The Pennsylvania Derby

Today, it’s the GI Pennsylvania Derby from PARX — a 3YO only race going 9 furlongs which has evolved into a Breeders’ Cup Classic Prep. Paired with the Cotillion, it’s the biggest racing day of the year for the Philadelphia-based track. It’s a $1 Million race and it’s likely that the top finishers will be at Churchill Downs in November contesting the $6 million Classic. It’s a very solid field with high Beyer Speed Figures all around — 3 horses have run over 100 during their careers.

The race begins with Curlin Stakes winner Hofburg. He was all set for the Travers before a fever derailed him. Instead, the target became today’s race. He ran a 100 Beyer Speed Figure as the heavy 1/4 favorite. He slowly had been improving all spring and summer, highlighted by a 3rd by 3 1/2 to Justify in the Belmont. He’s 3/1 on the M/L and may drop a bit to 2/1 or below. He needed to go to a lower level to get the win, however. McKinzie is 5/2 and makes his first start since an injury derailed his Kentucky Derby Trail in March. His last win was a 101 Beyer Speed Figure in the G2 San Felipe. Mike Smith takes the reins for Bob Baffert — a vicious combination which has hit at 43% this year and won a Triple Crown. He was at the top of the group before the injury (and before Justify’s ascendance) and, perhaps, will take his place near the top today. It’s worth noting Baffert does well with layoffs. Axelrod, a surprising 5-1 M/L, has been a new horse since winning the Indiana Derby and then dominating the local prep, the Smarty Jones. He’s shown a new dimension with closing.

Core Beliefs was a bit of a mid-summer darling, winning the Ohio Derby and making a nice showing in the Peter Pan. He hit a bit of a ceiling in the GI Haskell and would need to improve to contend today. He’s 10-1 on the M/L. He’s had some time off, but it’s likely not enough to get him to the triple-digit Beyer. There’s some buzz on Bravazo and he ran a very solid Travers with a 97 Beyer Speed Figure. Except for the Louisiana Derby, he’s brought his race, including decent performances in the Triple Crown, Haskell, and Travers. He just needs to break through and win at the G1 level. It’s his 6th straight G1 try. Mr Freeze ran away and hid in the West Virginia Derby, winning by 8 lengths and earning a far and away lifetime-best Beyer Speed Figure of 102 (previous high was 89). With an easy lead today (harder to predict), he could do it again. I’d be surprised.

Instilled Regard moves to the Chad Brown barn from the Hollendorfer barn for his first start since a 4th in the Kentucky Derby. He earned a lifetime best Beyer in that race — 97. He was a million dollar purchase. He’s 15-1 on the M/L and I doubt he’ll stay that high — Chad Brown runners don’t usually double-digit float. King Zachary’s seasonal highlight is a lights-out win in the G3 Matt Winn. He disappointed in the Indiana Derby, but ran a fast 4th in the Travers. He’s at 20-1, but still has a shot. Trigger Warning has shown speed to mid-stretch through the summer but was outclassed in the Travers. I expect a similar result today.

Analysis: This is a deep race with several win contenders. I’m warming to Bravazo and his deep resume, although have concerns that he can win against this group. Odds higher than 5-1 will ease those concerns. Instilled Regard shows value at double-digits — and is a must play above 10-1 — but he’ll probably be much much lower. It will be interesting to see how the race is bet — many horses coming off layoffs — and then searching for value.

The Bashford Manor

We’ll take a look at 2YO’s for the first time this year with the 117th running of the GIII Bashford Manor from Churchill Downs. We’re still months away from 2YO’s routing, but this is still an early test of stamina for this group of 13 2YO’s. It’s 6f, which doesn’t sound like much, but it’s farther than any horse in the race has run. They’ve all been cutting their teeth on races from 4.5f to 5.5f. They also comprise a national field — Keeneland, Churchill Downs, Indiana Downs, Belmont Park, Belterra Park, Evangeline Downs, Presque Isle, and Santa Anita are all represented.

The field’s highest Beyer Speed Figure (84) belongs to Tales of Chaucer who earned it over a sloppy track at 5f at Belmont Park. Trained by Norm Casse (son of Mark Casse, who branched out on his own this year), he’s a NY-bred who earned the figure in a NY-bred restricted race. He’s cost $58K this past March. The other likely favorite is Toothless Wonder, a $220K purchase in March that is trained by Doug O’Neil, who needs no introduction. He lost first time out at Santa Anita — nothing strange for an O’Neil trainee — and then won with a 76 Beyer Speed Figure his next time out. He’s by Street Boss and should appreciate the extra distance, having run at the short 4.5f in his two starts.

