The Beyer Speed Figures going into this year’s Kentucky Derby are relatively low. That is one thing we do know.
There were 13 races run in the U.S. this year in which the winner earned 50 or 100 points toward the Kentucky Derby. In 11 of the 13 races, the winner was assigned a lower Beyer Speed Figure (BSF) than the winner of the same race a year ago.
There were six races run in the U.S. this year in which the winner earned 100 points toward the Kentucky Derby. I am going to refer to these six races -- the Louisiana Derby, Florida Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby -- as the Big Six.
The average BSF for the winner of The Big Six last year was 102.8 compared to just 94.6 this year, a huge disparity. I then investigated the average for the winner of the Big Six going back to 2005:
Ave. BSF -- Year Kentucky Derby Winner
105.3 -------- 2005 Giacomo
104.6 -------- 2006 Barbaro
102.8 -------- 2015 American Pharoah
102.3 -------- 2009 Mine That Bird
100.8 -------- 2014 California Chrome
99.3 -------- 2007 Street Sense
99.0 -------- 2010 Super Saver
97.3 -------- 2008 Big Brown
97.3 -------- 2012 I’ll Have Another
95.0 -------- 2013 Orb
94.8 -------- 2011 Animal Kingdom
94.6 -------- 2016 ?
My Xpressbet.com column next week will have my Kentucky Derby selections. As of right now, I am leaning toward making Nyquist my pick to win. Here is my current Kentucky Derby Top 10:
4. Mor Spirit
6. Brody’s Cause
8. Gun Runner
The Beyer Speed Figures are an indication that this is a year in which the bar has not been set very high for the Kentucky Derby. I have to think this could be a plus for probable favorite Nyquist in that it seems he does not have to beat an especially strong group in order to win the roses. And while there are those (including yours truly) who have some concern with regard to Nyquist’s breeding as to whether he possesses the stamina to win a 1 1/4-mile race, the Beyer Speed Figure situation this year also means he might not have to be all that great a 1 1/4-mile horse in order to beat this particular bunch.
If Nyquist starts as the favorite and does win, he will be the fourth straight betting choice to get the job done in the Kentucky Derby, following American Pharoah ($7.80) last year, California Chrome ($7) in 2014 and Orb ($12.80) in 2013.
A KENTUCKY DERBY SLEEPER?
The relatively low Beyers this year are an indication to me that it quite possible a horse will be able to prevail in this year’s Kentucky Derby without having to run as well as American Pharoah when he won the roses last year with a 105 BSF. I am projecting it might take a Beyer of around only 100 to win the Run for the Roses this year. And while, as I said, the BSF bar being set relatively low this year could play into the hands of Nyquist, I also think the lack of Beyer power suggests a horse will not have to step it up all that much this year in the speed figure department on game day to pull off an upset.
Call me crazy, but I can’t help but wonder if this might even be the year in which a horse based in Japan is sent to the U.S. via a victory in the UAE Derby in Dubai and comes up smelling roses on the first Saturday in May.
One of the reasons I see Lani as a possible dark horse in this year’s Kentucky Derby is his marvelous pedigree. He is a son of premier sire Tapit and the Sunday Silence mare Heavenly Romance. Sunday Silence won the Kentucky Derby as a 3-year-old while on his way to the 1989 Horse of the Year title. Heavenly Romance had the talent and class to earn $3,527,120 during her racing career and is best known for pulling off a 74-1 upset under jockey Mikio Matsunaga over Japan’s reigning Horse of the Year Zenno Rob Roy (a son of Sunday Silence) in the Group I Tenno Sho in 2005. Matsunaga trains Lani.
Heavenly Romance is a daughter of the prolific Sadler’s Wells and Irish-bred First Act. In fact, First Act is from Sadler’s Well’s first crop. First Act never raced. First Act’s dam, Arkadina, finished second in the Irish 1,000 Guineas and Irish Oaks and third in the Group I Epsom Oaks. Arkadina produced Dark Lomond, a filly who defeated males to win the Irish St. Leger. Arkadina’s sire, Ribot, never lost in 16 career starts, registered a pair of wins in the prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Tromphe and is without question one of the greatest racehorses of all time.
Amour Briller, a 5-year-old daughter of Smart Strike and Heavenly Romance, has earned $1,566,328 in Japan for trainer Matsunaga. Awardee, a 6-year-old son of Jungle Pocket and Heavenly Romance, won a race on dirt this year in Japan by 25 lengths on March 17 for Matsunaga. Awardee then won a Group III race on dirt in that country on April 16, also for Matsunaga. It was Awardee’s second Group III triumph. He has earned $1,944,997.
Even though Lani already has earned $1,366,618, I know he does not look all that good on paper to most people. But one needs to look at his past performances differently than those for the typical Kentucky Derby starter.
