How to Find a Derby Winner… With Your Eyes

We have inundated you all year with Thoro-Graph, Beyer, and Brisnet speed ratings, trip handicapping, and all kinds of statistics, such as early and late factions, as well as several pedigree analyses. But now with most of the Derby horses on the grounds comes possibly the most important two weeks of the year. That is when you have to depend on what you see. Based on our 25 years watching Derby horses train, here is some sort of guide to what to look for, with a history lesson and the benefit of several personal experiences over the years. ~ Steve Haskin

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How to Find a Derby Winner… With Your Eyes

By Steve Haskin

It’s almost Derby week, with everyone glued to their computers watching the Derby horses train. After the field has been drawn, those observations are the final link between your wallet and the mutual windows…or your online account. There are plenty of experts around who know what they’re looking at and share their own observations. My expertise goes way back before computers, cell phones, TVG, and Twitter. Prior to sharing my thoughts on what to watch for when trying to find horses who look physically and mentally ready to win the Derby I thought it best to provide some background material.

In 1956 the Morning Telegraph/Daily Racing Form came up with a new concept on how to report on the Kentucky Derby. Editor Saul Rosen assigned a young reporter named Joe Hirsch to write a daily feature called Derby Doings, beginning weeks before the big race. Each day Joe would write about the workouts from that morning, giving the time and providing quotes from the trainers. Joe would also report on any Derby-related news and which horses were pointing for the race. This had never been done before and proved to be very popular by bringing the readers closer to the Derby.

Joe wrote Derby Doings for the next 38 years until Parkinson’s disease and other maladies finally caught up to him. Although he was able to still write the Derby advance and lead story he was physically unable to continue with the daily grind of Derby Doings.

In 1992 my colleague Ed Fountaine and I had been assigned to do a new feature called The Work Patrol. We would go to Kentucky two weeks before the Derby and write about each morning’s activities. I would do the observations and most of the writing and Ed would do the final editing.

Then one morning in 1994, our editor George Bernet, who also happened to be a friend and mentor, called me into his office and said, “Joe Hirsch just called. He said he was no longer able to do Derby and that I should ‘give it to Steve.’” Needless to say I was overwhelmed and deeply honored.

So I was off to Kentucky to take over a feature that a legend had done for almost four decades. I was a feature writer and not a reporter, so I decided to change the format to suit my style. The biggest change was to describe each work and give my observations, as well as follow the physical progress of all horses and which ones seemed to be thriving, especially monitoring their coats and their energy level from the first week to the second.

Back then there was no way for racing fans and DRF readers to see what was happening each morning and what the Derby horses and workouts looked like. My eyes were the only window to the track and I felt everyone would appreciate what it was like being at Churchill Downs and try to provide a visual connection, while keeping it as light and personal as possible. Of course, I would also get trainer’s quotes after the works, but usually later in the morning.

Once I started that new format it was all about logistics. The barn area was on the backstretch, as was the clocker’s stand. The pressure was to know exactly when each Derby horse would work, get in my car, drive to the far end of the barn area, through the tunnel into the infield, then through another tunnel leading under the grandstand, and up the stairs to the box level and down to the finish line. It was just me, my binoculars, my two stopwatches, and my note pad. Sometimes I got lucky and hitched a ride with a trainer who was working a Derby horse and I would get my quotes immediately after the work. If I missed a work I had no way of writing about it other than to give a time and get some quotes. So there was always pressure to be at the right place at the right time. There was no set time of 7:30 designated just for Derby and Oaks horses as there is now. They would start working as early as 5:30 and would work all through the morning whenever the trainer had them scheduled. But most were after the break at 8:30 following the harrowing of the track.

Then in 2000, a year after I moved on from DRF and began doing my daily feature for the Blood-Horse, the new racing network, TVG, started a new show called “The Works,” that would show every Derby work and replay them at 11 a.m. That relieved a lot of the pressure, being able to go back to my hotel and watch for anything I may have missed, although I did not like the Churchill TV angle from high up, as it did not show off the horse’s action as well or the extension of his stride. Also, back then, not a lot of people were able to get TVG, so many still depended on my reports. Anyway, I did Derby Doings for another 15 years until I left the Blood-Horse on a full-time basis.

