2015 Kentucky Derby Handicapping & Analysis

(Editors Note For the last few years, Price Headley, a Louisville native and CEO of, has been kind enough to share his thoughts on the running of the annual Kentucky Derby from Churchill Downs.  Saturday’s Derby will be the 141st .  He takes a theoretical $100 and tells how he would invest it (bet might be a better word).  His very able cohort, Moby Waller, gives his outlook for the race as well, and Moby uses a few different factors in his analysis.  Click on “read more” to see Moby’s selections.  We will print these out and have them on our fingertips late Saturday afternoon during “the greatest two minutes in sports”.)

It’s time for our annual Kentucky Derby selections and commentary. First, we’ll start off with an updated table of past Derby winners, their speed ratings and final tune-up race. Our analysis of past data indicates that horses with strong 100+ speed ratings in preparatory races have a better probability of winning the big race:

Derby Winner BRIS Speed Rating Last race (# weeks before Derby)
CALIFORNIA CHROME 106,102 Santa Anita Derby (5 weeks)
ORB 97, 102 Florida Derby (5 weeks)
I’LL HAVE ANOTHER 95, 102 Santa Anita Derby (4 weeks)
ANIMAL KINGDOM 100, 89 Turfway Spiral (5 weeks, poly)
SUPER SAVER 92, 94 Arkansas Derby (3 weeks)
MINE THAT BIRD 96, 98 Sunland Derby (5 weeks)
BIG BROWN 106, 104 Florida Derby (5 weeks)
STREET SENSE 98, 101 Bluegrass Stakes (3 weeks, poly)
BARBARO 104, 104, 97, 97 Florida Derby (5 weeks)
GIACOMO 100, 96, 98, 96 Santa Anita Derby (4 weeks)
SMARTY JONES 105, 109, 101, 103 Arkansas Derby (3 weeks)
FUNNY CIDE 111, 103, 97 Wood Memorial (3 weeks)
WAR EMBLEM 109, 105, 88, 94 Illinois Derby (4 weeks)
MONARCHOS 108, 108, 106, 98 Wood Memorial (3 weeks)
FUSAICHI PEGASUS 110, 103, 100, 98 Wood Memorial (3 weeks)
CHARISMATIC 104, 94, 94, 94 Lexington (2 weeks)
REAL QUIET 107, 103, 73 Santa Anita Derby (4 weeks)
SILVER CHARM 102, 98, 105 Santa Anita Derby (4 weeks)
GRINDSTONE 101, 102, 93 Arkansas Derby (3 weeks)
THUNDER GULCH 98, 103, 106 Blue Grass (3 weeks)
GO FOR GIN 104, 105, 99, 100 Wood Memorial (3 weeks)
SEA HERO 96, 85, 77 Blue Grass (3 weeks)
LIL E. TEE 102, 96, 107, 100 Arkansas Derby (2 weeks)
STRIKE THE GOLD 109, 100, 99, 87 Blue Grass (3 weeks)
UNBRIDLED 108, 101, 104, 98 Blue Grass (3 weeks)

Last year I was high on California Chrome who won the Derby easily. He was the favorite but still paid a healthy 5-2 ($7 for every $2 bet to win) as the clear best in the field. This year’s race is not as clear. There are two co-favorites, American Pharaoh (5-2) and Dortmund (3-1)Of these two, I believe Dortmund is clearly preferred. His speed ratings of 105,102,101 eclipse Pharoah’s 102,99,99. But more interesting are a couple of sleepers that shows similar numbers with much more attractive odds. Remember the Derby is the biggest field of any race in the States all year, so in addition to talent, racing luck is needed. That’s why I like to find value in the 10-1 to 20-1 range typically for the greatest 2 minutes in sports.

My favorite in this year’s race is Dortmund (Post Position 8, 3-1 odds). Fresh off winning the Santa Anita Derby which California Chrome won last year on his way to the Derby & Preakness winner’s circle, Dortmund is a perfect 6-for-6 and shows the consistency I look for to “key” a horse not only as a win bet but also in my exotic bets. His daddy Big Briwn won the Derby with similar prep race form. The only thing puzzling to me is why trainer Bob Baffert had the horse’s final workout at a slowish 6 furlong jog rather than the shorter 5 furlong “blowout” like fellow trainee American Pharaoh had. But Baffert is at the top of the training game, though he has not won the Derby with a favorite before.