Sir Truebadour is trained by Steve Asmussen (he of the recent haircut) and finished fourth by two lengths in the Tremont Stakes at Belmont. None of the top 3 finishers in that race are here today. He cost $300K last August as a yearling. He returns to Churchill Downs, where he broke his maiden, albeit over a sloppy track. Weiland won the Kentucky Juvenile back in May over this track with a 63 Beyer Speed Figure at 20-1 odds. Trained by John Ennis, he was only a $7K purchase last October.

Shanghaied Roo, trained by Bret Calhoun, has been unseen since his win in early April at Keeneland. There’s no Beyer Speed Figure for the 4.5 sprints at Keeneland, but his BRIS speed figure puts him right among the top contenders. Mr. Granite, trained by Wayne Rice, ran in the Kentucky Juvenile but finished 15 3/4 lengths behind. He did experience a bit of trouble early, but is still too slow. The rest of the field is comprised of maiden winners with speed figures that are a bit too low to be competitive to win graded stakes at this point in their career. Unlike in some 2YO (and 3YO) stakes, every horse has earned a win coming into this race.

Analysis: Anything can happen in these early 2YO races as horses are likely to grow in between starts. That said, it will likely come down to the favorites. Among these, I like Toothless Wonder, due to his high recent purchase price, experienced trainer, and likely propensity to improve with the distance. But I’m likely to also play Shanghaied Roo, who is the wildcard in the race and might offer some value. His breeding, trainer, and almost 3 months off suggest a possible strong performance. He’s very playable at 9-2 or better.

The Matt Winn

Welcome to the post-Triple Crown season. We had an incredible one this year, with Justify becoming the 13th Triple Crown winner, just a few years after American Pharoah accomplished the feat. But now we turn to the world of later-developing 3YO’s (it’s funny, in a normal year, you could consider Justify one of those) and a summer full of GII and GIII state derbys. Tonight, we have the Matt Winn, a GIII affair from Churchill Downs, which begins to set the stage for the summer. It’s 8.5 furlongs on the same main track which hosted the Derby 6 weeks ago.

The 4/5 morning line favorite is Ax Man, who hails from the incredibly deep barn of two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert. He debuted with a 97 Beyer Speed Figure, winning by 9 1/2 lengths under Drayden Van Dyke, who had the first 3 mounts of his career. He’s 3 for 4, with his only blemish coming in the hot pace of the GII San Vincente, which brought winner Kanthaka into the Derby consciousness for a short time. He’s been odds-on in 3 of his 4 starts — the only exception being his maiden — and he earned his first stakes victory in the ungraded Sir Barton on Preakness day, where he decimated the field to win by 6 3/4 and earned a 99 Beyer Speed Figure. He’ll be the favorite — likely at lower than 4/5 — and he’s a deserving one at that.

Home Base is rapidly improving for trainer Michael Tomlinson, who is winning at a 32% clip at the current Churchill Downs meet. Claimed for $50K at Gulfstream, he broke his maiden at Keeneland at 32-1 and then won a first-level allowance against older at 10-1. He earned a 90 Beyer Speed Figure in the latest win. Both wins were at 7 furlongs and he’ll have to prove he can handle two turns. He has early speed. Combatant last ran in the Kentucky Derby, finishing 18th out of 20. He is trained by Steve Asmussen. He is a proven dirt router with some speed. Prior to that challenging run in the Kentucky Derby, he finished in the money 3 times in Derby prep stakes at Oaklawn. He’ll likely need pace to be competitive today, something that doesn’t seem all that likely. He seems like a good horse to finish underneath for those who play exactas, trifectas, and superfectas.

