Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Final Round Begins

It's just about five weeks to the Derby and for the most part any race will be the contenders last pre-Derby race from here on out. The only real exception I see is for horses who don't do as well in the next two weeks. Connections might consider one last tilt in the Lexington but were talking about probably one horse at most who will run in the Derby having had more than one race in the final five weeks.

There are a ton of things to look for in final preps. Historically they have been the most important races. If the only racing you ever saw was the major preps over the next four weeks you'd still be just as well informed as anyone who had been watching every maiden since last June. I can't speak for everyone who follows the Derby Trail blow by blow but I do so primarily because I find it fun and interesting I don't live under the delusion that it gives me some great analytical advantage. If anything it could create harmful biases but once the final round rolls around I have to push aside all my feelings about who I like and what I have envisioned and just go with the facts as they are.

Here are a few key things to remember when evaluating final preps. All stats include only data from 1996 to the present.

A horse needs to be competitive in their final prep. Horses that finished out of the money in their last prep went 56-1-2-1 in the Derby. But more than just finishing top 3 they can't get blown away by the winner. Horses that were not at least within 3 lengths of the winner in their final prep went an amazing 91-0-4-2 in the Derby. As enamored as you may be with some late closer who made it into second or third behind a runaway winner the stats say it's best to leave those horses alone.

Horses need to close their final preps strongly. I look at closing fractions for the last 1/8th, 1/4 and 3/8th's of a mile. Interestingly enough horses that failed to run faster than the field average for all three of those splits went 119-1-7-5. Silver Charm was the only exception. 119 starters yielded only 1 winner while the 94 starters who did qualify with this angle accounted for 12 wins. Be careful not to get caught up with making arbitrary lines. Averages work well enough. Calculate the main track and synthetic track averages separately.

A lot of people think that Beyer Figures are too shaky to be measuring performances off of but it may surprise you to know that horses who regress by more than 2 Beyer points in their last prep went 66-1-3-2 in the Derby. Street Sense was the lone exception and he emerged from that wacky renewal of the Blue Grass stakes. For horses like I Want Revenge and Quality Road it means they need to run huge again and earn at least a 111 in their final preps to qualify for this angle. That's a really big task for both of them and I think these figures highlight the danger of peaking too soon.

It may seem narrow minded to force Derby contenders into the mold shaped by these four factors but the Derby is a very difficult race to win. As specific as some of this criteria seems none of these stats are that difficult for a good horse to achieve, they seem to tick off all the boxes as if by accident. If you find yourself stretching a line or making an excuse why a certain stat shouldn't apply you've probably been deluded into making a case for a horse that you should just leave alone.

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