handicap based on finishers, not disqualifications. Normally there are many horses to eliminate in this category, but this year almost all the horses have made the Final Fractions Theory. For stamina, I will eliminate Mage. Mage is a Mr. Prospector, but he hit a wall in the final half furlong at the Florida Derby and has trouble getting out of the gate so the extra 1/8 of a mile seems like it will be too much of a hurdle.
3) EXPERIENCE/CLASS has historically been very important for the winner. Horses historically have had to race as a 2-year-old, had at least three starts as a 3-year-old and six starts overall to statistically have a chance. In terms of class, you want to see that they have been racing against good horses and did not just get into the race. You also need to look at their experience racing on dirt. For this category, I will throw out one of the favorites, Kingsbarns. In a race lacking early speed, this horse has a good post and will likely be in a favorable position at the first turn but he only has three races in his career, and only one stakes race where he was allowed to go wire-to-wire while setting incredibly slow early fractions. He has not shown himself to be a ‘freak’ where he can overcome the lack of experience, so he is a toss for me.
4) CURRENT FORM/PROGRESSION is an often-overlooked part of Derby analysis. It has historically been important, as you want to find a horse that is peaking at the right time. This involves their progression up to the race including the results of the most recent preps and their workouts over Churchill Downs preparing for the race. Since most of these horses have raced fewer than eight times in their career, they are still improving, and recent improvements with rising speed numbers as the distances get longer has been a good factor to follow. You also want to avoid horses who show too much of an improvement in their final prep race suggesting they could regress or bounce. Forty-six of the last 47 Derby winners (including Maximum Security) finished their final prep race in the money or at least within three horse lengths from the winner. For current form/progression, I will eliminate the R’s in the race: Raise Cain, Rocket Can and Reincarnate. These horses have all had their moments during the prep season but they all enter the Derby without the improving progression you would want to see for a winner in this race.
5) If there is one factor to go with in the Derby, it should not be surprising that it is SPEED. Using Brisnet speed figures since 1992, horses with a final prep speed figure of 95 or less are 2-for-173 (Rich Strike had a 95 last year) in the Kentucky Derby for the horses crossing the finish line first. Sixty-two of the last 69 horses that finished in the money had a final prep speed rating of 95 or higher. Fifty-five of the last 69 had a rating above 98. Using Beyer figures, 27 of the last 31 crossing the finish line first had a final prep speed of 95 or higher. Only 3 winners since 1990 did not have at least one 95 or higher Beyer rating in their prep races, Rich Strike being the third. In the last 23 Kentucky Derby races, only 6 of the 72 horses that finished in the money did not show the progression needed. Their Beyer speed figure as a 3-year-old was not better than their best 2-year-old speed figure. For speed I will toss out Sun Thunder and Disarm. Although both horses would not be surprising long shots finishing near the top four, they would both need significant improvement in speed numbers to make the top three so I am tossing them.
After the statistical elimination round, we are left with 9 horses - Forte, Tapit Trice, Angel of Empire, Two Phil’s, Confidence Game, Verifying, Hit Show, Skinner, and Derma Sotogake. For these 9, I am going to focus on the handicapping odds I mentioned above, as well as the odds at race time and see where value is. I will go through these final 9 to get to the horse I like the best to win, and one that still has betting value.
I will start with the favorite, Forte, who has the best resume of all these horses. He has won 5 stakes races in a row. There are two problems for me. The first is a simple speed and progression problem. He has not improved on speed numbers since he was a 2-year-old and his overall speed rating is matched by others in the race. As the races have gotten longer his late pace figures have also declined, indicating the distance may be an issue. In the last two races he was not in first or second with a furlong to go, which is also not a good sign. The second problem, as I mentioned already, is simply value. If he was 10-1, I would be betting him to win, but he is likely to be a heavy favorite.
