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The adage has existed for decades.
“A horse needs to have a strong foundation with much racing experience to win the Kentucky Derby.”
Even with the paradigm shift this century of trainers running their top prospects less, the theory still resonates that a horse with less experience is at a disadvantage against more tested foes in the large 20-horse field of the Kentucky Derby.
Recent results in the last decade, though, have debunked this idea. A rash of breakout performances by “lightly-raced” horses on the first Saturday of May need to be evaluated more closely to hypothesize new theories about racing experience and Derby success.
In this evaluation, we will:
1. Examine the recent Derby success in the last decade by lightly-raced horses
2. Look at how the new Derby points system has and will continue to exacerbate this trend going forward
3. Look at how these trends convey to this year’s Derby field and which lightly-raced colts meet the newly-formed criteria to include in your all-important Derby wagers
Four of the last 10 Derbies were won by horses who entered the Derby gate with 5 or fewer lifetime starts.
Most notably, in 2008, Big Brown won the Derby with only 3 lifetime starts. This began the trend, with Animal Kingdom then winning the 2011 Derby from only 4 lifetime races.
This is indeed a new trend, since only five Kentucky Derby winners in history had four or fewer career starts. You have to go all the way back to 1918, when Exterminator won from only 4 career starts, to find the last time that it happened before Big Brown. That’s a 91-year gap! Regret in 1915 (from 3 starts) and Alan-a-Dale in 1902 (from 4 starts) were the other two to achieve this feat.
The chart below shows Big Brown and Animal Kingdom’s wins with all horses that “hit the board” (finished in the top 3) from 2007 to 2011, along with their career starts before the Derby during their 2-year-old and 3-year old seasons. Total furlongs run in these career races are shown for reference:
· In 2007, Curlin finished third with only 3 prior races, and he was unraced in his 2-year old season
· In 2008, Denis of Cork hit the board with only 4 races coming into the Derby
· In 2011, Nehro finished second behind Animal Kingdom with only 5 starts before the Derby
In 2009 and 2010, each top-3 finisher had run 6 races or more before the Derby, but that has become the exception, rather than the norm. Take a look at the most recent data from 2012 to 2016 below:
· In all 5 years between 2012 to 2016, a horse with less than 5 previous career starts hit the board
· Both I’ll Have Another (2012) and American Pharoah (2015) had 5 career starts before winning the Derby
· Golden Soul (2013), Firing Line (2015), and Gun Runner (2016) all entered the Derby with only 5 career starts before hitting the board
· Bodemeister (2012), much like Curlin, didn’t have a start as a 2-year old and recorded only 4 career starts before finishing second behind I’ll Have Another
· Overall, 7 of the last 15 horses (47%) to the hit the board in the Derby came in with 5 or fewer career races of experience
The Derby success of lightly-raced colts in the last decade is glaring, but none have yet to overcome “The Curse of Apollo” – no horse has won the Derby who didn’t have a start as a 2-year old since Apollo did it in 1882. We are getting close, though, as both Curlin and Bodemeister almost pulled off the feat.
This recent success of lightly-raced horses has coincided with the advent of the new Derby point system that will continue to reinforce this trend for a few important reasons.
The new system awards the most points in the final preps leading up to the Derby and has led to less-experienced horses firing a big race late along the Derby trail to qualify for the gate. In contrast, the old system awarded Derby entries based on a horse’s lifetime graded stakes earnings.
As we move into the fifth year of the new Derby points system that was instituted in 2013, we have a statistically valid sample of data that we can now start compiling. Since the system’s advent, an average of 7 horses are entering the gate with 5 or fewer career starts each year (including this year’s prospective field). In 2015, a record 10 horses (half of the field) had not run in more than 5 career races before entering the gate.
This year, it is estimated that 7 horses will enter with 5 or fewer lifetime starts. With 35% of the field so lightly-raced, it is now more likely (just based on probability) that a horse with less experience will hit the board.