Lani started his racing career by running in a race in Japan at about 1 1/4 miles on the turf last Sept. 13. He finished fourth. Have you ever seen an American horse debut as a 2-year-old in a 1 1/4-mile race? I know I haven’t.
After Lani’s debut, he switched to the dirt and finished second at about 1 1/8 miles on Oct. 3 before he won a maiden race at that same distance on the dirt by 3 1/2 lengths on Nov. 22. In his final start last year, Lani won the Cattleya Sho Stakes at about one mile on the dirt by two lengths. According to the Japanese sports newspaper Sports Hochi, Lani’s performance in the Cattleya Sho was so impressive that “he made racegoers think of six-time Group I winner Gold Ship.” Gold Ship, who is like Lani in that their dams are daughters of Sunday Silence, is an earner of $15,040,217 and finished 14th when superstar Treve won the Arc in 2014.
In Lani’s 2016 debut, he finished fifth in a race at about one mile on the dirt in Japan on Feb. 21. But when I watched the video replay, he did make a bold move on the far turn before losing his punch in the late stages. The move he made indicates to me that he does seem to have a fair amount of talent. His trainer not only has had his eye on the Kentucky Derby since last fall, he even had a backup plan of running Lani in the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes and Grade I Belmont Stakes if colt if did not get enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby. I find it interesting that Matsunaga has been so high on Lani, especially when the colt lived up to the trainer’s expectations by winning the UAE Derby.
Many have expressed the view they were unimpressed with Lani’s UAE Derby. Randy Moss, a member of the Beyer Speed Figure team, estimated Lani’s Beyer for the race would be “a paltry 83,” as reported by Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman, well below 5-year-old California Chrome’s estimated 109 Beyer for his win in the Dubai World Cup.
Perhaps Lani simply is not fast enough to win the Kentucky Derby. But, again, it does help his chance to win the roses this year that the bar has not been set very high for the Kentucky Derby in terms of Beyer Speed Figures. I also think it is to Lani’s credit that he defeated Polar River in the UAE Derby. Polar River, the UAE Derby runner-up, is a filly of much quality, I think, though I grant you she might have won the UAE Derby with a better trip. But by the same token, Lani’s UAE Derby was far from ideal.
Lani has “already won at 1 1/4 miles if you take into consideration the amount of ground he lost in the 1 3/16-mile UAE Derby, in which he stumbled badly at the start, fanned widest of all heading into the backstretch and rallied wide on the far turn,” Steve Haskin wrote for The Blood-Horse.
I first began to have much respect for Japanese horses when I witnessed Cesario’s win in Hollywood Park’s American Oaks in 2005. Between the post parade and the start of that race, Cesario ran off to such an extent that it could have been called a mini-workout. But after she came perilously close to being scratched before the race, she blew away the competition to win by four lengths. It remains one of the finest performances by a Thoroughbred that I have ever seen in person.
“Making a huge statement for Japanese racing, Cesario demolished an international field of 3-year-old fillies in winning the $750,000 American Oaks on the Hollywood Park grass,” Jack Shinar wrote for The Blood-Horse magazine. “A granddaughter of Sunday Silence, the strapping bay filly Cesario parlayed a victory in the Japanese Oaks into an invitation to the American Oaks and became the first Japanese-bred horse to win a Grade I stakes race in the United States.”
Japanese horses have become increasingly prominent on the international racing stage in the last decade.
Japan’s Orfevre finished second in the 2012 Arc, losing by only a neck to 40-1 longshot Solemia. After that, Orfevre lost the Japan Cup by a scant nose to Gentildonna, who absolutely should have been disqualified for bumping and impeding Orfevre during the stretch run. Solemia finished 13th, far behind Orfevre on that occasion.
Orfevre again ran second in the 2013 Arc, this time losing to mighty Treve. At the conclusion of Orfevre’s marvelous career, he had amassed earnings of $19,005,276.
When Lani won this year’s Group II, $2 million UAE Derby, another horse from Japan, Real Steel, won the Group I, $6 million Dubai Turf later in the day.
“Racing in Japan now is of such high quality that I would not be surprised if a horse to have been competing there even wins a Kentucky Derby one of these years,” I wrote earlier this year in my comments accompanying my March 27 list for the Louisville Courier-Journal’s Kentucky Derby poll.
I am sure lots of people are going to dismiss Lani in the Kentucky Derby. Many have scoffed at his training up to the race. For instance, Lani got a big “thumbs down” for a workout at Churchill Downs this morning (Wednesday) by Daily Racing Form’s Mike Welsch. And a “thumbs down” from Welsch most assuredly is not a good thing. Welsch has as keen an eye as anyone in racing when it comes to a horse’s training. Lani, according to Welsh, was scheduled to have a longer workout than three furlongs, but initially was very reluctant to do anything before finally going well enough to be given an official time of :37.40 for a three-furlong work. Aboard Lani for the workout was jockey Yutaka Take, a superstar in Japan.
