Handicapping 101 teaches things like pace, trips, and class, but does not cover what the late oddsmaker Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder used to refer to as the "intangibles." When it comes to handicapping the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), the intangibles sometimes seem just as important as the measurable factors.
Ed Schuyler, the recently retired horse racing writer for the Associated Press, came up with the "dotage system" for handicapping the Derby. Not to be confused with the dosage system that attempts to assess the distance capability of a horse through the sires in his pedigree, Schuyler's system picked the horse with an elderly owner he felt was deserving of a Kentucky Derby triumph. The system worked numerous times in the 1990s when Frances Genter won with Unbridled, W. Cal Partee with Lil E. Tee, Paul Mellon with Sea Hero, William T. Young with Grindstone, and Robert and Beverly Lewis with Silver Charm and Charismatic.
As ridiculous as the system sounds, there really does appear to be a degree of karma associated with winning the Kentucky Derby. Of those mentioned above, Genter, Partee, and Mellon were longtime patrons of the sport. Young and the Lewises, while horse racing fans for many years, were relative newcomers to Thoroughbred ownership when success came their way. In both cases, their good luck was preceded by enthusiasm, commitment, and a level-headed perspective.
Karma was at the 1989 Derby, too, when Sunday Silence defeated Easy Goer, giving co-owner Arthur B. Hancock III what must have been a satisfying victory over Ogden Phipps, who was instrumental in Hancock not getting the job to run Claiborne Farm after the death of his father. Easy Goer, a Phipps homebred who was the heavy favorite to win the Derby, also finished second to Sunday Silence in the Preakness (gr. I) but got a measure of revenge by winning the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) in New York.
If there is any justice among those who dole out the influence- wielding intangibles for this year's Derby, only one horse can win: Saarland. The reason, of course, is the recent death of Ogden Phipps, who developed and nurtured one of the sport's outstanding racing and breeding operations without enjoying the thrill of victory in the Kentucky Derby. While Saarland races for daughter Cynthia Phipps and jockey John Velazquez will wear her gold and purple silks, the colt will be carrying the passionate hopes of an extended family that includes countless friends and admirers of the former Jockey Club chairman.
Just in case the karma is not enough, Saarland also fits the profile of many recent Derby winners. First, he was sired by Unbridled, who represents one of the few remaining strains of stamina in the breed. Unbridled is one of those rare horses who won the Derby and sired a Derby winner.
In addition, Saarland was produced from Versailles Treaty, a daughter of Danzig who won the mile and a quarter Alabama Stakes (gr. I). Ten Cents a Dance, the dam of Versailles Treaty, was sired by Buckpasser, arguably the best male to carry Ogden Phipps' black and cherry colors.
Most recent Derby winners had solid form as juveniles, though you have to go back to 1979 and Spectacular Bid to find a Derby winner who was an American champion at two. Saarland was a good but not great 2-year-old, winning the nine-furlong Remsen Stakes (gr. II) but failing in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), won by eventual 2-year-old champion Johannesburg.
Saarland has not been spectacular in his two starts of 2002, and the colt does not figure to be among the betting favorites. Despite his longshot role, there would not be a more popular winner of the 128th Derby.