A Fascinating, But Costly, Kentucky Derby

My condolences to anyone who bet my picks in the Kentucky Derby.  Of the four horses I liked, the best finisher was Revolutionary in third place, but even that was unimpressive because he surprised me by going off as the second favorite in the betting.  Just be glad I didn’t post my picks for the entire day’s racing at Churchill Downs…the few friends I did give those picks to are cursing me today!

The Kentucky Derby was extremely interesting, however, from a statistical perspective.  Here is a link to the results chart for the race.  If you don’t study horse racing, it will just look like gibberish.  If you know how to read a results chart, you will see a remarkable pattern jump out of the numbers.  The race is 1.25 miles long and there were 19 horses in the race.  Of the eight horses who were in the front of the pack after one-fourth of a mile, seven ended up finishing in back: 12th, 14th, 15th, 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th.   Only one horse that trailed early also finished poorly, and that horse started terribly and was way behind the field from the beginning.  In contrast, the horses who ended up doing well were in 16th, 15th, 17th, 12th, and 18th place early on in the race.  Basically, there was a nearly perfect negative correlation between the order of the horses early in the race and the order of the horses at the end of the race!

This is really unusual in horse racing.  Most of the time, you will see a strong positive correlation between the early ordering in the race and the ultimate finish position.  What happened in the Kentucky Derby was that the early pace was too fast for the frontrunners to sustain for such a long race, and the frontrunners “hit the wall” (or at least that is what we call what happens to humans when they start too quickly in a race and then slow way down).

Viewing the race through that lens, the best performer in some sense wasn’t the winner, Orb, but rather, sixth-place finisher Oxbow.  Oxbow was in sixth-place early on, worked his way all the way up to second place, and then hung on at the end while all the other horses who had been near him early faded badly.

So not that you should be taking tips from me on betting the horses, but the next time Oxbow runs, I would say throw a few bucks on him!

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  1. caleb b says:

    I disagree. Oxbow was just running on the slightly firmer dirt closest to the rail. On a fast track, that horse gets crushed.

    Orb was a fine horse that showed great racing ability in the Florida Derby. I’m fine with him winning.

    Golden Soul is a garbage horse that has never run that fast in its life and will never run that fast again. The horse was a swollen ankle away from being on a menu in Europe, but came out of nowhere finishes 2nd in the biggest horse race in the world. Watch this horse get scratched from the Preakness or finish near dead last.

    Revolutionary should have probably taken 2nd were Oxbow not in his way, hugging the rail and forcing Borel to go around him.

    Normandy Invasion was a talanted horse that was just overmatched.

    Mylute ran a fine race and Rosie N. showed why she’s one of the best jockies in the business. Mylute wasn’t a super-fast horse, but Rosie knows Churchill and she didn’t allow the early pace to fool her. Congrats to her for a fine race.

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  2. Jill says:

    Oxbow was my pick. Good horse, good trainer, good jockey, good farm.

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  3. E. Campbell says:

    I put my money on Oxbow in the Kentucky Derby. This horse & Stevens did a great job and I was impressed. In 2 weeks we have the Preakness and all my wagering money will go on Oxbow.

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

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  5. Harry Levy says:

    Viewing the race through that lens, the best performer in some sense wasn’t the winner, Orb, but rather, sixth-place finisher Oxbow. Oxbow was in sixth-place early on, worked his way all the way up to second place, and then hung on at the end while all the other horses who had been near him early faded badly.
    So not that you should be taking tips from me on betting the horses, but the next time Oxbow runs, I would say throw a few bucks on him!

    This is from the Baltimore Sun and I saw it yesterday, really proves your point on a sixth place horse who actually ran an excellent race.Nice call!

    “Fifty-year-old Gary Stevens also had a path to the lead as his horse Oxbow turned for the stretch, but the D. Wayne Lukas trainee finished sixth. The three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby returned to riding in January after an eight-year layoff, much of it spent working as a racing analyst. He was serene as he led his horse to the gate and jubilant after coming off the mount afterward.
    “Coming into the stretch, I had a big smile on my face,” said Stevens, who also worked as a reporter during the week. “I’m going to win my fourth. But five strides later, I was attacked from the outside for a couple strides, and they went on. He was brave … I’ve still got a smile on my face. I can’t wipe it off.”

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  6. Steve Cebalt says:

    Gospel writer Matthew call this race 2,000 years ago in Matthew 20:16:

    “”So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

    I enjoyed the race more thanks to your picks — thank you for going out on a limb to share them! I wonder if your restrospective come-from-behind analysis holds up for previous Derbys? Just going from memory, it seems like I remember quite a few horses winning the Derby after running much of the race from way off the pace.

    The Derby may be different from overall horseracing trends in this come-from-behind respect because 100 percent of the horses are racing at a longer distance for the first time in their lives.

    And never feel bad about your picks not winning — you were “in the game” just by posting them! Trainer Nick Zito was once asked whether any of the FIVE horses he had entered in the Derby would run in the Preakness, given that all of them lost very badly — 5 out of 5 were epic fails. I’ll never forget his response:

    “Of course they’ll run. If you’re not in the race, you can’t even LOSE.”

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  7. bobo calyth says:

    I agree. I enjoyed the race more, thanks to your picks — thank you for going out on a limb to share them! vivi nova

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  8. Mike B says:

    As long as this is the only sort of enjoyment people get out of horse racing the sport is doomed. Do people go to NASCAR events just to bet on the drivers and then sit around for hours discussing various statistical properties of the performance? No they do to watch the race because the race is interesting. Current horse racing has evolved to be more of an equine random number generator than something people might actually see. Create a season with a point system and playoffs and a champion and then you’ll have a sport. Award the top prizes to the horses that can start and finish 20 races and you’ll have a breed that isn’t fragile and pathetic.

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    • Steve Cebalt says:

      Hi Mike : I must agree with you in almost every respect, although you are “harshing my mellow.” Inbred fragile horses: agree. “Sport is doomed”: Seems to be on that trajectory, sadly. It was once the most popular sport in the U.S. in terms of annual attendance. “Equine random number generator:” Agree and disagree. I get behind crazy guys at the window placing 2 or 3 dozen exotic bets at random. But…how is statistical analysis (and over-analysis) of horseracing any different than TV shows devoted to Fantasy Football stats? I love the analysis, althoug I completely discount it all! In the end it’s anyone’s guess, but I enjoy the mental exercise. But I also love the track, watching races from the fence and getting dirt kicked in my face, being outdoors on a spring day without having to exert myself physically, the cast of characters (human) at the track. A 4 -year old can watch a race with the same thrill as a statistician; the first horse to cross the line wins. It’s a beautiful thing. But I wish you weren’t so right!

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      • Mike B says:

        I say Random Number Generator because most of the races are designed to make the race close instead of to allow the best horse to consistently win. Once you get past the 2 and 3 year old races everything is handicapped (Weight for Age etc) or run in the claiming model. It is antithetical for a competitive sport to attempt to converge the performances of the participants, but Horse Racing is not a sport, but instead of gambling event where consistent blowouts would harm the revenue stream.

        If the racing format were changed so spectators can root for teams and horses instead of placing bets then the sport might have more than a niche existence ahead of it. For example you have set teams and a set series of races that are run over about 1-2 hours with as little downtime as possible. They would be of varying types and might contain elements like relays and cross country for excitement. Riders would want to not only win, but also keep their horses healthy for future races and events so there would be a lot of player management strategy involved.

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      • steve cebalt says:

        Hi Mike B: Those are very constructive suggestions. Your model would be better suited for TV (little downtime between races) and easier to understand for casaual fans. And better for the horses. Very innovative outlook!

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