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Handicapping Kentucky Derby Horse Trainers

Kentucky Derby day is the best day of the year to be a horse racing fan and the excitment makes it great for pari-mutuel bettors. It’s also probably the hardest day of the year to make money betting on the races. There are so many factors you have to consider and weigh in the Derby that’s it’s extremely hard to be sure you are coming out on the right horse. Even if you do spot the best horse you have to hope that they avoid all of the many potential issues that faces them between the paddock and the finish line. So, since it’s so hard why don’t we just skip it and wait for a better betting opportunity? Because there are few things better in the world then cashing a winning ticket on the race.

One of the big factors to consider is the trainer of each horse. Just like a coach can make a big impact on how well a team can perform, a trainer can make a good horse great, or can hold a horse back from his full potential. The trainer has to make sure that the horse is completely healthy, completely in shape, and completely prepared for this race – the biggest of the horse’s career. We can’t get into the barns to see how each trainer works with their horses, but we can get a general sense of how the trainers might factor into the race. Here are six questions to ask yourself about the Kentucky Derby trainers to separate the contenders from the pretenders:

Are they used to getting horses ready for this race? – The Kentucky Derby is unlike anything trainers have ever seen before. From the time they first got interested in horse racing it has been the one race that matters more than any other. You have to deal with the immense spectacle of the event, and the pressure that brings. Beyond that, you have to deal with having your horse ready to run further than they have ever run before – and further than most horses are probably ready to run. If trainers haven’t done it before then it can be very tough to get right the first time they see it. There can be first time winners, of course – Chip Woolley won the 2009 Derby with Mine That Bird despite not only having never run in the Derby, but having never won a graded stakes race before. That is clearly the exception and not the rule, though. The less experienced a trainer is with the Derby, the more generally impressed you need to be with his horse to trust it.

How successful have they been in the Derby? – There are some very good trainers out there who just don’t shine in the Derby. Todd Pletcher is the most successful trainer in the country, and he has been for a while now. Before he won the Derby with Super Saver in 2010, though, he had failed to win with 24 different Derby runners – including several highly regarded ones. Betting on Pletcher is a good idea most days, but it has been a bad idea on Derby day – and despite his win I’m still not convinced it’s a good idea. Before you trust a trainer you want to make sure that they can shine in this race. That doesn’t mean that the guy has to have won in the past necessarily – just that his horses reliably perform to or above expectations in the race.

Was this a top horse in their stable? – Top trainers like Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Nick Zito or Steve Asmussen have several wealthy trainers who give them trailers full of nice two year olds each year. The goal is to win the Derby with one of them, and it’s more of a quantity thing than a focus on just one horse. As those horses get older the cream rises, and some get injured or sent in a different path. By the time the Derby rolls around those guys hope to have as many viable choices as they can. Pletcher and Zito have had as many as five in one year in recent years. Sometimes, though, the top horses don’t make it, and a trainer is left with runners that normally wouldn’t be among their best shots. You need to make sure that any horse a trainer is entering is up to the caliber of what that trainer is capable of entering so you don’t get sucked into backing a dud with a big name trainer.

Does their recent performance match their reputation? – Training is extremely hard work, and if you let up just a little bit you aren’t at the top any more. It can be easy to back a guy who used to be great, but who just isn’t the same anymore. D. Wayne Lukas is a perfect example. For a lot of years he virtually dominated the Triple Crown races, and he had a seemingly endless supply of great three year olds. He’s older now, though, and while he still gets a horse to the race once in a while he’s nowhere near as dangerous as he once was. His legendary reputation does not match his recent performance.

Does the trainer travel well? – The trainers in the Derby come from all across the country. Most of them are at or near the top of their home tracks, but there is a huge difference between succeeding in the top levels like at the Derby and dominating a smaller track. It doesn’t matter how good a guy is at winning at home if he hasn’t shown that he can do well when he takes his best horses to mix it up with the big boys at major tracks.

How will the public view the trainer? – The betting public loves some trainers, hates others, and is totally oblivious to most. The wildly popular trainers – like Baffert – are likely to be overbet. Ones that are ignored could offer real value. Just like you have to consider the public’s tendencies when you are betting the NFL or NBA you need to be aware of how they could let their emotions rule in the Derby as well.

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