With a full field of 20 expected for Saturday’s 140th running of the Kentucky Derby, handicappers and casual observers alike have begun the process of trying to predict the winner.
This exercise raises the issue of how well a horse must perform in its final prep race to be a contender to wear the garland of roses.
The general rule is that a horse must be moving in the right direction form-wise and, while a win in that last tune-up is not essential, a good effort is important.
What constitutes a good race is not a subject everyone can agree on. A prime example would be Sea Hero’s Blue Grass Stakes.
The record reflects the Aiken-trained horse finished fourth at Keeneland in 1993, three weeks before the Derby. He was beaten almost three lengths by the winner, Prairie Bayou, and almost a length by Dogwood Stable’s Wallenda and Dixieland Heat, which finished a nose apart for the place spot.
On paper, Sea Hero’s race didn’t look like much. Neither trainer Mack Miller, nor jockey Jerry Bailey, were particularly impressed. But Sea Hero did not have the smoothest of trips. He was pinned on the rail for most of the race and was behind a wall of horses coming off the far turn. Bailey had to check his mount slightly before squeezing between horses, but Sea Hero made little progress in the last eighth when finally clear.
Trip handicappers, who look for trouble in a race as excuse for defeat, gave Sea Hero a pass for his Keeneland outing and were seen standing in line after the Derby exchanging pleasantries with the Downs’ cashier.
Further examination reveals that, of the past 50 Kentucky Derby winners, 28 finished first in final Derby prep, while 12 were second, six third and four fourth. The last winner to finish off the board in his tune-up was Iron Liege, fifth in the 1957 Derby Trial four days before he beat Gallant Man, Round Table and Bold Ruler in what many agree might have been the Derby field of the highest quality in the race’s history.
Not surprisingly, payoffs at the betting windows are higher when a Derby is won by a horse providing an indifferent performance in his last start.
Sea Hero rewarded his supporters with a $27.80 return on a $2 wager. Thunder Gulch, another Derby winner after finishing fourth in his previous outing, paid $51.
And then, there were two emerging from fourth-place finishes in final preps – Giacomo (’05) and Mine That Bird (’09). The payoff on Giacomo was $102.60 and Mine That Bird paid $103.20, short of the record of $184.90 set by Donerail in 1913. Recent returns by this pair rank second and third in Derby history.
The moral seems clear. Throw out horses running fourth in their final Derby prep with extreme caution.