It’s almost time for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby, so even if you won’t be in the grandstand, throw on the most flamboyant ensemble in your armoire, grab your floppiest hat and make yourself a mint julep. Take part in the event that makes kings of horses and donkeys of humans.1
Unlike say, golf, in which the field is effectively always the safer bet than any particular player, favorites win about a third of the time on the horse track. But for years, Churchill Downs was the exception. The 20-horse field,2 the biggest faced by the 3-year-old thoroughbreds involved, has fueled unpredictability as contending horses have gotten lost in traffic. As a result, two decades went by without a favorite winning. But that trend has taken a 180-degree turn lately. Starting with Orb in 2013 and followed by California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist, Always Dreaming and Justify, favorites have won six consecutive Kentucky Derby, a never-before-seen sequence that, frankly, is upsetting older scribes and proponents of the underdog. Depending on the sportsbook, had you placed a $1 bet on each respective winner since 2013, you’d have walked away from the Run for the Roses with a whopping $25, good for a few cups of burgoo.
This year’s favorite, Omaha Beach, was scratched because of an entrapped epiglottis, leaving the most wide-open field in recent memory. And while there have been sport-rattling upsets in the past decade and a half, like Mine That Bird in 2009 (50-1) and Giacomo in 2005 (50.3-1), the average winner since 2000 checked in at roughly 12-1 — even with those longshots included. But since there technically has to be a favorite, let’s focus on the five thoroughbreds — three of which are trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert — with morning-line odds shorter than 12-1: Game Winner (5-1), Improbable (6-1), Roadster (6-1), Maximum Security (10-1) and Tacitus (10-1).
Every winner since the turn of the century came to horse racing’s crucible on scorching hot streaks, if not outright victories. Since Animal Kingdom in 2011, every winner at Churchill Downs won its final prep race. Of the past 19 winners, only Giacomo and Mine That Bird, two horses tied for the second-biggest upset in the race’s history, failed to place either first or second in the race preceding the Kentucky Derby. A whopping 13 won their previous race.
|2018||Justify||Santa Anita Derby||1|
|2017||Always Dreaming||Florida Derby||1|
|2015||American Pharoah||Arkansas Derby||1|
|2014||California Chrome||Santa Anita Derby||1|
|2012||I’ll Have Another||Santa Anita Derby||1|
|2010||Super Saver||Arkansas Derby||2|
|2009||Mine That Bird||Sunland Derby||4|
|2008||Big Brown||Florida Derby||1|
|2007||Street Sense||Blue Grass Stakes||2|
|2005||Giacomo||Santa Anita Derby||4|
|2004||Smarty Jones||Arkansas Derby||1|
|2003||Funny Cide||Wood Memorial||2|
|2002||War Emblem||Illinois Derby||1|
|2000||Fusaichi Pegasus||Wood Memorial||1|
Unsurprisingly, the favorites this time around are accomplished on the track, each having won at least 60 percent of his career starts. Each of the five favorites at least showed in its most recent outing. Maximum Security and Roadster are coming off consecutive wins.3
While not as long as the mammoth test in the Belmont Stakes, the Derby rewards stamina in ways few races can match. It’s critical, then, for a horse to showcase beforehand that it has the legs to survive the pace, which every year grinds challengers to dust before the final furlong. As Neil Greenberg of The Washington Post noted, the past 68 winners raced at the next-longest distance — 1⅛ miles — before attempting the 1¼ test at Churchill Downs. Each of this year’s top five contenders has gone that distance before.
The contenders can largely be distilled from four races: the Wood Memorial at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack, the Florida Derby, the Arkansas Derby and Southern California’s Santa Anita Derby. Nearly three-quarters of Derby winners since 2000 have finished one of these four races in either first or second.
Lately, however, winners of the Wood Memorial, which was recently downgraded to a Grade 2 stakes race, have gone cold on horse racing’s biggest stage. Each of the past three winners4 has finished no better than ninth in Louisville, while no horse that even ran at Aqueduct’s crown jewel has gone on to win the Derby since the gelding Funny Cide in 2003.5 If that streak holds, this year’s Wood winner, Tacitus, is doomed — as is Wood runner-up Tax, who has also drawn some betting attention at 20-to-1.
Meanwhile, the winners of the Florida Derby and the Santa Anita Derby — which were claimed this spring by Maximum Security and Roadster, respectively — have dominated on the first Saturday in May, providing six of the past seven winners.
There are only 20 posts available at the Kentucky Derby. Those spots are now filled by fairly green thoroughbreds — largely because of a qualification change that first went into effect during the 2013 Derby, along with the ever-present injury risk that would negate the cartoonishly lucrative breeding opportunities for retired horses. Last year, for example, Justify became the first horse in 135 years to win the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old. Upon dominating six events over a 112-day career, he promptly retired and was sold for $60 million. Many front-runners enter with no more than five races under their hooves.
More than a quarter-century ago, Andrew Beyer invented the Beyer Speed Figure, in what would later be recognized as a watershed moment for the horse racing industry. His metric takes into account a number of variables — including time, distance and track bias — to parse the speed of a thoroughbred.
And Beyer’s rating system has been awfully predictive at Churchill Downs.
Including Justify’s win last year, 25 of the 27 Derby winners since Beyer’s metric was introduced have clocked a speed rating of at least 95 before the Derby. All of the favorites this year have also done so.
Typically, horses find their stride in the leadup to the event, posting gaudy speed ratings before they hit Louisville. Game Winner enters having averaged a speed rating of 98.8 in his previous four races, which ranks fastest among this year’s entrants. Only three of the past six Derby winners averaged a faster time: Justify, American Pharoah and California Chrome, who all averaged triple digits in their races immediately preceding their Derby wins.
|Horse||Most recent||Race 2||Race 3||Race 4||Average|
|American Pharoah (2015)||102||99||99||103||100.8|
|California Chrome (2014)||106||102||94||101||100.8|
|Win Win Win||97||92||101||95||96.3|
|Code of Honor||95||95||91||95||94.0|
|War of Will||89||96||94||94||93.3|
|Always Dreaming (2017)||102||84||89||96||92.8|
|Long Range Toddy||83||97||91||92||90.8|
|By My Standards||102||90||80||83||88.8|
|Plus Que Parfait||72||87||94||88||85.3|
The Run for the Roses will bring tens of thousands of horse racing fans to the eternal cathedral in Louisville. Nineteen 3-year-old colts will be guided past the twin spires in search of history in the greatest two minutes in sport. Three of them — Game Winner, Roadster and Improbable — are trained by Baffert, who is in search of his sixth win, which would tie Ben Jones for the most all-time wins at the Derby. With this weekend’s biggest star and a Hall of Fame jockey on the sidelines, and a track increasingly dominated by favorites, this could be his moment. It’s best not to bet against the guy with two Triple Crowns in the past four years.