In 2015, I created the first version of what I now refer to as the “Kentucky Derby Speed Figure Heat Map.” Similar to Thoro-Graph, the TimeformUS Pace Projector and the OptixPLOT, it was my attempt to create a visual representation of complex and inherently flawed data.
I’ve included the 2015 version below. As you can see, the concept is fairly simple. I created a table that lists both the fastest lifetime speed figure and most recent speed figure for each horse. With the help of some conditional formatting, the basic gist is that green (80th percentile) is good and red (20th percentile) is bad or in this case faster and slower, respectively. White, as you might have guessed, is in the middle (50th percentile).
American Pharoah had plenty of green which is not surprising. In the spirit of full disclosure, based on some other factors, I landed on Upstart that year.
Before discussing the specifics of the 2019 version, I wanted to highlight some of the potential utility of this visual.
My original heat map included BRIS, Beyer and TimeformUS Speed Figures. The rationale was that the underlying methodology is slightly different and I wanted to see if there were differences in assigned figures for some of the important prep races.
I’ve since incorporated Thoro-Graph into my own analysis and now include those in the heat map. As a result, the heat map accounts for “traditional” speed figure methodology (BRIS and Beyer), pace (TimeformUS), along with ground loss and assigned jockey weight (Thoro-Graph).
For many horses coming into the Kentucky Derby, their most recent race represents their lifetime best. Obviously, that’s not always the case and it’s why I’ve chosen to include both figures. Visually, the left-hand side of the map is trying to represent proven ability (at any previous time) while the right-hand side is a look at current form.
You’ll notice there are two other columns. They’re not related to speed figures and quite honestly, I’ve considered removing them. The Tomlinson Figure is an assessment of wet track ability based on breeding. Most of these horses have already ran on a wet track and that’s probably a better indicator of ability at this point. Similarly, the Damsire Average Winning Distance is something that can offer clues about 10F route ability. That said, horses are certainly capable of “outrunning their pedigree” and there is no shortage of examples in recent editions of the Kentucky Derby.
Let’s take a look at the 2019 Kentucky Derby Speed Figure Heat Map:
If you’re not familiar with each of these methodologies it’s important to understand a few very basic concepts. BRIS and Beyer Speed figures place a premium on winning a given race. Put differently, by definition the horse that wins will always be assigned the highest figure. Conversely, it is possible that the winner might be assigned a lower speed figure than another horse using both TimeformUS (due to pace dynamics) and Thoro-Graph (due to ground loss and weight).
A few examples for the uninitiated. Tax (120) earned a higher final TimeformUS figure in the than Tacitus (119), the eventual winner of the Wood Memorial. Tax was closer to a relatively fast pace and stayed on for second, earning a figure upgrade. Meanwhile, Game Winner (0.25) was assigned a better Thoro-Graph figure than Roadster (2.25) in the Santa Anita Derby due to significant ground loss.
On the surface, it’s no surprise that several of the likely favorites have a lot of green in their rows – Omaha Beach, Improbable, Game Winner and Tacitus. But there are a few observations that I think might prove useful on Saturday.
First off, it’s worth noting that Beyer has the Blue Grass Stakes being slow relative to other figures while BRIS rated the Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby slower compared to the others. This information can be valuable in determining how various horses might get bet. And while I don’t have anything to back up this opinion, I believe that horse players using TimeformUS and Thoro-Graph are typically more sophisticated and likely to represent a higher percentage of the exotic pools. With that in mind, it might be helpful to understand how they might be inclined to bet based on the figures used.
Let’s look a few horses in more depth…
Roadster was a visually impressive winner of the Santa Anita Derby but there’s more to the story. His stable mate, Game Winner was assigned a higher TimeFormUS and Thoro-Graph figure despite finishing second. In other words, Roadster benefited from a perfect trip and pace scenario to win the race. It’s possible he could get a similar setup in the Kentucky Derby but personally, I’m much more interested in Game Winner on the win end. In fact, I’m inclined to toss Roadster from all slots, a decision that I think creates tremendous potential value.
The forecast for Saturday looks less than ideal. We will discuss Omaha Beach, who clearly has an affinity for off going but I want to point out that Game Winner has the potential to freak in the slop, based on his pedigree.
Win Win Win is a talented colt that most people learned about following his impressive score in the Pasco Stakes earlier this year. That race came up fast on all figures but it was a one turn, 7F race. It was such a good race that he was sent off as the favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby where he was a wide and non-threatening third. Is he a talented closing sprinter or did he react / bounce following his big effort in the Pasco? In my opinion, the Blue Grass Stakes didn’t fully answer that question. Yes, the race was on the slow side and the field wasn’t spectacular but Win Win Win encountered some trouble and more importantly, he was seemingly the only horse to make up ground in the stretch the entire day at Keeneland. For me, he’s the best example of a potential value play based on the left side of heat map being green (past ability) and his right side being red (most recent form). Despite his high-profile work on Sunday morning, he will be north of 20-1 (despite his ML of 15-1) and has shown he’s capable of running fast enough albeit at a much shorter distance.
