Kentucky Derby: It’s a numbers game

A look inside the numbers for the 2023 Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby: It’s a numbers game

While the sport of racing awaits the taking of entries and setting the post positions for the May 6 Kentucky Derby (G1), now is a good time to look inside the final times and fractions of the prep races for the major contenders. With the Derby—as in most any horse race—it’s a numbers game.

Horsemen will have to enter (and pay $25,000) their 3-year-olds for the Run for the Roses by the morning of May 1, and the post positions for the 20 runners (and two also-eligibles) will take place that afternoon from 2-3 p.m. EDT. The same goes for the 14-field Kentucky Oaks (G1), run May 5. That allows for plenty of handicapping and advance wagering leading up to the First Saturday in May.

While handicapping at any level, a personal preference of mine is to break down the final fractions of a runner’s last few races to get a line on how particular horses “finish.” A good rule of thumb is most horses can run fast early in a race…it’s what they do late that counts. Thoroughbreds are bred to “run as fast as they can for as far as they can.” However, most horses can’t carry that speed beyond six furlongs, so I’m always on the lookout for horses that can…which is something other horses can’t do: finish strong.

There have been a few standouts in recent renewals of the Run for the Roses.

Smarty Jones in 2004 is the best example. He prepped for the Derby in Arkansas, and in the March 20 Rebel Stakes (G2), he ran a sub :24 quarter mile from the six-furlong marker to the mile marker, followed by a final sixteenth in a rapid :06.01. In examining the middle and late fractions of all the contenders for that year’s Derby, none had any times remotely close to that, and most were in the :25 and higher range. If Smarty Jones could duplicate that effort, he was four or five lengths faster than his rivals in the stretch under the Twin Spires. In the slop at Churchill Downs, he won the Kentucky Derby by 2 ¾ lengths at 4-1.

In the 2012 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita, I’ll Have Another tracked successive quarter miles of :23.03, :23.74, and :23.75 before pulling away to win by 2 ¾ lengths. To run three quarters in sub :24 is remarkable for a young 3-year-old, and his inner fractions stood out when compared to his peers. I’ll Have Another drew post 19 and had the then unheralded Mario Gutierrez up for trainer Doug O’Neill. He won the Derby over the swift Bodemeister at 15-1.

Maximum Security’s Florida Derby (G1) in 2019 was a work of art. The star-crossed colt ran sub :24 quarters from a half-mile to six furlongs and from six furlongs to the mile marker while pulling away from the competition. It was by far the best prep of any horse that year. He finished first in the Kentucky Derby, 1 ¾ lengths ahead of Country House, but was disqualified as rider Luis Saez had the colt drifting from the three path to the rail turning for home and drifting out in the stretch. Betting him to win was the right thing, but cashing was another story that day.

So, who has run some of the best inner fractions among this year’s contingent? Thanks to the GPS charting done by Equibase, the job is a bit easier these days. Sadly, there is not a clear-cut colt that stands above the crowd, but there are a few points worth noting.

The quickest “come home” time of 2023 is Two Phil’s finish at Turfway Park in the March 25 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) over a synthetic surface. In the nine-furlong event, he ran his final quarters in :24.50 and :24.53. This is about as good as it gets with this year’s crop of 3-year-olds. There is a caveat here. The colt, though well-seasoned with stakes tries at Canterbury Park (Minnesota), Keeneland, Churchill Downs, and Fair Grounds, he’s been unable to duplicate the Turfway fractions on a dirt track. A stakes winner over the Churchill surface last September, his final fractions were :26.18 and :06.60. His other races at 3 offer similar times. So, is he a horse on the rise or a horse that does his best running on synthetic? That is the $3 million question.

Forte, the favorite for the Derby off his 2-year-old championship form and wins at Gulfstream Park this winter in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) and Florida Derby, has been impressive visually, and his come-home times have been solid, but they are not that much faster than everybody else. In the Florida Derby, his final quarters came in :25 and :25.54. Going for him is his steady numbers…each of his furlongs came in :12 and change. There were no zippy :11s or slowing down :13s. He runs just as fast late as he does early, which in a season where there is no standout, his times are a solid statistic.

His new rival, Mage, faced last year’s champ at Gulfstream in just his second and third starts. In the Florida Derby, he did run a breezy :24.42 quarter from six furlongs to the mile while getting to the front of the pack but was caught late by Forte to fall a length shy at the wire. His final eighth came in :13.18, hardly the stuff of Derby legend. However, his quickness and acceleration early—he did run sub :24 second quarters from his first quarter to his third quarter shows he is nimble enough to be much closer to the pace in a crowded Derby field. Not having to bob and weave ones way through traffic is a key requisite to a score in the Derby. So, the lightly raced Mage is one to follow Derby week as contenders gallop/work over the Churchill surface.

Clocking similar fractions as Forte was Tapit Trice in his score in the Blue Grass Stakes (G1) at Keeneland. That’s no surprise, as both are trained by Todd Pletcher, a two-time Derby-winning trainer. He, too, was steady throughout the nine-furlong race, had one sub: 24 quarter (:23.89) early on, and finished up in :24.63. In his favor is the fact that as many as four runners who finished behind him may make the Derby field, and while he won by a neck, it was 5 ¾ lengths back to the third-place runner. That’s a sizable class edge and leaves a lot of ground for his rivals to make up.

The fractions of both the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial Stakes (G2) failed to yield much gold. The winner at Santa Anita, Practical Move, slowed with each quarter, and his final eighth was :12.96. Of interest, third-place finisher Skinner (who is still far down the list of point earners) showed some quicker fractions while coming with a wide trip. He bears watching if he can draw into the “fastest two minutes in sports.”

For the latest listing of Derby contenders by points, click here:

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