When I was a kid, I loved reading Agatha Christie novels. I enjoyed playing detective, trying to solve the murder mystery along with Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple.
The Kentucky Derby is kind of a whodunnit but in reverse. The question we must ask ourselves is who is going to do it on May 5? There are many ways to arrive at an answer – workouts, trips, prep times, etc. And there are also clues to be gleaned from history, which is what we'll do today.
So, let's open up the Derby Capsule and see if we can't solve the greatest two-minute mystery in sports.
I did this exercise a couple of years ago using a 1960's mainframe computer and I must say it worked pretty well. I dumped into the computer a bunch of historical data about recent Derby winners to see which contender it would spit out. The answer was Gun Runner, who finished third in the 2016 Derby and of course went on to a stellar career.
This year I've decided to use a Hewlett-Packard 5710-A dual-column gas chromatograph with flame analyzation detectors, just like the one employed to compare tire marks in My Cousin Vinny. It's turbo-charged but only on the floor models.
So, who is our suspect, based on 21st century Derby history?
— He's a colt or gelding that was born in either February (9 times) or April (5 times) but March (3 times) probably works, too. Only 50-1 Mine That Bird won the Derby as a May foal. No January foals have been winners since 2000. Colts of note this year:
Magnum Moon – Not only is he trying to break the Curse of Apollo, he was born May 9.
Mendelssohn – He's a May foal and a late one, too (May 17).
Promises Fulfilled – Born May 11
Free Drop Billy – May 3
Combatant – May 2
Bravazo – Jan. 29
My Boy Jack – Jan. 26
Everyone else falls into the February – April category.
— He's likely run five, six, or seven times so far. Only three of the last 18 winners had a different resume – Big Brown with three starts, Animal Kingdom with four and Mine That Bird with eight. It's been since 2011 that the Derby winner didn't have at least four starts. This year, there's quite the range of experience, from three starts all the way up to 10. Quite a few have eight or more starts, which flies in the face of the notion that Derby runners are starting less often. Notably:
Justify – Curse of Apollo plus only 3 starts.
Hofburg – 3
Magnum Moon – 4
Noble Indy – 4
Bravazo – 8
Free Drop Billy – 8
Lone Sailor – 8
Firenze Fire – 9
Flameaway – 9
My Boy Jack – 10
— He probably has Raise A Native in his direct sire line or at least the top half of his pedigree. Eleven of the last 18 winners had Raise A Native in his sire line and 13 of 18 had him in the top half of his pedigree.
A lot of colts in this year's field have him in the top half. Bonus points to the four with him in the direct sire line – Good Magic, Vino Rosso, Solomini, Firenze Fire. The colts getting docked for not having him in the top half are Audible, Bolt d'Oro, Enticed, Noble Indy and My Boy Jack.
— The last three years, the Derby winner has sold at auction for $300,000 (American Pharoah), $400,000 (Nyquist) and $350,000 (Always Dreaming). Seems like the price range to look for a winner in this era, particularly in what must be the most expensive Derby field ever.
Vino Rosso ($410,000), Flameway ($400,000), Magnum Moon ($380,000), Combatant ($320,000) fit the bill. Audible and Justify would take it up a notch to half a million. Solomini's in the ballpark at $270,000.
— 78 percent of recent Derby winners (14 of 18) came into the race having at least a .500 record, so we're going to put a check mark next to the half of the field that has that distinction.
— Based on recent history, winning begets winning. Twelve of the 18 winners came in off a victory in their final prep. Four more finished second in their last prep. Sixteen out of 18 having finished first or second is one heckuva stat, especially since it covers the pre-points system era during this century.
My Boy Jack
— The Kentucky Derby winner probably did NOT run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Only three of the past 18 Derby winners even ran in that race, let alone win it. Street Sense and Nyquist are the only colts to pull off the Juvenile-Derby double and they were a decade apart. Mine That Bird, the other Juvenile entry to win the Derby, was the only horse to finish last in the Juvenile and first in the Derby.
