Whenever you talk about handicapping the Kentucky Derby you always have to talk about the distance of the race. This isn’t the longest of the Triple Crown races – the Belmont is a mile and a half while the Derby is a mile and a quarter – but it’s a very long race. People who don’t follow horse racing closely won’t understand why the distance is such a big issue, and why they have to compensate for it in their handicapping. Here are five reasons that the distance is such a significant factor in the Kentucky Derby:
This is a very long distance – It may not seem like it is very far, or that is is dramatically farther than the standard distances run by horses in North America, but it really is. This is definitely longer than any horse will have run before, and there is a very good chance that a good portion of the field will never run this far again. The mile and a quarter distance is only typically run on dirt in major stakes race for three year old or older males. Outside of the Belmont, the only time horses regularly run further than this distance in on turf, and that’s an entirely different type of racing. For horses that are suited for dirt this is pretty much as long as it gets. It’s impossible to determine what an accurate equivalent would be for a human race, but it certainly wouldn’t be a sprint. This distance is long enough that no horse can handle it comfortably. That means that horses have to push themselves and find extra reserves to finish this race effectively.
Horses aren’t bred for stamina – North American fans, breeders, and owners like speed. Horses that can sprint and which shine at distances of a mile or less are generally valued more than slower horses with more stamina. With each passing year our breeding on this continent has tilted more and more towards speed. That’s typically the opposite of what is valued in Europe. It has created horses that are fast but fragile and not typically able to handle a long distance. There are some sires and some dams that are more suited to handling distance than others, but there just aren’t three year olds in North America right now that we can be absolutely certain of their ability to shine at the distance. All we can really do is evaluate their breeding and look at the horses that have the best chance.
These horses are very young – Even if these horses are capable of comfortably handling the distance they are still very young to be doing it. In human terms these horses are mere teenagers, and we are asking them to face a major challenge. All horses have their birthday on January 1, but they obviously aren’t all born on that day. That means that some of these three year olds have only barely turned three. Sometimes a horse even runs in the Derby before they actually turn three. Just like any physical challenge is harder on a teenager than on a fit adult in their athletic prime, the distance is a bigger factor for horses at this age than it would be when the horses are four or five, or even later in their three year old year once they have had a chance to mature further.
Even horses that can handle it have never done it before – There are some horses in the field every year that can very likely handle the distance because of their breeding and how they have handled the distance they have run so far. There is a big difference between being able to do it and actually doing it, though. If a horse has never hit the wall before and moved through it then they don’t know what it will feel like, and they may not react to it positively. Just think about yourself – something that seems easy after you have done it a few times can feel like it is going to kill you the first time you do it because it feels differently than anything has ever felt before.
Horses that get tired can do unpredictable things – One of the many challenges that people face when considering this distance is the effect that tired horses will have on the race. When a horse gets tired he no longer reacts in predictable ways. It can be harder for them to run in a straight line down the stretch, and they can slow down so much that it appears that they are almost moving backwards compared to the rest of the field. Either result can have a big impact on the race because it means horses can get in the way of others trying to make a move. This could have several impacts for handicappers. For example, if the horse you have your eyes on is a closer who will be looking to move through the field late in the race then it could be a problem if there are several front and mid-pack horses that aren’t likely to get the distance that could be creating a disruption on the track just as your horse is looking to get through them. That could decrease the chances of your horse, and make the odds you need on him higher.