Funny Duck won the GIII Pay Day Mile over this track on Derby Day and did so at almost 40-1. Trained by Rusty Arnold, he closed from off the pace and earned a 91 Beyer Speed Figure. Like the others (other than Ax Man), he’ll need to improve to figure today. Tiz Mischief had his best performance with a 3rd place finish (albeit 13 1/4 lengths) behind Audible in the Holy Bull and ran an 83 Beyer Speed in the Blue Grass against Good Magic. He struggled on the yielding turf on Derby Day in the GII American Turf and now returns to his preferred surface. He is trained by Dale Romans. His only win is his maiden and he prefers to come off the pace. King Zachary is also trained by Dale Romans and won a 3YO allowance on Derby Day. He faced top competition in the Wood Memorial but finished 6th — 13 1/2 lengths behind Vino Rosso. He has some early speed but would need to improve greatly in the time since Derby Day. Navy Armed Guard is trained by Joan Scott and has two wins — a maiden-breaker at Tampa in a lower-level maiden and a win over Polytrack at Arlington in a first-level allowance for 3YO. His recent Beyer figures, even in the wins, are still way too low to be competitive here. His stakes tries — the GIII Lexington and the GIII Sam F. Davis — resulted in losses by double-digit lengths.

Analysis: Ax Man dominates this field. A ferocious pace battle could do him in and set it up for Combatant. An improving Home Base could easily finish second and could challenge Ax Man if, for some reason, Ax Man doesn’t away from the gate cleanly or is off his game.

‘Twas the Night Before the Derby

It’s the night before the Kentucky Derby, and I think I finally know what to do with Justify. I’m a firm believer in historical trends and the “Curse of Apollo” is one of the strongest in sports. Churchill Downs is a zoo on Derby Day and that energy permeates throughout the racetrack. A horse is exposed to new levels of activity and noise — something that conditioning as a 2YO obviously helps. It’s hard to say whether Justify has developed that experience in just 3 races — all which have come this year as a 3YO.

Ultimately, the horseplayer in me sees too much risk to take a low price on this equine wunderkind. Yes, he’s blazing fast, but I think it best to side with history. This leaves the question of who to bet. I’ve written about Audible before:

This is a horse that has done nothing wrong. You can excuse the sprinting effort on debut in September — even though he made up tremendous ground. And then all he’s done is win, starting with stretching out to a mile at Aqueduct. He blew away an allowance field, albeit there were only 4 horses running. At Gulfstream, he brought it to a new level, running Derby-level speed. He was dominant in both the Holy Bull and Florida Derby is trained by über-trainer Todd Pletcher. He has the experience that some of the field lacks. I think he stands a good chance come Derby day, and will likely be on most of my tickets.”

I still feel that way about Audible. He’s come back as a fast 3YO and NY-bred is no longer any sort of disadvantage — he cost $500K at auction and runs that way. I’m also intrigued by Mendelssohn, even though it’s hard to comparatively gauge the UAE Derby effort. He was impressive last fall winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, but this is a completely different beast. Ryan Moore is a major plus. I’ve never thought that Good Magic is fast enough to win this and it has been some time since Bolt D’Oro crossed the finish line first. Magnum Moon has the same Apollo issues that Justify has, without the same level of speed. Vino Rosso is a bit of a wildcard — he’s always been a morning horse and he showed up in the afternoon in the Wood. But he’s a bit too inconsistent for my tastes on Derby Day.

The rest all have small chances with improvement, although I’d be surprised if the winner did not come from the horses that are listed above. It’s going to be Audible for me in the 2018 Kentucky Derby. Good luck to everyone playing!

Kentucky Derby FAQ

A guide to the Kentucky Derby. Covers age and field size, fastest “2 minutes,” purse, surface, and distance.

Can a horse of any age race in the Kentucky Derby? 

No. The Kentucky Derby is restricted to 3YO horses. High-class horses generally race from about 2YO to around 5YO or 6YO. There are exceptions to this rule, especially if a horse is a gelding. Most horses running in the Derby made their debut at 2YO; in fact, it’s almost a requirement. Since Apollo won the Derby in 1882, no horse has won without a race at 2. You don’t need to win at 2 – just get the experience and (likely) growth.

Because the race is restricted to 3YO, a horse only gets one chance at Derby glory. It’s far from the end of racing – many opportunities exist for horses that may either peak later or missed the Derby due to injury. But it’s a one-shot deal. While horses can’t repeat, trainers can and do. You’ll often see the same trainers around – Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher come quickly to mind.

Is there a limit to the number of horses that can run in the Derby? 

Yes. In 1975, after 23 horses ran in the centennial Kentucky Derby in 1974, Churchill Downs limited the Derby field to 20 starters, using earnings as a qualifier. In 1985, Churchill Downs switched to Graded Earnings, which are earnings that are won in the highest classes of races. However, purses aren’t a perfect proxy for quality – for example, the Delta Jackpot, is a GIII race with a Grade 1 level purse ($1 million). As a result, in 2012, Churchill Downs switched to a qualifying points system.

