Pre Derby Handicapping

With only days before the Kentucky Derby, bettors have to stay awake and look for signals from connections about their runners and try to read in between the lines to get full value.

There used to be a joke going around years ago that the only time a certain Hall-of-Fame trainer was lying was when his mouth was moving.

Well, guys in horse racing have been known to be less that forthright. These guys are masters of the excuse. We have all heard them. The track was too soft; my horse could not get a hold of it. It was too deep, it was too fast, the pace was too fast, and the pace was too slow. We got stuck on the inside. You could go on for decades.

And we’ll hear them all in spades from the runners-up in the Derby but to get prepared for this year’s spectacle, try to get a handle on how each entrant is doing over the tricky Churchill Downs strip.

We are in a new age now with the advent of synthetic racing and the jury is still out as to how a runner adapts to a conventional track after being prepared and racing on the Polytrack or Cushion Track.

If you get a chance to view the workouts the week prior to the Derby, try to pay attention to any negative things that appear unusual. To the untrained eye, horses just look like horses out there and it is very subjective. But if you try to project in your mind how a horse is looking on the track and how he will react in front of 150,000 people, then you may be on to something.

You want a horse that looks comfortable in what he is doing and not rank or looking around. You also want a horse that is gliding over the surface rather than laboring on it and just like with quotes from connections, you have to read in between the lines regarding works.

Just because a horse works fast on the strip doesn’t automatically transfer to a big race on Derby Day. In fact, working too fast in days before the race could be a detriment. If a horse is not fit and ready by the time he gets to Churchill, he is not going to miraculously get fit with a couple of fast works.

As the race approaches, don’t stray from the fundamentals of handicapping and try to avoid the hype of the ‘now horse’ in some pundits eyes.

They say, in sports, that records are made to be broken and the only real rule about horse racing is there are no rules. You are only as good as your last winner and nothing means nothing unless you are touted to unload your pockets and the horse wins.

With that said, consider the circumstances of recent Derby winners.

The ever-gallant Barbaro became the first horse in 50 years to win last year off a five-week vacation but his trainer, Michael Matz, knew his horse and he was determined not to squeeze the lemon dry.

Giacomo had only won a maiden race before his Derby success but he has only won once since and that was at 9-2 against only six rivals.

The fact 2004 Derby winner Smarty Jones made it to the races at all is a tale of a survivor. Early in his career, while schooling at Philly Park, the horse reared in the starting gate, hit his head hard, fractured his skull, broke bones near the left eye, but he did all the laughing to the bank. And despite going into the Derby unbeaten, those who believed still got 4-1.

In 2003, Funny Cide became the first New York-bred to win and the first gelding to succeed since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. Another trend broken.

In War Emblem’s case, he was a horse that just got good in a hurry. He had won four of his first seven starts and was coming off a 112 Beyer before taking the Derby in rare wire-to-wire fashion.

Monarchos was educated in his two losses as a juvenile, was unbeaten at three before losing in the Wood Memorial, then rebounded at Churchill when the money was down. Who’s next?