Handicapping the Derby is like Mission: Impossible

Remember Mission: Impossible?

Each week, Mr. Phelps and his Impossible Mission Force were handed a virtually impossible task they must accomplish for the good of national security or some other weighty matter.

For one week each year, I pretend like I’m Mr. Phelps. I give myself a task so difficult, it challenges every fiber in my body and cell in my brain.

On the first Saturday in May, I must come up with the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

I must pretend like I’m Mr. Phelps and crack the code.

In case the code is the Daily Racing Form, which lists the past performances of the horses that will be participating in the Run For The Roses.

It allows us to decipher which horses will burst out of the starting gate and take the early lead, which ones will stalk the leaders before attempting to overtake them and which ones will be content to bring up the rear in an attempt to save themselves for a late charge to the wire.

If we read the program to perfection, we will indeed come up with the best horse. Case closed, mission accomplished, right?

If only it were that easy. Every serious horse player knows the best horse in the race today is California Chrome. He’s undefeated. Unchallenged. No other horse ever has managed to gain a single length on him in the stretch.

He’s the deserving favorite.

So what’s the problem?

There are several. First, the best horse doesn’t always win, just like the best team does always win. There are many factors that determine the winner, some of which are foreseeable, but many of which aren’t.

That’s especially true in the Kentucky Derby.

In every other horse race of the year, no more than 14 entries are permitted. The Kentucky Derby allows 20. That means there is the potential for six more horses to be on the track than in any other race. It’s akin to being stuck on Grand Central Avenue at 5 p.m. on a Friday. Get behind Ma and Pa Kettle in their 1965 Rattletrap and you are toast.

Then there’s the distance the horses must run. The Kentucky Derby is a mile-and-a-quarter race. But not a single horse running today ever has competed at that distance. Not even California Chrome. So in order to determine the winner, you must figure out which, if any of the entrants, can handle that distance and do so faster than the others. How can you determine that? Start with the horse’s breeding. If both its sire (father) and dam (mother) were good in the longer races, odds are good their offspring will follow the family tradition.

Plus, Churchill Downs has a dirt surface. Not all tracks do. Many have gone to polyturf, which some horses prefer. You don’t get polyturf kicked in your face. But unless you are in the lead, you will be a target for dirt.

Then, there’s the weather. If it rains all day in Louisville, the track goes from dirt to mud. Get mud thrown on you, and it makes you heavier and slower.

By now, you’re getting the picture. No matter how much information you acquire, handicapping the Derby can qualify as a science, but an inexact one.

You would have as much of a chance of picking the winner by getting out your dartboard or 20-sided dice. Or picking the one with the name you like best.

Like in every sport, there are so-called experts. Just remember all the basketball experts had Michigan State and Louisville playing in the national title game. Those who listened to them saw their bracket explode.

So when Hank Goldberg or some former jockey or the local sports editor tells you who is going to win (Intense Holiday), don’t let them influence you. Stick with your pick, no matter how you derived at it.

And if you are fortunate enough to come up with the winner, find a way to celebrate your good fortune.

As always, this tape will self destruct in two minutes, two and two-fifths seconds.

Good luck. You’re going to need it.

Contact Dave Poe at dpoe@newsandsentinel.com