HERE are more thoughts on the run-up to the 2015 Kentucky Derby, thistime from Sam Walker, writing in Racing Post:
IT WAS hard to navigate Saturday’s Kentucky Derby trials without getting slapped about the face by statistics. By all accounts leading fancies Materiality and Mubtaahij shouldn’t bother turning up on the first Saturday in May, while Dortmund could be home and hosed.
The most unlikely numbers reference on the weekend came from owner Kaleem Shah, who likened his Derby hopeful Dortmund to 1977 triple-crown hero Seattle Slew and dual Classic-winning colossus Smarty Jones, noting that all were unbeaten in six heading to Churchill Downs.
Historians also reminded us of the longest running statistic in the business: no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without running as a juvenile. This is an apparent negative for Florida Derby winner Materiality.
The blind statisticians also had two points to level against Mike De Kock’s Mubtaahij. First, that he is trained abroad (never happened) and second that he comes from the weakest of the major trials, the UAE Derby, which is yet to produce a placer in America’s opening classic.
Some of these points have merit, but bare statistics are almost useless in the practice without a deeper understanding of the individuals involved. The way I see it, it’s best to start with the premise that if something can happen in horseracing it will happen eventually; we’re just waiting for the right circumstances.
Let’s start with Dortmund. After winning the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, Shah made some huge comparisons because his colt would arrive at the Derby with a similar record to two racing greats.
The problem is if we directly compare those individuals Dortmund falls well short. Seattle Slew pre-dates RPRs, but as an impressive champion two-year-old he would likely have gone to Churchill Downs with a mid-120s RPR, while Smarty Jones arrived at Churchill Downs with an RPR of 122. Essentially they had already achieved a Derby-winning level of form.
Dortmund has not run anywhere near that standard in small fields in California. Although he continues to win he has never looked particularly outstanding at a national level and with a peak RPR of just 114 he ranks down in joint-sixth in the RPR standings for this year’s race.
He has faced just one rival of substance this season. That horse is Firing Line and given the way the race played out there is every chance that one can turn the tables next month.
If we were making historical comparisons about Dortmund’s winning sequence I’d consider him more like Pennekamp, who was unbeaten in six before getting stuffed in the Epsom Derby. Although he’s not quite as good as Pennekamp.
On to the second point – the 1882 one. This stat is incredibly long-serving and has scalped some good horses down the years, including Bodemeister in 2012. It will fall eventually and because it concerns conditioning rather than ability it may not take a great horse to do it.
There are cultural reasons we can expect this trend to break sooner rather than later. The way trainers approach the Derby has changed in the last decade (lighter campaigns) and the Derby entry system changed just two years ago (now favours three-year-old form).
Looking specifically at Materiality, he has more pressing questions to answer than ‘when was your debut?’, including whether he can handle being taken on for the lead, whether he will see out the extra furlong and whether he can find any further improvement on his eyeballs-out RPR of 118 at Gulfstream.
So what about the foreigner Mubtaahij? He looked amazing in the UAE Derby, winning by eight-lengths and posting an RPR of 118. He has a strong pedigree, is progressive, has run on two different continents (so he can travel) and handles dirt.
History says ten UAE Derby runners (including six winners) have tried and failed at Churchill Downs. Their best Derby finishing position was fifth. But how good were those individuals?
Well, none of them were as good as Mubtaahij on RPRs and none could have been objectively and reasonably considered a potential Kentucky Derby winner. This one can.
There is no available historical comparison regarding his status as an international runner, as no previous overseas runners have arrived with an RPR of 118+ on dirt.
As with overseas raiders all over the world he will face the disadvantage of having to travel and adapt. The race may also be something of an afterthought after his uber-impressive win at Meydan. But if he can quickly adapt to life in America he has the class to make a big impact.
At the moment the Run for the Roses is wide-open. This time last year World Class tipped California Chrome for the big one and the year before we did the same with Orb, but the picture is not so clear this time round.
The Arkansas Derby is the only remaining major Kentucky Derby trial left to run. American Pharoah currently tops the betting for Churchill Downs and connections will be hoping he can cement his place as clear favourite for the race with a convincing victory on Saturday.
If he posts an RPR around 120 he would be a confident pick. However, if American Pharoah doesn’t pull his socks up we could be looking at any number of potential winners. And any number of potential history makers. Remember: if it can happen it will happen eventually.
The performance of the week came from Chautauqua, who landed the T J Smith Stakes at Randwick with an RPR of 122. The soft conditions meant we were denied a true championship showdown but the winner was impressive sweeping through from last and he undoubtedly has more to give.
Photo: Mubtaahij after the UAE Derby. (Andrew Watkins).