Kentucky Derby Handicapping & Expert Picks
Handicapping Overview for the Kentucky Derby
The Kentucky Derby offers a unique handicapping challenge: can you pick the winner among a large field of three-year-olds, all at different points on the developmental curve, who are facing the biggest test of their careers, at a 1 1/4-mile distance that’s longer than they’ve ever run before?
Several important factors to consider are the contenders’ running styles, BRIS Speed ratings, post positions, track conditions, and pedigrees.
The horses’ running styles help us to envision how the race will unfold, and who stands to benefit. Some are front runners, while others prefer to stalk, and others need to drop back, saving their energy for one big rally in the homestretch. The more early speed on tap, the better the scenario for the closers. But if there’s not much speed, the advantage could go to those who race up front.
The BRIS Speed ratings help to evaluate how fast each horse has run, and which prep races look the strongest. Top contenders have typically earned at least a 100 going into the Derby. While some horses can be on an upward spiral, others have hit a plateau and don’t appear good enough.
Although post position 1 had been successful in the past, when smaller fields were the norm, it is a real hindrance these days. Horses drawn on the extreme inside often end up in a squeeze play early, as their rivals on the outside come over to secure better position.
If it rains on Derby Day, look for runners who are proven on muddy or sloppy tracks. Contenders who have yet to race on an “off” track, but might thrive on it, can be identified by their mud-loving pedigrees.
Pedigree is a key handicapping tool, identifying which horses are bred to excel at 1 1/4 miles. Horses with stout bloodlines who have been finishing well in the preps can be expected to improve with the added ground in the Derby. Conversely, some with iffy ancestry can be effective in the preps, but are worth opposing over the longer trip.
Kentucky Derby Handicapping Tips
The Kentucky Derby offers many angles, situations and information to uncover as you handicap and research the big race. Here are 10 tips to assist you when handicapping the Kentucky Derby.
- Identify speed. While Beyer Speed Figures (BSF) have generally trended down since the turn of the century, it’s still worth noting which 3-year-olds posted at least a 100 BSF in race. Every Kentucky Derby winner since 2000 has posted at least one race with 100 or greater Beyer Speed Figure.
- Identify running styles. The last four winners stalked the pacesetter near the front, while the previous five winners were all mid-range closers including a deep one.
- Value. Any wager that involves the Derby will offer some value because of the 20-horse field. While the favorite has won the last five Derby’s, they still paid out at least $10 on a $2 win wager.
- Try the trifecta. Big scores can be had in a $1 trifecta, and in 2017 it paid $8,297 despite the favorite winning, as a pair of big long shots finished 2nd and 3rd.
- Trifecta strategy. Narrow in on one or two horses to win, and add 5-7 horses in 2nd and 3rd place. This strategy allows you to minimize your wager and risk and still add more horses underneath without boxing 5-8 horses.
- 2-year-old curse. Not since 1882 (Apollo) has an unraced 2-year-old won the Kentucky Derby. The training, breeding and strategy has changed in recent decades to race these younger horses less, but even the great Curlin in 2007 could not win the Derby as an undefeated 3-year-old while not racing at age 2. The 2018 Kentucky Derby could have two top choices that did not race at age 2, Magnum Moon and Justify.
- Getting up front. 52 of the last 55 Kentucky Derby winners were in first or second place with a furlong to go. Deep closers can help fill out exotic scores like they did in 2017, but too often horses near the back trying to move up encounter troubled trips or other horses to pass in a crowded Derby field.
- Post position. The rail has been a most difficult post to win from, and post positions 1-4 usually end up with tougher trips and a horse having to be their very best to overcome the inside draw.
- Pedigree. Identifying horses that are bred to run the Classic 1 ¼ mile distance will assist you in not only narrowing your choices as these 3-year-olds stretch out to 10 furlongs for the first time, but also eliminate others that have little to no chance to sustain.
- Prep Race Winners. The winner of the last seven Kentucky Derby’s was victorious in their final prep race, and the past six won a race that is now a 100-point qualifier.