Even still, 20 is a very large number. It’s not that rare for a race to have the maximum — the typical limit for a U.S. horse race is 14 starters. In practice, fans often see fields that are much smaller, about 8 horse per field. In the Derby, there is more potential for chaos and trouble. It’s crazy at the start and creates a whole slew of bad trips – horses that had winning chances but were blocked in traffic. The large field also adds another level of complexity to understanding the races. It’s no coincidence that it’s the race that I (and most handicappers) spend the most time on each and every year. And, it’s wonderfully exciting to watch, filled with storylines and a good chance for drama each year.

Isn’t it just two minutes? That’s so fast.

Yes. It is one race, lasting just about 2 minutes. That’s it. The Derby might just be the quickest major sporting event in the world, far shorter than, for example, the Super Bowl or World Series or Daytona 500. Yes, there are other races on the day, including the top horses from the other divisions (i.e. turf, older, fillies & mares), but the Kentucky Derby itself happens very quickly. A badly timed bathroom break could force you to miss the entire race.

However, this is a bit misleading. Every thoroughbred born in the United States has Derby dreams, and for those with the talent to match, the process of reaching the Derby begins early and takes years. Qualification forms a regular season of sorts, ranging from September of the previous year until mid-April. I prefer to think of the Derby not as a quick one-shot race, but instead as the culmination of years of preparation and the final stage of a long-term process.

None of this should dampen just how exciting those two minutes actually are. It is the most exciting two minutes in sport.

Is the purse large for the Kentucky Derby?

Yes. It is $2 million and is the largest purse for a race restricted to 3YO.

  • Kentucky Derby: $2 Million
  • Preakness $1.5 Million
  • Belmont Stakes $1.5 Million
  • Travers Stakes $1.25 Million
  • Arkansas Derby: $1 Million
  • Bluegrass Stakes: $1 Million
  • Florida Derby: $1 Million
  • Santa Anita Derby: $1 Million
  • Wood Memorial: $ 1 Million
  • Haskell Invitational: $1 Million
  • Pennsylvania Derby: $1 Million

(Races for $1M or more restricted to 3YO. All are Grade 1, except for the Pennsylvania Derby. Purse data from 2014)

What surface is the Kentucky Derby run on?  The Kentucky Derby is contested over dirt, as opposed to grass, or turf, or a synthetic surface. According to the Churchill Downs website, this is comprised of:

3” Sandy Loam Cushion
5” Sandy Loam Cushion Compacted
12” Clay Base
25” Sandy Loam/Natural Soil

(Sandy Loam is made up of sand, silt, and clay and is apparently great for gardening.)

I stuck my hand in the track when I visited Churchill Downs to see if I could gain understanding. Unfortunately, it just felt like dirt.

Some horses who qualified for the Derby may have done it by gaining points on synthetic surfaces. Three races offer points towards the Derby with a race over an artificial surface – The Grey at Woodbine, The El Camino Real at Golden Gate Fields, and the Spiral at Turfway park. This raises the possibility – as was the case with Animal Kingdom’s win in 2011 – that a horse may not have run on dirt coming into the Derby.

Screenshot 2015-03-21 13.00.34

There are no turf races that offer points for the Derby; however, it’s not uncommon to see a 3YO horse try dirt in the winter after showing talent on the turf earlier. Stamina (sometimes) moves well between surfaces. But you have to show it on the dirt – fake or real – before Derby Day to qualify.

Why is 10 furlongs important?

A furlong – the standard distance measure in American horse racing is 1/8 of a mile. So, a furlong is about halfway around the track at the local high school. 10 furlongs, or 1 ¼ miles, on dirt, is a bit of a legendary distance nowadays in horse racing. The ability for a horse to maintain speed over the distance of 10 furlongs is a testament to its breeding and training. It is a champion’s distance. It is very rarely run anymore, and 3YO colts get two chances – in the Kentucky Derby and in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August. It is also the distance of several races for older horses, and importantly, the distance of the $5M Breeders’ Cup Classic, which often pits the best of the 3YO crop against older horses.

How many horses have run 10 furlongs on dirt prior the Derby?

None. No horse has had the opportunity to run this distance before – the longest race was likely the final prep at 9f. The ability to “get” this distance is part of what makes this race so exciting. So, there’s always uncertainty, even for the most well-bred of animals. The extra distance may not sound like much, but after running over a mile at high speed, every horse is tired and seeking the finish line. It is often these final yards that decide a horse race and the Kentucky Derby is no exception.