Additionally, the lightly-raced horses are at less of a disadvantage now because they are facing less experienced horses overall in the field.
While it could be speculated that the more experienced horses should have more of an advantage against their lightly-raced counterparts, that hasn’t been the case, as the results of the last 10 Derbies indicate above.
From the data over the last ten years, the success of lightly-raced horses cannot be tied directly to the new Derby points system, but what can be tied to the new system is the increase of lightly-raced horses qualifying and entering the Derby.
The graph below shows this trend:
· In the graph above and for the rest of this article, “lightly-raced” is defined as having 5 or fewer career starts entering the Derby.
· The green Linear Trend Line shows a steady climb of lightly-raced horses entering the gate over the past 11 years.
· The highest total of lightly-raced entries has come in the last four years (including this year), with 6, 10, 6, and 7 horses entering the gate that meet the lightly-raced criteria.
So, what does all of this mean for the 2017 Kentucky Derby?
As stated before, there are likely seven horses entering the 2017 Derby gate which can be labeled as lightly-raced, shown in the table below:
· Three of the top choices in the betting odds on Derby Day may be Always Dreaming, Irish War Cry, and McCraken; each has only 5 lifetime starts.
· Girvin and Battalion Runner will most likely be in the 15/1 to 20/1 range; both come in with 4 lifetime races.
· Patch and Battle of Midway enter having gone unraced in their 2-year old seasons and will likely be longshots in the betting pools.
It is difficult to ascertain any strong opinions from this information alone, so looking at the final betting odds of the successful lightly-raced horses over the past decade will help frame conclusions:
It should be immediately recognized that 8 of the 12 lightly-raced horses to hit the board in the past decade went off at odds of 10/1 or lower. This points to a correlation: lightly-raced horses that were well-backed at the windows have succeeded.
There should be no reason to doubt lightly-raced horses like Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming and Wood Memorial champ Irish War Cry, who should have final odds lower than 10/1.
McCraken’s odds should be right around 10/1, so it’s difficult to evaluate his chances of hitting the board based on the above criteria.
Based on this analysis, it’s tough to make the case for Girvin, Battalion Runner, Patch, and Battle of Midway hitting the board, even though horses like Denis of Cork, Animal Kingdom, I’ll Have Another, and Golden Soul succeeded at long odds. A total of 35 lightly-raced horses have run in the past decade with odds higher than 10/1, but only 4 longshots have hit the board, so overall, lightly-raced longshots have not performed well.
This analysis is not complete without looking at the “lightly-raced” horses that had poor performances at short odds, though. For all of the great performances highlighted above, 7 lightly-raced horses in the past 10 years had short odds but didn’t perform well, as shown in the table below:
What should be noted, though, is that in the last 3 years only Carpe Diem performed poorly, after drawing the 2 post and being bet down as a lightly-raced horse. In this same time period, Danza, American Pharoah, Firing Line, and Gun Runner all performed admirably as lightly-raced horses at short odds.
In conclusion, the recent success of lightly-raced horses in the Derby should help build confidence in bettors looking to back Always Dreaming and Irish War Cry in this year’s Derby.
To bring this analysis full circle relating the recent history of lightly-raced horses to this year’s race, Always Dreaming (sired by Bodemeister) and Irish War Cry (sired by Curlin) both have pedigrees to succeed in the Derby. Since Bodemeister and Curlin both hit the board in the Derby after not racing in their two-year old seasons, their sons have every right to perform as admirably coming into the Derby with more racing experience.
With the advent of the new points system, the jury is still out on how lightly-raced colts who qualify in the last Derby preps will perform on Derby Day, but by using recent history, betting odds, and good handicapping acumen, lightly-raced horses can no longer be dismissed as disadvantaged in the Run for the Roses.
Follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim for all my Derby updates and thoughts as we draw closer to the first Saturday in May!
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