I would not be surprised to see Dortmund go off as the co-favorite with Pharoah, which means very short odds in a 20-horse field. The Derby usually favors closers and horses that want the extra ground. Typically, this doesn’t show up on paper yet for these colts, as they’ve only gone 1-1/8 miles or less, and the Derby is 1-1/4 miles. That last 1/8 of a mile (also known as a “furlong” in the racing business) is what separates the champions from the also-rans. We should have a beautiful sunny day with no rain at Churchill Downs for this year’s Derby as well.

With those thoughts in mind, here are my top challengers to Dortmund:

Materiality (PP 3, 12-1): Speed ratings of 105,100 in his last two races look strong, and the win in the Florida Derby has been a good prep for Derby winners in recent years. Given that it’s an extra week of rest since that race March 28, I like this horse’s chances to save ground from the inside. The prior 3 races show he likes to be near the front, which is a concern in this 1-1/4 mile endurance test, so we’ll also look for closers to back us up here if he fades late.

Upstart (PP 19, 15-1): This horse is right up there in class with the co-favorites, and I expect him to be charging late. My only concern is the outside post position, which will cost some lost ground early. I expect him to be dodging horses and making a run but likely come up just a length or so short at the end.

Firing Line (PP 10, 12-1): With Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens in the irons, and an ideal post position from the middle, this one is solid if not spectacular. Worth some action in exotics.

American Pharoah (PP 18, 5-2): I could be wrong on this one, as he did have a super strong workout which is usually a good sign. But my only play with him in as the outright winner on top of all horses, and hoping a longshot gets second place for the exacta. I think he’s either a winner or out of the money so place a saver bet accordingly.

So my theoretical bets on a sample $100 model portfolio look like this:

$10 Win on 3
$5 Exacta box 3, 8
$5 Exacta box 8, 19
$5 Exacta 8, 10
$1 Exacta 18 with ALL
$1 Trifecta box 3, 8, 10, 19
$1 Trifecta 8 with 3 with ALL

Price Headley, CEO of 

Moby Waller, Portfolio Manager:

In last year’s Derby picks, both Price & myself nailed the favorite California Chrome to win the Derby, and our other picks finished high up in the race.  Price’s horses came in 1, 6, 4, 5, 7  while mine came in 1, 4, 3, 8 — so we both had the race handicapped well on the whole, but neither of us had the long-shot horse that came in 2nd.  On paper that horse didn’t seem likely whatsoever to finish Top 4, but that’s why they run them on turf, not paper.

This year Dortmund (PP #8) and American Pharoah (PP#18) are big favorites over the rest of the field in the morning line odds – for wagering/handicapping purposes, if you can avoid having both of those horses finish top 2 (or top 3), you can have some stronger payouts in general.  To me American Pharoah is the best horse, but the 18 Post Position makes it the one who is more likely to not win the race.  See the table below that shows only 1 winner ever from the 18th spot:

So if we can take American Pharoah out of the top spot on Exactas, Trifectas and Superfectas, that can help raise potential payouts.  I also can see rationale for Dortmund not winning the race — bottom line to me is that while both the horses should be favored, I think other horses are being discounted, odds-wise (and the morning line odds on these 2 may be too low).  So taking the odds into account, here are my selections and hypothetical wagers:

  1. Materiality (PP 3, 12-1 ML Odds) –undefeated and getting better each race, Florida Derby winner had a strong workout on the Churchill Downs (CD) track despite jockey switch
  2.  Frosted (PP 15, 15-1) – showed nice closing in Wood Memorial where it seemed to step up to a new performance level right at the right time for the Derby, has been in bigger field wars before
  3. Dortmund (PP 8. 3-1) – undefeated, but last 3 races at same California track – top 4 finish looks very likely – not a great workout at CD but won there easily as a 2 year old
  4. American Pharoah (PP 18, 5-2) – the best horse on paper, but has never raced with over a 9 horse field and is way out there in the 18 post position, did show a bullet strong workout at CD
  5. Carpe Diem (PP 2, 8-1) – veteran of 2 year old blue chip wars and very strong in 2015 so far

Other longshots to use for exotics:  El Kabeir (PP 7, 30/1), Mubtaahij (PP 6, 20/1), Itsaknockout (PP13, 30/1)

Thoeretical Wagers:

$1 Exacta box 2 3 8 15 18 = $20

$1 Trifecta box 2 3 8 15 18 = $60

$0.10 longer shot Superfecta box = 8, 18, 7, 6, 13, 2 = $36