The stretchout to 10f for 3YO takes time. Debuting 2YO in April at Keeneland run only 4.5f. The Hopeful, a G1 event for 2YO’s in August, is contested at 7f and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at 8.5f. The early preps are at this same distance, with the final preps at 9f. No horse will have tried 10f before the Derby.


Replays: Moonshine Mullin’s Rise to Grade 1 Winner

I’ve been lucky enough to follow Moonshine Mullin’s rise from $40K claimer to Grade I winner this past Saturday.  By happy coincidence, I’ve handicapped and watched his entire five race winning streak.  His emergence — providing value in every single start — is a testament to the handicapping factor known as “form,” or sometimes “condition.”  And it’s also just a great story!

Amazing Fact:  Moonshine Mullin has not been favored in any race during his five-race winning streak!

Watch and enjoy this horse.  His last two stakes wins are embedded. His three earlier wins are well worth watching and links are provided. Quotes are hints of how good this horse was running from the excellent track announcers, Frank Mirahmadi and Larry Collmus.

Race 5:  Churchill Downs, June 14, 2014, Stephen Foster Handicap, Grade I

“Oh! Moonshine Mullin is battling!”

Odds: 10-1


Race 4:  Churchill Downs, May 2, 2014, Alysheba Stakes, Grade II

“They came back to win!”

Odds: 6-1


Race 3:  Oaklawn Park, April 11, 2014, Allowance Optional Claiming $40K

“This is a razor sharp animal”

Odds:  3-1

Watch the replay here


Race 2: Oaklawn Park, Race 6, March 27, 2014, Claiming $80K

“Always traveling best today”

Odds: 5-1

Watch the replay here (requires Windows Media/Flip4Mac)


Race 1:  Oaklawn Park, Race 8, February 13, 2014, Allowance Optional Claiming $40K 

“A dominant, front-running score”

Odds:  7-1

Watch the replay here



Churchill Downs, The Kentucky Oaks, 5:49 P.M. ET

Race of the Day, May 2, 2014

Churchill Downs (Louisville, KY), Race 11, The Kentucky Oaks

Post Time: 5:49 EST   Purse:  $1M

For the fillies, the Oaks is the equivalent of the Derby.  It’s a bit shorter — only 1 1/8 miles — and only has 13 horses, instead of the 20 (19 with the scratch of Hoppertunity) that will go forward in the Derby.  While not as big as the Derby among the general public, for insiders, this is an extremely important race, almost equal in importance to the Derby.

Who is in this race?

These are simply the best 3-year old fillies in the United States. Racing economics tend to push fillies into tough competition fast, and fillies tend to get retired quickly.  This always puts a big of a drag on this race.  That said, it takes a very good horse to win here.

What are the questions?

  • This race starts and ends with the heavy favorite, Untapable (#13, 4/5). Everybody loves her.  That, of course, pricks my ears up to see if she can be beaten.  Sure, she’s the fastest in the race by far.  But will she duplicate her previous efforts at the Fairgrounds here at Churchill?nThat’s far from a given, especially considering the likely very short price.
  • Who will improve?  These are top notch 3-year olds.  It’s likely that some horse will have a unforeseen, much improved effort.
  • Ria Antonia (#2, 10-1) , the juvenille champion, hasn’t moved forward yet.  She’s reportedly training well under Baffert.  Are her workouts meaningful?
  • Unbridled Forever’s (#9, 12-1) mom — Lemons Forever — won this race.  Can she run to this pedigree and turn the tables on Untapable?


I think it’s wise to try to beat Untapable here.  There’s a significant question as to whether her speed will translate, and there’s no reason to take a short price in a field of improving, well-bred horses.  The difficulty, of course, is figuring out who else to go with.  Nothing can be more frustrating than being right about the favorite and not being able to bring home the winner!  Of the other contenders, Unbridled Forever seems to have the ability to rate what could be a fast pace.  Just like her mother!  If not her, I’d look to the Rosario-piloted Rosalind (#4, 8-1)  to pick up the pieces.


Wow!  Untapable was not just a Fairgrounds horse, but is a superstar.  She’s a once-a-generation talent.  Still, she only paid even-money and, although she answered the questions, they were still there.  Unbridled Forever ran a strong third.  We’ll see if she improves, or whether she’s hit her ceiling.