Hitting the lottery is hard. We all know that. But picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby? Heck, that’s easy. All one has to do these days is go with the favorite. It does not take hours and hours and hours of studying or work. Nope. Just go with the favorite. It’s as simple as that. It’s not easier said than done. It’s done easier than said.
The winner this year was not a sleeper. It was Always Dreaming. Once again the betting favorite prevailed.
Look, I blew it. I admit it. Like all horseplayers, I’m always dreaming of betting on the Kentucky Derby winner. But my Derby dream this year quickly became a nightmare. For my top pick, his race was over in less than 10 seconds.
I picked and bet on Thunder Snow, who broke slowly and then started acting like a kook. He became extremely rank and began bucking. That’s right, bucking. It’s probably the first time in the 143 years of the Kentucky Derby that a horse has done that.
What is next for Thunder Snow? It’s a 50-50 proposition between a race and a rodeo.
Dr. Keith Latson, the on-call veterinarian, said: “Thunder Snow galloped back to the paddock comfortably under his own power. He was examined by Dr. Jennifer Kaak and was found to have no injuries and walked back to his barn under his own power.”
I am very glad that Thunder Snow was found to have no injuries. However, considering he was reported to be okay physically after a vet examined him, I can’t help thinking that perhaps what he also needs is to be examined by a psychiatrist. I’m even willing to join him on an adjoining coach. Because I certainly feel like I was out of my mind for betting some of my hard-earned money on a colt at odds of 16-1 who acted like a complete goofball on the sport’s biggest stage.
Christophe Soumillon was Thunder Snow’s jockey. Soumillon did a fantastic imitation of John Travolta riding a mechanical bull in the movie “Urban Cowboy.” Actually, it was quite a feat for Soumillon that he did not get thrown off.
“I don’t know what happened at the start,” was all that Soumillon had to say in the post-race quotes issued by Churchill Downs.
Churchill’s Derby follow-up report the next morning included this regarding Thunder Snow:
“Godolphin Racing representatives declined comment on Thunder Snow the morning after his truncated appearance in Kentucky Derby 143. The UAE Derby winner bucked several times a few strides out of the gate and had to be pulled up…Godolphin released an official statement Saturday night.”
This was Godolphin’s statement:
“Thunder Snow walked back to the stables where he was checked by the vets on course and initial reports suggest he appears to be sound. We will closely monitor him over the next 24 hours to ensure that he is OK. Our first priority is his welfare. He worked well all week and we were very happy with his progress. We want to thank everyone for their support this week. We gave it our best. The team was amazing but it just wasn’t to be. Congratulations to the winning horse and the connections of Always Dreaming.”
According to the official Equibase chart, the 2017 Kentucky Derby was contested on a wet-fast track. I do not agree. I think either sloppy or muddy would have been a much better representation of what type of surface the 3-year-olds raced on last Saturday. Because there was so much water on the surface, I’d say it was sloppy.
I did correctly predict that Always Dreaming would be the favorite. But then, like a fool, I did not pick the favorite. Silly me, I did not think the favorite would win again this year.
The Kentucky Derby is getting chalkier than a baseball foul line.
The favorite won the roses only four times from 1980 through 2012. That meant there were only four winning favorites during a span of 33 years.
And now, remarkably, the favorite has won five straight Kentucky Derbies: Orb (5-1 in 2013), California Chrome (5-2 in 2012), American Pharoah (5-2 in 2013), Nyquist (2-1 in 2014) and Always Dreaming (9-2 in 2017).
Longshot bettors at the Kentucky Derby are pulling their hair out in frustration. They’re drowning their sorrows with numerous mint juleps or some other adult beverage. No doubt they are longing for the “good old days” when the winner was an I’ll Have Another (15-1 in 2012), or an Animal Kingdom (20-1 in 2011), or better yet a Mine That Bird (50-1 in 2009) or a Giacomo (50-1 in 2005).
When was the last time the favorite has had such a run of success in this race? It was over a century ago! As I noted in this column last week, there had not five straight winning favorites since six straight did it from 1891-96.
On May 6, 1896, Ben Brush became the sixth straight favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. Earlier that year, on Jan. 4, Utah was admitted as the 45th U.S. state (ahead of, in order, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska and Hawaii).
But there is a huge difference in the field sizes for the six Kentucky Derbies from 1891-86 and the five from 2013-17.
The number of starters each year from 1891-86:
4 in 1891
3 in 1892
6 in 1893
5 in 1894
4 in 1895
8 in 1896
The number of starters each year from 2013-17:
19 in 2013
19 in 2014
18 in 2015
20 in 2016
20 in 2017
Twenty started in this year’s Kentucky Derby alone, compared to a total of 30 starters during the six years from 1891-96.
