Derby notes


Handicapping the Kentucky Derby happens to be the biggest brainteaser in the universe, more challenging than diabolical Sudoku or Mensa quizzes in the back of airline magazines.

Some people want to make it even tougher.

They also want to know how these 3-year-olds compare to 3-year-olds of years past.

I'm struggling to compare Circular Quay to Scat Daddy. Who has time to ponder the what-ifs of a hypothetical race between Curlin and Afleet Alex?

Comparing entire crops of 3-year-olds is fruitless, anyway, especially without benefit of hindsight.

Many considered last year's Derby field one of the strongest ever, loaded with talented colts boasting gaudy Beyer Speed Figures. But looking back at the Derby chart after a year of perspective, those horses -- other than Barbaro -- now seem mediocre.

These Derby contenders aren't running big numbers or finishing with bold flourishes, unless you count the Toyota Polytrack Stakes. They aren't running especially quick early fractions, either.

But they seem remarkably consistent, and something tells me this bunch will turn out much better than those of a year ago. It's nothing more than a gut feeling, though.

Time For Another Change
Until the centennial running in 1974 drew a 23-horse field resembling a rugby scrum, the Kentucky Derby had no provision to limit field sizes.

Beginning the next year, a 20-horse limit was instituted with entrants ranked by earnings. About a decade later, that rule was improved. Graded-stakes earnings became the primary criteria.

So these rules weren't handed down on a stone tablet. They can and have been adjusted. And now it is time for another change, a more radical one.

The graded-earnings rule needs to go.

In the not-too-distant past, horses ran more frequently as juveniles and early-season 3-year-olds. Thus it was rare for a horse that truly belonged in the Kentucky Derby to miss the cut. Graded earnings were a simple and effective way to keep out the riffraff.

But today's 3-year-olds are raced more sparingly, and too many deserving and lightly-raced contenders are finding themselves on the bubble.

Another problem has now arrived and is no longer hypothetical: a casino-inflated purse of $1 million for the Grade 3 Boyd's Gaming Delta Jackpot in December makes that race 25% more significant in the Kentucky Derby qualifying process than the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes. And the Maktoum-inflated $2 million purse for the UAE Derby makes that race 167% more significant. It becomes more important to address such absurdities when the graded-earnings rule is being invoked every year instead of only occasionally.

In the last five years, Sunday Break, Rock Hard Ten, Eddington, Strong Contender and now the Michael Matz-trained Chelokee have been bounced from the Derby lineup in favor of horses with larger bankrolls but inferior talent.

The graded-earnings rule has become a relic that needs a proper and respectful burial. Perhaps Matz will deliver the eulogy. I'll provide the 8-track tapes.

Layoff already!
To those who insist on handicapping the Kentucky Derby by invoking the ghosts of Apollo, Regret, Exterminator, Clyde Van Dusen, Needles, Spectacular Bid, Sunny's Halo and other dead horses, here is another statistic to add to your arsenals: By the time the horses leave the gate on May 5, no horse in the last 8,760 hours will have won the Derby coming off a layoff of more than four weeks.

Less Could Be More
Many quotes will be published over the next week. None will be more melodic than this from new NTRA president Alex Waldrop regarding takeout rates in horse racing.

"Casinos work at rates of about 5%, but racing is stuck in the 20% to 25% takeout range," Waldrop said. "Tracks have to have the ability to lower their takeouts. They have to be able to compete."

Nothing would revitalize the sport like a combination of shorter race meets and a substantially lower takeout rate.

On The Surface ...
Horseplayers are struggling to make sense of synthetic-surface results in which favorites can make clear leads through opening half-miles in 52 seconds and then get swallowed.

Jockeys are experimenting to find effective riding strategies for the new tracks.

Trainers are wondering how to properly condition horses who train over synthetics but race on conventional dirt.

Track superintendents are scratching their heads over proper maintenance techniques.

Meanwhile, track presidents who haven't pulled the trigger to install synthetic surfaces are watching closely, many not-so-secretly hoping the whole revolution unravels so they won't have to pony up $8 million for a conversion.

Welcome to racing's new world order, featuring a sport that specializes in inertia now driving 80 mph in a 35 mph zone.

Thankfully, the overall bottom line remains simple enough, even though the ongoing changes may be complex and befuddling.

Should studies (this is being studied, right?) eventually reveal that synthetic surfaces do not decrease injury rates among horses, or if maintenance problems become so widespread that tracks cannot be kept safe, this whole exercise will be viewed in history as a frantic rush to judgment on the basis of faulty or nonexistent intelligence. Sound familiar?

But if Polytrack, Cushion Track and Tapeta do turn out to be a thoroughbred's best friend, the handwringing among horseplayers will be equally misguided.

If injury rates fall, bettors will be helped by larger field sizes and resulting higher payoffs. And the kind of stamina that produces strong finishes might finally catch back up to speed in the pecking order of American breeders, which also could be in the best long-term interests of the game.

Synthetic racing might never be as predictable as conventional dirt racing. However, we play in a world of pari-mutuels, with bettors pitted against each other. The sharpest will eventually figure out the most profitable handicapping angles for Polytrack and its cousins. They will benefit from the confusion of others.

In a competitive scenario, your opponent's blurry vision is no bad thing if you've figured out how to see 20-20.