Let’s go back to 1993 while I was doing the Work Patrol. I didn’t pay much attention to Sea Hero. Even though he had won the Champagne Stakes at 2 and was trained by the great Mack Miller, his past performances at 3 were not only terrible they were unconventional. Between his poor performances, throwing in a dull grass race, which wasn’t done back then and a mediocre effort in the Blue Grass Stakes there was little to recommend him. Then one morning the second week we were there I noticed Sea Hero walking to the track and I couldn’t believe how his coat gleamed and was full of dapples that weren’t there the previous week. I went over to his barn and talked to Miller’s longtime foreman sitting in a chair outside the barn about how the colt looked. He had been around for many years and pretty much assured me that Sea Hero was going to run a tremendous race. From then on I always made it a point to study a horse’s coat closely, especially from the first week to the second, realizing how much it can change and how important that change can be.

In 2003, Ron Ellis had the horribly named Atswhatimtalknbout in the Derby who had been the top 3-year-old in California before running a dull fourth in the Santa Anita Derby. When I saw him at Churchill he looked horrible, suffering from a bad skin rash all over his body. That was an automatic throwout. Every afternoon, as I always did, I would go to the backstretch to watch the Derby horses graze. That is the best time to observe them, in the quiet of the afternoon when they are under no stress. Each day I noticed Atswhatimtalknbout’s skin rash starting to clear up and looking better than the day before with a few faint dapples starting to appear. Finally, midway through Derby week the rash was gone, and his coat was now bright and dappled all over. I felt we were going to see the colt we had seen earlier in the year. He had a rough trip in the Derby trying to find his way through traffic. He was still 10th at the top of the stretch and had to circle the field some eight-wide. He came flying down the stretch to finish fourth, beaten two heads for second by Empire Maker and Peace Rules and less than two lengths by Funny Cide, closing faster than anyone. With a better trip (and maybe a better name) he might have won that race. That year I learned there is a reason for everything in racing and how important observing is.

If you had seen the way Bluegrass Cat improved physically from week one to week two and was thriving Derby week you could have had a $587 exacta with Barbaro over the 30-1 Bluegrass Cat. Nowadays you have to listen to the experts on Churchill’s morning show, especially Brandon Stauble who is as sharp as they come, to know whose coats are looking great and who is making a big impression. Pay close attention.

Stauble also can dissect a work as well as anyone. What I always looked for, and still do, is for a horse to throw in that one big Derby work – doing everything on his own, listening to his rider’s commands (watch the ears), hugging the rail turning for home and galloping out, and running through the wire like they want to keep going. Always watch the rider’s hands and make sure they are motionless, on a bit of a loose rein, letting the horse grab hold of the bit and keep extending his stride. The greatest Derby work I ever saw was turned in by Smarty Jones, who went five-eighths in :58 1/5 with his ears pricked as if he were in a gallop. You don’t need to work fast for it to be a strong work. Don’t get suckered into fast times alone. It’s how they do it. I have had a number of Derby winners based on works. In addition to Smarty Jones, I remember standout works by Fusaichi Pegasus (not a fast work but a long work and visually flawless), Monarchos (powerful from start to finish), Barbaro (amazing gallop-out), Street Sense (showed another gear in the stretch), Animal Kingdom (had never run on dirt but was loving it and came home fast), and the series of powerful open gallops by I’ll Have Another that could pass as works. These works stamped all these horses as Derby winners.

I learned a lot about time in relation to other factors in 1998. Bob Baffert worked his Santa Anita Derby winner Indian Charlie right after the break and as usual he worked very fast. Baffert then worked his second stringer, Santa Anita Derby runner-up Real Quiet, who worked well, but not as fast. But he worked in company and I saw the big burst of speed he showed at the five-sixteenths pole, where most Derbys are won. Also, the newly harrowed track was faster when Indian Charlie had worked. That taught me to pay attention to the small details, and again not go by time alone. I remember being up in the boxes watching Old Trieste work six furlongs in a blistering 1:09 1/5. His trainer Mike Puype, who was a few boxes down, came walking by me after the work and when I asked him about it, all he said was, “I don’t know whether to laugh or throw up.”

