LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - We will hear frequently during the next 12 days trainers say their horses "handled 1 1/8 miles well, and I see no reason why they won't go another eighth-mile."
And that seems to make sense, given that 85 of the past 115 Kentucky Derby winners were in front after 1 1/8 miles. Of the 30 that weren't in front at the stretch call with an eighth-mile left, 16 were in second place, including 13 a half-length or less from the lead. In addition, in 26 of those 30 years, the horse in front with an eighth-mile finished second.
But I like to call the Kentucky Derby's final eighth-mile the longest eighth-mile in horse racing. More accurately, perhaps, the sport's longest eighth-mile is from the quarter-pole to the eighth-pole, getting into that position to win America's greatest horse race.
(As an aside, when Bob Baffert made his 1996 Kentucky Derby debut with Santa Anita Derby winner Cavonnier, I told his brother Bill that the horse in front at the eighth pole was the Derby winner. Bill says that he was all excited and figured they'd won the Kentucky Derby when Cavonnier was in front with only that final furlong remaining "because Jennie Rees said ... " Oops. Cavonnier is one of those 26 stretch-call leaders who came in second, with Grindstone — fourth at the eighth pole — nailing him on the wire for a nose triumph.)
But going from the 1 1/8 miles in the last round of prep races to 1 1/4 miles in the Kentucky Derby is more than going an additional 660 feet. Getting that first 1 1/8 miles in the Derby is completely different than in a prep race.
That's why some impressive final-prep winners are nowhere in the Derby and ultimately prove more effective as milers. The pace scenario completely changes, and some horses really appreciate getting away from speed-favoring surfaces with the change of venue to Churchill Downs and its long stretch.
Which brings us to my Final Fractions Theory.
The gist of the Final Fractions Theory is to pick your Derby horse from the pool of starters finishing the last eighth-mile of their final 1 1/8-mile prep in 13.0 seconds or less and the last three-eighths of a mile in 38.0 or less. The theory's real value is in eliminating horses, including some otherwise attractive contenders. This year, it eliminates the top three finishers of Keeneland's Toyota Blue Grass and everyone in the Wood Memorial but victorious Vino Rosso.
The premise is that horses who meet those parameters are more likely to be able to handle the extra eighth-mile they'll face in the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby. It also suggests that those horses are in good form and not regressing.
The final time of the race doesn't matter under FFT, but you have to calculate the fractions based on a horse's individual final time, taking into account how far back he was from the winner at the wire, not the official race time. It's based on a length representing two-tenths of a second.
The theory also assumes that the Equibase chart-caller is very accurate, though only the final margins of a race are determined by computerized technology.
With Always Dreaming coming the last eighth-mile in the 2017 Florida Derby in 12.5 seconds and the last three-eighths in a terrific 36.50, now 21 of the past 28 Kentucky Derby winners going back to 1990 met both thresholds. Another two Kentucky Derby winners "qualified" on the final eighth-mile but not the final three-eighths (Charismatic in 1999 and Grindstone in 1996), and two others qualified only on the final three-eighths (Sea Hero in 1993 and Unbridled in 1990). Note: Charismatic ran in the Santa Anita Derby, for which the fractions were calculated, then two weeks later won Keeneland's Lexington Stakes at 1 1/16 miles, for which fractions couldn't be calculated.
If a horse is to meet one or the other standard, I prefer it be the three-eighths. That's because jockeys might ease up considerably if they are well in front the final sixteenth-mile, making for a slower final eighth.
The three Derby-winning horses who failed to qualify on either threshold are Animal Kingdom in 2011 (he came out of Turfway's Spiral Stakes over a synthetic surface, which actually should have helped his finishing times because so often those have been run like a turf race); Mine That Bird (who blew up every Derby handicapping theory in 2009 when he came out of New Mexico except the High Altitude Theory) and Silver Charm (barely over in 1997 after pressing a wickedly fast pace in the Santa Anita Derby).
