It all began when Not This Time won the Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs last Sept. 17 to earn 10 points. That was the first of the 35 races in which horses could accumulate points on the 2016-17 Road to the Kentucky Derby. The final two races were decided last Saturday, the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park (100 points to the winner) and Lexington Stakes at Keeneland (10 points to the winner).
After Not This Time won last year’s Iroquois, he would go on to earn another eight points when he finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 5. Unfortunately for Not This Time, it was announced on Nov. 21 that he was retired from racing due to a right front leg soft tissue injury. That was really too bad. I think Not This Time would have been a bona fide contender in this year’s Run for the Roses.
It turns out that the BC Juvenile winner, Classic Empire, is indeed a contender -- quite possibly even the favorite -- for the May 6 Kentucky Derby following his victory in last Saturday’s Arkansas Derby.
These are the seven races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby worth 100 points to the winner:
--UAE Derby at Meydan on March 25 (won by Thunder Snow)
--Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park on April 1 (won by Always Dreaming)
--Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds on April 1 (won by Girvin)
--Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 8 (won by Irish War Cry)
--Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 8 (won by Irap)
--Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita on April 8 (won by Gormley)
--Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 15 (won by Classic Empire)
Three of those winners, Irish War Cry, Gormley and Classic Empire, certainly have had their ups and downs on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. They have taken us on roller-coaster rides that would make your nearest amusement park proud.
Irish War Cry won the Feb. 4 Holy Bull Stakes, then lost the March 4 Fountain of Youth Stakes by 21 3/4 lengths, then won the Wood Memorial.
Gormley won the Jan. 7 Sham Stakes, then lost by March 11 San Felipe by 9 3/4 lengths, then won the Santa Anita Derby.
Classic Empire won the Nov. 5 BC Juvenile, then lost the Holy Bull by 8 3/4 lengths, then won the Arkansas Derby.
If Classic Empire had not finished fourth or better in the Arkansas Derby, he quite possibly would not have had enough points to run in the Kentucky Derby. But by virtue of his victory last Saturday that netted him 100 points, the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male champion of 2016 has safely secured a berth in the 2017 Run for the Roses.
Is Classic Empire’s 94 Beyer Speed Figure for his Arkansas Derby victory anything to rave about? No. Did he beat a strong group? Probably not. However, as Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman points out, it is vitally important to remember what Classic Empire went through this spring.
“He never fired in the Holy Bull on Feb. 4, came out of that race with a nasty foot abscess, twice balked at working at Palm Meadows, was treated for a back problem, was re-routed to the Winding Oaks training center in Ocala where he worked three times, then went to Oaklawn,” Privman wrote.
“So, Classic Empire was making his second start in 23 weeks, his lone start in that interim one that barely mattered, and he came into this race off an abbreviated work tab against horses who had been racing and training regularly all spring. And he still beat them.”
Privman added: “There’s no possible way Classic Empire could have been at his best, and if this race moves him forward, he is absolutely a prime contender to wear the roses. To me, the biggest concern would be if he regresses coming back in three weeks off this effort. But if he progresses, look out.”
Steve Byk, host of the radio program “At The Races,” asked me Monday what my odds currently would be for the Kentucky Derby. The way I currently see it, one of three horses could go off as the favorite. In alphabetical order, they are Always Dreaming, Classic Empire or Irish War Cry.
I have Classic Empire as a 5-1 favorite, with Always Dreaming and Irish War Cry each at 6-1. I have pegged McCraken at 8-1, with Gunnevera at 12-1. I list Girvin, Gomrley and Practical Joke each at 15-1. I put everyone else at 20-1 or higher.
UPDATED DERBY STRIKES SITUATION
Various “rules” for the Kentucky Derby once were quite popular, but they seemingly have lost their appeal in recent years. A “Derby rule” meant a horse needed to have done this or that, or not done this or that, in order to win the roses.
As the years have gone by, whenever a so-called “Derby rule” was broken, it seemed like many racing fans were gleeful. Maybe people just grew tired of hearing so much about these so-called “Derby rules” every year. But for whatever reason or reasons, whereas a great many people once embraced “Derby rules,” they mostly are derided nowadays, as evidenced by what big-time horseplayer Maury Wolf said Tuesday to Byk on his radio program.
“There used to be all these rules,” Wolf said. “I think pretty much now we can throw most of them in the dustbin at this point…The game is changing. The nature of the race is changing. Basically, whatever rule is thrown out there this year probably is not going to be a particularly good rule three years from now or maybe even today. Those rules were great at predicting the past. They’re not really good at predicting the future.”
It is in this current negative climate for “Derby rules” in which the Derby Strikes System that I developed back in 1999 somehow has managed to be of interest to a number of racing fans.
What I think distinguishes the strikes system from any single “Derby rule” is the strikes system is much more comprehensive. The Derby Strikes System is an amalgamation of factors that attempts to ascertain the chances a horse has to win the Kentucky Derby from both tactical and historical perspectives. It is the marriage of the TACTICAL with the HISTORICAL that might well be what makes the strikes system better than any “Derby rule,” per se.
