Based on speed figures, Goldencents is the horse to beat in Saturday's Kentucky Derby.
Racing fans get so much information about horses in the Kentucky Derby that it is easy to overthink.
I’ve never felt so stupid as I did after the 2002 Derby, in which one of the entrants possessed a vastly superior Beyer Speed Figure plus a change of trainers to one of the best in the business. Such qualifications should have made him look like a standout. But I somehow ignored War Emblem and his new trainer, Bob Baffert. When he paid $43 to win, I vowed I’d never again overlook the basics if a similar situation arose.
In Saturday’s Derby, there is a colt whose most recent speed figure towers over his rivals’ and whose running style ought to give him a significant tactical advantage. I’m not going to be distracted by any handicapping subtleties. I’m betting on Goldencents.
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A Beyer Speed Figure takes into account the time of a horse’s performance and the inherent speed of the racing surface.
Goldencents proved his merit in the April 6 Santa Anita Derby in Arcadia, Calif., when he faced two formidable Baffert-trained rivals, Super Ninety Nine and Flashback. Baffert had decided Super Ninety Nine needed the early lead to be effective, so the speedster set an aggressive pace, running a half-mile in 46.48 seconds, while Goldencents pressed him. When Goldencents disposed of the leader, favored Flashback made his move — but Goldencents resisted the challenge and pulled away to win by 1 ¼ lengths.
This is a hard way to win a race — duel with a good speed horse and hold off a good stalker — but Goldencents did so and recorded a fast time. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 105 that was several lengths superior to the other major Derby preps. Orb earned a 97 winning the Florida Derby, Verrazano a 95 in the Wood Memorial, Revolutionary a 93 in the Louisiana Derby, Overanalyze an 88 in the Arkansas Derby.
Goldencents’ jockey, Kevin Krigger, led the standings at Emerald Downs in Auburn in 2005. He is attempting to become the first black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby since 1902.
The unanswered question about Goldencents is whether he can carry his speed 1 ¼ miles. Even trainer Doug O’Neill has harbored some doubts about his stamina. But the colt’s speed is going to be an advantage Saturday, for the Derby is undergoing a significant change many fans and bettors haven’t recognized yet.
Over the years, the field at Churchill Downs has regularly been populated by sprinters who set such a fast early pace they compromise the chances of every horse racing near the lead. As a result, the Derby has been a race for stretch-runners. Since 2000, six winners have rallied from 10th place or farther back, while one front-runner, War Emblem, won during that period.
Churchill Downs this year revised the rules that determine which horses get into the Derby field if more than 20 are entered. It scrapped purse winnings as the criterion and instituted a point system based on horses’ performance in the major prep races. Fast, fainthearted colts used to get into the field because of the money they had earned in sprints. Now such animals don’t qualify, and they are absent from Saturday’s lineup.
Under such circumstances, the Derby pace ought to be slower, horses racing near the lead won’t be enervated and stretch-runners will have more difficulty catching them.
Goldencents likely will sit just behind the probable pacesetter, Falling Sky, poised to take over when the leader falters. Verrazano ought to have a similarly easy trip, but I am prepared to take a stand against Todd Pletcher’s undefeated colt. In contrast to the difficult circumstances Goldencents faced in his final prep race, Verrazano enjoyed a perfect trip in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York. He sat behind a 77-1 shot who set a slow pace, a half-mile in 49.62 seconds. When the leader began to weaken, Verrazano was in perfect position to surge away from the field. Instead, he had to work hard to win by less than a length in slow time. Verrazano looked like a budding superstar earlier in the winter, but now he appears to be on the downgrade.
Four others in the field could be considered serious contenders: Florida Derby winner Orb; Florida Derby runner-up Itsmyluckyday, Revolutionary and Wood runner-up Normandy Invasion.
The Goldencents-Normandy Invasion combination would be my preferred exacta play.
Many of the others in the 19-horse lineup appear badly overmatched. This likely is not a year when a longshot will pull off a shocking upset. Handicapping logic ought to prevail.
In view of my record betting America’s most famous race, I should hesitate to say this, but the outcome of the 139th Derby looks obvious.