Monday, May 1, 2006

Kentucky Derby 101.3: Into The Unknown

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 3rd of several installments.

As you know the Derby is a race for 3 year old horses only. Three year old horses are young adolescents; probably the equivalent of a 13 to 15 year old human, and are thus just developing into their own. A two year old horse is a baby, while a 4 year old horse is an adult, so a whole lot of rapid development takes place in the three year old, coming-of-age season. A racehorse is usually considered at his strongest/best/peak in his or her 4 & 5 year old years (and at age 6 and over is usually in decline). Unfortuantely, few successful racers these days even make it this far. Instead they are retired to stud where infinitely more money can be made than at the races.

Anyhow, The Derby is a mile and a 1/4 which is important and mysterious because it is the first race in a horse's career at this "classic distance". None of the horses in the race have ever run this far, which adds a massive element of the unknown to the mix. The prep races leading up to the Derby are run at 1 mile, a mile and 1/16, and a mile and 1/8. So no matter how good any of the horses have looked going into the Derby, there always remains the question of whether or not they can "get the distance", and in horse racing the differences between a mile, a mile and 1/8 and a mile and 1/4 are each pretty massive. The closest analogy that I can think of is to think of the difference between the 200 meter dash, 400 meter dash, and 800 meter dash. Some horses can completely dominate at a mile but cannot get the classic distance, and some even look great at a mile and 1/8 but do not have the stamina for a mile and 1/4. Conversely, bettors are always intrigued by horses that closed really fast on the leaders in prep races, often even overtaking the winner in the run out after the wire. They think "wow, that horse was flying at the end... if the race was another 1/4 mile like the Derby then he would defintiely win". So the intrigue and mystery of the unknown works from both ends of the spectrum.

Can Sinister Minister get the distance?

The horses on Derby Day are all being to asked to do something that they have never done before. Some are simply not up to the task, while others are, which makes handicapping this race particularly difficult. I cannot think of another sporting event where something like ths occurs.

A second aspect of the unknown factor is the fact that as the spring prep races whittle down the Derby contenders form several hundred to the 20 that make it to the starting gate, we are usually left with several very good horses who have never squared off against each other, which just adds more to the intrigue. I can remember this being a point of speculation leading up to the World Series in the era before interleague play, but here you usually have more than 2 powerful entities that have yet to square up. Some years there is one horse that is completely dominant and the question is can anyone step up and challenge him (2000, Fusiachi Pegasus, no). Many years there are two dominant horses that kind of seperate themselves from the field and provide a showdown at the Derby (1989, Easy Goer and Sunday Silence). Other years are wide open with several horses having great prep seasons (2006, Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron, Barbaro, all undefeated this year and yet to face each other). The best analogy that I can think of is this: imagine trying to handicap March Madness and fill out your brackets if there was no such thing as non-conference games in college basketball, and you had 3 or 4 powerhouses that had never faced each other. The different prep circuits are kind of like conferences (although sometimes owners ship their horses around from one to another in search of the best "spot" for a horse to get him to Louisville on the 1st Saturday in May): the New York circuit, the Florida circuit, the California circuit, the Arkansas circuit, and a few others. For example, the California horses (Brother Derek, A.P. Warrior, and Point Determined) have all raced each other in the Santa Catalina, San Felipe, and Santa Anita, so we can compare and contrast them, but we cannot compare them to the horses from the Arkansas circuit (Lawyer Ron or Private Vow) or the Florida circuit (Barbaro and Sharp Humor).

Lawyer Ron has won 3 times on a slow track.
Point Determined has finished 2nd or 3rd 3 times on a fast track.
What does it all mean?

Thirdly, it is always unknown how these horses will react to the insanely huge Derby crowd. Except for the once in a while Derby starter that ran in the previous years' Breeders Cup Juvenile, these horses have never raced in front of 50,000 people - some haven't raced in front of half that many. The Derby attracts over 150,000 people, and some horses simply get spooked by all the people and all the noise they make, both prerace and as they turn for home and hit a massive wall of sound made by the 60,000 in the grandstands along the stretch.

Will Steppenwolfer freak out in front
of 155,000 screaming fans?

These three unknowns are big reasons why the Derby is so massive, and the Preakness and Belmont are a good bit less so. After the Derby is run, all of the horses have shown whether they can get the mile and 1/4 or not. The Preakness is actually shorter than the Derby, at a mile and 3/16, while the Belmont is intriguing in it's own way because it is one of the only races left in the world at the old school distance of a mile and a half. It is thus called "the test of a champion" and does actually have the intrigue of the unknown as far as how a horse will handle the long distance. But the Preakness and Belmont are less intruguing that the Derby also because after the Derby the major horses have all now run against each other as a matter of historical record. Some intrigue is added by "new shooters" who run in the Preakness and/or Belmont who didn't participate in the Derby for whatever reason (injury, late bloomer, bad timing, etc). Lastly, the horses have all shown whether or not they can handle the crowds, and Preakness & Belmont crowds are significantly less than Derby crowds (between 70,000 - 100,000).

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