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Welcome to Iron Maidens Thoroughbreds

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Birth Order and the Kentucky Derby - by Laurie Ross

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Horse Racing Nation subscriber Mike B. mentioned in an email that he was told 2/3 of the Kentucky Derby winners over the last 50 years were foaled from mares that had been maidens or barren the previous year. The ever curious Mike asked if I would verify or deny this theory.

So, everyone wants to know what that means for the 2015 Kentucky Derby. Here's the breakdown:

Birth order and the Kentucky Derby? Sounds like one of those fuzzy articles one would find in the Lifestyle section, right? Wrong. There's actually merit to this. Dr. E.J. Finocchio, an equine vet, undertook a study in 1995 about birth order and success of the racehorse. Dr. Finocchio studied 689 horses that won either a Triple Crown or Breeders' Cup race; earned an Eclipse Award or over $1 million dollars.

Those 689 foals were out of 680 dams. Dr. Finocchio discovered that a mare's first 5 foals have a better probability of success. The percent of winners were: first foal (16.9%); second foal (21.5%); third foal (18.6%); fourth foal (15.3%); fifth foal (10.7%); sixth foal (8.1%); seventh foal (6.4%); tailing off to 1.5% for the 13th foal.

In addition David Dink and Frank Mitchell undertook a study of their own, which was discussed in Mitchell's book, "Racehorse Breeding Theories." They ascertained that mares who were barren in a previous year produced offspring that achieved a better track performance than its siblings.

So what would account for these facts? In the majority of cases, mares are bred to a better class of stallions early in the mare's breeding career, in order to establish her worth as a broodmare. Although very good broodmares and blue hens continued producing high quality runners no matter the birth order.

So, with that in mind, I reviewed the birth order of the last twenty years of Kentucky Derby winners and identified the following data:

First foal/barren previous year: 50%; second foal: 20%; third and fourth foal 10% each; fifth foal 5%; sixth or greater, 5%.

I also unveiled a trend. In five straight years, from 2000 – 2004, the Kentucky Derby winners were second, third or fourth foals. In the preceding and succeeding years, the majority of the Derby winners were out of maiden or previously barren mares.

View the breakdown PDF here

Horse Racing Nation's morning line favorite American Pharoah fits the parameters of the data. Note that his main rivals, Dortmund and Carpe Diem, are both sixth foals. The only two winners of the Kentucky Derby in the last 20 years that were sixth in line or greater were Grindstone in 1996 and Charismatic in 1999, although Charismatic's dam was barren the year before.

What about the second and third place finishers in the first leg of the Triple Crown?

Second place finishers birth order:  
First foal or barren: 30%; Second foal: 15%; Third foal: 20%; Fourth – fifth foal: 0; Sixth or greater: 35%.

Third place finishers birth order:
First foal or barren: 40%; Second foal: 15%; Third - fourth foal 5% each; Fifth foal: 10%; Sixth or greater: 25%.

In nine of twenty Derbies (45%) two of the top three finishers were either out of maidens or previously barren mares.

Just something else to consider as you weed your way through this year's Kentucky Derby contenders.

Deciphering the Kentucky Derby - by Laurie Ross

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Once again the Kentucky Derby is upon us. Angles seldom used in other horse races get pulled out of the closet and dusted off like the Christmas decorations. Some handicappers use track bias, pace figures and trainer/jockey statistics year round. Pedigree? Like the good dinner plates, it's only trotted out on special occasions.

However, discerning horse players are aware of this powerful tool called pedigree handicapping. After all, the biggest questions in figuring out which colts have a legitimate shot to wear the roses are - can he get the distance and is he suited for the surface?

Pedigree separates the horses that will love ten furlongs, those who could finish in the money and the ones that couldn't get the distance with a guided missile strapped around their girth. Just because a horse ekes out a win at nine furlongs doesn't mean he has enough gas in the tank to keep up a full-out run for an additional furlong.

Damsires - More Important Than You Think
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One thing that I noted in a 20+ year study of the Kentucky Derby, was that practically every winner's damsire had previously sired a stakes winner at 1 ¼ miles or farther. It is generally accepted that a horse's damsire and female family impart stamina and class. This is the most important aspect in determining if your Derby hopeful can handle the distance.

In all except two instances since 2000, the damsire had produced a mare that bore a 1 ¼ mile stakes winner. Last year's Derby winner, California Chrome, was an anomaly - or was he? His damsire Not For Love didn't have stakes winning grand-foals at 1 ¼ miles, but one daughter did produce a winner at 1 ¼ miles in an allowance race. In seven of eleven instances, the Kentucky Derby champ was a dual qualifier, that is, both the sire and damsire had previously produced at least one stakes winner at 1 ¼ miles.

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Hello Mudder

Track surface can be another concern. Hopefully we won't see the quagmire that was present in the 2009 and 2010 Kentucky Derbies, but should the track be off or labeled "good," the handicapper should again turn to pedigree to figure out who has experience or breeding for the mud. Both Mine That Bird and Super Saver had superior pedigrees for the mud the years that they won their respective Derbies.

Final Preps - Stating the Obvious

A determining factor in weeding out Kentucky Derby contenders is how they finished in their final prep race before the Derby. In the last 11 years, only two Derby champs, Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009, finished worse than second in their last start. Ten of the last fifteen Derby heroes won their final Derby prep., and all except two, War Emblem and Animal Kingdom, did so in a 1 1/8 mile Grade 1 race.

Going back to 1988, this same precedent holds true. Only two Kentucky Derby winners didn't win or place in their last start, 1993 winner Sea Hero and 1995 winner Thunder Gulch. 1990 winner Unbridled won the Florida Derby, but was third in the Blue Grass Stakes. 1999 winner Charismatic was fourth in the Santa Anita Derby but won the Lexington Stakes.

The second place finishers in the Kentucky Derby also fit this profile. All except four colts won or placed in their last effort, which was either a Grade 1 or Grade 2 Stakes race. The colts who didn't fit this profile (2000 - Aptitude, 3rd in FL Derby; 2001 - Invisible Ink, 3rd in FL Derby; 2005 Closing Argument, 3rd in Blue Grass; 2013 Golden Soul, 4th in Louisiana Derby) finished third or fourth in a Grade 1 or Grade 2 Stakes and placed second in the Kentucky Derby.

The One Run Closer

Here's another important fact. Think those one run plodders are the horses to watch in the Derby? Guess again. Since 1950, 77% of the winners had the lead at the eighth-pole. 98% of the horses who have the lead at the eighth-pole finish in the trifecta. These stats prove that the Derby winner must have a brilliant three furlong explosion and that jockey timing is everything. The majority of the Kentucky Derby winners have tactical speed. Only when there is dominant speed in the race (such as 2001 & 2005) does a stone closer have a legitimate shot at winning, and even then, that closer must have a strong three furlong move.

And the Winner is . . .

So, the research proves that every Kentucky Derby winner in the last eleven years has a sire and/or damisire that has produced previous stakes winners at 1 ¼ miles or farther. The Derby winner has won or placed second in its final prep and has enough tactical speed to gain the lead by the eighth-pole. Makes it easy to pick the winner, doesn't it?

Discover which of this year's contenders fit the above profies and get insight into this year's Triple Crown races
get this year's Triple Crown ebook series here!