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Can Anyone Beat 
Fusaichi Pegasus?
By Don Bielak 

Having beaten the top talent in the West, then shipping East and demolishing the best the East has to offer, it's apparent that defeating Fusaichi Pegasus in the Kentucky Derby will be no easy task.  

Be that as it may, between now and  Derby Day, I will set my sights on doing just that. Because, lets face it, nobody needs help picking a favorite to win, and I would be guilty of gross negligence as a handicapper if I were to give up on trying to beat him. After all, value is the key to success at the races, not winning percentage. 

Okay, I know that there's more than just betting involved when it comes to the Run for the Roses. There are bragging rights and the satisfaction that comes from picking the winner of the Derby, regardless of price. I ought to know. I've picked a number of Derby winners that didn't exactly set me up for life. Secretariat, Bold Forbes and Seattle Slew come to mind immediately. However, don't think for a moment that I'm ready to discount them from my record because they were chalk. 

But, can't a handicapper have his cake and eat it too? Picking the winner of the Derby is always a thrill, but it's even sweeter when you come up with a horse that not every Tom, Dick and Harry from coast to coast picked, too.  

Which brings us to the question that prompted this article.... can anyone beat Fusaichi Pegasus? 

On the surface the answer would appear to be - no. He's competed against the strongest of the crop on the West Coast and dominated them. Now he destroyed what could have been the best field the East has to offer. If anything is as good as Fusaichi Pegasus, he surely hasn't shown it yet. 

So why should handicappers bother to try to beat him in the Kentucky Derby? 

Well, because at least a couple of factors are going against him. 

  1. No favorite has won the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979
  2. The Derby will probably have another big field - perhaps the maximum 20 starters.
  3. From a betting standpoint, he's likely to offer no value as the overwhelming favorite in a big field.
Yes, these factors are a little flimsy, I admit, but if you're going to beat the most obvious standout since Holy Bull, you have to grasp onto something that can provide a logical reason to try. Oh, and just for the record, Holy Bull finished out of the money in the Derby. 

The favorite angle may appear to be just a coincidence, but is it? Since Spectacular Bid was the last chalk to score in the Derby more than 20 years ago, some things have changed. For example, the fields are much bigger now than in the past. It's common to have 18, 19, or even 20 starters. By sheer percentages alone, this makes it harder for a favorite to win. Also, it appears that horses are being brought up to the Derby differently than in years past. A good argument could be made that trainers aren't nearly as eager to have their best 3-year-olds blossom early in preps, preferring to come up to the Derby sitting on their best race. Most recently, Grindstone, Real Quiet and Charismatic are good examples. They ran the race of their lives on Derby Day, and few of us knew it was coming. Favored in all of those races where colts who had been much more impressive in the preps. 

The "big field" factor is self evident. With 19 or 20 horses leaving the gate in a mad dash for position, a favorite (or any other horse in the race) has a terrific chance at experiencing traffic trouble. So, if racing luck plays such a major role in determining the Derby winner, why not try to uncover a longshot that will get the luck? 

In a related topic, don't expect any help from the stewards. The Kentucky Derby is, for the most part, a free-for-all, and that "anything goes" attitude opens the door for riding tactics that wouldn't be acceptable under normal circumstances. Captain Bodgit had dead aim on Silver Charm in '97 only to have that rival swerve into his path, causing him to check in the late stages of the 1 1/4 mile event. To this day I believe Captain Bodgit would have won had he not been forced to lose momentum. If the stewards were ever going to take down a Derby winner, it would have been then. At any rate, another beaten favorite with a legitimate excuse. 

Finally, if for no other reason, backing Fusaichi Pegasus in the Big Dance doesn't figure to make much sense from a betting standpoint. He is likely to close as the prohibitive favorite, and with the host of problems that he could face on the way to the winner's circle, it could be wise to look for a longer-priced alternative. 

That's what I'm going to do between now and the first Saturday in May.  

But, in my heart, I know I'll be trying to beat the best horse.  

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