It’s nothing less than incredible for the favorite to have won from 2013-17 with an average field size of 19, compared to the average field size of only five from 1891-96. It is so much easier for a favorite to get beat due to traffic trouble in a race with 18-20 starters than a race with three to eight starters.
I wrote last week that my gut instinct was that the favorite was not going to get the job done this year. Well, not only did the favorite get the job done, Always Dreaming got it done by a clear margin. Always Dreaming, who was always first or second from the get-go, splashed his way to a 2 3/4-length victory.
Lookin At Lee, who was 17th early, rallied to finish second at 33-1. Battle of Midway, never farther back then fourth, ended up third at 40-1, five lengths behind Lookin At Lee.
Always Dreaming ran so well that I honestly don’t think it mattered that Thunder Snow suddenly became a bucking bronco shortly after he exited the starting gate. Always Dreaming looked so good that even if Thunder Snow had run as he normally does, I seriously doubt Thunder Snow would have won.
Of the vanquished, the one I believe ran quite well in defeat under the circumstances was Classic Empire, who finished fourth at 6-1, one length behind Battle of Midway. Classic Empire nearly got knocked down shortly after the start. While I do not see eye-to-eye with the Equibase chart’s track condition of wet-fast, I think the chart did get it right by saying Classic Empire was “hammered off stride” soon after the start. Classic Empire reportedly emerged from battle with some superficial scrapes on his legs and a swollen right eye.
Irish War Cry was a close second favorite at $4.90 to $1, a slightly higher price than Always Dreaming at $4.80 to $1. Irish War Cry, ridden by Rajiv Maragh, raced in a good position though the early stages, though he did have a rather wide trip. Turning for home, when Irish War Cry was seriously threatening the leader, Always Dreaming, it appeared Maragh had a lot of horse. But unlike Always Dreaming, who responded to Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez in the stretch to kick clear, Irish War Cry retreated and wound up 10th, beaten by 16 1/2 lengths.
I did say this in the Xpressbet Kentucky Derby Wager Guide: “If Classic Empire runs like he did in last year’s Breeders’ Cup, or Irish War Cry runs like he did in this year’s Wood, or Always Dreaming runs like he did in this year’s Xpressbet Florida Derby, they will have a good chance to win the roses.”
Classic Empire and Irish War Cry didn’t. Always Dreaming did.
PLETCHER NOW A MULTI-WINNER
Much had been made of trainer Todd Pletcher’s 1-for-35 record in the Kentucky Derby coming into this year’s renewal. Now he’s 2 for 38. Pletcher won the race in 2010 with Super Saver.
With 38 starters, Pletcher now is tied with his former boss, Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, for being the trainers to have had the most starters in the race. Lukas has won the race four times: Winning Colors (1988), Thunder Gulch (1995), Grindstone (1996) and Charismatic (1999).
Pletcher had three starters this year. In addition to Always Dreaming, Pletcher sent out Tapwrit, who finished sixth at 27-1 after a rough trip in the early going, and one-eyed Patch, who came in 14th at 14-1.
Do you know what Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby record is when he’s had the favorite? He’s one for one. Always Dreaming is the only favorite trained by seven-time Eclipse Award winner Pletcher to have started in the 1 1/4-mile classic.
The clock certainly is ticking toward Pletcher’s induction into the Hall of Fame. He is an absolute cinch to get in when he first becomes eligible in 2021. Pletcher already has accomplished more than many trainers in the Hall of Fame.
Pletcher did a terrific job preparing Always Dreaming for the Kentucky Derby.
“After arriving here nearly two weeks ago from Florida and immediately becoming aggressive -- ‘He was ready to run upon arrival,’ Pletcher said -- Always Dreaming worked brilliantly on April 28 under Velazquez but in subsequent days was in danger of passing that fine line between being just right and too sharp,” Jay Privman wrote in his Daily Racing Form recap of the race.
“Adele Bellinger had galloped him all winter and into the spring, but Pletcher decided to put Nick Bush aboard in the mornings and use draw reins, which help a rider keep a horse restrained,” Privman added.
Those adjustments to Always Dreaming’s equipment and exercise rider in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby paid off. And it’s an excellent illustration why Pletcher is destined for the Hall of Fame.
MODERATE BEYER SPEED FIGURE
I wrote last week that I envisioned it probably would take a Beyer Speed Figure in the high 90s or low 100s to win the roses. I projected the winner would have a Beyer of around 99 to 101. Always Dreaming, whose final time was 2:03.59, was assigned a 102 Beyer Speed Figure. It was his first triple-digit Beyer in his six-race career.
