Simon Says: Does Anybody Want to Win This Year’s Kentucky Derby?

Does anybody want to win this year’s Kentucky Derby? I mean, seriously?

After watching the Louisiana Derby on Saturday, which came on the heels of a subpar Rebel Stakes, a terrible Tampa Bay Derby and a God-awful Gotham, I have doubts.

I mean, the figures weren’t bad. Noble Indy earned the highest Equibase speed rating (106) for a Louisiana Derby since Revolutionary (108), who was also trained by Todd Pletcher and subsequently finished third in the Run for the Roses. The problem is Noble Indy’s -9 late speed ration (LSR) is the worst since the race reverted back to 1 1/8 miles in 2010.

Frankly, it’s almost incomprehensible that one of the late runners didn’t overhaul the son of Take Charge Indy in the stretch — yet they didn’t. Well, actually both Lone Sailor and My Boy Jack did, but Noble Indy fought back. And if I’m going to knock Pletcher’s charge for recording a subpar LSR, I should point out that his -10 early speed ration (ESR) was the best recorded by a Louisiana Derby winner in at least 26 years.

In fact, of the horses running 1-2-3 after the opening half-mile, only Noble Indy finished in the money. Bravazo (third) finished eighth, while Marmello (first) checked in 10th — and last.

As a numbers guy, normally I would applaud such an effort, but it just looked so ugly.

Plus, there’s the addition of blinkers — something I was concerned about before the race and that even Pletcher admitted made Noble Indy “a little too headstrong.” Since 1992, horses that added blinkers in the Kentucky Derby itself or any of their three preceding prep races are zip-for-47 on the first Saturday in May and only three — Strodes Creek (1994), Prince of Thieves (1996) and Empire Maker (2003) — even hit the board.

Some observations about the other preps:

Sunland Derby: Runaway Ghost was bet down from 6-1 to 7-2 in the final seconds — and he won like a well-intended horse should, drawing away to a commanding lead in the stretch before holding on to win by 2 ¾ lengths. However, despite a solid 1:49.2 final time for nine furlongs, the 96 Equibase speed figure was the lowest in the history of the race. On the plus side, Runaway Ghost showed he could rate in the Sunland Derby — a dimension he hadn’t shown previously.

Jeff Ruby Steaks: Blended Citizen recorded the first triple-digit Equibase speed fig since Animal Kingdom. However, I was most impressed by Arawak, who made a big move on the turn.

Rebel Stakes: Following in the hoofprints of Malagacy, also trained by Todd Pletcher, Magnum Moon stayed undefeated with an easy 3 ½-length win in the $1 million Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, earning a 109 Equibase speed rating (Malagacy earned a 103 fig) and a -5 LSR. Like Malagacy, whose dreams of roses ended with a fifth-place finish as the 2-1 second-choice in the Arkansas Derby. Magnum Moon did not start as a two-year-old and will be bucking the Curse of Apollo should he make the Kentucky Derby starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

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Simon Says: Peter Miller’s Punishment Doesn’t Fit the Crime

Originally posted by Derek Simon on March 20, 2018

It pains me to write this and I suspect I’ll get some grief over it, but I think Peter Miller’s punishment for making derogatory remarks to Stephanie Murray is out of whack. And, no, I’m not sticking up for Miller or, in any way, condoning his comments.

If you haven’t heard, Miller, a trainer based in Southern California, was suspended seven days (April 2 to April 8), fined $2,500 and “placed on probation for the term of his license (10/31/2019) for violation of California Horse Racing Board rule #1874.” It was his seventh offense.

CHRB rule 1874 relates to disorderly conduct and reads as follows:

No licensee, shall be under the influence of any alcoholic beverage, and/or any illegal substance while performing their respective duties while within the inclosure [sic] of any racing association or fair, simulcast wagering facility, auxiliary stabling facility or Board-approved training facility. Nor shall any licensee conduct themselves in a disorderly or boisterous manner at any time while within the inclosure [sic] of any racing association or fair, simulcast wagering facility, auxiliary stabling facility or Board-approved training facility including but not limited to: 1. Fighting; 2. Threatening, abusive or aggressive behavior toward another person; 3. Any behavior that impedes others from performing their duties; and/or 4. Any other behavior that is detrimental to the public and racing.

