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Will the Kentucky Derby give us another Justify? Improbable!

by J.W. Miller on 04/29/19

I was thinking about writing about the Saints’ draft today, but what’s so sexy about a center in the second round and a safety in the fourth? The Saints sound very happy with their picks, and they seemed to fill needs, so who am I to add anything to that? The real reason I didn't write football is that its Kentucky Derby Week! YEAAHHH ! 

This is always a tough time of year for a sports-loving Kentucky native to be away from the Heartland, but this year I will be ready. I will mix a sufficient quantity of mint juleps which the Lovely Miss Jean and I will sip from our silver julep cups. Brother Jerry and sister-in-law Laura are coming down with bourbon balls and a few gallons of burgoo (Think gumbo with rabbit instead of shrimp!). We will wear our finest Derby Day headwear, and I will shed a tear when the strains of My Old Kentucky Home signals the parade of starters. 

Best of all, this is the one day of the year I get to show what a handicapping wizard I am! Racing fans have been fortunate in the past few years to have watched two Triple Crown winners sweep the three major races after having none for 36 years. Justify last year followed American Pharoah in 2015 to rekindle the interest, and both were trained by Bob Baffert. Not surprisingly, Baffert has three horses entered in the 2019 race, and two are among the three favorites. None are expected to duplicate Justify’s 2018 feat simply because no thoroughbred yet has shown the same skill, stamina and warrior mentality. 

So my answer to the question - Will we see another Triple Crown winner in 2019 – is Improbable! If you don’t follow racing, you have interpreted my answer as a resounding NO! However, it you do know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock, you know which horse I think has the best chance. Improbable is his name, and, at 5-1 he is currently the third pick among bettors behind Omaha Beach and Roadster, both at 7-2. 

Baffert trains both Improbable and Roadster, but the latter is losing his regular jockey for the big race. Mike Smith, who guided Roadster through the preliminary portion of his 3-year-old season, has switched to Omaha Beach for the Derby. This is the same Mike Smith who won his third Derby last year on Justify and doesn’t have the nickname “Big Money Mike” for nothing. He made the switch for a reason, and that reason is that he believes Omaha Beach has the best chance to win. Hard to argue with that! 

Look at the Arkansas Derby when Omaha Beach took an early lead on a muddy track and then held off a late threat by … Improbable. I believe this time Baffert’s horse, ridden by rising star jock Irad Ortiz, will turn the tables, and the numbers back me up. Professional sports are putting an increased emphasis on analytics to give them a competitive advantage, and the horse racing industry is no different. 

One of the earlier measures of a thoroughbred’s ability was the system developed by Andrew Beyer when he was racing editor of the Washington Post. Beyer’s speed rating has been the definite measure of a racer’s ability to turn on the juice and outrun its competition. This year’s top Beyer rating was a 101 by Maximum Security, currently the fourth betting pick at 6-1 despite never having run a two-turn race or the Derby distance. Only two other horses reached 100 in the Beyer – Omaha Beach and Improbable. 

More recent measures, such as the Thoro-Rankings, also calculate a performance rating for each horse. Thoro-Graph generates each rating based upon a number of variables such as time of race, beaten lengths, ground loss, weight carried, wind and any variables peculiar to a particular track. The lower the Thoro-Graph number, the better the race performance. The best Thoro-Graph number this year was Omaha Beach’s negative 2.25 in the Arkansas Derby. But the runner-up at Oaklawn, Improbable, was pretty impressive himself as the only other Derby hopeful to earn a negative Thoro-Graph number.

The closing factor for me is that Improbable has improved in every career start. That trend will continue on Saturday as Improbable will edge Omaha Beach by a head and Win-Win-Win will close hard to finish third. As for the Triple Crown, let’s take 2019 one race at a time!

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