Derby Trail Musings: 4/7/13

Frank Victores-US PRESSWIRE

After the Santa Anita Derby and the Wood Memorial, the picture has changed for not only the starting gate at Churchill Downs, but for the prospects of the major contenders to win the Derby.

I learned a couple things from the Santa Anita Derby and the Wood Memorial:

  1. My exacta picks will always finish in the top 4, but never where I need them.
  2. Verrazano will just run with the crowd no matter the pace and still win.
  3. Normandy Invasion is way more versatile than his PPs show him to be.
  4. The California circuit appears to be weak this year.
  5. Lafit Pincay is awesome (not necessarily totally learned yesterday, but damn is he good)
  6. Super99 is not a top class horse at a classic distance. If you can't hold off all comers from the lead with a 24 second 2nd quarter at SA, you can't hold the lead anywhere.

So what do I make of this? I have no idea. My biggest question is who makes the lead the first Saturday in May? Last year we knew that Trinniberg would run right to the front of the field. I was surprised that Bodemeister blew right by him as soon as he did, but that was the logical speed scenario nonetheless. So who goes to the front this time? It seems most of the speed horses have either been burned by taking the lead or have learned to run from off the pace this year:

  • Oxbow - Got beat in the Risen Star after plying for the lead and tried to come from a bit further back in the Rebel.
  • Itsmyluckyday - Changed running styles for the Florida Derby and ran just off the lead, but still gets beat by Orb.
  • Flashback - Got locked in a speed duel with Goldencents in the San Felipe and got beat soundly by Hear the Ghost. Tried to relax in the SA Derby and got up for 2nd.
  • Goldencents - Got locked in a speed duel with Flashback in the San Felipe and got beat soundly by Hear the Ghost. Then came back and changed running styles to stalk the pace in the SA Derby.
  • Vyjack - Changed running styled to come from off the lead and showed that form again in the Wood Memorial.
  • Verrazano - Got schooled in the Tampa Bay Derby and shows he doesn't need the lead in the Wood to win.
  • Will Take Charge - Won the Smarty Jones being near the lead but changed styles to stalk the pace in the Rebel.

So maybe we end up with Govenor Charlie on the lead? But who goes with him? We know ItsmyluckyDay will be close. Oxbow will probably be there (if he makes it in with 36 points, which I think he will, pending the AR Derby). But will there, for the first time in a long time, be a relatively uncontested lead? Zach brought up Merit Man, which is absolutely correct, if he gets in. With 20 points, he's going to need to grab some more points in either the Lexington or Derby Trial to ensure a place in the starting gate. That is unless he's a surprise entry in the Arkansas Derby or the Blue Grass. I can't find any news or rumors about where he's due to be entered next.

I find I do my best handicapping when I can effectively picture the pace scenario and play out the two or three most likely probable ways those pace schemes can end up. I got Take Charge Indy on a price in the 2012 FL Derby, I'll Have Another in the 2012 KY Derby, Trinniberg in the 2012 BC Sprint, and other winners by doing exactly that. But as of today, I'm having a very difficult time figuring out who the speed truly is this year. Have we ever seen a Derby in recent history with a tepid pace through the first 5f? I don't think so. But I honestly believe that's a product of having to run against other legitimate 3yo runners that are competent routers in races that award Derby Points and having to learn how to win against good competition instead of just daring lesser opponents to catch you. If you have the class and are placed in the right race, which is the advantage that having a national-profile trainer can give an owner, you can just go to the front and never look back. No skill, schooling, or strategy necessary.

That brings up another great point. How awesome is the Points system? A couple weeks ago, the Paulick Report linked to an article (which I cannot find now) showing that wagering on the Derby Trail races was up 17%. That does not surprise me at all. Attendance is extremely strong for the Derby Qualifying races, with 30k at SA today, AQ was packed, and GP had a near record crowd for the FL Derby too. Additionally, every single Derby starter will have been tested by other Derby starters in all of his last two to three starts. I pick on Trinniberg a lot, despite the fact he's allowed me to cash a number of tickets. But look at his run up to the Derby in early 2012:

  1. Swale Stakes, 7f, 3/10/2012: Beat Hello Prince and Ever So Lucky as well as a bunch of runners I don't ever remember seeing then or since.
  2. Bay Shore Stakes, 7f, 4/7/2012: Beat Hardened Wildcat and How Do I Win and a bunch of other also-rans.

That's it. He faced a grand total of zero other starters in the 2012 Kentucky Derby during his campaign through the spring of 2012. And while he demonstrated an ability to carry his amazing speed over 7f and had an amazing season that culminated in the BC Sprint win and the Eclipse Award, he never showed he was a legitimate two turn, 10f, route horse. In fact, I think everyone knew he wasn't a two turn, 10f, route horse before the gate ever opened. But this year, you have to prove you belong in the race by showing you can go two turns against legitimate company.

Is the points system perfect? No. The UAE Derby seems to have too many points assigned to it; The IL Derby got snubbed; there are still too many points assigned to the 2yo races (that's just my personal opinion). I think if Churchill just tiered the races instead of assigning points based on when they are run might help. That lets you assign a touch more to the BC Juvenile, if you deem that necessary and a little less to the UAE Derby and Sunland Derby. I think they also need to rethink the filly side of the points system. I'm not sure how exactly you do it, maybe you assign a small number of points to only the winner of a few races, so if one super filly sweeps them, she has enough points to get into the gate at Churchill.

Well that's 1100 plus words of my meaningless drivel. Looking forward to next weekend though. I'm excited to see if Rydilluc can make a strong run at the Blue Grass and see if Oxbow can put it all together in the Arkansas Derby.

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