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Ivan Bigg handicaps the Kentucky Derby

May 4, 2023

TORONTO, May 4, 2023– Can my handicapping rule do it again? Can it pick the top three finishers in the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby as it did in last year’s 1 ¼-mile Queen’s Plate? (A $1 triactor paid $200.) I apparently was the only public handicapper to do so – in a piece I wrote for the Canadian Thoroughbred.

Note how I used the word “rule” because this column isn’t about my opinions. It’s about applying the same rule in the Kentucky Derby as I applied in the Queen’s Plate (now, King’s Plate). My opinion doesn’t matter.

In fact, I place little faith in opinions – and you’ll see a lot of them flying around for the Derby – because, as host of betting workshops for many years, primarily at Assiniboia Downs, I’ve been peppered with opinions galore and most of them are wrong, especially those voiced by the loudest and most strident of players. Funny how that works.

After years of Derby research, it was only in last year’s Kentucky Derby that I developed a new rule for 1 ¼-mile races.  What solidified its worthiness was having it work to perfection in the Queen’s Plate at the same distance.

The rule is simple: Compute the closing fraction in 1 1/8-mile races Derby horses have raced in. Calculate how quickly each horse has closed from the 6-furlong point in those races to the end of the race. Horses with the quickest time have the best chance of winning. It’s identical to the way you calculate closing fractions in turf route races. You add or subtract from the final closing time depending on whether the horse gains lengths or loses lengths in the push to the wire.

In the Queen’s Plate, it was Hall of Dreams at 16-1 who had shown the best closing fraction in a 1 1/8-mile race with Sir for Sure at 17-1 being next. They finished under the much-the-best Moira.

Confidence for my Queen’s Plate picks had come from last year’s Kentucky Derby in which the horse with the quickest 1 1/8-mile closing fraction, Mo Donegal, didn’t win but did finish a fast-closing fifth and might have won had he not had an awkward start behind the entire field. The value of that handicapping rule, though, was proven out five weeks later when Mo Donegal prevailed by three lengths in the Belmont Stakes. That showed just how well-meant he was for the Derby – and strengthened the power of the rule.

So, cutting to the chase, what horses in Saturday’s 20-horse field rise to the top by virtue of their closing fractions in 1 1/8-mile races?

WHO GETS THE EDGE? This year’s Derby is highly competitive with just hundredths of a second separating the closing ability of many of the rivals. It’s much more of a crapshoot than the Queen’s Plate. But here goes: By a razor-slim margin, #14 Angel of Empire has the edge. He’s a Brad Cox trainee who won the Arkansas Derby and is ridden by Flavien Prat. Morning line is 8-1. The closing fraction in his 1 1/8-mile race was 37 seconds. Adding to his luster is his racing record in which he has gotten faster and faster in every one of his six starts: 58-66-80-92-96-106 are his Equibase speed figures. What’s his top?

RUNNERS UP: Next is #22 Mandarin Hero who got in from the also-eligibles after scratches. He had lost by a nose to Santa Anita Derby winner #10 Practical Move who is scratched. The third-place horse in that race, #9 Skinner, who also was a top contender, is scratched as well. The next best appears to be #15 Forte, the Todd Pletcher trainee with six out of seven wins including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Florida Derby. He’s the morning line favourite at 3-1.

Complicating the selections is the fact not all horses have raced at 1 1/8-mile and the two Japanese entrants have no listed internal fractions by which to compute closing fractions. For horses with 1 1/16-mile races only, I examine how much slower their closing fraction is in relation to the 30-second standard in turf racing. None of them seem to rate among the top contenders. And, as for the Japanese horses, the final times in their 1 1/8-mile races on the dirt are considerably slower than for top U.S. horses. But there’s the uh-oh factor for Japanese horses, isn’t there, given their success over the past 18 months in Saudi Cup and World Cup races and in the Breeders’ Cup. In fact, Churchill Downs’ lead DRF analyst Marcus Hersh picks the Japanese colt, #17 Derma Sotogake, to win the Derby.

Then, of course, there’s the x-factor, the trip that horses are able to negotiate in the crowded 20-horse field. Can the best horses get through?

So, there you have it: #14 Angel of Empire is the rule pick. Will the Santa Anita Derby horses and Forte complete the exactor or triactor? Will one of the Japanese horses jump into the fray? Let’s just hope all horses get a safe trip in which they can show their best stuff – and that I don’t have too much egg on my face when they’re throwing the blanket of roses over the winning horse after the two most exciting minutes in sports.

Ivan Bigg for Woodbine Communications

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