LOUISVILLE, Ky. — There was a time when a 50-to-1 long shot trained by an obscure New Mexico cowboy on crutches shocked the world in the Kentucky Derby. The horse was Mine That Bird, and that was a decade ago.
There also was a time, four years prior, when another 50-to-1 came home the winner. The horse was Giacomo, who never won anything of note before or after the first Saturday in May of 2005.
There was a seemingly endless stretch of time — two entire decades, from 1980-99 — when favorites won the Derby a grand total of zero times.
It’s good to remember those times today — the crazy, fearless ride of Calvin Borel in 2009, the suicidal pace that junked up the ’05 race, the constant churn of surprises that ended the 20th century. Here in the days of predictability, those upsets seem like museum pieces.
Maybe that’s the way it should be, given the current culture. We 21st century humans hate surprises: caller ID has eliminated the guesswork of who is trying to reach us on the phone; weather forecasts tell us by the hour whether to expect sun or rain; traffic apps inform us what’s waiting around every bend in the road.
Sports is supposed to be the last refuge of suspense, the last place to be good and gobsmacked by something we didn’t see coming. But the Kentucky Derby is not doing its part.
The thrill is gone from the modern Run for the Roses. There are several theories why, and we’ll explore them here, but first let’s light a candle at the Shrine of Donerail (1913 winner, at 91-to-1 odds) as we trudge through the Chalk Era of the Kentucky Derby.
Six straight favorites have won, the longest such streak in the 145-year history of America’s greatest horse race. And not only have they won, they’ve done so with a dearth of in-race drama.
The last five Derbies have resembled a merry-go-round — horses in fixed position for the vast majority of the 1 1/4-mile race. The path to the winner’s circle has been brute simple: get to the front, stay at the front, win.
Justify, last year’s Triple Crown winner, was never farther back than second in the Derby. Same with Always Dreaming, the 2017 champion. California Chrome, American Pharoah and Nyquist were never farther back than third. Of those five, only American Pharoah hadn’t yet taken the lead heading into the long Churchill Downs stretch.
The last of the late-charging winners was the first of this streak of favorites — Orb, in 2013. He was 17th midway through the race, roared up to fifth with a quarter-mile to run, then took over in the stretch.
Since then, the Derby has been a speed-favoring race. Horses quick enough to take the early lead, or contest the early pace, have ruled the race.
As a result, the legendary Derby betting payouts have shrank. A decade ago, a $2 exacta paid about $2,900 and a $2 trifecta paid about $41,5000 — preposterous numbers. Usually those numbers have been in the range of $300 for a winning Derby exacta and $3,000 for a trifecta — still a frothy return on investment if you can hit it. But three of the last four Derby exactas have paid less than $75, and three of the last four Derby trifectas have paid less than $285.
The good news there is that more people are cashing tickets. The bad news is that they’re not cashing huge tickets.
Maybe that changes Saturday. On paper, this Derby looks balanced and competitive, particularly after Wednesday’s stunning scratch of favorite Omaha Beach. That leaves four logical candidates to win. And probably an illogical candidate or two that could pull it off as well. Dare to dream, underdogs.
It would be a welcome return to the Derby’s long-held status as the wildest race of the year, two minutes of mayhem that few bettors or prognosticators saw coming. Those days have been replaced by a numbing run of predictability.
How did we get here?
Start with the Derby point system. It came into being in 2013, and the Chalk Era immediately began with it.The point system, with qualifying points accrued through a series of prep races, was an improvement over simply using graded stakes earnings as the way into the 20-horse Derby field. It was better, in large part, because it excluded sprinters who piled up purse money in shorter races that augured no success stretching out to 1 1/4 miles. Instead, horses generally have had to show up and run well in one or more major prep races to earn enough points for Derby admission.
“You’re giving them two or three hard races to get in [the Derby],” said three-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas. “They can’t skip a big race to get in, and they can’t be short on conditioning.”
Front-end speed horses possessing none of the necessary staying power have cooked the pace in a few Derbies. Flukish results have tended to follow. With the so-called “cheap speed” excluded, the pace is presumed to be more honest.
The Baffert-ization of the sport has had an effect as well. Trainer Bob Baffert has won five Kentucky Derbies between 1997-2018, most of them with naturally fast horses that were both trained and raced aggressively. They arrived on race day dead fit, as opposed to being babied in their morning workouts, and they were speedy enough to get on or near the lead and thus avoid the infamous Derby traffic problems.
That’s also become a California racing style, and it’s no coincidence that four of the last five winners were California-based horses: Justify, Nyquist, American Pharoah and California Chrome. The top four choices heading into the 2019 Derby all hail from the West Coast as well: Richard Mandella’s Omaha Beach (now scratched), and Baffert’s trio of Roadster, Game Winner and Improbable.
“The California guys are still in the best position to win it,” Lukas said. “Box Baffert and Mandella and you’re going to be in pretty good shape.”
Perhaps we’re simply in a strong cycle of speed horses. But Baffert’s Derby Method has become something of a template. It’s no surprise to see others doing their best to mimic it leading up to the race.
“Maybe we’re getting better at preparing for the Derby,” Lukas said. “And so the cream rises. Baffert’s the best trainer in America. He’s got the best clientele, and he comes with the best set of horses.
“There’s certain guys who know how to get them ready for this. They’re battle-tested, like the Spurs and the Warriors. They show up every year.”
That’s another element of the Baffert-ization of the sport — a continued concentration of high-end horses in the hands of powerful ownership groups and accomplished trainers. The more big races Baffert and Todd Pletcher won, the more good horses they got. Along the way, ownership groups have begun to join forces — the group that co-owned Triple Crown winner Justify included WinStar Farms and China Horse Club, wealthy operations that are prepared to dominate at yearling sales and keep restocking the barns of elite trainers.
There is one other dynamic to consider in the creation of the Chalk Era — one that isn’t talked about much, but makes as much sense as anything. Handicappers and gamblers are simply smarter than they used to be, and thus are likely to make more informed odds and smarter bets.
The information explosion has led to a more informed betting public. There simply is more data and less subjective squishiness in the process.
Race replays are in abundant supply, as opposed to simply scrutinizing the hieroglyphs on a chart. Trip handicapping — calibrating, for instance, how wide a horse ran throughout a race — is more accurate and more in vogue. The old canards like Dosage Index, which sought to quantify pedigree as a metric for a horse’s stamina to run 1 1/4 miles, have fallen out of favor.
Despite recent results, horsemen are still leery of the Derby’s old history as a favorite’s graveyard. When asked about having the horse to beat last week, Omaha Beach trainer Mandella visibly winced and responded, “Don’t say that.”
Until Wednesday, he was right where he wanted to be. That all changed, though, with the scratch. And now that the favorite is out, the Derby is up for grabs.
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