Monday, May 1, 2006

Kentucky Derby 101.2: Easily The Most Difficult
Achievement In All Of Sports

You're a sports fan. You know that The Derby is a big deal, only because you have always been told that it is really important. But what's the big deal? You don't really get it - to you it's just a horse race like any other, because no one has ever taken the time to explain to you WHY it is so celebrated by the horse racing masses. That's where I come in. The 1st 2nd of several installments.

Statistically speaking, winning the Derby is the most difficult thing to do in all of sports, and here is why. The Derby is a once a year horse race that is only open to 3 year old horses. This means that a horse gets one chance and once chance only to run in and win the Derby. If that horse is injured, or inexplicably has a bad day, or whatever else, there is no chance to come back and win the next year like in every other sport. This alone makes the Derby unique, is that it is truly a single shot at glory.

The 4 major US sports have approximately 30 teams in each league, so an extremely basic analysis would say that any team has a 1 in 30 chance of winning their championship in any given year. Of course, if they fail, they can try over and over again in future years. Tennis tournaments get up to 64 entrants, and the standard golf tournament has 144 players to start off with. Obviously the odds are different based on talent levels, money, etc, but in other sports you are loooking at something between a 1 in 30 shot and a 1 in 144 shot, with unlimited do-overs if things don't work out your way. (Actually, the U.S. Open in golf is open to any USGA registered golfer with a 2 handicap or better, and each year up to 8,000 golfers compete in local, secional, and regional qualifying rounds to make up a portion of the U.S. Open field. The trick is that most of the spots are otherwise accounted for by the PGA Tour Professionals, and that anyone can qualify for and play in the U.S. Open year after year after year.)

Easy in comparison.

Now consider this. Each year there are between 35,000 and 40,000 thoroughbreds 'foaled' (born) in North America. Of these, about 10,000 go on to race as 2 year olds. In January of each year, any 3 year old showing any promise at all is 'nominated' for the Triple Crown races for a fee of $600: There are usually about 500-1,000 horses nominated. Then throughout the spring, several prep races are run to weed out the best horses, and a maximum of 20 are allowed into the Derby (if more than 20 want in, then the top 20 are determined by winnings earned in graded stakes races). So of the 35,000 foals each year, ultimately a maximum of 20 make it to the starting gate of the Kentucky Derby 3 years later. So just getting to the Derby is a 20 in 35,000 shot: this is why simply making it to the Derby is a lifelong dream for anyone in the horse racing business - owners, trainers, jockeys, etc.

1997: 35,078 registered Thoroughbreds foaled in North America
2000: 1 Derby Winner: Fusaichi Pegasus

To actually win the Derby you are talking about anywhere between a 1 in 35,000 shot and a 1 in 10,000 shot, depending on how you quantify it. And you only get one shot. Again, if your horse is sick, injured, has an off day, whatever, then that's it, there will never be a second chance. Imagine The Masters if they let in every scratch golfer in the world, all 10,000 of them, but you only got to compete in the event once, at say, age 30.

The almost unbelieveable odds against winning is one of several reasons that The Derby is such a special sporting event.

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