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April 28, 2015

A beginner's guide to the 2015 Kentucky Derby, part 2

In Monday's first installment of this series, we reviewed the basics about the Kentucky Derby and the types of bets you should be considering between now and when Derby rolls around. In today's installment we will analyze how the race is often run and won, what to watch for on TV both before and during the race and which horses in this year's Derby set up well for the race.

By nature, a thoroughbred racehorse is a classic "flight" animal. Confronted with a stressful sight, sound or other situation, its natural instinct is to run in the opposite direction as fast as it can for as long as it can. Racehorses have to be painstakingly trained (“schooled’ in horse talk) to overcome their natural instinct to run at full speed as soon as the starting gate opens and learn to wait for the jockey’s signal to step on the gas.

This is done by the jockey shaking up the reins – which lets the bit out in the horse’s mouth – and moving his or her hands vigorously up and down the horse’s neck – to keep the horse in full stride – you will see the jockeys start to do this about mid-way on the far turn of the race. 

The Kentucky Derby presents a number of major "first time ever" mental and physical challenges to the flight instincts of the horses running that can easily undo all this careful schooling in all but the very best ones.

The first challenge is the crowd - the Derby's is gigantic and very loud (on a normal day the crowd at the racetrack is a few thousand people at best, on Derby Day on track attendance is estimated to be close to 150,000 people). The noise and commotion generated by this new and potentially frightening crowd experience can quickly unnerve ("spook") a horse before it even enters the gate to run the race.

As your horse is warming up on TV before the race, look for these telltale body language signs to see how well he is handling the crowd: 

Look at his tail -- it should be held slightly in the air off of the base of the rump (it's bad sign if it is drooping across rump) and look at his ears -- they should be facing forward and not pinned down behind his head and laying on his neck (a sign that the horse is really angry and about to lose it). Also, look out for foam between the hind legs - a bad sign that the horse is sweating too much because it's getting too nervous. A successful Derby horse has to keep his cool while warming up.

The second challenge is the size of the field - the Derby will be the first time your horse will have ever run in such a big field (a normal size field in a typical horse race is 6-9 runners, but the Derby field is a whopping 20 horses). This giant field creates a lot of traffic problems throughout the running of the race so a successful Derby horse has to have the ability to navigate through a lot of other horses (guided by his jockey).

Many horses get spooked during the running of the race simply by the number of other horses running around them. As you are watching the race being run on TV look at your horse's jockey -- you want him or her to be sitting as still as possible in the saddle with hands holding the reins steady against the horse's neck until the horses are about halfway around the far turn (this is called "sitting chilly"). If the jockey has to restrain or encourage the horse too much before then during the race it is a bad sign that the horse is spooked and using up his energy too soon.

The third challenge is the length of the race -- by sacred horse tradition the Kentucky Derby will mark the first time that any of the horses running will have ever competed in a race longer than a mile and an eighth. It takes a racehorse running at a fast cruising speed about 12 seconds to run an eighth of a mile in a race (a "furlong") and that extra one eighth of a mile (between a mile and one eighth race and a mile and one quarter race) is very challenging mentally and physically at the end of the Derby.

Horses generally have one of three possible running styles that they tend to stick to -- "wire to wire" (horses who grab the lead at the start of the race lead throughout), "stalking" (horses who stay in contact with the leaders in the early and middle stages of the race and then take the lead in the final straightaway) or "closers" (horses who drop way back at the start of the race and come from well behind late in the running of the race to win in the last few strides).

Historically, the Derby is often run way too fast at the start of the race to the disadvantage of the wire to wire-style runners. The lead horses are so spooked by the crowd and one another that they give in to their flight instincts and are scrambling in a mad cavalry dash (running at close to their top speed) as soon as the starting gate opens up to get to a good position along the rail going into the first turn.

As you are watching on TV, if you see the lead horses run the first quarter mile faster than 24 seconds, the first half mile faster than 48 seconds or the first three quarters of a mile faster than 1:10 it means they are running too fast to last the demanding Derby distance and probably won't be able to stay on the lead when the real running starts.

The large field size also usually works to the disadvantage of the closer-style runners in the Derby. Most of the time the Derby is run by a stalking-style runner.

The wire to wire-style runners in this year's Derby are American Pharoah, Carpe Diem, Dortmund, Firing Line, Materiality and Stanford. Far Right, International Star and Mubtaahij are the closer-style runners and all of the other runners are stalking-style runners.

Another factor to consider is whether your horse is being handled by a top jockey and/or a top trainer who has won the Derby before. The Derby experience is new to the horses and, in some cases, the jockeys and the trainers, too. There is a lot of pressure on the human connections in the Derby (a mental mistake by the jockey, such as moving a horse too soon in the race, can easily lose the race) and a demonstrated ability in your horse’s human connections to handle the Derby pressure in a plus.

The horses being ridden in this year's Kentucky Derby by a jockey who has won the Derby before include American Pharoah, Carpe Diem, Dortmund, El Kabeir, Far Right, Firing Line, Frosted and Keen Ice. The horses entered in this year's Kentucky Derby trained by a trainer who has won the Kentucky Derby before include American Pharoah, Carpe Diem, Dortmund, Frammento, Itsaknockout, Materiality, Mr. Z and Stanford.

The pre-race favorites for the Derby are American Pharoah (4 wins in 5 lifetime races), Carpe Diem (4 wins in 5 lifetime races) and Dortmund (6 wins in 6 lifetime races).

In the next and final installment of this series on Thursday, I will handicap the field of horses, separating the contenders from the pretenders, and give you my personal selections to win, place and show, together with a few legitimate longshot horses.