How to Find the Kentucky Derby Winner
The 2020 Kentucky Derby will take place on Saturday, September 5th, at Churchill Downs, just about four months after its traditional slot on the first Saturday of May.
Historically, the Derby has been the first leg of the Triple Crown races -- the three biggest horse races of the year. However, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Belmont Stakes was first to post on June 20th.
Traditionally, the layoff between the races has been a couple of weeks, however, in 2020, the layoff between the first leg -- Belmont -- and the second leg -- Kentucky Derby -- will be 11 weeks come post time on Saturday.
Though it usually trails Belmont, the Kentucky Derby -- run at 1 1/4 miles -- will be the longest of the Triple Crown races in 2020, as the Belmont Stakes was shortened to 1 1/8 miles due to the pandemic.
Unlike Belmont, where favorites tend to fade due to it being the third leg of the Triple Crown -- Tiz the Law was just the third favorite since 2005 to come away victorious -- the betting favorites tend to dominate the Derby. In fact, the Kentucky Derby favorite has won 5 of the last 7 and 9 of the last 20 races. That said, the other 11 winners have had odds ranging anywhere from 5-1 to 50-1 -- the average odds of those 11 victors has been 22-1.
As a result, while we should give plenty of consideration to the favorite, we also shouldn't completely fade other runners from performing well, or even winning, the 2020 Kentucky Derby.
While this piece is titled, "How to Find the Kentucky Derby Winner," it's as much about finding the winning ticket as it is about finding the actual winner. With that in mind, here are some factors to look for when searching for a potential winning ticket.
(Whenever I refer to rankings for jockeys and trainers, it's usually the ranks among those with at least 100 starts. I will also be referencing Equibase's speed figure, which tells you how fast a horse has been running in each of its races -- adjusted for track, distances, and conditions.)
How horses are performing leading up to the Derby is absolutely paramount to their success in the race. Of the last 20 horses to win the Derby, 19 of them posted a career-best speed figure within their two most recent outings prior to the Derby -- 15 achieved the best figure of their career in the race right before the derby.
Since 2000, 13 of the Derby winners averaged a speed figure of at least 104 in the three races leading up to the main event. All but two of the winners averaged a figure of at least 94 during those three efforts, and only one of the last 20 winners averaged a figure under 94 in their two prep races for the Derby.
Since 1957, not a single Kentucky Derby winner finished off the board in their final race before the Derby. Expecting a rebound from a horse that didn't finish inside the top four in their final prep race is highly unrealistic. Eight of the last nine horses to win the Derby entered the race fresh off a victory -- last year's disqualified winner Maximum Security would have made it nine for nine.
In most horse races, jockey booking is key to unearthing the winner, and the Kentucky Derby is no different.
Of the last 20 winning jockeys, 19 were inside the top 12 in either total purse, purse per start, or both. 13 of those riders were inside the top five in at least one of those categories.
With the exception of two-time winner Mario Gutierrez, just one jockey since 2000 had a winning percentage under 15% the year they rode the winning horse in the Derby. 17 of the last 20 winning riders had a top-three percentage of at least 40%. Gutierrez (2016, 2012) is the only first-place finisher in the last 10 years to not win at least 17% of his outings that year and not have a top-three percentage of 40% or better. Four of the last five winning riders have had percentages of at least 18% and 47%, respectively.
Six jockeys -- Calvin Borel, Gutierrez, Mike E. Smith, Victor Espinoza, John R. Velazquez, and Kent J. Desormeaux -- have ridden the derby winner multiple times in the last 20 years. Of those six riders, only Borel has done it three times.
It's rare that a Derby winner doesn't come from one of that season's top trainers. In fact, every trainer of the last 20 winners ranked inside the top 10 in either total earnings, earnings per start, or both. Every. Single. One.
Seventeen of the last 20 Kentucky Derby winners had a trainer that ranked inside the top five in either total or per-start earnings. All but one of those trainers had a win percentage of at least 15% that year, and only two of them had a WPS (win-place-show) percentage lower than 41%. 14 of the last 20 winning trainers had a win percentage of at least 18%, and 16 of the 20 had a WPS percentage of 45% or better.
Only three trainers -- Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher, and Doug O'Neill -- have trained multiple derby winners since 2000. Baffert is the only one to have trained three victors during that stretch, including each of the last two triple crown winners -- Justify in 2018 and American Pharoah in 2015.
The field seems to be almost set, and TVG gives you the most up-to-date odds.
For now, we'll focus on the main contenders. We'll have a more comprehensive betting guide closer to the Derby.
After a brief summary for each of the likely contenders, I'll include a score of how many (and which) of the winning criteria they meet.
Jockey bookings are based on reports and are subject to change.
(Due to a shortened season, this year's rank for trainers is among those with a minimum of 40 starts.)
Tiz The Law (4/5)
There's no doubt that Tiz the Law is going to be the heavy favorite for the 146th Kentucky Derby.
The 2020 Belmont Stakes champion is first in Kentucky Derby points -- the 172-point difference between Tiz The Law and the horse in second place is greater than the total number of points any contender outside the top two has.
Tiz The Law is also four-for-four in races in the 2020 season. Eight of the last nine Derby-winning horses were undefeated the season they won. The colt's average speed figure in his last three outings is 113.3, which is a higher average than any of the last 20 winners posted in their three efforts prior to the main event at Churchill Downs.
