Beyer: Weakness of Derby contenders’ efforts notable

With another weekend of Kentucky Derby prep races upon us – the Louisiana Derby and Jeff Ruby Steaks are scheduled for Saturday – veteran handicapper and racing analyst Andrew Beyer is waiting for a runner or two to break through. Or at least to reach historical norms.

Beyer, who revolutionized handicapping with his creation of the Beyer speed figures, spoke on the March 16 edition of Off to the Races, powered by The Racing Biz. The show airs weekly on ESPN Richmond (VA), and Beyer and cohost Frank Vespe had a wide-ranging conversation that touched on current Derby contenders, the snafu that saw the Tampa Bay Derby conducted without wagering, and Churchill Downs’s treatment of trainer Bob Baffert.

The current leader in terms of Derby points accrued is Timberlake, with 66 points, and he’s followed by Dornoch, Domestic Product, Track Phantom, and Sierra Leone. In the most recently concluded Derby futures wagering, Sierra Leone, winner of the Grade 2 Risen Star in his most recent start, ended as the 7-1 betting favorite.

But you can color Beyer mostly unimpressed.

“jumping out is the weakness of the performances of the leading contenders,” Beyer said, adding, “I’ve got to see some horse do something more in the last round of prep races.”

Beyer said that the average Derby-winning fig in the last nine years has been 103 and that only one horse in the last almost-40 years has had a Derby-winning Beyer of less than 100. The picture this group of sophomores is painting, however, looks quite a bit different.

“So with that context, I mean, the top horse in the future betting on the Derby is Sierra Leone, who just won the Risen Star with a figure of 90,” Beyer said. “Dornoch… just won the Fountain of Youth with a figure of 88. And Timberlake, whom you just mentioned, has a lifetime best figure of 93. And these all came in major prep races.”

Beyer believes that one key reason for the decline in speed figs is the lack of seasoning of many top contenders. The three horses mentioned above have made a combined total of 14 career starts, including just three for Sierra Leone. Each has made just one start in 2024.

“Back in the the ‘80s, or ‘90s, you know, horses would run a figure of 110 [in winning the Kentucky Derby],” Beyer said. “But they came into the race with so much experience. I mean, you’d have horses who would have run like 10, even 20 times before the Derby. You’d never see that now.”

He added, “The history of the Derby tells me that whatever era it is, you really have to have a sufficient amount of experience and bottom to win the race.”

One trainer who has won more than his share of Kentucky Derbies is Bob Baffert, who owns Triple Crown victories with American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018). Those are the only two Triple Crown wins since Affirmed’s three-race sweep in 1978.


But Baffert has been persona non grata at Churchill Downs since 2021. That’s the year Medina Spirit was first past the post in the Kentucky Derby but was subsequently disqualified for testing positive for betamethasone. Churchill Downs Inc. initially imposed a two-year ban on Baffert for his history of positives in Grade 1 races and then added a third year.

Enough is enough, Beyer believes.

“Churchill just has a vendetta against Baffert,” he said on Off to the Races. “I don’t think this merited a two-year ban, and then they gratuitously tacked on another year.”

While there certainly are trainers who have used drugs to cheat horses, Beyer said, he doesn’t think Baffert is one of them.

“Nobody has written more than I have about the abuse of illegal drugs and and pinpointed the names of trainers like Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis where I could cite dozens of horses whose form just smacked of illegal drug use,” Beyer said. “I don’t see that with Baffert at all. When you look at the [past performances] of his good horses, they all look like well-bred horses with a lot of natural speed being trained by the best trainer in America.”

Baffert expended a lot of good will during the Medina Spirit affair with shifting explanations of what had happened and an attempt to portray himself as a victim of “cancel culture.” He and his legal team final settled on a cutesy and overly legalistic argument that was never likely to succeed.

“Bob attempts to be too much of a wise guy for his own good,” Beyer acknowledged. “But I don’t see him as a big cheater.”

Beyer also took aim at the situation that occurred involving the Tampa Bay Derby. An outage elsewhere – AmTote, the tote company, and Roberts Communications both pointed the finger at unnamed third parties – led to the track’s biggest race being conducted without wagering and to the cancellation of the race following the Derby.

“The situation was surreal, to say the least, and for it to happen on our biggest racing day of the meet was nightmarish,” said Tampa Bay Downs Vice President and General Manager Peter Berube.

In theory, multi-race wagers ending in the Tampa Bay Derby should not have been affected, as those bets would have been made earlier, prior to the tote issues that arose. But the track paid them as “all pays” for the Tampa Bay Derby. That was “in accordance with Florida parimutuel statutes,” the track said in a release.

Acknowledging its “complicated” nature, Beyer nevertheless felt a better solution was necessary.

“Under the rules of racing, they hadn’t done anything wrong at Tampa, but I thought that the way that turned out really was very unjust for the bettor,” Beyer said.