Kentucky Derby Notes: Eight Belles Tragedy, Big Brown Victory & Preakness Peek

Hello again everybody...

Time for my Kentucky Derby wrap-up. Unfortunately the big story coming out of the Derby was the tragic death of the sole Filly contestant, Eight Belles, so I'll share my thoughts about that. But I'll also address what I wish could've been the big story and that was an impressive (though not so much as some people think) victory by my pick, Big Brown. Finally, I'll take a quick peek ahead to the next leg of the Triple Crown, The Preakness Stakes.

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And down the stretch we go...

There have been a lot of traditional maxims that have been thrown out the window over the last few years in Triple Crown racing. "A horse can't win after a 6-week layoff". Barbaro nixed that one. "A horse can't win the Kentucky Derby with only 3 races-worth of experience". Big Brown tossed that one into the midden heap. And, "a Filly can't compete with 19 world-class Colts when she's never faced that level of competition before." Eight Belles beat all but one.

But amidst all of that history being turned on it's head, it's also an unfortunate reality of horse racing that sometimes an otherwise brilliant event can be marred by the break-down of one of the competitors. Sadly, Eight Belles wasn't able to out-run that history.

I presume most of you are aware of her fatal injuries after completing the race, so I won't repeat the tragic details. But I would like to comment on some of the conspiracy theories that have abounded following her unfortunate demise.

First of all, the fine folks at PETA immediately chimed in. And they weren't totally wrong. According to ESPN Horse Racing Analyst Randy Moss, the use of a whip is more tradition than of any practical use and could easily be phased out of the sport. And there's definitely reason to look into why the rest of the world bans the use of certain medications on horses on race day itself, while those same medications are allowed at North American tracks.

But the notions that the jockey should be suspended because "he must have known something was wrong", or that the owners should have their second-place share confiscated for similar reasons are silly. If you watch the video, Eight Belles never breaks her stride, or gives any other indication that anything's physically wrong. The only odd move she makes is to jerk her head to the right as she runs down the stretch. And according to her trainer, that's a move she's made plenty of times in the past in an effort to force her body closer to the rail So how the jockey "must have known" that anything was wrong is beyond me. And the notion that an owner or trainer would send a horse that they know isn't physically right out to race is utter nonsense.

Most owners and trainers get into the business because they enjoy the sport and have a specific affinity for horses. But even if you don't want to believe that they genuinely care about the animal and think they're only in it for the money, then you have to admit that the bulk of the income an owner gets from a horse is from breeding, not from racing. So it's simply bad business to send a horse that's not physically able to handle the stress out into that type of situation.

Ultimately I think Eight Belles death was a tragic accident and not any kind of case of negligence. It's instinctual and natural to look around and try to find someone to blame. But in this case, it's counter-productive.

Barbaro's death led to the installation of synthetic surfaces at many tracks around the country. And the early numbers seem to indicate that those installations have led to a reduction in the number of injuries to horses at those tracks. Hopefully the loss of Eight Belles will lead to yet another re-examination of the industry and there can be further improvements in safety for what's otherwise a grand sport.

Moving on...

For the 3rd consecutive year, I've given you, my dear readers, the winner of the Kentucky Derby. Before you get too excited, I've completely failed in the other Triple Crown races in those same 3 years, but in terms of the Derby, I'm a handicapping genius!

My theory going into the race was to find the best horse and hope he got the right trip. And that's exactly what happened. If you haven't seen it, or would like to watch it again, here's the video:

Isolate on Big Brown (the 20-horse, starting furthest to your left) and notice the clean break he gets from the gate. Then watch as he gets near the front of the pack at the first turn. He stalks right off the pace til he reaches the far turn, where he makes his move, and then proceeds to run away from the pack down the stretch. Exactly the trip his trainer and owners were looking for.

But as impressive as it looks, some of the comparisons to Barbaro's win 2 years ago are unfounded. Big Brown earned a Beyer Speed Figure (a universal rating calculated to measure a horses speed relative to other horses over the same track) of 109. Both Barbaro and Street Sense, the last two Kentucky Derby winners, earned figures of 111. Close, but not quite as good.

Ironically enough, the illusion that Big Browns victory was as dominant as those previous winners is created by the very reason that makes Big Brown more likely to be a Triple Crown winner than the horses he's being compared to. And that is the quality of his competition. This crop of 3-year-olds is clearly not as talented as previous-years. The gap between Big Brown and the rest of the field was clearly large. And minus Eight Belles, I don't foresee any of those Derby horses mounting any kind of legitimate competition in the Preakness or Belmont.

Speaking of which, it looks like the Preakness is going to be a smaller-than-usual field for that very reason. Other owners don't think their charges can run with Big Brown. The only horse that ran in the Derby that's giving any consideration to running in the Preakness is Recapturetheglory who finished 5th in the Derby. And his entry into the Preakness is by no means a given.

My guess is that the Preakness field will top out at 8 or 9 horses, most of whom will be horses that failed to earn enough in Graded Stakes races to qualify for the Derby. That would indicate that they aren't as talented as many of the horses that were in the Derby, all of whom were soundly defeated by Big Brown.

Bottom line is Big Brown will be an enormous favorite in the Preakness (I'm thinking at least 1-2 odds if not even lower), so wagering on him to win will be a rather fruitless exercise. The only money would come in an exotic wager (exacta, trifecta, etc). And I'll have more on that coming next week!

So that's all for now. I hope that those of you who tuned into the Derby - whether for the first time ever, or for the first time in a while - were able to enjoy the splendor and pageantry of the event, even with the post-race tragedy. More on the Preakness next week!

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