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The 131st running of the Kentucky Derby is just a week away and it’s shaping up to be one of the most interesting renewals in years. The key prep races this year have produced several strong contenders for the big race. Although Bellamy Road’s victory in the Wood Memorial was by far the most impressive, Afleet Alex and Bandini are both coming into the race off dominating victories in their final preps. Beyond these three horses, there are several other contenders that have shown ability this spring and could take another step forward in the Derby.
Any list of Derby contenders has to start with Bellamy Road. Owned by George Steinbrenner’s Kinsman Stable and trained by Nick Zito, Bellamy Road’s victory in the Wood Memorial, April 9th at New York’s Aqueduct Racetrack, stands out as possibly the fastest pre-Derby performance by a three-year-old ever. The race earned Bellamy Road a Beyer Speed Figure (BSF) of 120. The next highest Beyer in a U.S. Derby prep this year was the 108 earned by Afleet Alex for winning the Arkansas Derby a week later.
To give an idea of how high 120 is for a three-year-old at this time of year, let’s look at what the past few Derby winners did in their last prep races.
In 2004, eventual Derby winner Smarty Jones scored a 107 Beyer over a muddy track in the Arkansas Derby. The highest Beyer in a prep race that season was the 111 earned by The Cliff’s Edge (5th in the Derby) in the Blue Grass.
In 2003, Funny Cide earned a 110 Beyer finishing second in the Wood Memorial. Empire Maker, second place finisher in the Derby, posted a 111 Beyer beating Funny Cide in the Wood.
In 2002, Derby winner War Emblem earned a 112 Beyer winning the Illinois Derby.
In 2001, Derby winner Monarchos earned a 105 in the Florida Derby.
In 2000, Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus earned a 111 in the Wood Memorial.
In most years, the highest pre-Derby Beyer earned will be around 105-110. By way of further comparison, the highest Beyer Speed Figure for all of last year was the 128 earned by Ghostzapper in his record-setting Breeder’s Cup Classic. Bottom line – it’s unheard of for a three-year-old to earn a 120 in a 9 furlong race in April. And as impressive as the race was (he won by over 17 lengths), it does raise a few questions.
Is the 120 BSF accurate? Can Bellamy Road do it again? Does he have to?
James Quinn writes in the May/June issue of Horseplayer Magazine that the 120 figure “must be considered suspiciously”. Using pars and Quirin-style pace and speed figures, Quinn determines that Bellamy Road’s performance in the Wood equates to a 110 Beyer Speed Figure, which is more in line with past years but still superior to the other Derby contenders.
Bellamy Road’s previous best Beyer was 96, but with only five career starts he still has the right to improve. Also, by winning his two races this year by 16 lengths ‘handily’ and 17.5 lengths ‘with something left’, it does not seem that he has had to dig very deep to win. Could he have gone even faster in the Wood if he was pressed? Perhaps. But that sort of effort would be much more of an indicator of an impending ‘bounce’ than his relatively easy effort.
The winning Beyer Speed Figure for recent runnings of the Kentucky Derby is in the 108-110 range. If Bellamy Road’s Wood Memorial Beyer of 120 was legit, and he maintained his form, he would win the Derby easily. Even if he were to lose 5-10 points off that effort, he would probably still be much the best.
However, if the Beyer for the Wood is closer the the 110 suggested by Quinn, then while Bellamy Road still comes into the race with the highest prep race Beyer, his Wood performance only puts him slightly ahead of pack.
Since a Beyer of 110 is right where he will need to be next Saturday, and he could very well move forward off his last effort, Bellamy Road should still be considered the favorite to win the 2005 Kentucky Derby.