2022 Triple Crown: Assessing the Kentucky Derby and moving on to the Preakness

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Disbelief.

It was the primary reaction when 80-1 shot Rich Strike won the 2022 Kentucky Derby. Two trainer quotes after the race pretty much sum it up:

Steve Asmussen: ”I got beat by the horse that just got in.”

Saffie Joseph, Jr.: “An 80-1 shot winning, unbelievable. Congrats to them.”

RELATED: Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike: A longshot brings joy back to racing

By the usual standards of speed figures and performance in prep races, the result didn’t make a lot of sense. I did, however, point out in my previous article that the usual standards of how we compare horses don’t always apply to the Kentucky Derby:

  • It is the only time these horses will run in a 20-horse field
  • It is the first time they will run a mile and a quarter, and for many, it is the only time they will ever run that distance
  • Not only do horses go through a rapid maturation process from age two to three, but they can also show major leaps forward or backward from start to start in their early 3-year-old season
  • We have little to no idea of how these horses will handle adversity. About the only thing we know is that with a large field, it is likely that some of the field will have to cope with bumping and other forms of bad trips

In what the late, great Harvey Pack would have called a “redboard,” I want to point out some subtle, hidden form factors about Rich Strike. In retrospect, he was clearly in an upward form cycle. The fact that his previous three races were on the synthetic surface at Turfway Park may have hidden this factor. He posted two thirds and a fourth in those races, showing that he had some ability, but by comparison to the others in the field, he deserved to be 80-1. Also, in his previous race on a dirt surface, he was beaten by 14 lengths by Epicenter. That race, however, was on December 26, 2021, and this horse had matured greatly since December. Add in a fast pace that favored closers, a clean trip and a masterful ride, and you have the formula for a huge upset. We’ll see the distance-loving Rich Strike again in the mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes.

RELATED: Triple Crown schedule 2022: Dates, order for Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, Belmont horse races

It is highly unlikely that we will have such an upset in the Preakness, which is usually a much more formful race than the Kentucky Derby. The smaller field size and a comparison of payoffs from a 25-year sample support this conclusion.

Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes from 1997-2021

Kentucky Derby Preakness Stakes
Avg. $2 Win price $30.70 $12.48
Avg. $1 Exacta price $494.08 $64.71
Avg. $1 Trifecta price $930.37 $672.30
Avg. Field Size 18.48 10.76

After a Kentucky Derby that produced the fastest quarter-mile ever in the race’s history, as well as the fifth-fastest half-mile, handlers of some of the top contenders in the 3-year-old division have decided it is not in their best interests to contest the Preakness just two weeks later. As a result, the Preakness will have a much smaller field than the Derby, and it is likely to have a more realistic pace. A smaller field will probably produce smaller prices at the windows, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t money to be made.

The hot fractions of the Derby that allowed a late closer like Rich Strike to pull off an 80-1 upset are not likely to happen this time around. This Preakness is likely to favor horses with versatility in their running style, and Epicenter fits that description better than the others. He has won on the front end, from a stalking trip and from behind. The fact that Asmussen, Epicenter’s trainer, and owner Ron Winchell have chosen to enter him is a clear indicator that he came out of the race well and remains in top form. Nobody would have blamed them if they chose to skip the rest of the Triple Crown and focus on a summer/fall campaign that would include the Travers at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, among others.

RELATED: When is Preakness Stakes 2022: Date, TV channel, time, distance, race coverage

When my wife solicits my opinion on races, she usually starts with the question, “Where’s the speed?” In the Preakness, we need to look no further than the Chad Brown-trained Early Voting. His performance in the Wood Memorial was probably the best front-running performance in all the Derby prep races. In only the third race of his career, he held the lead the whole way in strong fractions only to be nipped at the wire by a rail-skimming run from Mo Donegal. The trainer was successful in 2017 when he held Cloud Computing out of the Derby and ended up winning the Preakness. This is a “Derby skipper” who should give a good account of himself in Baltimore.

I see three other horses in the field that have a real good chance to hit the board, and they are Secret Oath, Simplification and Creative Minister.

Secret Oath is an impressive filly who ran a solid third against males in the Arkansas Derby, and then followed that up with an outstanding win in the Kentucky Oaks. Her 86-year-old trainer, the legendary D. Wayne Lukas, may have used the race in Arkansas as a prep to tighten his horse up for the Oaks, and I expect her to continue running in fine form.

RELATED: What to know about the 2022 Preakness Stakes

Simplification is one of those horses who always gives a good account of himself, no matter the circumstances. The 20-horse field in Louisville led to him being compromised in the Derby, where he ran a very credible fourth. The chart notes reveal the problems he had:

SIMPLIFICATION settled off the pace three wide, shifted five wide approaching the far turn, inched closer under urging between horses turning for home, fanned seven wide entering the lane then stayed on well through the final furlong to chase the leaders home.

He handled adversity well in the Derby, and his stalking style and consistency mark him as a horse who has a solid shot to hit the board in Baltimore.

Creative Minister is a very interesting horse in the highly competent hands of trainer Ken McPeek. His allowance win on Derby day was very impressive, coming from mid-pack to score by nearly three lengths in a solid time. In three career starts he has won both times he went around two turns, and his only loss was when he was second by a neck going seven furlongs in his career debut. The argument can be made that he is stepping up from an allowance win to the Preakness, but I don’t necessarily buy that. His veteran trainer knows what he has, and I trust his judgment in this circumstance.

I will also suggest a “bet against” horse in Armagnac. He will draw attention because he is trained by Tim Yakteen and owned by many of the same people that own Messier and several other high-profile 3-year-olds. He comes off an allowance win at Santa Anita that was not an eye-popping performance, as he set moderate fractions against a six-horse field and pulled away to win. However, this is a horse that was sixth in the San Felipe Stakes and fourth in the Santa Anita Derby. In that race, he was soundly defeated by Messier and Taiba, and we saw how far up the track they ended up in the Kentucky Derby.

RELATED: Historic Kentucky Derby champ Rich Strike will sit out Preakness, aim for Belmont

Finally, how can you make money betting this race? In the Kentucky Derby, my key horse was Epicenter, but I ended up winning by hitting the ultimate “spread” bet of a $1 exacta of Epicenter with ALL and ALL with Epicenter. The bet cost $38 and returned $2050. My advice on the Preakness, however, is to avoid spreading your bets. I would not be surprised if the $1 trifecta on the Preakness pays less than $100.  Measured against the amount you would spend on the race, it’s not a great return. However, if you take the money you would’ve spent on spreading your bets and instead narrow down and bet your convictions, you could end up with $10 or more on that trifecta, and that will make you happy.

If you are not at Pimlico on Saturday, have a wonderful party at home. Find a great recipe for crab cakes, share some beverages with your friends, and enjoy the historic middle leg of the Triple Crown.