The Final Fractions Theory originated many years ago when veteran trainer Phil Thomas asked if I could find out the final quarter-mile times of all the Derby winners in their final prep. He believed they had to have come home in 25 seconds or faster. I couldn't calculate quarter-mile times from the Equibase charts, but I could the final eighth and three-eighths and saw there was indeed a pattern.
In recent years, I relied on the now-inactive Twitter account @DerbyContenders for its spread sheet-generated calculations in order to provide consistency. Now that I'm back to hand-calculating the fractions — made much easier when Equibase went to hundredths from fifths of a second — it takes one element of rounding down out of the equation but also creates a gray area.
While @DerbyContenders wanted to see horses who went under 13.0 and 38.0, I "count" it as "qualifying" if a horse is right on the number, which was the case in 2008 with Big Brown and Super Saver in 2010 for the final three-eighths. As with any theory, users have the right to adapt it to their purpose, so I of course went with what made the theory look the best. But now, what do you do with a horse like Lone Sailor, second in the Louisiana Derby by a neck, whose numbers are 13.04 and 38.06?
If he wins, you can bet I'll say that we round down to the nearest tenth of a second and that he counted!
Obviously other factors are at play. This is just one tool. But I have found that every time I try to make allowances for horses who don't quite fall into FFT guidelines — Santa Anita Derby winner Dortmund, for instance, rather than his 2015 Triple Crown-winning stablemate American Pharoah — it comes back to bite me.
And just because a horse "qualifies" doesn't mean he's the winner. Go no farther than my unfortunate pick last year of Sunland Derby winner Hence, who came in 11th. But I also more correctly suggested that eventual Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee was a strong play in the exotics at big odds. If he gets in, Combatant, fourth in the Arkansas Derby, could be this year's Lookin At Lee, who also is trained by Steve Asmussen.
In a nutshell: Kentucky Derby favorite Justify and runner-up Bolt d'Oro out of the Santa Anita Derby qualify on both the final eighth and three-eighths. Three of four Todd Pletcher-trained horses: Florida Derby winner Audible, Arkansas Derby winner Magnum Moon, Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso, with Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy a split qualifier. The long-shot out of the Louisiana Derby to play in the gimmicks is My Boy Jack, who is trying to take the Charismatic route to Kentucky Derby glory by running back and winning Keeneland's 1 1/16-mile Lexington.
Everything out of the Arkansas Derby qualifies with very fast closing fractions, which makes me a bit suspicious. Not only was Magnum Moon allowed to set a dawdling pace and figured to come home fast, locals have said for years that the Oaklawn stretch is slightly downhill, leading to fast final fractions. But then I talked to Gary West, whom I consider the most cerebral handicapper today and someone who has followed Oaklawn for decades. He says Magnum Moon's final three-eighths was the fastest for an Arkansas Derby since Afleet Alex, who probably was unlucky not win the 2005 Triple Crown. West also believes if the stretch ever did slope that it's been corrected. Maybe the Arkansas Derby field is simply that good.
The FFT does not flatter Keeneland's Toyota Blue Grass, with only fifth-place Blended Citizen meeting the parameters. If he gets in the field, Blended Citizen will be a huge price but a good horse to throw into your exacta, trifecta and superfecta wagers. Note that he's the only prospect to have raced in two 1 1/8-mile races, having won Turfway Park's Jeff Ruby Steaks Stakes with final fractions of 11.84 and 37.32. He'll be rolling at the end; just a question if he's good enough.
The FFT does not calculate times for European invaders Mendelssohn, winner of the 1 3/16-mile UAE Derby by 18 lengths, or Gronkowski, who has never raced farther than a mile, on dirt or in a significant race but qualified for the Kentucky Derby through a new British-based series.
Final Fractions Theory
How fast Kentucky Derby prospects finished in their final 1 1/8-mile preps: