5-4-09: Derby 135 Thoughts

Hello again everybody...

So how was your weekend?

Mine was about as up and down as it gets. I had Friday off and went to the Twins/Royals game with some old high school buddies. The Twins won 7-5 and we had a good time. Definite up there.

Then Saturday it was out to the Track for the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby and a live radio broadcast from 4 until 6pm. Even with the extra work of having to haul all the equipment this time, those are still always fun. Someone once told me that the only thing nearly as fun as betting and winning, is betting and losing. Saturday, I ended up doing the latter (more on that in a bit). So Saturday had ups and downs.

Then on Sunday I was awoken by the following text message: "Wake up! I want to go boo Coco Crisp, eat pizza and cheer for Scott Baker! Wake up!" When a woman who's not necessarily a baseball fan sends you that, you wake up and go to a ballgame! And the ballgame itself was 6 innings of something special followed by 3 innings of disappointment. Scott Baker had a no-hitter through 6 innings, then got walloped in the 7th (no help from his manager), and the Twins ended up losing 7-5. Again, ups and downs.

So while it was an eventful weekend, it wasn't very hard to figure out what I was going to write about today. When a 50-1 shot wins the Kentucky Derby, there's your column. So what the hell happened? And what does it all mean? I'll discuss.

Has anybody seen Friesan Fire? He might be close to crossing the finish line now!

"The purpose of life is to fight maturity."
- Dick Wertheimer (? - ?), lawyer and poet.

I guess I'm fulfilling my life's purpose on a daily basis!

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Mine that Bird

Here's 11 words that nobody uttered on Saturday: "I'd like to make a win wager on Mine That Bird."

Even his own trainer didn't bet on the horse!

So what in the name of Giacomo happened?!

Simply put: the perfect storm. In order for Mine That Bird to win, he needed specific track conditions, a specific pace to the race, a specific type of field to run against and exactly the right jockey to guide him. And all four of those criteria fell exactly into place.

First of all, the track was rated as "sloppy". That means that it had a firm base, but was wet on top. Sloppy tracks favor horses with a late closing kick because they tend to tire out the horses that go to the front early. Mine That Bird was clearly a late bomber and benefited from horses wearing out at the end of the race.

Secondly, he needed a fast early pace. This was perhaps the most surprising part of the race. When Quality Road and I Want Revenge scratched, the two fastest speed figures had been taken out of the race. That seemed to indicate that the pace might be on the slower side.

Instead, it was just the opposite. Join in the Dance and Regal Ransom went right to the front and led the pack to a quick early pace. This led to favorites like Pioneer of the Nile and Dunkirk running harder in the early going which tired them out at the end of the race.

Mine That Bird, on the other hand, had a horrible start. He got squeezed out of the gate and dropped to the back of the pack. In fact, he was 20 lengths behind the leader at one point. He was so far behind that even in the widest of wide shots, he wasn't anywhere on your TV screen. All of this turned out to benefit him, because when he made his run, nobody saw him coming, and by the time any of the other jockeys realized what was happening, Mine That Bird was already 3 lengths ahead and pulling away.

Thirdly, he needed exactly the right field to run against. This is going to sound like I'm trying to take something away from Mine That Bird's win, but it's just the facts. The horses he ran against just weren't that good. As I mentioned earlier, the likely favorite (Quiet Road) scratched before entries were even taken, and the initial morning line favorite (I Want Revenge) scratched on the day of the race. And potentially the best three year old in the country wasn't even nominated for the Triple Crown. The filly Rachel Alexandra (ridden by the same jockey that was on Mine That Bird) won the Kentucky Oaks on Friday by such a huge margin, that's it's difficult to believe she wouldn't have beaten the boys on Saturday. 50 years from now, Mine That Bird's win won't look any different from Big Brown's, or Barbaro's or Street Sense's. But when you break it down, it's clear he wasn't running against as talented of fields.

Finally, he needed exactly the right jockey guiding him. Calvin Borel has been racing horses since he was 8 years old and growing up in Catahoula, Louisiana. He was advised very early on in his career that the shortest trip to the finish line comes by staying as close to the rail as possible. He took that advice to heart. So much so, that he's since earned the nickname "Calvin Bo-Rail". With the track conditions being what they were, there developed what's known as a "rail bias" over the course of the day on Saturday. That means that horses that hugged the rail seemed to win more than usual. So Calvin had a tremendous advantage due to his natural riding style, and maximized the potential of his mount in riding a fantastic race.

