Two Paths To Be Taken
by Tom Carley
January 12, 2021
This being the second column of the year, traditionally, this is where we start to introduce the horses, trainers, jockeys, etc. that will make up the path to this year’s Kentucky Derby. However, in reviewing some data from recent Derbies, I have seen a trend develop that I wanted to address before the season got started. While there have been some prep races, the major prep races will come in the months of March and April.
While there are other races for 3-year-olds, the most prestigious race is the Kentucky Derby. Because even the smallest of horse racing fan has heard of the Kentucky Derby, this is the race owners want to win. As a man told me in Paris, Kentucky in 2011 “If you win the Derby, you never will have to buy a drink in Kentucky the rest of your life”.
The Kentucky Derby field is limited to 20 horses. Until 2013, the field was selected by those horses that had the highest earnings in graded stakes races prior to the Kentucky Derby. This caused two very important things to occur:
- Horses were forced to begin their careers much earlier than desired in order to participate in as many graded stakes races as possible. Horses are still developing and growing until the midpoint of their 3-year-old year. Running a horse before his legs, tendons, muscles, etc. have fully developed greatly risks the chance of injury. However, employing this strategy might give them an extra 2 races in which to earn graded stakes earnings.
- Horses were earning stakes money in races run at a much shorter distance than the 1¼ mile Kentucky Derby distance. Most of these were races under 7 furlongs ( a furlong is 1/8 of a mile) run in the Summer and Fall of the horse’s 2-year-old year. When you further consider that some traditional lower quality racing states were receiving additional monies from casinos (that states like Kentucky, New York and Florida were not receiving) the horses that were running in the richest races were not necessarily the best horses. I found that you could eliminate 6 to 9 Derby horses each year because they did not have the ability to get the Kentucky Derby distance because they were merely sprinters that capitalized on shorter races, or that they earned the necessary stakes money running against lower quality horses at lower quality racetracks that could afford to offer larger purses.
The Breeder’s Cup Juvenile was always considered a major Kentucky Derby prep race. Not only did it usually determine the best 2-year-old, but the $1 million purse all but assured the winner and runner up a spot in the following year’s Kentucky Derby.
The people in racing also saw these issues. In 2012, Churchill Downs decided to create a point system in which a horse would earn points based on his performance in specific prep races. Points were awarded for a win through 4th place finish. Each race was awarded a point value ranging from 20 points (10 points to the winner) for earlier races at shorter distances to 200 points (100 points to the winner, 50 points to the runner up) for the races run closest to the Kentucky Derby. These 200 point races are all ran at 9 furlongs or longer.
Historically (not counting 2020) a horse has needed to earn about 30 points to be in the top 20 on the points list. It does not take a mathematician to realize that if you ran first or second in one of the last prep races, you were assured a spot in the field— as well as having proved that you could handle a 9-furlong distance. The belief being that this gave you the best chance of handling the 10-furlong distance of the Kentucky Derby.
Since 2013 (the first year of the Kentucky Derby points system) favorites have won the Derby in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018. In addition, there were very few horses whose odds were greater than 35 to 1. The winner of the 2019 Derby was the longest shot on the board (horse with the highest odds), so people will say this all evened out. However, the horse that crossed the wire first was the post time favorite.
Advocates of the point system insisted that the field was a much better field and provided for a better race. They also claim there is less chance of injury as you are no longer asking sprinter type horses to run a long distance of ground.
Opponents of the point system indicate that there is a reduced chance of seeing the underdog win and this just allows the Derby to be bought by those that can spend the most money at the Yearling sales for the best prospects.
Effect on Trainer Strategy
The point of the column this week is to outline what I found to be a dramatic change in how the big name trainers have developed their horses.
Traditionally, the horses would begin coming to the racetrack for workouts around May of their 2-year-old year. After a foundation of 4 to 7 workouts (happening every week to 10 days) the horses would be ready to make their career debut.
The horse’s calendar would likely have them begin their career between the end of June and Labor Day. Saratoga Racetrack in upper New York became known as a place to showcase a barn’s best two year olds. Saratoga’s race meeting goes from mid-July to early September. Horses winning their start would run in a follow up stakes race and then a leading two-year-old stakes race or the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile. This plan would give a horse anywhere from 3 to 5 races as a 2-year-old.
With the advent of the Derby points system, trainers of higher quality 3-year-olds have employed a newer strategy. They are realizing the importance of having a horse ready for its peak performance in the Spring of their 3-year-old year. As a result, they are opting to begin the horse’s career much later.
The trainers are letting the horses mature more, and let those young tendons and ligaments develop more. The emphasis is patience and maximizing the development of the horse before he is asked to push himself. Trainers are now waiting until late in the 2-year-old season— or in the case of Justify wait until their 3-year-old year to start their career. Justify became the first horse in 100 years to win the Kentucky Derby without having run a race as a 2-year-old.
The new modified schedule has horses making their first workout in August or September with their first races around November or December. A horse can run three times before the Kentucky Derby with this schedule. However, most trainers are now opting for a late 2-year-old race, race in February (Holy Bull Stakes https://www.kentuckyderby.com/prep-races/holy-bull#:~:text=Holy%20Bull%20at%20Gulfstream%20Park,to%20the%20Kentucky%20Derby%20Points on the Florida prep schedule), then waiting 45 days skipping the racetracks second prep (Fountain of Youth Stakes https://www.kentuckyderby.com/prep-races/fountain-of-youth#:~:text=Fountain%20of%20Youth%20at%20Gulfstream,to%20the%20Kentucky%20Derby%20Points in the case of Florida) to then run in the large point Florida Derby held 6 weeks before the Kentucky Derby.
Effect on Handicapping
The biggest effect on Kentucky Derby handicapping for myself is that I break the horses down into two groups. Those that ran a traditional campaign and those that started much later.
The records have shown that those starting much later have had better success in the Derby. However, horses from this same group tend to not run well if they do not win. Fatigue does prove to be a factor with these horses. I also feel they are adversely affected by the large field.
I prefer to support a horse with a long foundation of stamina: repeated races and workouts better prepare a young horse to ruin farther than they have ever ran before. I also prefer to be on a horse that is tested in many different types of races, as there is a lot of bumping that goes on as the large field heads into the narrow Churchill Downs turns. I love a horse that has a 1 mile workout leading to the race.
I know this was not a typical column, but as I stumbled across this data over the weekend, I wanted to share it. Have a good week and next week’s column will allow us to review the Derby prep races that will be held this upcoming weekend and in essence start our 2021 season at Derby Details.