The three-year-old will be jockeyed by Manuel Franco, who is 7th in total purse and 12th in earnings per start, to go along with a win percentage of 16% and top-three percentage of 44%.
Barclay Tagg is the horse's trainer. Tagg is 29th in total earnings but first in earnings per start. Tagg's horses have won 19% of their outings in 2020, with a WPS percent of 47%.
Score: 3 out of 3 -- Recent form, jockey, and trainer.
Art Collector (6/1)
Like Tiz The Law, Art Collector has won each of his four 2020 starts. In his last three, the Kentucky colt has averaged a speed figure of 104, though his career-best outing of 106 came in the first of those three.
Jockey Brian Joseph Hernandez Jr. currently sits at 26th in total earnings and 20th in purse per start. He's won 17% of his 2020 races while placing top three in 43%.
Thomas Drury Jr., Art Collector's trainer, is 79th in total earnings and 14th in earnings per start -- his horses have won 21% of their efforts, to go with a WPS rate of 50%.
Score: 1 of 3 -- Recent form.
Update: Art Collector opted out of the race.
Authentic has placed first in three of his four 2020 outings. The colt has posted an average figure of 105 in his last three, though his career-best figure of 113 came in his first race of the season.
John Velazquez will be in the saddle for Authentic. Velazquez is 11th in total earnings and 8th in purse per start. He's won 17% of his 2020 efforts and finished top three in 45%.
Trainer Bob Baffert has trained 3 of the last 20 Derby winners. Baffert is third in total earnings and second in earnings per start. His horses have won a whopping 29% of their races this year, with a WPS share of 63%.
Score: 3 out of 3 -- Recent form, jockey, and trainer.
Honor A.P. (8/1)
Unlike the three aforementioned horses, Honor A.P. has only won once in 2020. However, in his last three races, the colt is averaging a speed figure of 104, including a career-best figure of 106 his last time out.
Jockey Mike Smith rode Justify to a triple-crown in 2018. This season, Smith is 23rd in total earnings and 1st in purse per start. The rider has an 18% winning percentage this season to go with a 49% top-three rate.
Honor A.P.'s trainer, John Shirreffs, is 58th in total earnings and 3rd in purse per start. The horses he's trained have won 20% of their 2020 outings to go with a 52% WPS rate.
Score: 3 out of 3 -- Recent form, jockey, and trainer.
Thousand Words (20/1)
Also trained by Bob Baffert, Thousand Words could open at shorter odds than his current 20/1 line. After a poor start to his 2020 season, Thousand Words has rebounded in his last two, including a career-high figure of 107 his last time out.
Baffert will have Florent Geroux riding Thousand Words. Geroux is 10th in total earnings this season and 7th in purse per start -- he's won 18% of his 2020 outings with a top-three rate of 44%.
Score: 2.5 out of 3 -- Jockey and trainer. Form was questionable to start 2020.
Ny Traffic (25/1)
Ny Traffic hasn't won any of his last four, though he has placed 3-2-2-2 in those four efforts. His most recent race saw him post a career-best speed figure of 109.
Jockey Paco Lopez is 12th on the total money leaderboard this season, though he's 28th in earnings per start. Lopez has won an impressive 19% of his races this season, to go with a top-three rate of 51%.
Ny Traffic is trained by Saffie Joseph, who's 14th in total purse and 43rd in earnings per start. The horses he's trained have a 23% winning percentage and a 53% WPS rate.
Score: 2 out of 3 -- Form and jockey. Trainer's earnings are not what we look for from winners.
Dr Post (25/1)
If Dr Post does make the trip, he has the recent form and trainer to make plenty of noise (jockey TBA).
Caracaro is one of the more intriguing horses in the Derby. The three-year-old has posted an average speed figure of 102 in his last three, including a career-best 107 in his last outing.
The colt will be ridden by Javier Castellano, who is ninth in total earnings and sixth in purse per start this year. Castellano has a winning percentage of 16% to go with a 50% top-three rate.
However, trainer Gustavo Delgado is just 137th in total earnings and 91st in earnings per start. His entries have won 16% of their starts but have posted a WPS rate of just 38%.
Score: 2 out of 3 -- Form and jockey. Trainer's stats are not what we're looking for.
Update: Caracaro won't run in the 2020 Kentucky Derby.
King Guillermo (25/1)
Like Caracaro, King Guillermo has the form to compete, but unlike Caracaro, we're underwhelmed by both the jockey booking and the trainer's 2020 success. King Guillermo has raced twice in 2020, averaging a figure of 105.5 in those two efforts.
Jockey Samy Camacho is 35th in total earnings and significantly worse in purse per start. He's ridden his horses to a 16% winning percentage and 46% top-three percentage. Trainer Juan Carlos Avila hasn't fared any better. Avila is 68th in total earnings and in the triple-digits in earnings per start. His win percentage this year is an unimpressive 13% to go with a 41% WPS rate.
King Guillermo also hasn't raced since May, and only one Kentucky Derby winner since 1956 came in off a layoff of longer than six weeks.
Score: 1 out of 3 -- Form.
Update: King Guillermo was scratched.
Keep an eye out for the betting guide, which will cover the horses with longer odds as well.