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 listed at the end of this column, along with the reasoning behind each category.
It is not until a horse has made his or her final start before the Kentucky Derby that one can determine a horse’s number of strikes. Churchill Downs currently lists 32 candidates for the Kentucky Derby. Now that all of the races in the Road to the Kentucky Derby have been run, it is possible to determine the number of strikes for each of those 32 horses.
Here is my current Kentucky Derby Top 10, with the number of strikes for each horse in parenthesis:
- Thunder Snow (0)
- Irish War Cry (2)
- Classic Empire (1)
- Gunnevera (0)
- McCraken (2)
- Girvin (1)
- J Boys Echo (0)
- Always Dreaming (2)
- Hence (1)
- Practical Joke (0)
According to the Derby Strikes System, a horse with zero strikes or one strike has a much better chance to win the Kentucky Derby than a horse with two strikes. That’s because 38 of the last 44 Kentucky Derby winners have had zero strikes or one strike.
If a horse has two strikes, it’s not impossible for a horse to win the roses, but it is unlikely. Only five of the last 44 have had two strikes: Cannonade (1974), Ferdinand (1986), Sea Hero (1993), Funny Cide (2003) and Giacomo (2005).
According to the strikes system, any horse with three or more strikes has only a remote chance of winning the Kentucky Derby. Of the last 44 horses to win the Run for the Roses, the only one to have more than two strikes was Mine That Bird, who had four.
What makes this a particularly fascinating year from a strikes standpoint is that four high-profile horses are in the two-strike boat: Always Dreaming, Gormley, Irish War Cry and McCraken.
Another dynamic in play for this year’s Kentucky Derby is the paucity of triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures. Only three horses have recorded a triple-digit Beyer: Classic Empire, Irish War Cry and J Boys Echo.
Irish War Cry has the distinction of being the lone 2017 Kentucky Derby candidate to have more than one triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure to his credit. He was assigned a 101 for his win in the Holy Bull and a 101 for his victory in the Wood Memorial. Will his two triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures trump his two strikes?
J Boys Echo sports the highest 2017 Beyer Speed Figure. He was assigned a 102 for his win in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.
Classic Empire has not posted a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure this year, but he did get a 102 for his triumph in the BC Juvenile.
As for J Boys Echo, his combination of having the top 2017 Beyer Speed Figure and zero strikes does make him an intriguing longshot. I am starting to take a much more serious look at him. And I am not alone in this regard.
J Boys Echo, who finished fourth in the Blue Grass, moved back onto my Kentucky Derby Top 10 this week at No. 7. Similarly, after an absence, J Boys Echo returned to the BloodHorse’s Steve Haskin Derby Dozen this week, also at No. 7.
“The surprise return to the Dozen, and this high up, is based on several factors,” Haskin wrote of J Boys Echo. “He had more trouble in the Blue Grass than I originally thought and he is the only horse to have earned triple-digit Brisnet middle and late closing figures (101 and 103, respectively) in the same race (in the Gotham), the fastest Brisnet speed figure this year (104 in the Gotham), and has the third-fastest late closing figure (110 in the Withers).
“In the Blue Grass, he bobbled slightly coming out of the gate and was bumped from both sides, then had McCraken cut him off going into the first turn. When asked for his run nearing the half-mile pole, he was moving quickest of all when he ran smack into a traffic jam, was jostled around a bit between horses and had to throttle back just enough to lose his momentum and fall back to last.”
Haskin went on to note several examples of a horse bouncing back to give a good account of themselves in the Kentucky Derby after an uninspiring effort in the Blue Grass, such as:
--Sea Hero finishing fourth in the 1993 Blue Grass, then winning the Kentucky Derby at 12-1.
--Thunder Gulch finishing fourth in the 1995 Blue Grass, then winning the Kentucky Derby at 24-1.
--Invisible Ink finishing fourth in the 2001 Blue Grass, then finishing second at 55-1 to Monarchos in the Kentucky Derby.
--Closing Argument finishing third in the 2005 Blue Grass, then finishing second at 71-1 to Giacomo in the Kentucky Derby.
--Bluegrass Cat finished fourth in the 2006 Blue Grass, then finishing second at 30-1 to Barbaro in the Kentucky Derby.
For now, I have J Boys Echo ranked No. 7. But I now am interested enough in him that depending on how he appears to train and the post position he draws, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that I could end up picking him third, or second, or perhaps even first.
Considering there is a dearth of triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures and so many high-profile horses have two strikes, this year might present a golden opportunity for a foreign horse to win the Kentucky Derby. That’s why Thunder Snow is atop my Kentucky Derby list. He has class (a Group I winner in France), good dirt form (two for two) and zero strikes.