Omaha Beach is almost certainly going to be the post time favorite. He’s fast all on all figures and appears likely to get a trouble-free trip near the front end based on his post position. While he will go favored regardless of the track condition I think he could go as low as 7-2 in the event we have a muddy track. His race in the Arkansas Derby was contested over a sloppy track and he earned a massive new top on Thoro-Graph. Many horse players will oppose him because of the potential to bounce off of just three weeks rest. Initially, I was inclined to do so but it’s clear looking at the other figure makers that his Thoro-Graph figure is “ground loaded.” That is, because he was wide and covered more ground, it was assigned a faster relative figure (oversimplified). However, most horse players have observed that the inside paths were not ideal on Arkansas Derby day. Hall of Famer Mike Smith was likely aware of this and positioned Omaha Beach in the best part of the track. While I’m not necessarily questioning the figure, I have softened my negative view on him and think it’s unlikely he will bounce.
War of Will seems to be regaining the confidence of some horse players based on his recent works. I don’t see it. His efforts prior to the Louisiana Derby debacle were relatively slow and it’s hard to see a new lifetime top at 10F just a few weeks following a soft tissue injury. He’s a horse who is red on the heat map and in my opinion has limited upside. Jack is a much more popular name than Will but I’m hoping several folks named “Will” have deep pockets and make this horse a massive underlay – Quite a stretch given the rail draw.
Based on the heat map, Tax might be the value of the race. He exits some fast races and certainly should handle the distance based on pedigree and the fact that he’s already contested three races at 9F – something fairly unusual at least by recent standards. In fact, Blended Citizen (who was scratched as an AE) is the only other horse with this distinction since the implementation of the points system. Tax is much more accomplished and other than running style, this horse reminds me of Normady Invasion. A ground saving trip from post 2 should put him right there as they turn for home.
I can find few, if any, chinks in the armor of Tacitus. His ability to overcome a rough start in the Wood Memorial can not be underestimated going into a race that often provides some challenging trips. Tacitus has developed nicely since the addition of lasix in his 3YO debut. It would not surprise me if Tacitus won the Kentucky Derby and I’ll use him prominently on Saturday.
I’ve already mentioned that I like two long shots – Tax and Win Win Win. Tacitus is actually part of the reason why I like both of them. The connection to Tax is pretty straightforward. Tax was beaten just over a length in the Wood Memorial, will be twice the price and could get an okay trip along the rail. Tacitus handily defeated Win Win Win in the Tampa Bay Derby but the latter was caught wide, left with too much to do late and likely regressed following his monster race in the Pasco. Nevertheless, the difference in Thoro-Graph figures was minimal due to the differences in trip. I’ve already provided my potential excuses for Win Win Win in the Blue Grass Stakes. At double the price, I’m thinking their development since the Tampa Bay Derby is similar and Saturday could shape up much like the unscripted work on Sunday morning that resulted in Win Win Win passing Tacitus in the stretch.
Finally, let’s take a quick look at the Florida Derby. There are two contenders exiting that race and other than both being by Freshman sires, I can’t find many more similarities. Maximum Security won the race by open lengths but he was able to dictate terms while setting a slow pace up front. Code of Honor was unable to replicate his Fountain of Youth closing kick and finished a well beaten third. From a heat map perspective, Maximum Security looks logical as it’s a sea of green for him. But will he get the same setup and if not, how will he respond? Alternatively, Code of Honor was up against it in the Florida Derby given his running style and based on his connections, he may not have been fully cranked since he was already assured a spot in the Kentucky Derby. Despite being exclusively red on the heat map, read slow, I’m very interested in including Code of Honor underneath.
As I stated before, the heat map isn’t the only input of my analysis but I think it’s a quick way to better understand the opinions of other horse players. As for my final opinion?
I think Game Winner is the most likely horse to run his race and that puts him squarely in the mix. I think he’s going to hit the board and he will be my top selection. My fear is that he may earn the best Thoro-Graph figure in the race and still not win due to a wide trip, especially given his post position. There’s a chance that Game Winner doesn’t like kick back or that Rosario has been given instructions to keep him in the clear and ride him like he’s the best horse in the race. I’m hoping Rosario can deliver the Practical Joke trip of 2017 as I’m confident he will have plenty of horse.
The value for underneath slots appears to be Win Win Win, Tax and Code of Honor.
So, my strategy is to key Game Winner in first and second, use some logical contenders (Improbable, Omaha Beach and Tacitus) and then hope that I can get one of my value keys, ahem, In The Money.
This is how I might leverage my opinion using a $50 Bankroll:
$1 Trifecta – 16 with 5,8,12 with 2,13,14 – $9
$1 Trifecta – 16 with 2,13,14 with 5,8,12 – $9
$1 Trifecta – 5,8,12 with 16 with 2,13,14 – $9
$0.50 Trifecta – 16 with 2,13,14 with 2,13,14 – $3
$4 Exacta – 16 with 2,13,14 – $12
$2 Exacta – 2,13,14 with 16 – $6
$2 Win – Win Win Win