Finally, when it comes to training don’t panic over the unknown and listen to people in the know. Although Florida Derby winner and Kentucky Derby favorite Always Dreaming was a perfect gentleman in the morning at Palm Beach Downs, where it was nice and quiet, he became unglued at Churchill Downs, bucking and throwing his head in the air, and pulling way too hard in his gallops. He basically was uncontrollable and many people were looking to jump ship. But then Todd Pletcher equipped the colt with a set of draw reins, which keeps the head down and gives the rider more control and leverage. It took a little while, but Always Dreaming got used to them and was fine after that. In the Derby he was more than fine. The lesson here is when you see something that looks bad on the track, the trainer sees it, too, so learn what’s going on first before immediately deciding to discard a horse, especially a major contender. Also, when you see something in a work you don’t like, make sure you find out if that is a common occurrence with the horse and that it had had no effect on his past performances. Horses have habits that might look worse than they are, so don’t jump to conclusions. Read all the trainer quotes and listen to all the interviews.

Horses today are generally very lightly raced and we don’t know much about them. You often will learn more about them in the two to three weeks leading up to the Derby than you knew all year… if you keep your eyes and ears open.

On the other hand you should still watch out for horses who keep cocking their head to the side, have a tendency to drift out, get washy on cool mornings, and continuously pull too hard and have the rider trying to strangle them. Horses who get headstrong and pull during that early cavalry charge into the first turn have little or no shot of being anywhere in the Derby. And that is where a jockey is important. You want to ask your horse to get a good position and not get swallowed up in the pack, but often when you ask your horse it’s hard to rein him back in and get him to settle. That is when you want a professional horse with a good mind, and one who is not going to lose it before the race. One last thing to watch for is a horse who bobs his head up and down. Churchill Downs has a tendency to get cuppy and that is a sign that the track is cupping out from under a horse and he’s not getting hold of it. Again, that often happens when a horse first works over it. Many horses will get used to it and Churchill can tighten up one day to the next, especially after a rain. And it’s usually much tighter on Derby Day. So watch out for horses who do that on a day-to-day basis.

The last point to remember, and this is important, is that Churchill Downs is a totally new experience for these horses and an environment they have never seen before. If you see a horse display bad signs his first morning on the track don’t worry about it, just see how he is the second morning, sometimes the third. Many horses take a day or two to get used to the new surroundings. The mornings are for learning, so stay observant.

It sounds simple, but you want to look for a happy horse who is loving what he’s doing and showing good energy, but controlled. You want to see him gallop smoothly with his ears up and listening to his rider’s commands, while keeping his head down into the bit, and you want to see him school like a pro at the gate. Each gallop, each work, and each day should be a step forward. Nothing by itself is going to win the Derby, but doing everything right and keeping a bright healthy coat will go a long way in helping a horse overcome adversity in a 20-horse field and bring out the best in him when the real running begins.

Pedigree Primer

It’s late in the game to start going into pedigrees, as we have a pretty good idea by now who is going to appreciate the mile and a quarter, and I have gone into a number of the pedigrees already in the Derby Rankings.

I always like to start off with interesting pedigree notes more than helpful ones because horses with all kinds of pedigrees have won the Derby, including those who were by confirmed sprinters and milers. It’s the female family that often influences stamina.

One interesting pedigree note this year is a possible exacta box with Forte and Two Phil’s, and this may hit an emotional note more than a scientific one. Forte’s maternal grandsire Blame and Two Phil’s’ maternal great-grandsire Birdstone are both stamina-heavy stallions who probably caused more grief to racing fans than any horses in memory. To this day there still are tens of thousands of fans who refuse to watch Blame’s Breeders’ Cup Classic victory over their beloved Zenyatta, who was only inches from a 20-race undefeated career, and Birdstone’s Belmont Stakes victory over Smarty Jones, one of the most popular horses ever who was only yards away from being an undefeated Triple Crown winner, but was basically ganged up on by the jockeys of his main opponents. This is a totally believable exacta that would finally give these two horses (Birdstone is now actually pensioned) some well-deserved positive press.