So why weren't more people on this horse? Why couldn't handicappers put all of those factors together and find a way to bet on Mine That Bird? Quite frankly, his numbers just didn't seem to indicate that he had a chance. As I handicapped each horse, I wrote down a series of notes and then went back over the notes to make my selections.

Here's what I wrote down about Mine That Bird:

"Slow..." (In his last two races he'd run 81 and 80 speed figures. And those were the highest he'd ever run. Winning the Derby usually takes a speed figure in the low 100's at a minimum.)

"Hasn't won a race since 10/2008..." (And that race was a Grade 3 race. Not nearly the kind of competition that he'd be facing in the Derby. It was also on a synthetic surface, which was the only surface he'd ever won on. He had races on dirt, but his best finish there was second. He was also under a different trainer at the time of his last win.)

"Bad work on 4/27..." (On April 27th, he worked out over 5 furlongs (5/8ths of a mile) in 1 minute and 2 seconds which was 19th best of the 26 horses that worked that distance that day. Not all trainers try to work their horse fast, so it's not automatically a concern, but it certainly doesn't help give you confidence either.)

And finally, just to make me look like a complete dope, I wrote a big "NO!" and circled it. When I'm taking notes I use terms like "Use" (either as a winner or in an exacta or trifecta), "Maybe" (this horse might be worth using in an exotic, but not as a winner), "Probably Not" (I don't think I want to use this horse, but I'm not going to toss him just yet either" and "No" (this horse is a dog and I'm not going to use him. So not only did this horse earn a "No" in my eyes, but I put an exclamation point on it because it was so obvious.

Obviously I'm a long way from being an expert handicapper. But I don't feel bad about whiffing on this horse, because I don't anyone who has those kind of credentials that had him either.

So if that explains what happened, the next question is "What does Mine That Bird's win mean for horse racing?"

This is where I'm going to lose people a little bit. Mine That Bird's win was great if you look at it in microcosm. But in a bigger sense, it wasn't exactly the best thing that could've happened.

I won't argue that there's a real David vs. Goliath aspect to the story. Mine That Bird began his career as a $9500 claimer. By contrast, second-favorite Dunkirk was sold at auction for $3.7 million. Mine That Bird's trainer Bennie Woolley Jr. had never even come close to racing a horse in the Kentucky Derby. The owners couldn't afford to fly the horse from his stables in New Mexico to Kentucky, so Woolley drove him the entire distance.

These factors all make for a dramatic story surrounding Mine that Bird's win.

But that's just one day.

Ask anyone closely involved in horse racing what's needed to help vault the sport back on to the national stage, and they'll tell you "a Triple Crown Winner".

There hasn't been a horse to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same year since Affirmed did it in 1978. Imagine if nobody won the NBA finals for 31 years. How relevant would professional basketball be? Okay, bad example...

But you get my point. It's been so long since horse racing has seen a Triple Crown winner, that you have to start wondering if it will ever happen again. If a horse as dominant as Big Brown couldn't get it done against a relatively average field of horses last year, perhaps horses just can't put out 3 of those types of efforts anymore.

And that brings me back to Mine That Bird. It was a great win. Congratulations to all involved. But he has no chance in the Preakness.

"But no one thought he had a chance in the Derby either!"

That's true, but for the perfect storm scenario I described earlier to strike twice is more than unlikely.

Over the course of the next two weeks, you'll hear all sorts of scenarios under which Mine That Bird might win the Preakness. But I promise you that he won't be the betting favorite come post time. In fact, I'd wager he won't be amongst the top 3.

I even boldly put up on my Facebook page that I'd take the field against anyone who wants to bet that Mine that Bird will win the Preakness. Obviously there are financial limitations to that statement, but I stand by the principle. The chances of this horse winning the Preakness are slim and none, and slims at the city limits headed out of town. And no Preakness means no Triple Crown.

Which is why, in the long run even though this was a great story on that day, ultimately, Mine That Bird's win wasn't the greatest thing for the sport of horse racing.

Sorry to be Deputy Downer, but that's just how it is.

That's all for today. Make sure you come back on Wednesday, hopefully I'll be a little more positive!

Until then, thanks for reading!


  1. You mean Puccini or Meyerbeer? I suppose either fits, to a great extent, due to the nature of the majority of their outputs fitting well with the nature of the Derby in general.