By the time Kentucky Derby day dawns most people probably have a pretty good sense of which horses they like and which ones they don’t. There is absolutely no reason to commit financially to your horses too soon, though. Unless you have a reason to bet early you are much better served to collect as much information as you can before making your final decision. There is a whole lot you can learn on the day of the races by watching the races leading up to the main event and all the pomp and circumstance before the Derby itself. Often times you can see something in the lead up to the race that can turn you off a horse you thought you liked, or that can make a decent horse suddenly look really good. Here are six things you can be on the lookout for:
Track bias – It can seem hard to believe that strong track biases can emerge, but they absolutely can. A track bias just means that the track is clearly favoring a particular type of runner. It could be that the area along the rail is particularly fast, or that the track is thick and slow. Whatever the case, if the same type of horse is winning all or most of the dirt races on the undercard then you’ll want to pay more attention than normal to horses in the Derby that run the same style of race. This can be particularly useful if one of the horses that is helped by the bias is a big longshot because it could help them get up into the action and could lead to a fat payoff in the exotics for you.
Weather – The weather can have an impact on the race in so many ways. If it has rained a lot in the week leading up to the Derby that can have an impact on the training, and it can make the crowd smaller. Rain on the day will affect the track condition, and it will quiet down the crowd, too. Extreme heat will impact the horses, and lots of wind could make them uncomfortable and especially affect jumpy horses in the parade and the pre-race period. Rapidly changing and uncertain weather will help the trainers and jockeys who are experienced with the track and how to deal with it in any shape.
Horses in the paddock – This is the single biggest helpful factor on race day. I like to watch very closely to see how the horses are handling the paddock – the place where they all come to be saddled and where the jockeys get on. The paddock at Churchill Downs is a ridiculous sea of humanity on Derby day – totally unlike these horses have seen. Some horses will not be bothered by the chaos at all, while others will look jumpy, irritable, or somehow bothered. I like to see a horse that looks calm and unbothered, but not so sleepy that it’s a concern. I don’t like seeing a horse that seems nervous or uncomfortable, because it’s only going to get worse as the race gets closer and the horse may not have anything left by race time.
Connections in the paddock – You can also learn a lot by watching the trainers in the paddock before the race. If a normally good mannered trainer is tense and avoiding the spotlight then it could be a good sign that he knows he’s in trouble. A normally intense trainer who seems calm and confident could be very happy with where he is. I could go on, but you get the point – the trainers’ body language can tell you a ton about what to expect because no one knows the horses better than the trainers.
Horses on the track before the race – By the time the horses get onto the track for the parade and their final preparations you probably need to bet soon. There is one last chance to avoid a problem, though. I don’t think the parade can do a lot to help us find a horse that is particularly ready to win, but it can tell us a fair bit about horses that aren’t ready to be at their best. Basically, I like to be on the lookout for horses that have panic in their eyes. If they aren’t handling the noise and confusion in the parade then I really don’t want to be betting that they’ll settle down when it gets even louder and they are running in the biggest field they have ever seen over a longer distance than ever before. I don’t rule a horse out in the parade every year, but I do find one to cast off most years, and I have yet to regret the decision.