The races in which horses can earn points for the 2016 Kentucky Derby are over. It all began when Cocked and Loaded won the Iroquois at Churchill Downs to earn 10 points last year on Sept. 12. The Iroquois was the first of the 34 races offering points to “get into the starting field” for this year’s Kentucky Derby.
I would have said “to get into the starting gate” for this year’s Kentucky Derby, but that would be an inaccurate statement, inasmuch as there is no doubt that two starting “gates,” not one starting “gate,” again will be needed for this year’s Kentucky Derby.
It has been a long time since only one starting gate has been used for the Kentucky Derby. Two starting gates have been needed every year since Silver Charm won the race in 1997. Thirteen horses exited a single starting gate that year.
The final two of the 34 races in which horses could earn points for this year’s Kentucky Derby were contested last Saturday. Creator registered a 1 1/4-length victory in Oaklawn Park’s Grade I Arkansas Derby at 11-1, while Collected won Keeneland’s Grade III Lexington by four lengths at 2-1.
With Creator’s triumph in the Arkansas Derby for 2016 Hall of Fame trainer finalist Steve Asmussen, the colt earned 100 points, easily punching his ticket to the Kentucky Derby.
The Lexington winner, conditioned by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, collected 10 points.
“Collected earned 10 qualifying points to the May 7 Derby, which brings his total to 21, which may or may not be enough to make the 20-horse field when entries are drawn May 3 at Churchill Downs,” Daily Racing Form’s Marty McGee wrote. “But that’s most likely a moot point. The Preakness, Baffert said, always ‘was the plan’ for the Collected.”
Churchill Downs currently lists 27 candidates for the Kentucky Derby. The Top 20 point earners are permitted to start. If two or more horses have the same number of points, the tiebreaker is earnings in non-restricted stakes races. In the case of remaining ties, the additional starter(s) and/or also-eligible horses shall be determined by lifetime earnings. These are the 27 candidates, in order of where they are officially ranked to get into the race, followed by their points:
Rank Pts. Horse
1. 151 Gun Runner
2. 130 Nyquist
3. 126 Exaggerator
4. 120 Outwork
5. 114 Brody’s Cause
6. 110 Creator
7. 100 Lani
8. 84 Mor Spirit
9. 80 Mohaymen
10. 60 Danzing Candy
11. 51 Destin
12. 50 Suddenbreakingnews
13. 50 Oscar Nominated
14. 50 Shagaf
15. 44 Whitmore
16. 44 Tom’s Ready
17. 40 My Man Sam
18. 40 Majesto
19. 40 Trojan Nation
20. 32 Mo Tom
21. 32 Fellowship
22. 32 Adventist
23. 32 Laoban
24. 30 Dazzling Gem
25. 25 Cherry Wine
26. 10 Discreetness
27. 10 Star Hill
With all 27 candidates not scheduled to race again before the first Saturday in May, it is possible to determine their number of strikes in my Derby Strikes System. It’s not until after a horse has made his or her final start before the Kentucky Derby that one can ascertain a horse’s number of strikes.
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.
In recent years I have concluded that the least important strike by far is in the “sufficient racing experience” category. The significance of this category has been greatly diminished in recent years because horses simply do not race as much nowadays as they did when I first developed the Derby Strikes System in 1999. The only strike for five of the last 10 Kentucky Derby winners came in the “sufficient racing experience” category. The five were Barbaro (2006), Big Brown (2008), Animal Kingdom (2011), I’ll Have Another (2012) and American Pharoah (2015).
Can a horse win the Kentucky Derby with two strikes? Statistically speaking, 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.
I originally had Mohaymen with two strikes and Exaggerator with zero strikes, but I deserve to get two strikes myself for making those two mistakes. Mohaymen and Exaggerator actually have one strike apiece.
Mohaymen’s only strike comes in the “gameness factor” category. In order to avoid getting a strike in this category, a horse’s finish position in both of his or her last two races in the Kentucky Derby must be no worse than his or her running position at the eighth pole. Mohaymen was third with an eighth of a mile to go in the Florida Derby before finishing fourth.
I originally also had given a strike to Mohaymen in the “distance foundation category.” To avoid getting a strike in this category, a horse needs to have finished at least third in a 1 1/8-mile race or longer before the Kentucky Derby. Mohaymen does avoid getting a strike in this category because he won the 1 1/8-mile Remsen last year.