“He was a little shy to start, but after the quarter pole we got a good gallop for two furlongs,” Take was quoted as saying to Churchill Downs publicity via interpreter Keita Tanaka with regard to Lani’s workout. “It was supposed to be five furlongs, but he wanted to stop. Back home in Japan, he has down that before. So it is not a concern. His temperament is that he is not willing to run always. If he does [want to run], he has a big chance [in the Kentucky Derby].”
Take was asked when he would know Lani wants to run in the Kentucky Derby.
“After [he leaves] the gate,” Take said, laughing.
It should be kept in mind the Japanese have their own way of doing things, different from how we do things here in America, and their success in big races in recent years speaks for itself. Maybe in Lani we are looking at another Canonero II, whose preparation prior to his victory in the 1971 Kentucky Derby was unconventional, to say the least.
In the book “The Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes: A Comprehensive History,” Richard Sowers wrote: “Canonero II had flown from Venezuela to Miami on a plane filled with chickens and ducks, lost 70 pounds while being quarantined in Florida for two days, and was suffering from thrush -- a hoof infection caused by standing in his own urine -- when he arrived in Louisville on April 24,” eight days before the Kentucky Derby.
Sowers added that Canonero II “had been openly mocked by rival horsemen and the media since he arrived in Louisville, particularly after his only workout for the Derby -- a half-mile in :53 4/5 that may have been the slowest such effort in Derby annals.”
To say Lani might win the Kentucky Derby may cause some to giggle, especially after his rather weird workout today. But maybe, just maybe, Lani and Matsunaga will have the last laugh on the first Saturday in May, just like Canonero II in 1971.
Consider yourself warned.
THE DERBY STRIKES
Another reason I see Lani as an intriguing possible sleeper in the Kentucky Derby is he only has one strike in my Derby Strikes System.
I came up with the Derby Strikes System many years ago to try and determine a horse’s chances to win the Kentucky Derby from both a tactical perspective and a historical standpoint.
The Derby Strikes System consists of nine key factors. When a horse does not qualify in one of the nine categories, the horse gets a strike. The nine key factors are explained at the end of this column.
According to my Derby Strikes System, it is important for a horse to have zero strikes or only one strike. That’s because 37 of the last 43 Kentucky Derby winners have had zero strikes or just one strike. When a horse has zero strikes or only one strike, they go into “the prime group.” There is a very good chance this year’s Kentucky Derby winner will come from “the prime group.”
Lani’s only strike comes in the “gameness factor” category. Lani get this strike because, from what I could discern from the video replay, he lost position in the final furlong when he finished fifth in his 2015 debut. But Lani is okay in all eight other categories when it comes to my Derby Strikes System.
Can a horse win the Kentucky Derby with two strikes? Based on past results, it is unlikely, but not impossible. Only five of the 43 Kentucky Derby winners since 1973 have had two strikes: Cannonade (1974), Ferdinand (1986), Sea Hero (1993), Funny Cide (2003) and Giacomo (2005).
If a horse has three or more strikes, a Kentucky Derby victory is almost impossible. Of the last 43 horses to win the Run for the Roses, the only one to have more than two strikes was Mine That Bird, who had four.
As for the 27 horses Churchill Downs currently lists as candidates for the Kentucky Derby, these are their number of strikes:
ZERO STRIKES/ONE STRIKE (THE PRIME GROUP)
Brody’s Cause (zero strikes)
Creator (Category 3)
Exaggerator (Category 4)
Gun Runner (Category 6)
Lani (Category 4)
Mohaymen (Category 4)
Mor Spirit (Category 3)
Nyquist (zero strikes)
Oscar Nominated (Category 1)
Outwork (Category 6)
TWO STRIKES (VICTORY UNLIKELY GROUP)
Cherry Wine (Categories 2 and 3)
Destin (Categories 5 and 6)
Fellowship (Categories 2 and 3)
Majesto (Categories 1 and 2)
Mo Tom (Categories 3 and 5)
Suddenbreakingnews (Categories 3 and 9)
Tom’s Ready (Categories 2 and 4)
Trojan Nation (Categories 1 and 2)
Whitmore (Categories 2 and 9)
THREE OR MORE STRIKES (VICTORY ALMOST IMPOSSIBLE GROUP)
Adventist (Categories 2, 3 and 6)
Danzing Candy (Categories 4, 5 and 6)
Dazzling Gem (Categories 2, 6 and 8)
Discreetness (Categories 2, 3 and 5)
Laoban (Categories 2, 4, 5 and 6)
My Man Sam (Categories 1, 2 and 6)
Shagaf (Categories 3, 4, 5 and 6)
Star Hill (Categories 2, 3 and 4)
THE NINE KEY FACTORS (OR CATEGORIES) IN MY DERBY STRIKES SYSTEM:
1. THE GRADED STAKES FACTOR. (The horse ran in a graded stakes race as a 3-year-old before March 31.) This points out horses who have competed against tough competition early in the year at 3 and not just at the last minute in April, enabling the horse to be properly battle-tested. (Exceptions: Since the introduction of graded stakes races in the U.S. in 1973, only Genuine Risk in 1980, Sunny’s Halo in 1983 and Mine That Bird in 2009 have won the Kentucky Derby without running in a graded stakes race at 3 before March 31.)
