Evaluating Horses Coming Off Underwhelming Derby Performance

Every year we see a handful of horses from the Kentucky Derby try again in a Triple Crown race two weeks later at the Preakness. Some of the horses that do so make sense – they finished high in the Derby and are looking to carry momentum forward. Typically, though, we see horses that were underwhelming – or just plain bad – in the Derby try again in the Preakness. It often doesn’t seem like a particularly logical move given how badly they ran, but you can’t discount these thoroughbreds because they were good enough to run in the Derby and horses who run in the Derby are much more competitive in general terms than those that make the Preakness their first Triple Crown race. With this in mind, handicappers have to evaluate whether the horse can run better at Pimlico than he did at Churchill Downs, and whether he can win this leg of the Triple Crown or be a big factor in exotic bets. Here are five questions to ask to help handicappers in that evaluation:

What was the excuse? – Whenever a horse runs a disappointing Derby there is usually a clear excuse for what went wrong. If there isn’t an excuse then the horse just wasn’t good enough to compete. In a race like the Derby there are countless potential excuses – a pace scenario that didn’t work for them, getting bumped out of the gate, traffic that foiled his move, and so on. Once you have identified what the excuse was – either from media reports or from watching the race replays – the next step is obviously to determine what impact they had on the horse’s race. If he hadn’t have faced the problems that he did then was he good enough to be a serious contender in the race? Without that excuse does he compare favorably to the horses that did do well in the Derby? There are some horses – Point Given is the perfect example – who had excuses to blame for a poor Derby performance, but who was clearly still the best of the group. He proved that by winning four $1 million races in a row starting with the Preakness.

Is he likely to run better in the Preakness? – Once you have determined why he ran poorly in the Derby you need to properly handicap the thoroughbred to determine if you think he can run better in the Preakness. You can generally lean towards assuming that he will – or at least that he is capable of doing so – or else his connections wouldn’t have put him in the race. Still, you need to look beyond that to convince yourself that you aren’t going to see a repeat of the Derby performance. Does the smaller field suit him better? How about the layout of the Pimlico track? Is the pace scenario likely to be more favorable? Is the field more manageable for the horse? The more reasons you can come up with as to why this race should be better than the Derby, the more confident you can be about the outcome of the race for the horse. One way you can look at this is to consider each excuse you came up with from the Derby and look to see if it is less likely to happen again in the Preakness.

Was the Derby distance an issue? – The Derby, at a mile and a quarter, is beyond the reasonable stamina capabilities of a lot of horses. Horses these days are bred more for speed than stamina, and the Classic distance is a huge challenge. The Preakness, at 1 3/16 miles, is a sixteenth of a mile shorter. That may not seem like much, but if a horse was struggling at the end of the Derby then the shorter distance can be a big relief for a horse. Add to that the fact that a smaller field and narrower track often leads to a far less frenzied pace in the Preakness. It’s quite possible that distance issues that handicapped a Derby performance will be less of an issue in the Preakness.

How does he work off short rest? – There are two weeks between the Derby and the Preakness. This is basically the only time in modern, elite level horse racing that horses will race back so quickly. Typically the minimum rest between races is at least three weeks and often more. You can never really know how a horse is going to respond to this – whether he will remain fresh or will be run down – until he does it. You can draw some clues, though, from how he has done in the past. Has he run back in just three weeks in the past? How did the second race compare to the first in terms of effort, speed, and overall performance? Are his timed workouts typically spaced close together or spread well apart? The more time between workouts, the more time the trainer likely feels the horse needs, and the harder it would be to trust him off of short rest.

Who’s on board? – One of the worst possible signs for any horse in the Preakness and for bettors is a jockey change since the Derby. In the Derby, the trainer and owner will have chosen a jockey who was worthy of riding in the most important race there is. To change that two weeks later is only very rarely a good sign. If the trainer or owner made the decision to make the change then they are looking for someone to blame in the Derby, and that’s not positive. If the jockey made the change and jumped on another horse in the Preakness – or chose to ride at a different track that weekend – then he obviously didn’t like the chances of the horse because a jockey would never pass up a chance to win a Triple Crown race.

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