Right now, among many horse racing fans, three things in life are certain: death, taxes and the fact that, come the first Saturday in May, Justify will win the Kentucky Derby.
Currently, the chestnut cold is the 7-2 favorite to win the most famous race in America and his conditioner, Bob Baffert, is second only to Todd Pletcher (who, as usual, has a bevy of live contenders) in the Kentucky Derby trainer odds.
But there are several good reasons why Justify may not be draped in a blanket of roses on May 5:
A few years ago, Gary West of ESPN pointed out that “no Kentucky Derby winner since at least World War II has entered the race without having some experience in a large field of 10 or more starters.” Of course, American Pharoah immediately made West’s point moot, but it’s worth noting that Justify has never faced more than six rivals in his three-race career.
What’s more, over the past 26 years, horses that last competed in a field comprised of eight horses or less are 8-of-209 for a -56.3 percent ROI, a 0.69 impact value and a 0.54 odds-based impact value (see chart below) in the Run for the Roses. By way of comparison, horses that last faced a field of nine horses or more won the Derby 18 times, with a 1.9 percent ROI, 1.23 IV and 1.15 OBIV over that same period.
Although I suspect this may be changing, horses with fewer than five career starts are just 2-for-43 (-41.2 percent ROI, 0.85 IV, 0.59 OBIV) in the Kentucky Derby since 1992.
This may surprise a lot of folks, but horses that were favored and broke their maidens in their first lifetime start have a terrible record at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May over the past quarter-century. Since 1992, only Funny Cide and Smarty Jones visited the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle after living up to their status as betting favorites in their debuts (-76.1 percent ROI, 0.46 IV, 0.31 OBIV).
By contrast, Horses that were favored in their career debut, but lost, have actually done very well in the Derby, with the list of winners including Triple Crown champions Secretariat and American Pharoah,
I’ve written about this a lot in my Kentucky Derby guides: While early speed types have certainly held their own in the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports, it takes a certain kind of frontrunner to visit the winner’s circle. Derby entrants that rated on the lead — especially an easy lead — in their final prep have met with virtually no success on racing’s biggest stage.
Horses that led at each of the first two calls of their final prep, but lost ground (lengths) between those calls, are zip-for-30 in the Race for the Roses — and only two have managed to hit the board (finish among the top three).
The “Curse of Apollo”. This relates to the fact that no horse has won the Kentucky Derby after not starting as a two-year-old since Apollo in 1882.
Think about that. In 1882, Tesla was an actual person instead of an overpriced car and movies didn’t exist at all… although I understand that Betty White hired an agent — on a hunch.
Since 1937, 61 horses have tried to break the dreaded Curse and 61 have failed, including some pretty highly regarded animals like Coaltown (who was part of an entry with Citation in 1948), Air Forbes Won (the 5-2 favorite in 1982), two-time Horse of the Year Curlin (in 2007) and Bodemeister (the 4-1 favorite in 2012).
Of course, all curses are eventually broken — just ask Chicago Cubs fans about the Curse of the Billy Goat — so is this the year the Curse of Apollo ends?
We’ll find out on May 5.