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It May Be Worth Disregarding Polytrack Performances When Handicapping the Derby...By Hartley Henderson

The major prep races for the Kentucky Derby saw some stunning upsets by unknown horses and big disappointments put in by the favorites. Heading into the prep races the two horses almost all the experts were discussing were War Pass and Pyro. War Pass won the Breeder's Cup Juvenile by open lengths and easily won his first race in 2008. He was the 1/20 favorite for the Tampa Bay Derby. The horse, however, failed miserably in the Tampa Bay Derby, although he did recover a bit in the War Memorial to finish second. He was later withdrawn from the Kentucky Derby after trainer Nick Zito discovered a small crack in his anklebone. It is quite likely that the crack was developing prior to the stunning defeat in Tampa Bay.

Pyro finished second in the Breeder's Cup Juvenile to War Pass but was actually more intriguing to many handicappers for the Derby because of his running style. The Derby often favors closers and Pyro is known for his stretch kick. In the Louisiana Derby Pyro made a move between runners heading into the stretch and pulled away. His dosage index of 1.06 indicates he will love the Derby distance and track. As such everyone was anxiously awaiting his run in the Blue Grass at Keeneland to see just how good Pyro was. Unfortunately, Pyro threw craps finishing a well beaten 10th. By most accounts he just didn't like the polytrack surface. The same held true for Cool Coal Man who won the Fountain of Youth and Big Truck who won the aforementioned Tampa Bay Derby over War Pass. But each of those horses couldn't handle the polytrack surface and finished well beaten. It was the first start for each of the 3 horses on a synthetic surface. The winner of the race, Monba, and second place finisher Cowboy Cal were poorly rated for the race and were in the 'field" bet in the advanced Kentucky Derby wager. In fact, prior to the race neither horse finished in the money for any graded stakes race. It is a safe assumption that both Monba and Cowboy Cal will be well back if they run on May 3rd.

Ironically the same thing happened last year in the Blue Grass Stakes. Street Sense was the big favorite heading into the race but lost to Dominican, a horse that wasn't even mentioned for the Kentucky Derby prior to that finish. Dominican subsequently finished a well beaten 11th in the Derby, while Street Sense went on to win the Kentucky Derby from Hard Spun and Curlin, the latter who is currently winning major stakes races worldwide. It should be noted that prior to 2007, no prep races were run on polytrack and most horse racing experts agree that polytrack and dirt are 2 different games. If anything, polytrack is more like a spongy turf surface than it is dirt. As such, many handicappers think that you can't count results on polytrack when handicapping dirt races. After Pyro's loss, ESPN announcers even suggested that the results were meaningless since none of the real contenders handled the track.

This raises questions regarding California invader Colonel John who recently won the Santa Anita Derby. Colonel John looks in great form heading into the Derby, but all his races have been on the synthetic surface. While horses that do well on dirt are not assured of doing well on polytrack (as was the case with Pyro, Cool Coal Man and Big Truck), the reverse is also true, and horses who do well on polytrack do not necessarily fare well on dirt. In fact horses from Woodbine, Keeneland, Turfway Park and Hollywood have a less than stellar record when switching to dirt. Colonel John may in fact do well in the race, but at this point it is just a guess since he has never run on a dirt surface.

So if polytrack races are thrown out, 3 clear favorites emerge (5 if you want to include Colonel John and El Gato Malo who have run exclusively on synthetic tracks). These are Pyro, Big Brown and Gayego. Without question, Big Brown has been the most accomplished horse in 2008 prep races and deserves his favorite status. Big Brown ran a maiden race on turf at Saratoga in 2007, which he won. In 2008 he romped in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park, recording an astounding 106 Beyer figure, and he repeated that figure when winning the Florida Derby by 5 lengths. Two things going against Big Brown are the fact that he only ran 3 races, and his speed style. No horse has won the Derby with 4 or fewer starts since Exterminator in 1918, despite the fact that many have tried since that time. As well, Big Brown's past performances indicate he will be racing with the leaders and most likely will try to go wire to wire, but the Kentucky Derby favors closers. The last horse to win the Derby on the engine was War Emblem in 2002, and prior to that one had to go back to 1994 when Go For Gin won in wire to wire fashion on a very sloppy surface. Gayego has 3 wins and 2 seconds in 5 starts and was never a serious contender until his victory in the Oaklawn Derby. Gayego was hard pressed, racing near the lead and holding on determinedly. His racing style and result was very similar to Sunny's Halo when that horse won the Derby in 1983 after winning the Oaklawn Derby. Gayego's 103 Beyer Rating was also the second highest of the contenders, only surpassed by Big Brown.

Other horses that deserve a look in the race are Court Vision, Tale of Ekati, Z Fortune and Visionaire. Court Vision loves to come from behind and closed 19 lengths to lose the War Memorial by only a length to Tale of Ekati and War Pass. Court Vision definitely has the style of racing to win the Derby, but his times have been relatively slow in comparison to Pyro and Big Brown. Tale of Ekati did win that race, but he was trounced by Pyro and Big Brown in prior races. Z Fortune finished a determined second to Gayego in the previously mentioned Arkansas Derby and has run some other impressive races in the past. Visionaire will be near the back and does have a style that could win the Derby. In fact his results are comparable to Giacomo when that horse went on to shock the bettors in the 2005 Derby. Visionaire becomes a serious contender if the track comes up sloppy, given his win and terrific Beyer figure capturing the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct in March.

In any case it is probably a good handicapping strategy for the Kentucky Derby to discount races over polytrack, or at least to weight them less. For certain it is best to ignore the Blue Grass results which for 2 years have proven to be meaningless in handicapping the Derby. With my money, I am leaning to Pyro to rebound with a big score in the Derby or Visionaire if the track comes up wet.

Hartley Henderson

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