Kentucky Derby Preview

May 03, 2017

"I returned" said Ecclesiastes, "and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill, but time and chance happen to them all." Ecclesiastes was of course correct, though a newcomer to the Kentucky Derby might be forgiven for his disbelief. In recent years, the race has indeed been to the swift: four winning favorites in four years, each with lower odds than the last. This sounds unexceptional -- why wouldn't the horses believed to be fastest win most often? -- but it is rare. Not since the 1970s had four favorites won the Kentucky Derby in consecutive years, and that was something of a fluke; one of the victorious horses was coupled as a betting entry with a far likelier winner on paper. After that stretch, we returned and saw under the sun no winning favorites whatsoever during any of the 1980s or 1990s Kentucky Derbies. Time and chance had happened to them all.

Look closer, though, and the façade of unbroken favoritism shows some cracks. Two of the winners -- California Chrome in 2014 and American Pharoah in 2015 -- were proven over time the unquestionable leaders of their crop, retroactively confirming the judgment of the bettors in making them Kentucky Derby favorites. The two other winners -- Orb in 2013 and Nyquist in 2016 -- will mostly be forgotten. In seven subsequent races between the pair, neither horse managed better than third place, and both Orb and Nyquist were retired unceremoniously to stud after having been eclipsed by more prominent rivals within their age group. All four were Kentucky Derby favorites, true, but that status my not have been deserved by each of them, and -- at least in the case of Nyquist and (especially) Orb -- their subsequent victories may have been more coincidence than confirmation of betting wisdom.

Still, let's assume the bettors were in fact correct, and that each of the four most recent Kentucky Derby winning colts were in fact more likely than to win those races than any other horse in their respective fields. How likely was it that each favorite would win in succession? We might safely assume that their odds reflected, as a rough estimate, their true likelihood of winning (efficient markets and all that). Orb was 5-1 at post time; California Chrome and American Pharoah were 5/2; Nyquist was 2-1. Back-of-the-envelope arithmetic tells us that the four horses had about a 1-in-200 chance of winning those four races collectively -- the most likely result possible, but hardly a likely result.

Or, to take another example, let's look again at last year's Kentucky Derby. Not only did the favorite win, but the second-favorite finished second, and the third-favorite finished third, and the fourth-favorite finished fourth, an event that has never occurred in the pari-mutuel era of the Kentucky Derby (1893 onward). (In fact, only twice before had the top three horses finished 1-2-3, and one of those races had only three horses.) The 2016 superfecta -- picking the top four horses in exact order -- paid $542 for a buck, suggesting that even if superfecta bettors collectively got the odds exactly right, we could expect that finishing order less than twice for every thousand times the race was run.

People of understanding will appreciate that this pattern is unlikely to repeat itself, not because we are "due" for a longshot, but because no horse, no matter how swift, is ever certain to win a race. Never is this more true than in the Kentucky Derby, which appeals to us in part because of the chaos it imposes. No other race in North America will include more than 14 betting entries; the Kentucky Derby will almost always nowadays include at least 17, and most years will include 20. Cramming so many horses onto a section of earth as narrow as the Churchill Downs backstretch out of the starting gate always eliminates runners due to nothing but chance -- a misstep, or a poor break, or jostling or squeezing or shuffling at the start will ruin the hopes of a few. None of the horses running will have faced more than a handful of their competitors previously, making direct comparison tricky. None of the horses will have run as far as the 10 furlongs demanded by the Kentucky Derby. In the best of cases, our knowledge will contain substantial gaps.

And even the very best of horses are not machines, however much they might appear so on occasion. Horses, like humans, have off days. American Pharoah would follow up his Triple Crown triumph with a defeat in the Travers Stakes to Keen Ice, a horse he had defeated three times previously; Secretariat would falter to Onion in the Whitney; Gallant Fox lost to 99-1 Jim Dandy at Saratoga. Even Man o' War, not a Kentucky Derby winner (or participant) but by general acclaim the greatest horse of the twentieth century, was upset by Upset.

Yet patterns fashion our future expectations. Casinos display past winners on the roulette table to dupe gamblers into believing a color is "due" or a number is "hot." Most of us, individually, in the rational parts of our brains, know this to be nonsense, not only a defect in thinking, but an error so fundamental as to be labeled the Gambler's Fallacy (note the article used -- _the _Gambler's Fallacy). Yet collectively we fall for it just the same. The last time three favorites won the Kentucky Derby was followed with a win by 50-1 Mine That Bird by a margin of victory not seen since the 1940s. This unpredictability, in turn, was followed by overreaction -- a Kentucky Derby in which none of twenty horses went off at odds higher than 32-1, as bettors went in search of the next improbable victor. Only recently has that search for a dubious windfall subsided; two horses again went to post last year at odds of higher than 50-1 (they finished last and third-to-last, respectively).

This is not to say that we are destined for another shock. But it is to say that the wisdom of Ecclesiastes remains. The Kentucky Derby is not invariably to the swift. Time and chance happen to them all.

When talking among friends about my love of horse racing, and perhaps when trying to sanitize my pecuniary motivations for engaging so deeply with the sport I love more than any other, I often compare the art of handicapping to something like crossword puzzles. We are given clues through the past performances, and we attempt to predict the results, and we are proven right or wrong.

But the metaphor is inexact. A more accurate comparison would be twenty professional basketball teams, each of which has played eight or so games, some against high school or college competition. From those results and very little else, we are left to guess at the results of a lottery like that held for the NBA draft each year. The best teams -- how they are best we cannot entirely be sure, given the sample sizes involved -- will have something like a 20% chance of victory, and the second-favorite something like a 15% chance of victory, and so on. From that, the task before us is not to select the best of the basketball teams, or the team with the most ping pong balls in the hopper, but the team with more balls in the hopper than everyone else thinks. It's a tricky game.

And if we are correct … but how could we know? Cashing a ticket alone is not proof enough, because as we have seen, each particular result is improbable, and a horse with lesser chances might be believed to be likely to win and might nevertheless go on to win the lottery.

The attempt to quantify that which is unknowable imposes humility upon us. But try once more we must, as we are blessed with only so many Kentucky Derbies in our lives, and we must make the most of them.

We now restock the lottery with another crop and go again. Favor is not always to the man of skill in calculating the odds, any more than the race is always to the swift. But even if it is better to be lucky than good, a little skill can't hurt, either. Let's then try to prove ourselves women and men of skill once more.

This year we are trying something different and splitting the preview onto several pages for ease of reading. I now present to you the 2017 Kentucky Derby Preview:


Trevor on May 03 @ 08:32 PM CDT

I'll just leave this here...

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