The Kentucky Derby

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Morry Gash/AP

How to Pick the Winner of the Kentucky Derby

May 03, 2011
by Mark E. Moran
This Saturday, the eyes of the sporting world turn to Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Whether you’re pursuing a windfall at the track, going after the office pool or planning to be the guy in the know at the neighborhood party, there are steps you can take to maximize your chances of picking the Derby winner.

Consult the Racing Experts

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While some choose a horse by name, number, or color of the owner’s silks, most people arm themselves with all available information on the horses. Many also read the viewpoints of racing experts, as the rationale underlying their opinions is enlightening, even if you disagree with their selections.

Basic information about each contender is available on the official site of the Kentucky Derby. Published by Chuchill Downs, it lists the entrants, and provides information about recent races, including video replays, which must be viewed to fully grasp a horse's performance. The site also has full information on the pedigree of each horse, and the owners, trainers and jockeys.

The Daily Racing Form’s Kentucky Derby section includes news stories and analysis from its racing experts. One particularly valuable feature: live chats in which racing experts and the Racing Form’s knowledgeable readers spar over their selections. Make sure to read the insight of Mike Welsch, who monitors the morning workouts for the Racing Form.  His commentary has proven prescient in recent years, and it’s worth consulting Welsch's daily reports on the site.

There are hundreds of other Web sites and blogs that contain useful information. A good way to make sense of it all is to visit Equidaily, which is the single best source of horse racing news on the Internet. Publisher Seth Morrow scours the Web each day to find links to the most insightful articles about horse racing, and to expert Derby selections from all over the Web.

With most newspapers reducing coverage of horse racing, some of the best writers are on independent blogs. HorseRaceInsider.com offers analysis and commentary from John Pricci, longtime racing writer for Newsday, as well as several other veteran writers, and also links out to other good blogs. RaceDay360.com is an aggregator that offers an auto-feed of some of the best racing blogs.

Once you’ve read all the above, you must read the Racing Form's Past Performances, which will be available on the site by Thursday, and which provide crucial details on every race each horse has run, and will help you determine which horses meet the key criteria explained at the bottom of this article. While they may seem daunting at first, past performances are actually easy to understand, and the Racing Form provides a free tutorial.

And for those ready for the full immersion course, The Sheets is a tool that relies on a performance rating system to assess a horse’s potential, and where the horse is in its current form cycle.

What to Look for in a Horse

As you read and consider the experts’ opinions, many of the same important factors will come up again and again. Here are some key points to consider.
How well the horse finishes. Review the videos of each horse’s last race. Was he running strongly and in a straight path at the end of the race, even if he did not win? Or was he weaving in the stretch and looking leg weary? The Derby is longer than any of the prep races for it, and a horse must finish strongly to win it.

Running style. Horses with good tactical speed and the ability to stalk tend to do better than horses who charge to the lead or come from way behind late in the race.

Morning workouts.
If a horse has good morning workouts at Churchill Downs this week, it suggests both that he is in good form and likes the racing surface.

Post Position.
A horse who starts from an inside post position may be caught in traffic. A horse drawn outside may have to go wide on the turns. The best posts are between No. 5 and No. 16. While plenty of horses have won from the other posts, a poor post has to be factored negatively into your analysis.

Jockey experience. The media glare during Derby Week is overwhelming, and the large field gives ample opportunity for an inexperienced rider to compromise his horse’s chances. An experienced jockey who has been to the Derby before is less likely to crack under pressure.

Trainer experience. The road to the Kentucky Derby is long and arduous, and it takes a skillful trainer to bring a horse to the race healthy and in peak condition.

Track condition. Rain on Derby Day can turn the dirt track into mud; some horses will fare well on it, and others will do poorly. The Racing Form’s “Past Performances” will offer some clues about how each horse will do.

Pedigree. Some horses run well at short distances, while others thrive at longer distances. Until recently, pedigrees provided strong clues about how a horse would run at the Kentucky Derby distance. But while still an important factor to consider, a questionable pedigree by itself is no longer reason to eliminate a horse from consideration.

Parting Advice

Now that we’ve explained the “science” of selecting a winner, we’ll also let you in on an inside secret: selecting a the winner of the Kentucky Derby winner is more art than science, and many of the best professional handicappers have miserable track records at it. So, in the end, your selection should be made by you alone, and don’t be afraid to let your gut feelings play a role.
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