Here are the Beyer Speed Figures for the Kentucky Derby winners going back to 1989:
2017 Always Dreaming (102)
2016 Nyquist (103)
2015 American Pharoah (105)
2014 California Chrome (97)
2013 Orb (104)
2012 I’ll Have Another (101)
2011 Animal Kingdom (103)
2010 Super Saver (104)
2009 Mine That Bird (105)
2008 Big Brown (109)
2007 Street Sense (110)
2006 Barbaro (111)
2005 Giacomo (100)
2004 Smarty Jones (107)
2003 Funny Cide (109)
2002 War Emblem (114)
2001 Monarchos (116)
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus (108)
1999 Charismatic (108)
1998 Real Quiet (107)
1997 Silver Charm (115)
1996 Grindstone (112)
1995 Thunder Gulch (108)
1994 Go for Gin (112)
1993 Sea Hero (105)
1992 Lil E. Tee (107)
1991 Strike the Gold*
1989 Sunday Silence (102)
*No Beyer Speed Figure is listed in the American Racing Manual for Strike the Gold or Unbridled.
AVENGING HIS SIRE’S DEFEAT
Always Dreaming, a Kentucky-bred son of Bodemeister, now has a four-race winning streak. He was zero for two as a 2-year-old. He’s four for four as a 3-year-old. Always Dreaming did not have a disappointing performance in any of his starts this year, unlike fellow Kentucky Derby contenders Classic Empire (third as a 1-2 favorite in the Holy Bull), McCraken (third as an 8-5 favorite in the Blue Grass) and Irish War Cry (seventh as an even-money favorite in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth).
Bodemeister had a three-length lead with a furlong left to run in the 2012 Kentucky Derby, but he had to settle for second when unable to stave off I’ll Have Another, who prevailed by 1 1/2 lengths.
In the 2017 Kentucky Derby, Always Dreaming had a three-length advantage with a furlong remaining, just like his sire. But the difference this time is nobody ran down Always Dreaming in the final furlong.
Bodemeister is a son of Empire Maker, who finished second as the 5-2 favorite in the 2003 Kentucky Derby before winning the Belmont. Empire Maker’s sire is 1990 Kentucky Derby winner Unbridled.
This year’s Run for the Roses featured a Bob Baffert exacta of sorts. The $1 exacta paid $168.10. Hall of Famer Baffert trained Bodemeister. Baffert also conditioned Lookin At Lucky, sire of Lookin At Lee, this year’s runner-up. Ironically, Lookin At Lee broke from post No. 1, just as his sire did in 2010. Lookin At Lucky got annihilated leaving the gate and finished sixth as the 6-1 favorite in Super Saver’s Derby, then rebounded and won the Preakness. Super Saver finished eighth in the Preakness.
Baffert might well have had the favorite in this year’s Kentucky Derby if undefeated Mastery had not emerged from his 6 3/4-length triumph in the San Felipe with a displaced condylar fracture in his left front ankle, an injury that necessitated the insertion of three screws. His future as a racehorse is up in the air.
Could Mastery have won the Kentucky Derby? I’d certainly say it was possible. After all, when he won the San Felipe, his Beyer Speed Figure of 105 was bigger than Always Dreaming’s in the Kentucky Derby. Of course, that does not necessarily mean Mastery would have won the roses. But it’s an indication that it was a possibility.
Baffert did not have a starter in the Kentucky Derby this year. But he did win Friday’s Kentucky Oaks with 9-1 Abel Tasman. Last early in the field of 14, Abel Tasman rallied to register a 1 1/4-length victory on a track correctly listed as sloppy by Equibase. She capitalized on a ridiculous early pace duel between Paradise Woods, the 6-5 favorite, and 6-1 Miss Sky Warrior. Miss Sky Warrior ended up eighth. Paradise Woods finished 11th after winning the Santa Anita Oaks by 11 3/4 lengths on April 8.
Abel Tasman, who was a 4-5 favorite when she finished a distant second to Paradise Woods in the Santa Anita Oaks, completed her 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks journey in 1:51.62. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Quality Road was assigned a 94 Beyer Speed Figure.
WINNER HAD TWO STRIKES
A Kentucky Derby winner with more than zero strikes or one strike in my strikes system does not happen very often, but it does happen. And it happened this year. Always Dreaming had two strikes.
The strikes system attempts to ascertain a horse’s chances of winning the Kentucky Derby from both tactical and historical perspectives. There are nine key factors. When a horse doesn’t qualify in any of the nine categories, the horse gets a strike. The nine key factors are listed at the end of this column, along with the reason behind each category. The strikes system can only go back 45 years to 1973. That’s because two of the key factors deal with graded stakes races. Stakes races were first graded in the U.S. in 1973.