According to Murray, Miller accused her of “stealing” his staff at San Luis Rey Training Center on Sept. 11, 2017.

Peter Miller (photo via YouTube).

Peter Miller (photo via YouTube).

“Miller then continued to belittle and harass me on a deeply personal level, regarding my appearance, my skill as a horseman, my child that is expected to be born (Dec. 1), and my husband,” Murray wrote in a letter to the Board.

“The stuff that he said — it was disgusting,” said fellow trainer Adam Kitchingman, who witnessed the incident. “I don’t even want to repeat what he said. Pete Miller has always been abusive to his staff. This isn’t new. I was the only person to step up to him and tell him to shut up — not to talk to a girl that way. I don’t want to make myself out as some sort of hero, but nobody should be talked to that way.”

OK, so why am I saying that Miller’s punishment was too harsh? Two reasons, really.

1) Words are not actions. As vile as Miller’s comments may have been — seriously, who insults an unborn baby? — ultimately, they are only words.

2) It is not the job of the stewards — or at least it wasn’t originally — to enforce a code of conduct on backstretch personnel. Initially, stewards were state-appointed officials tasked with protecting the interests of the betting public. Yet, that has been turned so completely on its ear that, in many states, one isn’t even eligible to be a steward without previous experience as a horse owner, jockey or trainer.

It’s absurd.

Hence, I was hardly surprised when I learned that the rule Miller broke (1874) was instituted in 1996.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, stewards continue to do what stewards in the United States used to do — protect the betting public.

In 2016, the Paulick Report pointed out that one of Hong Kong’s top jockeys, Y.T. Cheng, was suspended for — are you ready for this? — three months for “failing to give his mount a full opportunity to win or get its best possible placing in a race.”

A week later, on Sept. 25, 2016, US Hall of Fame rider Kent Desormeaux was cited by the Los Alamitos stewards for being “up in the saddle” aboard Peppermint Kitty, who was nosed out for third-place in the day’s second race. Peppermint Kitty was trained by — you’ll never guess — Miller, and a large show bet had been made on the filly, resulting in a negative pool.

According to the Paulick Report, Desormeaux pleaded guilty, waived his right to a hearing and paid a $500 fine for violating CHRB rule 1692.

Look, I’m not saying that Miller — or Desormeaux, for that matter — defrauded the betting public here. I literally have no clue. But a case like the one outlined above, juxtaposed with the ruling in Hong Kong, is far more alarming to me, as a bettor, than Miller’s potty mouth. And does anybody think it’s just a coincidence that racing in Hong Kong is far more popular than racing in the United States?

I feel for Ms. Murray, I really do. Nobody deserves to be verbally abused like she was, but I think that is an issue for track officials to handle, not racing stewards, who have more important issues to deal with.

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Simon Says: Stop It! Justify Is Not Going to Win the Kentucky Derby!

Originally posted by Derek Simon on March 17, 2018

Justify-3-Jim-Safford

Justify (photo by Jim Safford).

I’ve heard all the hyperbole.

I’ve seen all the comparisons to great Kentucky Derby champions of the past.

But I’m here to tell you that Justify will not win the 2018 Kentucky Derby — or at least he shouldn’t be a short price to do so. The fact that the Bob Baffert-trained colt closed at 6.2-1 in the latest Kentucky Derby Future Wager is mind blowing.

And it’s not only that Justify would be the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Run for the Roses without starting as a two-year-old, it’s that he presently has zero Kentucky Derby points — and it’s March already.

Also, while he’s clearly fast, it’s not like his speed figures tower over the competition like Big Brown’s did when he won the roses in 2008. In fact, Justify’s 104 Brisnet speed figure in his last race is inferior to the top figure recorded by three other Kentucky Derby contenders, mainly Audible (105 in the Holy Bull), Bolt D’Oro (105 in the FrontRunner Stakes as a juvenile) and Good Magic (105 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, also as a 2-year-old).

