How to handicap the Derby

ByByron King ESPN logo
Monday, May 2, 2016

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As I noted in this space last year, I am not one to handicap the Kentucky Derby by historical rules. Doing so can distract from the fundamentals of handicapping.

I largely approach the Derby like I would any other race -- while acknowledging that the Derby is unique in terms of its 1-1/4-mile distance and large field size. So, what follows is an analysis of the Derby considering key factors that apply to each and every race: speed figures, class, pace, and distance capability.

Speed figures

In examining the probable runners for this year's Kentucky Derby, only four horses have run a Beyer Speed Figure of 100 or higher: Exaggerator, who ran a 103 Beyer in winning a sloppy Santa Anita Derby; Destin, who ran a 100 in winning the Tampa Bay Derby; Danzing Candy, the winner of the San Felipe Stakes with a 100 Beyer; and likely Derby favorite Nyquist, who took the San Vicente Stakes with a 100 Beyer.

Still, those Beyers come with asterisks. Exaggerator ran his flashy figure in the slop, rallying from behind a blistering pace. Destin posted his on a Tampa surface over which he has run much faster than on other tracks. Danzing Candy was loose on the lead in his San Felipe score. And Nyquist posted his 100 while sprinting seven-eighths in the San Vicente.

Most of those mentioned above are not one-race wonders, however. Destin posted a 98 Beyer in winning the Sam F. Davis Stakes, admittedly over the same Tampa track for which he has an apparent affinity. Exaggerator ran a 96 when third in the San Felipe. And the unbeaten Nyquist, last year's juvenile male champ, ran a 94 Beyer in taking the Florida Derby in a much-anticipated matchup with Mohaymen.

Horses with middle-of-the-road Beyers include Mor Spirt, with a 97 in the San Felipe and a 94 in the Santa Anita Derby; Creator, with a 96 in rallying to win the Arkansas Derby; Mohaymen, with 95s in both the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth stakes before his disappointing fourth in the Florida Derby; Outwork, with a 98 for his runner-up finish in the Tampa Bay Derby and a 93 in winning the Wood Memorial; and Suddenbreakingnews, who ran a 94 when second in the Arkansas Derby and a 93 in winning the Southwest Stakes.

Notable horses ranking poorly in the speed-figure category are Gun Runner and Brody's Cause, both of whom have career-best Beyers of 91.

Slow horses from a Beyer perspective, despite coming off victories, are Oscar Nominated, who ran an 82 in his Spiral Stakes victory over the Polytrack surface at Turfway Park, and Lani, the United Arab Emirates Derby winner, who the Beyer staff estimated to have run an 83 in winning that race, although official figures are not calculated for races in Dubai.


If one defines class as the level of performance against quality opposition, then Nyquist deserves to be the favorite. He is perfect in seven starts while matched against many of the best 2-year-olds of last year and the top 3-year-olds of 2016. In two races this year, he first defeated Exaggerator in the San Vicente Stakes and later Mohaymen in the Florida Derby. (Exaggerator and Mohaymen are widely expected to be among the well-backed Derby horses behind Nyquist.)

Destin also is deserving of class praise for his win in the Tampa Bay Derby over Outwork, who subsequently won the Grade 1 Wood Memorial.

Exaggerator, both in victory and defeat, has raced with many of the nation's best -- from Nyquist to Mor Spirit to Danzing Candy.

Questionable from a class perspective are Mohaymen, who beat Greenpointcrusader in the Holy Bull and Zulu in the Fountain of Youth, and Gun Runner, who beat little in his triumphs in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby while capitalizing on traffic problems from his late-running rival, Mo Tom.

Greenpointcrusader and Zulu aren't even in the Derby after the former finished seventh in the Louisiana Derby and the latter ran 12th in the Blue Grass.


There appear to be only two true speedballs -- Danzing Candy and Outwork. Danzing Candy has only won on the lead, and Outwork has done his best running either on the lead or pushing the early leader.

Though they aren't "need the lead" types, others with positional speed include Nyquist, Gun Runner, and Destin, all of whom have the quickness to grab early position and land in that first flight of stalkers.

Right behind them, look for horses such as Shagaf, Mor Spirit, Majesto, Mohaymen, and, to a lesser extent, Tom's Ready. The rest should be closing from far off the pace, seemingly an undesirable position with a below-average amount of speed in the field by Derby standards.

Without the luxury of seeing post positions at this writing, my anticipation is that a moderate pace will unfold that will favor stalkers.

Distance capability

Lani, slow though he may be, won the UAE Derby at 1,900 meters, which is just shy of a 1-1/4 miles.

Two progeny of Giant's Causeway, whose offspring are known for their staying ability, also give the impression of being horses likely to appreciate racing the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby: Brody's Cause and Destin. Both have finished well in their best races, seemingly wanting more distance.

Putting pedigree aside and just looking at running style, Creator, Suddenbreakingnews, Mor Spirit and Mo Tom also look to be asking for the 1-1/4 miles of the Derby.

Putting it all together

Although his Florida Derby win wasn't fast from a speed-figure perspective, Nyquist handily beat Mohaymen in that race, and Mohaymen at the time was the early Derby favorite. So, from a class perspective as well as considering his perfect record, he is a deserving favorite.

Exaggerator is another legitimate contender, though prior to his come-from-behind, blowout victory over an off track in the San Anita Derby, his ability to stay 1-1/4 miles had been questioned.

Outwork is interesting for value seekers. Though he just narrowly held off longshot Trojan Nation in the Wood Memorial, he withstood a fast pace. So, that race might be better than it seems at first glance. He also looked sharp in his final pre-Derby workout over the Churchill strip, in contrast to stablemate Destin, who had to be asked in his workout.

Of horses likely to take action, it seems best to go against Gun Runner, Brody's Cause and Mo Tom in the win pool, based on their questionable class and speed figures -- though all look like the type who can get the distance and perhaps fight for a minor award.