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:

    Inbreeding is why horses haven’t gained any appreciable speed in 40 years.

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    • Mike B says:

      Races should be open to horses of any breed. Use of breed registries is both anti-competitive and hinders innovation.

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  2. Richard Forte says:

    The results of the 1981 Derby were even starker. There was a 16 horse field. The horses running 1st-8th after the opening half-mile all wound up finishing 9th thru 16th.

    A 100% flip-flop. Goes to show how important pace is in determining the outcome of a horse race & how so many of the best jockeys in the world can make the same mistake.

    The jockey/mistake angle might be the subject of interesting analysis

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  3. Steve Cebalt says:

    I think the reasons statistical models don’t work is that horses don’t understand them. The reason I think that all models fail is due to the fact that they most depend to some degree on The Gambler”s Fallacy or the Hot Hand Fallacy. Plus, in terms of economics, independent events are unaffected by previous events. Each race is different.

    So preparing for the Preakness:

    Orb seems likely to win — a prohibitive favorite, but I can’t pick him. It’s no fun to “bet the chalk,” and you don’t win much, because the “favorite” wins about 34 percent of races. Where’s the fun?

    So my picks today:



    Governor Charlie

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  4. Jordan says:


    Hope you followed your own advicevin the Preakness. I did follow your advice. Thanks!

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    • steve cebalt says:

      Hi Jordan: Glad you had a good day! No matter how you pick them, it’s fun. My favorite Preakness moment: Oxbo’s trainer D. Wayne Lucas: “I get paid to spoil dreams,” Lukas said. “We go over there and run them. You can’t mail them in.”

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  5. Max S. Earl says:

    I have 2 questions. Is the any correlation between leash laws for dogs and cat overpopulation?
    What is the marriage penalty?

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