The next part of the analysis for the remaining horses will focus on the Derby post position draws. The draw placed much of the early speed horses in the race on the inside which to me will lead to a solid contested pace and be good for horses in the mid-pack who have shown strong closing kicks. To whittle this down, I will eliminate Two Phil’s, Hit Show, and Tapit Trice. Two Phil’s has been a consistent colt but his best race by far was his last on a synthetic surface. I also think he will be forced from his post to jockey for position with the other 4 or 5 horses in the first 8 with early speed. Hit Show has the rail and not a lot of gate speed so I can’t see him getting a good trip and he has raced against three horses previously in this field and finished behind all of them. Tapit Trice is the second choice but I think his draw was the worst. He has been a late developing three-year old that has shown to like being on the outside and with all the speed around him and his trouble in the past coming out of the gate, I think it will be a lot for him to overcome at these odds. This is a perfect case of value as I think he is the best horse in the race, but I would wait until the Belmont to bet on him to win.
For those of you looking for some live longshots, Skinner and Confidence Game are both value horses for me. Even though the morning line odds are 20-1, I expect them to go off closer to 25-1. I have them at 15-1 fair odds and I think both horses have a chance to win. On a side note, they are both descendants of Mr. Prospector.
Dermo Sotogake will be one of the more interesting stories of the race as Japan tries to win its first Kentucky Derby. Based on estimations of a Beyer Speed rating for the UAE Derby and using the Thorograph numbers, this horse was the fastest in his last race. He has raced multiple times at 1 3/16 miles including the UAE Derby so the distance is not an issue. He has been able to race from the lead and come from behind in large fields. My problem with him is that his last race was a big improvement from his prior races so a regression should be expected unless he is a ‘freak’, which is a possibility. The second problem is value. I expect him to take a lot of money and estimate his odds to be under 10-1 where I do not see value.
The last two horses are both trained by Brad Cox. The first is Verifying who, in my opinion, after the draw has the highest likelihood of getting the best trip and based on my fair value odds vs. the morning line will offer the best value in the race. He has displayed good early tactical speed and from post position two, I expect him to be able to settle into the rail at the ¼ pole in good position. He comes off an impressive loss by a neck to Tapit Trice in the Blue Grass with a fast final furlong and three furlongs with good velocity for the final furlong, indicating the extra 1/8 of a mile will not be a problem. His Thorograph pattern and the number in his last race combined with Brad Cox as the trainer all suggest he could see improvement. If it wasn’t for major traffic trouble in the Rebel Stakes, two starts back, I think he would be off at odds closer to 8-1 which is where I have him.
It should be no surprise based on my odds for the horses that my pick for this year is Angel of Empire who I have listed with the lowest odds. This horse has won 4 of his 5 dirt races with all of these races, including his maiden win, being at a distance of a mile or longer, including his first race as a 2-year-old. He has won on three different racetracks and has already beaten four of the horses in this race in his last two wins. His overall Brisnet speed rating and late pace in the last race are near the top. The progression in his speed ratings and his Thorograph pattern combined with paired numbers in the Risen Star and Arkansas Derby both at 1 1/8 miles make it likely that he will show additional improvement, especially with Brad Cox as his trainer. Given ownership overlap with Jace’s Road and Angel of Empire, I expect Jace’s Road to help the pace be honest. Flavien Prat, one of the top jockeys in the country, rode both Kingsbarns and Angel of Empire in their final prep races and he chose Angel of Empire. In terms of the Final Fractions Theory and velocity measure, he finished the Arkansas Derby in 12.1 seconds and 36.8 with the final furlong being faster than the average of the final 3 furlongs showing he was still accelerating in the final 1/8. Visually for me, it was the most impressive final prep race with a powerful move to get the lead. Throw in that he is a Mr. Prospector descendant and there is little doubt for me that he should relish the extra 1/8 mile. He also checks the box on all seven statistics of prior Derby winners and he has zero strikes on Jon White’s Derby Strikes System of prior winners.
Enjoy Derby Day!