In my eyes, the fact that Mohaymen is in the “one-strike group” rather than the “two-strike group” is huge, giving him a much better chance to win the Kentucky Derby than I had thought when I goofed and had him with two strikes. He was five for five before finishing fourth as the 4-5 favorite in the Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on April 2, which was won by Nyquist. Voted a 2015 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male, undefeated Nyquist extended his winning streak to seven in the Florida Derby.
Another reason I now am looking at Mohaymen more optimistically is he strongly suggested that he might rebound from his Florida Derby setback by drilling four furlongs this morning (April 20) in a sparkling :46.80 at Churchill Downs for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. It was the best of 27 works at the distance. Mohaymen was reported to have recorded fractions of :12 flat, :23.60 and :35.20. The Tapit colt galloped out five furlongs in :59.60 and went on out six furlongs in 1:12.80.
McLaughlin had been “looking for a :48,” according to Churchill Downs publicity.
“He came back, took one sip of water and [there was] not any sweat on him. It was a great work,” McLaughlin said. “I kind of predicted that the track was deeper at Palm Meadows [in Florida] and this is a little bit lighter and he was going to work pretty fast. He hasn’t worked since he ran [in the Florida Derby], and he was really feeling good, so we thought he was going to work well. He will have one more work [before the Kentucky Derby].
“We are going to draw a line through that race,” McLaughlin said of the Florida Derby. “He was very wide and the track was very wet, not that he wouldn’t handle it wet here, but at least it’s an excuse for us trainers. He ran 54 feet further than the winner and that’s a matter of fact [that it was] quite a bit of feet further and a lot of lengths difference [than Nyquist].”
Like Mohaymen, the lone strike for Exaggerator comes in the “gameness factor” category. Exaggerator gets this strike because he was second at the eighth pole before finishing third in the San Felipe on March 12.
Creator rallied from last among a dozen participants to win the Arkansas Derby. Suddenbreakingnews finished second, with Whitmore third and Dazzling Gem fourth.
Not long after the Arkansas Derby had been run, I printed out the chart from drf.com to count up the strikes for a number of the starters. The chart showed Creator first and Suddenbreakingnews second with a furlong to run. Because of that, neither got a strike in Category 3. The chart had Whitmore third and Dazzling Gem fourth with a furlong to go. Because of that, they each got a strike in Category 3.
But when I later doubled-checked the strikes for those horses, I discovered changes had been made to the original Arkansas Derby chart. The changes affected the number of strikes for Creator, Suddenbreakingnews and Dazzling Gem.
The chart now has Dazzling Gem second, Creator third and Suddenbreakingnews seventh with a furlong to run. Yes, Suddenbreakingnews has gone from being second with a furlong to go in the original Arkansas Derby chart to seventh at that point in the race. Talk about a big difference. I called thousands of charts for the Daily Racing Form in the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s. Not once did I ever change a horse’s running position so radically from an originally published chart.
Because of the changes made to the Arkansas Derby chart, Creator goes from zero strikes to having one in Category 3. Suddenbreakingnews goes from one strike to actually having two, with strikes in Categories 3 and 9, which moves him into the “a Kentucky Derby win is unlikely, but not impossible” group.
As a result of the changes made to the Arkansas Derby chart, Dazzling Gem goes from four strikes to three, though either way he is in the unfortunate position of being in the “a Kentucky Derby victory is almost impossible” group. Dazzling Gem has strikes in Categories 2, 6 and 8, with no strike in Category 3, thanks to the changes made to the Arkansas Derby chart.
As for all of the horses Churchill Downs currently lists as candidates for the Kentucky Derby, these are the 27 with 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 number of strikes a horse has a strong influence on who is on my Kentucky Derby Top 10. Here is my current Top 10, with the horse’s number of strikes noted:
1. Nyquist (0 strikes)
2. Exaggerator (1 strike)
3. Mor Spirit (0 strikes)
4. Mohaymen (1 strike)
5. Brody’s Cause (0 strikes)
6. Creator (1 strike)
7. Gun Runner (1 strike)
8. Outwork (1 strike)
9. Suddenbreakingnews (2 strikes)
10. Lani (1 strike)
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 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 Derby, a horse would be in a prime position to win the roses. Keep in mind that 50 of the last 53 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 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 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 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 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 Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.)