2. THE WIN IN A GRADED STAKES FACTOR. (The horse has won a graded stakes race.) This points out horses who have shown they have the class to win a graded stakes race. (Exceptions: Ferdinand in 1986, Alysheba in 1987, Funny Cide in 2003 and Giacomo in 2005 are the only exceptions since the introduction of U.S. graded stakes races in 1973; Alysheba in 1987 did finish first in the Blue Grass, only to be disqualified and placed third.)
3. THE EIGHTH POLE FACTOR. (In either of his or her last two starts before the Kentucky Derby, the horse was either first or second with a furlong to go.) This points out horses who were running strongly at the eighth pole, usually in races at 1 1/16 or 1 1/8 miles. By running strongly at the same point in the Kentucky Derby, a horse would be in a prime position to win the roses. Keep in mind that 50 of the last 53 Kentucky Derby winners have been first or second with a furlong to run. Since Decidedly won the Derby in 1962 when he was third with a furlong to go, the only three Kentucky Derby winners who were not first or second with a furlong to run were Animal Kingdom, third with a furlong remaining in 2011 when only a half-length from being second; Giacomo, sixth with a furlong to go in 2005; and Grindstone, fourth with a furlong to run in 1996. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the Kentucky Derby winners who weren’t either first or second at the eighth pole in his or her last two starts have been Tim Tam in 1958, Carry Back in 1961, Cannonade in 1974, Gato Del Sol in 1982, Unbridled in 1990 and Sea Hero in 1993, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)
4. THE GAMENESS FACTOR. (The horse’s finish position in both of his or her last two races before the Kentucky Derby was no worse than his or her running position at the eighth pole.) This points out horses who don’t like to get passed in the final furlong. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the exceptions have been Venetian Way in 1960, Cannonade in 1974, Foolish Pleasure in 1975, Ferdinand in 1986, Silver Charm in 1997, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)
5. THE DISTANCE FOUNDATION FACTOR. (The horse has finished at least third in a 1 1/8-mile race or longer before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the proper foundation and/or stamina for the Kentucky Derby distance. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the only exceptions have been Kauai King in 1966, Sea Hero in 1993, Charismatic in 1999, Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009.)
6. THE SUFFICIENT RACING EXPERIENCE FACTOR. (The horse has had at least six lifetime starts before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the needed experience. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the only exceptions have been Grindstone in 1996, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, Barbaro in 2006, Big Brown in 2008, Animal Kingdom in 2011, I’ll Have Another in 2012 and American Pharoah in 2015. Grindstone, Fusaichi Pegasus, Barbaro, I’ll Have Another and American Pharoah each had made five starts before the Kentucky Derby. Animal Kingdom had made four starts before the Kentucky Derby. Big Brown had made three starts before the Kentucky Derby.)
7. THE NO ADDING OR REMOVING BLINKERS FACTOR. (The horse has not added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her final start at 3 before the Kentucky Derby.) This seems to point out that, if a horse is good enough to win the Kentucky Derby, the trainer is not searching for answers so late in the game. (Since Daily Racing Form began including blinkers in its past performances in 1987, no horse has added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her last start at 3 before winning the Kentucky Derby.)
8. THE RACED AS A 2-YEAR-OLD FACTOR. (The horse made at least one start as a 2-year-old.) (Exceptions: Apollo in 1882 is the only Kentucky Derby winner who didn’t race as a 2-year-old. There now have been 133 straight Kentucky Derby winners who raced as a 2-year-old. Through 2015, the score is 140-1 in terms of Kentucky Derby winners who raced at 2. Since 1937, horses unraced as a 2-year-old are a combined 0 for 59 in the Kentucky Derby. During this period, the only horses to even place or show were Hampden, who finished third in 1946; Coaltown, second in 1948; Agitate, third in 1974; Reinvested, third in 1982; Strodes Creek, second in 1994; Curlin, third in 2007; and Bodemeister, second in 2012.)
9. THE NOT A GELDING FACTOR. (The horse is not a gelding.) (Exceptions: Funny Cide in 2003 and Mine That Bird in 2009 are the only geldings to win the Kentucky Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.)