Thunder Snow also has a red-hot owner in Godolphin, a winner of four races last Saturday at Keeneland, highlighted by a pair of graded stakes victories. Dickinson won the Grade I Jenny Wiley and Watershed took the Grade III Ben Ali. Kiaran McLaughlin trains those four Godolphin-owned Keeneland winners, while Saeed bin Suror conditions Thunder Snow, who is on Churchill Downs’ list of prospective Kentucky Derby entrants at this time.
Meanwhile, it was announced Tuesday that Arkansas Derby runner-up Conquest Mo Money will not be entered in the Kentucky Derby. If he had run, he would have done so with four strikes (Categories 2, 4, 6 and 8).
These are the number of strikes for the 20 leading Kentucky Derby point earners listed by Churchill Downs when the leaderboard was updated on April 15:
ZERO STRIKES OR ONE STRIKE (The prime group)
Classic Empire (Category 3)
Fast and Accurate (0 strikes)
Girvin (Category 6)
Gunnevera (0 strikes)
Hence (Category 4)
Irap (Category 7)
J Boys Echo (0 strikes)
Practical Joke (0 strikes)
Tapwrit (Category 5)
Thunder Snow (0 strikes)
TWO STRIKES (A victory is possible but it is unlikely group)
Always Dreaming (Categories 1 and 6)
Gormley (Categories 3 and 4)
Irish War Cry (Categories 4 and 6)
Lookin At Lee (Categories 2 and 3)
McCraken (Categories 3 and 6)
State of Honor (Categories 2 and 7)
THREE OR MORE STRIKES (A victory is almost impossible group)
Battalion Runner (Categories 1, 2, 4, 6)
Battle of Midway (Categories 2, 4, 6, 8)
Cloud Computing (Categories 2, 6 and 8)
Patch (Categories 1, 2, 6 and 8)
These are the number of strikes for the horses not listed among the leading 20 leading point earners but still listed as candidates for the race by Churchill Downs when the leaderboard was updated on April 15:
ONE STRIKE (The prime group)
Royal Mo (Category 4)
TWO STRIKES (A victory is possible but it is unlikely group)
Impressive Edge (Categories 2 and 5)
Lookin At Lee (Categories 2 and 3)
THREE OR MORE STRIKES (A victory is almost impossible group)
Blueridge Traveler (Categories 2, 3 and 6)
Hollywood Handsome (Categories 1, 2, 3 and 5)
Lancaster Bomber (Categories 2, 3 and 5)
Local Hero (Categories 2, 4 and 6)
Master Plan (Categories 2, 3 and 6)
Petrov (Categories 2, 3, 4 and 5)
Reach the World (Categories 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 8)
Senior Investment (Categories 1, 3 and 5)
Sonneteer (Categories 2, 3 and 5)
Untrapped (Categories 2, 4, 5 and 7)
Here are the strikes for each Kentucky Derby winner going back to 1973:
1973 Secretariat (0 strikes)
1974 Cannonade (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 4
1975 Foolish Pleasure (0 strikes)
1976 Bold Forbes (0 strikes)
1977 Seattle Slew (0 strikes)
1978 Affirmed (0 strikes)
1979 Spectacular Bid (0 strikes)
1980 Pleasant Colony (0 strikes)
1981 Genuine Risk (1 strike) Category 1
1982 Gato Del Sol (1 strike) Category 3
1983 Sunny’s Halo (1 strike) Category 1
1984 Swale (0 strikes)
1985 Spend a Buck (0 strikes)
1986 Ferdinand (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 4
1987 Alysheba (1 strike) Category 2
1988 Winning Colors (0 strikes)
1989 Sunday Silence (0 strikes)
1990 Unbridled (1 strike) Category 3
1991 Strike the Gold (0 strikes)
1992 Lil E. Tee (0 strikes)
1993 Sea Hero (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 5
1994 Go for Gin (0 strikes)
1995 Thunder Gulch (0 strikes)
1996 Grindstone (0 strikes)
1997 Silver Charm (1 strike) Category 4
1998 Real Quiet (0 strikes)
1999 Charismatic (1 strike) Category 5
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus (1 strike) Category 6
2001 Monarchos (0 strikes)
2002 War Emblem (0 strikes)
2003 Funny Cide (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 9
2004 Smarty Jones (0 strikes)
2005 Giacomo (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 5
2006 Barbaro (1 strike) Category 6
2007 Street Sense (0 strikes)
2008 Big Brown (1 strike) Category 6
2009 Mine That Bird (4 strikes) Categories 1, 4, 5 and 9
2010 Super Saver (1 strike) Category 4
2011 Animal Kingdom (1 strike) Category 6
2012 I’ll Have Another (1 strike) Category 6
2013 Orb (0 strikes)
2014 California Chrome (0 strikes)
2015 American Pharoah (1 strike) Category 6
2016 Nyquist (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 and Mine That Bird in 2009 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 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.)
- 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.)