This year's Derby group is well represented by Juvenile participants, which historically speaking isn't a positive sign for them. Good Magic, Solomini, Bolt d'Oro, Firenze Fire and Free Drop Billy all took part in the race.
— In the final 1 1/8 prep races, the Derby winner in almost all cases completed his final furlong in under 13 seconds or his last 3/8ths in under :38. Here are the hand-calculated times for this year's field, fastest to slowest by three-eighths times. Mendelssohn's three-eighths time at 1 3/16 miles comes from a conversion made by J. Keeler Johnson at America's Best Racing. Horses in bold qualify by having one or both of the times I mentioned.
My Boy Jack
Free Drop Billy
Well, the chromatograph Is smokin' now and just like in those Agatha Christie novels, it's come up with someone I really didn't suspect. Based on the data above, here's our man:
Born: March 29, 2015
Number of starts: 5
Race Record: 5-3-0-1
Raise A Native in Direct Sire Line: Yes, Curlin out of a Street Cry mare
Ran in BC Juvenile: No
Won Final Prep: Yes
Under :13 final furlong: Yes
Under :38 final 3/8: Yes
Price at auction: $410,000
While the Wood Memorial hasn't been in the same class Derby-wise as the Santa Anita, Arkansas or Florida Derbies, you could do worse in this unscientific experiment than land on a well-bred colt trained by Todd Pletcher, bred by John Gunther (who also bred Justify), who will easily be double-digit odds on Derby day.
On the Friday Show, Ray and I ran through a few questions, like who was the most impressive prep performer, which prep was best, which was worst, etc. On the question of who might be overrated, I said Good Magic. Trainer Chad Brown seems to think I'm dead wrong. Brown was highly complimentary of the colt this week, and what he says makes a lot of sense.
“He's just a picture of health right now. I've never seen a horse doing better, at least coming into a race like this,” Brown said. “This winter didn't go exactly like we wanted. He fell behind a little in his training and came up a little short in the Fountain of Youth. He wasn't quite at his best that day from a fitness standpoint. Looking at it now, he wasn't traveling quite as good as he is now. I'm so relieved to see him moving so, so well now, particularly here at Churchill.”
Perhaps I'll have to rethink my answer, but honestly it's a tough question. I'm not sure who in this talented field is being overrated, but I have a feeling during Derby week, we'll be able to answer that question a little more authoritatively. There's always a wise guy.
Top Ten A Week Out
1. Mendelssohn: I think he's a special colt. If he can pull off a Juvenile Turf-Derby double, that would be pretty cool.
2. Vino Rosso: I didn't buy that chromatograph for nothing. Why not shake things up a bit with a longshot who could be very live? By the way, he lands former Derby winner John Velazquez in the irons, and Velazquez chose him.
3. Justify: He's done nothing wrong, has Baffert in his corner but the three-race resume troubles me a bit. The Derby is another beast and I know I won't want to take his price in a 20-horse field.
4. Magnum Moon: What do you think this guy will do if he can just run in a straight line?
5. Audible: On the Friday Show, I picked him as the top contender flying a bit under the radar, with all of the attention on Mendelssohn, Justify, and Magnum Moon. Fifteen years after Funny Cide, could we see another New York-bred in the winner's circle?
6. Bolt d'Oro: If the Derby turns into a barroom fight, and sometimes it does, there's no better puncher than this dude.
7. Good Magic: Like what I heard from Chad Brown about him, but I don't like the final fractions of the Blue Grass and I have to draw the line somewhere.
8. Hofburg: I have all the respect in the world for trainer Bill Mott and if brings a colt to Louisville for the Derby, you better pay attention. Three races is a little short for me but this Tapit colt is going to do something big this year even if it's not winning the Derby.
9. My Boy Jack: He didn't turn out to be a very good suspect in our mystery, but he flies home every race, and he's the most experienced horse in the field.
10. Lone Sailor: He's getting in plenty of work over the Churchill surface, and his come home times were just good enough to make him a bomb closer for the trifecta.
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