In what has been the oddest of years, one of the oddest manifestations in horseracing is the fact that the traditional first leg of the US Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby, will be taking place this coming Saturday, September the 5th, a full 11 weeks after the traditional final leg, the Belmont Stakes. The second leg, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, is due to take place a month from now, on October 3rd.
Tiz The Law was the winner of that Belmont, run over 9f rather than the usual 12f, and is odds on to follow up in the Kentucky Derby, having taken the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga even more impressively in between.
Plenty of credible challengers to him have fallen by the wayside, most recently the Blue Grass Stakes winner Art Collector, who had been second favourite until picking up an injury earlier this week. All that remains for Tiz The Law to do now is to overcome a draw in stall 17 and the same number of rivals. There is plenty of work to be done, in other words!
Much has been made of that draw, and of the fact that Tiz The Law’s main rivals in the betting – Honor A.P. and Authentic – are drawn out in the car park with him in stalls 16 and 18 respectively. It is worth crunching the numbers to see just what an effect post position has had in the Kentucky Derby over the years.
The following table and graph uses the measure of % of rivals beaten for the stall in question and for the two stalls on either side for Kentucky Derbys since 2000. A figure of 50 is par, and the higher the %RB the better.
It can be seen that stalls 3 to 14 inclusive have either equalled par or surpassed it, whereas stalls 1 and 2, and 15 to 18, have underperformed (there are usually additional runners in stalls 19 and 20).
Percentage of rivals beaten will map to different values at different distances and under different circumstances, but it just so happens that each 1% is roughly equivalent to 0.6 lengths or 1 lb in theory in the context of the Kentucky Derby.
The other two columns in the table above show my ratings for each of the contenders (on the same level as the BHA and WBRR figures these days), both raw and then adjusted for those draw findings. For instance, Tiz The Law drops 5 points from his out-on-his-own 125 basic rating on account of that draw.
The message is that superior horses can be expected to overcome a wide (or a very low) stall, but at some cost, and that theoretically the market leaders in this year’s Kentucky Derby will come back to the pack to some degree.
However, that pack is mostly a long way behind in terms of ability in the first place, so the gap between the elite/widely drawn quartet and the remainder is narrowed rather than closed altogether.
The arguable exception is with King Guillermo – runner-up to Nadal in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park when last seen, in May – who has a 111 basic rating with me and a “sweet spot” draw in stall 6 into the bargain.
King Guillermo had won the Tampa Bay Derby before that by a clear margin from Sole Volante and is not the no-hoper that many of Tiz The Law’s rivals appear to be if fit after his break.
Whoever the winner of the somewhat delayed 146th Kentucky Derby proves to be, it is unlikely that they will manage that by running inefficiently, unless their main rivals run more inefficiently still.
This will be a question of getting a competitive position without sacrificing too much energy in the process, and is best measured through sectionals. That is not something that can be gauged for sure beforehand, but history does at least tell us what is “normal”.
The following table gives the maximum, minimum, median and mean values for the winners of the Kentucky Derby this century, as well as the finishing speed %s (speed from point of call to finish as a % of overall race speed) based on those median values.
Those finishing speed values are significantly lower than tend to be found in Britain and Ireland and are a function of run-up (a short untimed section at the beginning of races in the US which means that horses have a running start) and the attritional nature of racing on dirt.
They also reflect the fact that there is usually – but not always – a price to be paid for being behind, and having to face kickback while navigating a passage past rivals later in the race, and that there is therefore sometimes a benefit in “going fast and hanging on”.
Seventeen rivals, a wide draw, and the only partly predictable dynamics of a race round the two turns of Churchill Downs, means that Tiz The Law may have to be every bit as good as he has looked to date to prevail, despite the limitations of his rivals. It should be fascinating to see how things unfold.
The Kentucky Derby will be shown in this part of the world on Sky Sports Racing on Saturday night.