Always Dreaming is just the sixth horse since 1973 to win with two strikes, with the others being Cannonade in 1974, Ferdinand in 1986, Sea Hero in 1993, Funny Cide in 2003 and Giacomo in 2005. The only horse since 1973 to win with more than two strikes was Mine That Bird, who had four.
According to the strikes system, a horse is deemed to have a much better chance to win the Kentucky Derby if the horse has zero strikes or one strike. That’s because 38 of the last 45 winners had zero strikes or one strike.
Interestingly, Always Dreaming was very close to being a one-strike horse. He got a strike in Category 1 because he had not run in a graded stakes race before March 31. Always Dreaming made his first start in a graded stakes race in the Florida Derby, which was run on April 1. Thus, if the Xpressbet Florida Derby had been run just two days earlier, Always Dreaming would not have received a strike in Category 1.
Since the introduction of graded stakes races in the U.S. in 1973, only Genuine Risk in 1980, Sunny’s Halo in 1983, Mine That Bird in 2009 and now Always Dreaming have won the Kentucky Derby without running in a graded stakes race at 3 before March 31.
Always Dreaming’s other strike came in Category 6. A horse needs to have made at least six lifetime starts prior to the Kentucky Derby to avoid getting a strike in this category. Always Dreaming had made five career starts prior to winning the roses. As I have written many times, I consider this to be the least important category because horses used to race more often than they now do.
Six of the last 12 Kentucky Derby winners have had a strike in Category 6: Barbaro (2008), Big Brown (2008), Animal Kingdom (2011), I’ll Have Another (2012), American Pharoah (2015) and Always Dreaming (2017).
I regard Category 3 to be one of the most important. A horse needs to have been first or second at the eighth pole in either of his or her last two starts before the Kentucky Derby to avoid getting a strike in this category.
What makes Category 3 so important is Always Dreaming was yet another Kentucky Derby who was either first or second with a furlong to go. Always Dreaming had the lead with a furlong to run, making it 52 of the last 55 Kentucky Derby winners to have been either first or second a furlong from the finish.
Here are the strikes for each Kentucky Derby winner going back to 1973:
2017 Always Dreaming (2 strikes) Categories 1 and 6
2016 Nyquist (0 strikes)
2015 American Pharoah (1 strike) Category 6
2014 California Chrome (0 strikes)
2013 Orb (0 strikes)
2012 I’ll Have Another (1 strike) Category 6
2011 Animal Kingdom (1 strike) Category 6
2010 Super Saver (1 strike) Category 4
2009 Mine That Bird (4 strikes) Categories 1, 4, 5 and 9
2008 Big Brown (1 strike) Category 6
2007 Street Sense (0 strikes)
2006 Barbaro (1 strike) Category 6
2005 Giacomo (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 5
2004 Smarty Jones (0 strikes)
2003 Funny Cide (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 9
2002 War Emblem (0 strikes)
2001 Monarchos (0 strikes)
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus (1 strike) Category 6
1999 Charismatic (1 strike) Category 5
1998 Real Quiet (0 strikes)
1997 Silver Charm (1 strike) Category 4
1996 Grindstone (0 strikes)
1995 Thunder Gulch (0 strikes)
1994 Go for Gin (0 strikes)
1993 Sea Hero (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 5
1992 Lil E. Tee (0 strikes)
1991 Strike the Gold (0 strikes)
1990 Unbridled (1 strike) Category 3
1989 Sunday Silence (0 strikes)
1988 Winning Colors (0 strikes)
1987 Alysheba (1 strike) Category 2
1986 Ferdinand (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 4
1985 Spend a Buck (0 strikes)
1984 Swale (0 strikes)
1983 Sunny’s Halo (1 strike) Category 1
1982 Gato Del Sol (1 strike) Category 3
1981 Genuine Risk (1 strike) Category 1
1980 Pleasant Colony (0 strikes)
1979 Spectacular Bid (0 strikes)
1978 Affirmed (0 strikes)
1977 Seattle Slew (0 strikes)
1976 Bold Forbes (0 strikes)
1975 Foolish Pleasure (0 strikes)
1974 Cannonade (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 4
1973 Secretariat (0 strikes)
These are the nine key factors (or categories) in my Derby Strikes System:
- 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, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Always Dreaming have won the Kentucky Derby without running in a graded stakes race at 3 before March 31.)
- 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.)
- 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 51 of the last 54 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.)
- 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.)
- 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.)
- 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, American Pharoah in 2015 and Always Dreaming in 2017. Grindstone, Fusaichi Pegasus, Barbaro, I’ll Have Another, American Pharoah and Always Dreaming 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.)
- 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.)
- 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 2016, 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.)
- 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.)