Handicapping the triple crown

April 28, 2016 11:00 AM

Every year interest in horse racing spikes as we near the first Saturday in May and the Kentucky Derby. Professional handicappers and amateur enthusiasts alike want to have action on this iconic American ritual: The Kentucky Derby and the race for the Triple Crown. 

Last year was especially exciting because it produced the first Triple Crown winner, American Pharaoh, in more than a generation. Oddly enough, the last time there was a Triple Crown champion (winner of  the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes) was in 1978 with Affirmed, and he was the second consecutive horse to do it, following Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown in 1977 (the only time in history that ever occurred). 

Can history repeat itself? 

One of the things that makes the Derby so unique is that it is a race that none of the competitors have ever competed in; namely the mile and a quarter distance. While smart handicappers can rate horse, the distance of the Derby is a wild card. 

However, the dosage index emerged in the 1970s, and was a reliable measure of a horse’s likelihood to win the derby through the 2000s. The DI examines the concept of speed versus stamina of horses based on their pedigree. The DI is basically speed divided by stamina. Certain stallions breed consistent characteristics in their offspring such as all speed called brilliant or stamina called professional. The index adds up the points over four generations to determine the horses’ speed-stamina tradeoff. There have in recent years been a number of horses who have won the derby with DIs above 4.00 and a few in the Belmont. But in the last 12 years all the Belmont winners except American Pharoah (4.33) have had DIs of 3.00 or less. 

Over recent years there is a positive regression slope of Derby winners moving more toward speed away from stamina. There has been some exceptions to the DI rule but it is still a pretty reliable guide. 

This year’s crop does not appear to present a strong field. Undefeated filly Songbird won the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks in the slop, showing she can handle that surface and looks good enough to be competitive in the Derby against the males, but a low-grade fever following her last race caused her to be pulled from consideration from the Derby and the Kentucky Oaks. 

The rules for entry in the Derby is based on a point system that is weighted toward the most recent prep races prior to the Derby (see “Tab the tote,” below). 

The 2016 three year old males have three dual qualifiers. Brody’s Cause who won the blue Grass Grade I in the mud with DI of 1.38, which is excellent for these races. He won a grade I, the Breeder’s Futurity as a two-year-old. His sire Giants Causeway almost won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. 

Mohaymen, who won the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, is a son of Tapit and was undefeated until finishing fourth in the Florida Derby behind winner Nyquist — who remains undefeated, and traveled to Florida from his California base to collect the Florida Derby’s $1 million bonus. My sense is Mohaymen has not progressed from his two-year-old-year.  

Nyquist has a 7.0 dosage. He is by Uncle Mo, but if you adjusted the DI to make Arch his “stamina chef,” then his DI is 2.20. He’s likely the Derby favorite. 

Outwork won the grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. He’s from Uncle Mo so his 11 DI becomes 3.00 if Arch is added. Exaggerator at 3.40, a son of horse of the year Curlin, won the Santa Anita Derby by 6.5 lengths in the slop. Also consider the Gary Stevens ridden, Bob Baffert trained Mor Spirit who placed in the Santa Anita Derby.

Another horses to look for Awesome Great, a son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Awesome Again. Cupid, another Tapit offspring (who won the grade II Rebel with DI at 3.00), was scratched as we went to press. Lani is shipping from Dubai where he won the UAE Derby which was worth 100 points. But no Dubai horse has done well in Triple Crown races. Lani is another Tapit offspring.

Gun Runner won the Risen Star on Feb. 20 and the Louisiana Derby (worth 100 points) on March 26, so is the point leader and a serious contender. Creator, winner of the Arkansas Derby now has 110 points. He is yet another Tapit offspring. 

The odds of four grey horses from one sire starting in the Derby is astronomical, so the Tapit story is one to follow and may be worth a long-shot gimmick wager. 

Who to bet on? Clearly recent good form is very important so Nyquist, Outwork, Exaggerator and Brody’s Cause are major contenders with Exaggerator strong if it is muddy.  Look for who is actually in the race based on the points and their odds versus their likely chances. Remember, the game is not to pick winners but to bet on value propositions like I try to do in the futures markets.

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