Handicapping the Kentucky Derby Favorites

Deciding if you are going to bet on the favorite in the Kentucky Derby is one of the biggest challenges in handicapping the race. Between 1979 and 2010 only four favorites ended up winning the race. Given that favorites typically win about a third of all races that’s well below expectations. Over the long term, then, it seems to pay to ignore the favorites when you are deciding your win bets. That’s easier said that done, though. Quite often the Derby favorite is a wildly impressive horse – beautiful to look at, regally bred, and seemingly unbeatable on the track. If you are a horse racing fan then you live to see horses like that, and you always dream about the chances that this could finally be the one to end the Triple Crown drought. The trick, then, is for Derby handicappers to effectively determine which favorites are worth believing in, and which ones you should pass on. Here are six questions to help you do that:

Is he clearly the best in the field? – This may seem like an obvious question to some bettors, but it’s amazing how often it isn’t the case. Some years the favorite is the favorite because he is the most heavily hyped, not because he has been the most impressive. Sometimes the favorite is one of the best horses in the field, but you can’t clearly distinguish him from the other horses behind him. Either of those situations is a concern – the public always heavily bets down the favorite, so if the favorite isn’t clearly the best in the field then the value on the horse will certainly be non-existent. If I’m not totally convinced that the favorite is solidly better than the rest of the horses then I’m not interested in him.

Has he beaten anyone? – A horse that is the favorite has almost certainly won a lot of races, and he has probably done it in impressive fashion. The question, though, is whether he has really beaten anyone impressive. If he has simply come out on top because he outclassed his opposition then he could be in trouble when he meets the best competition he has faced yet in the Derby. It’s important to look at all of the horses he beat, and not just the ones that finished second or third in the race. If he’s beaten horses that have done impressive things on their own in other races then it could be a sign he is up to the challenge in the Derby.

Is he bred to handle the distance? – The Derby is the longest race any horse in the field will have run. It’s a distance that is definitely at the edge of comfort for most North America thoroughbreds – and beyond it for many of them. Several times we have seen a favorite that is favored because of how he is impressive he has been even though the distance is likely to be a challenge for him. Is he bred for stamina? Has he been advancing at the end of his races or just trying to hold on? Does he look like he can keep running or is he going to be looking hard for the finish line?

Does the race set up well for him? – Smart bettors know that it will be hard for a horse to win the race if it’s unlikely that he will be able to run it in the style he is best at. A closer, for example, needs a fast pace at the start of the race so that he is able to make his late move. A speed horse would prefer to not have to duel with too many other speed horses. It’s important to get a good sense of how the favorite will want to run and whether he will be able to run that way.

Does he fit the general criteria of a winner? – In picking the Derby winner, there are some general rules that have stood up pretty well over the years. Just one horse in the modern era has won despite running less than five races before the Derby, and only four have won with less than six. A horse has never won the Derby when he didn’t run as a two year old. The last 25 winners of the Derby have finished in the top three in their last prep race or within four lengths of the winner. A horse hasn’t won from the number one hole since 1937. There are other trends like that out there, and you will want to make sure that the favorite isn’t violating too many of them.

Is his price realistic? – For bettors, a favorite needs to have value just like any other horse you would bet on does. It’s really important when you are looking at the favorite that you not only decide whether you like him or not, but what the minimum price you would accept on him would be. If the price isn’t good enough then you might want to pass on the horse.

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