Speaking of Two Phil’s, for those who feel his sire Hard Spun might be compromised at 10 furlongs, Hard Spun’s dam is by Turkoman, who ran one of the fastest Marlboro Cups ever and placed in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Travers, out of a half-sister to Belmont and Preakness winner Little Current, by English Derby winner Roberto.

One pedigree of a potential longshot that intrigues me is that of Hit Show, whose sire Candy Ride and broodmare sire Tapit need no explanation. But going deeper in the female family, his great-grandsire Milwaukee Brew, while not a big-name stallion, won two runnings of the Santa Anita Handicap, and three of Hit Show’s four great-great grandsires won the Breeders’ Cup Classic – A.P. Indy, Unbridled, and Wild Again. The fourth, the little known Open Forum, is out of the Darby Dan Farm-bred mare Agretta, by the great classic/stamina sire Graustark, by Ribot. Hit Show also is inbred top and bottom to Fappiano, one of the most influential sires of this era.

Ironically, Disarm has the same three maternal great-grandsires as Hit Show, and his only inbreeding is to Fappiano, but in his case he is inbred three times to him, including once through Quiet American, which means he has the great Dr. Fager in his pedigree four times. In perhaps the most obscure but fascinating pedigree note, Disarm’s sixth dam is an Argentine-bred mare named Papila, who won only three of 18 starts in South America. However, Papila also is the sixth dam of Hall of Famer Tiznow.

There is another longshot’s pedigree that makes me realize how unpredictable the science of breeding can be. Blade of Time was a 1938 foal bred by Colonel Bradley who never ran. Bred mainly to Bradley’s dual classic winner and champion sire Bimelech, Blade of Time produced seven foals in her first eight years at stud, including horses who ran 194 times, 100 times, and 98 times. After producing two foals for her new owner Greentree Stud, she inexplicably went nine consecutive years without producing a foal. As a last resort, Greentree bred her to My Babu, and at the age of 20, she produced a filly named Kerala, who was unraced and was sold to the Woodward family. Kerala’s third foal was a Sword Dancer colt named Damascus, who became a Hall of Famer and one of the soundest, most durable horses of his time.  It is noteworthy that Kentucky Derby starter Sun Thunder, runner-up in the Risen Star Stakes and fourth in the Blue Grass Stakes, is a complete outcross other than his dam being inbred 4 x 4 to Damascus through his sons Bailjumper and Desert Wine, who is the broodmare sire of Sun Thunder’s second dam Maryfield, 2007 champion female sprinter. Some pedigree journeys take very odd turns.

Some people are also wondering if Practical Move, who barely hung on to win the Santa Anita Derby over a Japanese import, might have reached his limit being by Practical Joke, who was considered more of a one-turn horse with a good deal of speed in his pedigree. But the question is how far can Practical Move’s broodmare sire Afleet Alex carry him, having romped in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes?

Of course we always have to check on the Secretariat influence in the Derby, and this year, of the top 23 point getters, Secretariat’s name appears in 22 of them, with the only exception being the Japanese-bred Derma Sotogake. Of those 22, his name appears more than once 14 times. Secretariat has three horses not named Weekend Surprise, Terlingua, and Secrettame who can be found in at least Derby horses’ pedigrees. They are Wood Memorial winner Lord Miles (Take Heart), Blue Grass runner-up Verifying (Medaille D’Or), and Sunland Derby winner Wild on Ice (Viva Sec).

Racing historian, author, and award-winning retired journalist for the Daily Racing Form and The Blood-Horse, Steve Haskin was inducted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame’s Media Roll of Honor in 2016. Known for his racing knowledge and insightful prose, he has been an exclusive contributor to since 2020.


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