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Monday, April 7, 2014
Extra baggage

By Jay Cronley
Special to ESPN.com

What's the need to handicap the Kentucky Derby so early?

What's too early?

Actually what's too early is all the times before about an hour to the post.

The elements that go into handicapping a densely populated horse race change right up until a horse either does or doesn't move properly into the starting gate. Whereas a rush to handicap is often counter-productive, it's never too early to start thinking about throwing types of horses out of the Kentucky Derby.

Here are some varieties of horses that often carry too much emotional baggage.

Synthetics: This was a well-intended makeover aimed at offering horses a safer environment with which to train and race. But with Del Mar and Keeneland going back to nature's best, dirt, an artificial surface has almost become the miniature golf version of the real game. Fake dirt didn't seem to adequately prepare horses for the biggest prizes. Synthetic races are frequently run to form, with speed slowing like there's a treadmill inside on the stretch. Any horse with the ability to run through a synthetic bias is worth a brief thought.

Bad karma: Trainers having to do the perp-walk to the paddock are usually bad plays.

Layoffs: It's difficult to run well against the best after an extended layoff. Usually time off during a racing season suggests a negative. That said, notes indicated that layoffs beat me a lot. Perhaps it's because of how I feel the first Monday at work after a long time lazing.

Deep closers: True, there's no trouble back there. But this dramatic style of running is best suited for cheap stuff. In a field as large and competent as what's found in the Kentucky Derby, it's hard to pass them all.

Rocket speed: As is the case with being late, extreme speed is for the birds unless the weather cooperates and is extremely wet.

Top Beyer: If a horse wins by ten and almost sets a track record, chances are, it's going to have a pretty good speed rating. Speed ratings are extensions of common sense without your having to do the busy work. What percentage of top Beyer speed ratings win? Since the last top Beyer usually makes the favorite, probably about a third. You often hear that a horse doesn't have a good enough Beyer to win the Derby. That could be true unless the horse has been winning them all. Oftentimes horses out front run only as fast as the occasion warrants. I have a hard time blaming horses for winning. Who can't bet the high Beyer? Steadily improving Beyer numbers are important.

Trendy horses: The big city horses made the Arkansas Derby and the two Keeneland prep races seem like afterthoughts. California Chrome is apt to be everybody's choice, railbirds to starlets, with the trainer unavailable for an interview until the last race at Los Alamitos is finished. Wicked Strong is the obvious second choice, the Derby exacta going for $8. CC wasn't even listed individually in the first Derby future pool. Anybody who punched his ticket in the second pool (30-1) is already thinking about insurance. At this point, the trendy horse would appear to be Cairo Prince, who could be the best last one in, ever, as he beat some good ones before turning up lousy. Trendy horses are a little like value horses in that they seldom win.

Short field wonders: A 95 Beyer versus 11 is usually better than a 105 Beyer versus five.

Bad post: Usually this semi-automatic throw-out has to do with proximity to the first turn. At the Derby the draw of the number one post position is accompanied by a solemn hymn. Horses in that spot have to run very fast or very slow to avoid being plastered to the rail. Outside is preferred at the Derby and other swarms because you can see most of the trouble.

Breaking bad: Horses won't listen to reason when it's time to leave the gate. The way horses break from the gate is often the most consistent thing about them.

Bouncing: If the last was too strenuous.

All wet: A change in the condition of the track usually creates a severe bias. Winning on an off track means next to nothing if the Derby comes up dry. If it rains Derby day, play extremes, play goofy, play cheaply.