Medina Spirit: Learning From My Failed 2021 Kentucky Derby Handicapping

Posted By Stephen Andress on May 3, 2021

I have loved the Kentucky Derby ever since I moved to Louisville for a few years in 2011, and I’ve been fortunate to have some solid success pinpointing the winner over those years. Coming into the 2021 Derby, I was able to correctly pick five of the last seven horses to cross the finish line first. This year, Medina Spirit exposed a blind spot in my Derby handicapping.

It’s important I share that with you. When I get it wrong, it hurts a little. Not just because I lost money, but because I know others listen to my opinion on the Kentucky Derby and look forward to the race as much as I do. Getting three of the top-five horses but not the top two this year is not good enough. It’s the greatest challenge in American horse racing – to handicap a field of that size – and I love the challenge.

Hopefully, this can help us be better bettors in future Derbies and teach us more than just chalking it up to Bob Baffert being a really good trainer.

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Final Fractions

Before this year’s race, I wrote about using important numbers and metrics to help eliminate Derby horses from the field. The horses that met the criteria would be in consideration for us to win.

Frankly, I overemphasized the final prep race results before the Derby.

Medina Spirit finished second in the Santa Anita Derby with a slow final furlong. In their final prep race since 1990, 27 of the last 31 Kentucky Derby winners ran their final furlong in 13.0 seconds or less or final three furlongs in 38.0 seconds or less. Make it 27 of the last 32 with Medina Spirit, but he had a good excuse.

The pace set in the Santa Anita Derby was blistering, far faster than that set in recent Kentucky Derbies, ever since the race went to a points system to fill the field. That move has taken most sprinters out of the run for the roses, because they can’t contend in longer-distance prep races.

So what had Medina Spirit done in his other races leading up to the Derby? Plenty.

Medina Spirit Beyer Speed Figures

One of the other criteria I use to find Derby winners is Beyer Speed Figures. Since 1992, 26 of 29 Derby winners had previous Beyers of 95 or more in their career. Make it 27 of 30 with Medina Spirit.

Not only did Medina Spirit have a 95+ Beyer on his resume coming into the Kentucky Derby, he had a 99. That was tied for second best in this Derby field and showed he was more than capable of improving enough to win. He had finished no worse than second in five career races.

Sometimes a horse just doesn’t have his best race, and other factors come into play. For Medina Spirit in the Santa Anita Derby, clearly it was a faster-than-usual pace. The same could be said for Mandaloun, the Derby runner-up, who finished sixth in his final prep race, but had a career-best 98 Beyer Speed figure in his career.

It will be important for me to not overemphasize the final Kentucky Derby prep race in future years.

Medina Spirit Forwardly Placed

Medina Spirit now makes seven of the past ten Derby winners who have won after being forwardly placed. Medina Spirit got to the front and set a reasonable pace in the Derby, a position he had been accustomed to in past races.

Perhaps the pace would not have been as reasonable if Santa Anita Derby winner Rock Your World didn’t get … rocked … out of the starting gate in the Kentucky Derby, but these things happen in a 19-horse field.

Nevertheless, ignoring that Medina Spirit had always been placed on the lead or close to the pace in his previous races was a mistake.

Medina Spirit Was Not a One-Trick Pony

Hat tip to former high school rival Jeff Ratcliffe for teaching me this one (our football teams would play each other on Thanksgiving). Career-best Beyer Speed figures are great, but you know what’s better than one great Beyer when trying to find a Derby winner? Two great Beyers.

Has the horse proven he can produce at a high enough level on more than one occasion?

If I would have added this caveat to still include horses that did not meet the final fractions theory in their final prep, it would have included Medina Spirit into my list of contenders to win.

Medina Spirit’s second-best Beyer coming into the Derby was a 95. Among my other win contenders that met the criteria, only the favorite Essential Quality had a better second-best Beyer of 96.

Combine that with a career-best 99 and still posting a 94 in the Santa Anita Derby, and it was more than enough to excuse Medina Spirit’s Santa Anita final fractions after a blistering pace.

In future Kentucky Derbies, I will be careful to consider the full resume of each horse and the pace set up of their final prep race. Overemphasizing final fractions without context was a mistake I will not make again in the Kentucky Derby.

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