What’s more, both McKinzie, who earned a 104 BSF in the Sham, and Promises Fulfilled, who garnered a 104 in the Fountain of Youth, have matched Justify’s Brisnet number.

The difference is all of those horses have earned Kentucky Derby points and, if the race were run tomorrow, only Audible, who is tied with Greyvitos at no. 20, would be questionable to make the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

Of course, I understand the counter argument: But Derek, Justify is something special and all he needs to do is win — or probably even place — in one of the final 170-point races to get into the Big Dance.

OK, and you’re going to tell me that 6-1 odds on a horse that needs to win or place in a Grade I race just to have the opportunity to visit the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle is a fair price? Come on! I think I have a better chance of remembering the words to “12 Days of Christmas” next holiday season, which, if you know my track record, isn’t saying much.

As for how Justify compares to other recent Kentucky Derby champs? Not that well, actually.

Right now, Baffert’s stable star uses the bulk of his energy early, which — surprise, surprise — is typical of young, inexperienced horses. Look at the careers of the great ones and what you find is that the ability to ration speed is a learned behavior that comes with time.

Justify

AlwaysDreaming AmericanPharoah BarbaroBigBrownSpectacular Bid went wire-to-wire in seven of his first 15 starts; he wired just one of his remaining 15 (not counting his walkover win in the Woodward, the final race of his career).

This is not to say that Justify can’t also learn how to better apportion his speed — the problem is he doesn’t have a lot of time. The Kentucky Derby is just 50 days away!

Speed Ration Key Chart

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Simon Says: What to Make of the Kentucky Derby Preps

Originally posted by Derek Simon on March 8, 2018

Kentucky Derby Preps That Are Safe to Ignore

Starting in about two weeks, the real Kentucky Derby preps begin — the 170-point affairs that not only assure the winners a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May, but also serve (in most cases) as the horses’ final tune-up.

Yet, over the years, some of those prep races have been — what is the word I’m looking for? — oh yeah, atrocious.

Take, for example, the Blue Grass Stakes, which is slated to be run on April 7. Since 1997, horses making their final pre-Derby starts in the annual Keeneland feature are 1-for-81 in the Run for the Roses — and zip-for-52 when the race has been run on real dirt, as will be the case again this year. Worse (or better, depending on one’s perspective), the Blue Grass has produced more Derby starters (18) over the past five years than any other final prep race.

BlueGrassStakesStat

Another prep race that has been worse than woeful is the Louisiana Derby, which has never seen a Kentucky Derby champ use it as a final prep, although three LA Derby entrants did go on to win in Louisville after making their final prep elsewhere, including Funny Cide (2003) Grindstone (1996) and Black Magic (1924).

How Good Is Promises Fulfilled? 

I have long lamented that the days of the “jock with the clock” in his/her head is a thing of the past and nowhere was that more evident than in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 3. Give trainer Dale Romans all the credit in the world — it was his idea to send eventual winner Promises Fulfilled right to the front — but how in the world do the connections of Strike Power, who was stretching out from seven furlongs, let him (Promises Fulfilled, not Romans) waltz through an opening half-mile in 48.39 seconds?

I know Joel Rosario got criticized for his ride aboard Storm Runner, but he appeared to be the only rider that even sniffed the ridiculously slow pace when he tried to squeeze through a non-existent opening on the rail, only to get rebuffed — twice.

GP-March-3-2018

As for what this race says about the Kentucky Derby picture in Florida? I fear it says very little. Promises Fulfilled did show some nice pep down the lane — the -4 late speed ration he earned was tied for the best of the day on what seemed to be a tiring GP main track — but he still has to prove that he can handle Kentucky Derby splits or come from off the pace. Because, right now, I wouldn’t bet him with monopoly money if he’s in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.

And Good Magic, last year’s juvenile champ? Frankly, he got his preferred trip and he simply had no answer down the lane. Trainer Chad Brown said he got tired and it was his first start of the year, but it didn’t exactly get the pulse racing, did it?

Speed Rations Explained

Derek Simon
Derek Simon is the Senior Editor and Handicapper at US Racing.