2023 Kentucky Derby Preview

In most years — and this year, too — right after the NFL draft comes the Kentucky Derby, which has experienced some changes in recent years.

Prior to 2020, an awkward "auxiliary gate" was pressed into service whenever more than 14 horses started in the Derby, which had happened in 22 consecutive runnings of the race up to that point, and 54 times all told since 1942 (the Preakness has always limited fields to 14 horses and the Belmont to 16, although the largest field in Belmont Stakes history was 15 in 1983).

Now there is a special "Derby" gate which can accommodate up to 20 horses (Canada's Woodbine Racetrack wanted to have 20-horse fields for Breeders' Cup races that were on the turf when it hosted the event in 1996, but their request to do so was denied).

Another recent change — and not for the better — was the Jockey Club's abolition of the Experimental Free Handicap in 2019, a key eliminator that aided horseplayers in winnowing down the number of horses they might be open to wagering on in races like the Derby.

When the Experimental Free Handicap existed, only horses who were weighted within 10 pounds of the previous highweight for the previous year's 2-year-olds were reckoned as serious Derby contenders. In addition, only horses that have a Dosage Index (a mathematical formula derived from the horse's pedigree, used to gauge whether the horse is best suited to sprint or mile races on the one hand, vis-a-vis longer races such as the 1 1/4-mile Derby on the other) not exceeding 4.00 were deemed suitable to handle the Derby distance, with horses that have at least some chef-de-race representation in either of the two most stamina-laden "aptitudinal groups" — Solid or Professional — seen as particularly likely to relish the distance.

To replace the Experimental Free Handicap, many handicappers count a horse that won any graded stakes race as a 2-year-old, finished first or second in any Grade 1 or Grade 2 stakes race as a 2-year-old, or finished first, second or third in any Grade 1 stakes race as a 2-year-old, to be the same thing as having been weighted within 10 pounds of the highweight on the EFH under the old format.

The chart below shows each likely Derby starter's number of Derby points (awarded on a sliding scale to the first five finishers of most 2-year-old stakes races before January 1 and most 3-year-old stakes races on or after that date, with the most important such races offering the most points), best career Beyer Speed Figure, Dosage Profile, Dosage Index, and whether the horse met the criteria from the previous paragraph to qualify under the "new EFH":

*Continuar qualified for the Derby field by finishing third in the UAE Derby on March 25"

Only Forte, the almost certain post-time favorite, has the desired "foundation" (he won three Grade 1 stakes races as a 2-year-old, including the Breeders' Cup Juvenile) and has both the necessary Dosage Index and stamina-wing representation in his Dosage Profile. Indeed, only seven other horses — Tapit Trice, Kingsbarns, Raise Cain, Hit Show, Confidence Game, Sun Thunder, and Continuar — have any Solid or Professional points in their Dosage Profiles (no horse, in fact, has any Professional points in their profile).

On the other side of the pedigree coin, Angel of Empire and Rocket Can have a Dosage Index above 4.00 — making it especially unlikely that they will be able to negotiate the mile and a quarter of the Derby.

And speaking of a mile and a quarter, while no horse in this field has even raced at that distance, let alone won at it, two of them — Derma Sotogake and Kingsbarns — have won at the Preakness distance of a mile and three-sixteenths (the former in the UAE Derby, beating Continuar by 10 lengths, and the latter in Louisiana Derby).

By contrast, Raise Cain and Maige have yet to win around two turns, although the latter did finish a game second to Forte in the Florida Derby.

If deep exotic wagers such as trifectas or even superfectas are this thing of yours, in addition to Forte (obviously), Tapit Trice is a "must-use" based on his pedigree and high career Beyer Speed Figure, as is Kingsbarns (who, as already noted, has already won at a mile and three-sixteenths) along with Confidence Game and Hit Show, whose Beyer ceilings put them at least within range of pulling off an upset.

But as Rich Strike proved in last year's Derby, every horse is within range of pulling off an upset. Just the same, as Damon Runyon said, the race may not always be to the swift or the battle to the strong, but that's the way to bet.

Not always — just almost always.

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