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Pace and value in odds are key factors in handicapping the Kentucky Derby

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80-1 underdog Rich Strike shocks Churchill Downs by winning the 148th Kentucky Derby after only being in the race due to a scratch.

Outside the U.S., it is a pretty commonplace occurrence for a major race to have a huge field. Historically, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe had a record 30 horses go to the post in 1967, and the Grand National Steeplechase had a record 66 runners in the 1929 edition. It should be noted, however, that most European turf courses are quite wide and can handle a large field.

The tighter dirt oval of Churchill Downs is not as forgiving of crowding. For years, the U.S. did not have a starting gate capable of handling more than 14 horses, although that situation changed in 2020. Prior to that point, Kentucky Derby fields of 20 horses required two side-by-side starting gates. The 2020 race marked the debut of a 20-horse gate at Churchill Downs. It was a gate that was manufactured in Australia, where races with large fields are more commonplace.

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Whether they come from one gate or two, a field of 20 horses in America’s most important race leads to a proliferation of good and bad trips. As an example, Epicenter did everything right in last year’s race, but a great ground-saving trip by Rich Strike led to a huge upset at 80-1 odds. Joel Rosario on Epicenter placed his horse behind a fast pace, and when the speed horses ran out of gas, he emerged with the lead. Sonny Leon knew that Rich Strike was not speedy from the gate, so he relaxed his horse near the back of the field and worked his way toward the rail as they came into the stretch. It was a huge upset, made possible in part because Epicenter had to be “used” to sit behind a fast pace. When Rich Strike came up the rail, his momentum was so strong that Epicenter could not counter his charge. Good or bad trips can be a consequence of a great ride or a mistake by a jockey, and field size makes the task of working out a good trip in the Kentucky Derby into a difficult task.

On the importance of pace in the Kentucky Derby

How do we anticipate the pace of a race? Will the field be spread out, with a pace-setter or a few pacesetters making the task of the come-from-behind horses easier? Or will the field be bunched up, often making it difficult for a jockey to maneuver a clear path for their mount? I know of no greater expert on pace analysis than NBC’s own Randy Moss, whose pace figures are a standard of the industry. First, I asked him about how this year’s race shapes up from a pace perspective. He said that Derma Sotogake’s race in the UAE Derby was the top wire-to-wire effort posted in a prep race, and he feels that the relative lack of pace among the other prospective runners makes him a top contender. He pointed out that although Kingsbarns won the Louisiana Derby in wire-to-wire fashion, it seemed like the others did not want to challenge him, and he got away with softer fractions.

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Next, I asked him how some Kentucky Derby races shape up on paper as devoid of speed, and then a speed duel might develop. Most times, he said, that is a factor of jockeys looking at the form and figuring that although their horse might not be a front-runner, they will try to “steal” the race on the front end. If three or four jockeys have the same idea, that could produce an unexpected hot pace.

What about Kentucky Derbies where the front-runners went too fast, and the race presented opportunity for an upset from a closer? Moss says there were several of these in recent years, including last year’s race, which had the fastest opening quarter mile in history and set things up for the late-closing upset of Rich Strike. Another notable example was 2001, when Monarchos came from over 15 lengths back to win by nearly 5 lengths. According to Moss, the race favorite, Point Given, who went on to win the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, may have been a victim of a miscalculation in Louisville. After he won the Santa Anita Derby running close to the pace, Moss feels that trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Gary Stevens may have kept him too close to a fast pace in the Kentucky Derby. He finished fifth, and then he went on to dominate in the next two legs of the Triple Crown. A few other Derby winners he says may have benefitted from a fast pace in recent years included Giacomo in 2005, Super Saver in 2010 and Orb in 2013.

Asked for a few examples of horses who benefitted from running near the front in a slower pace, he mentioned War Emblem in 2002, Authentic in 2020 and Medina Spirit in 2021. Moss says there is one notable example in recent years of a horse who, despite being on or near the pace in fast early fractions, went on to dominate the race, and that was 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify.

Finally, I asked Moss for fractional times that would indicate if the race is developing with a hot pace or not. He said that a quarter mile of 22.60 would be one such marker. A lower number would lean in the direction of a hot early pace, and a higher number would point in the other direction. He said that fraction is fast because the first quarter mile is a straightaway, where horses tend to run faster. His other marker numbers were 46.60 for a half mile and 1:10.60 for six furlongs.

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Other key factors in handicapping the Derby field

Pace, however, is only part of the equation when trying to figure out who will win the Kentucky Derby. For an expert opinion on how to handicap the race, I went to my good friend Ken Seeman. In the spirit of full disclosure, I should mention that I owned horses jointly with Ken for over 15 years, and we are close friends to this day. How good a handicapper is he? Let me start by mentioning that he just qualified for the National Horseplayers Championship for the 16th year in a row. There are about 800 entries to the event, and you must place near the top of a qualifying tournament to earn your way in, as you can’t purchase an entry. Six times in the previous 15 years, he has placed in the top 30. In 2023, he finished 28th, which was good for $17,000. In 2021, he finished 1st in Horse Tourneys “The Big One” event, and that is just the tip of the iceberg of his record of success in tournaments.

On the tournament circuit, Ken Seeman is known as a longshot specialist. He says that he looks for live longshots who show the ability, on their best day, to run comparable to the top choices in a race. Kenny says that in a 20-horse field, post position and trips matter more than in a smaller field. While he follows the prep races for the Kentucky Derby, he doesn’t try to handicap the Derby based solely on performances in the prep races. He waits until the week of the race, after posts are drawn, to seriously attempt to handicap the field and visualize how the race will be run.

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As far as I am concerned, Ken’s greatest strength is finding value on the odds board. He says that if you see a 3-1 shot as the best horse in a race, with a 10-1 shot as your close second choice, don’t let the favorite scare you. “A 3-1 shot can lose as easily as a 10-1 shot of comparable abilities,” he says, so he always goes for the value horse. He explained this concept in relationship to this year’s Kentucky Derby. “There’s no doubt that Forte is the most accomplished horse in the field, and the way he overcame adversity in the Florida Derby was a great lesson to learn going into Louisville,” Seeman told me. “I know how good he is, but if another horse in the race represents better value, I will try to beat Forte.”

Casual friends and people in his workplace will often ask Ken Seeman, “Who do you like in the Derby?” He responds, “Are you asking me who will win, or who am I betting on?” There is no greater puzzle in American handicapping than trying to figure out the complexities of a 20-horse field in the Kentucky Derby. Just like most of us, Ken looks at speed figures and eliminates horses that aren’t fast enough to get the job done. What separates him from many others is the ability to show the restraint to objectively look at past performances, visualize how the race will be run, and look for value on the odds board. For many years, I’ve watched him work his magic and find logical reasons just beneath the surface that gave him long odds winners. I’ve never stopped learning from him, and I hope that his words of advice can help you come up with the winner of the 149th Kentucky Derby.

How to watch the 2023 Kentucky Derby

The 149th Kentucky Derby is on Saturday, May 6. Coverage is on NBC, Peacock, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app at 12 p.m. ET and will run until 7:30 p.m. ET.