A Learning Process Since 2003
Reflecting on his movie "Groundhog Day" in 2010, Harold Ramis said of the main character, who lived the same day in a loop that repeated over and over again, "It takes at least 10 years to get good at anything."
Maybe not so coincidentally, The Downey Profile's first Kentucky Derby was in 2003, and Dick Downey, originator and producer of The Downey Profile, correctly picked the Kentucky Derby winner every year from 2014 to 2019. Getting to that point took just over 10 years. It was always fun, but it wasn't always easy, and it wasn't always profitable.
Many things make the Derby interesting, and sometimes maddening, but it's not always the horses. Take Barclay Tagg's less than ebullient assessment after Funny Cide was narrowly defeated by Empire Maker in the 2003 Wood Memorial: "If he hadn't run as well as he did, it would have taken pressure off of going to the Kentucky Derby. Now, we have to go."
Funny Cide, at 12-1 odds on the first Saturday in May, topped Empire Maker for the win. Those two were in The Downey Profile Top Four, and we were off to a good start in spite of Tagg's pessimism.
Downey in 2004 correctly selected Smarty Jones to win. That was a thrill. Check. What a horse.
In 2005, Downey had called Giacomo "the best bridesmaid in America" before he won at odds of 50-1. Downey's top choice, Afleet Alex, finished second and went on to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. His jockey, Jeremy Rose, blamed himself for losing the Derby. Meanwhile, The Downey Profile was picking up subscribers.
The next few years were tough, with Downey maybe overthinking what he was doing.
In 2006 Barbaro was in The Downey Profile's Top Four. His final work was very fast, and trainer Michael Matz was seen grimacing. Downey took this too much to heart and picked against Barbaro. Downey learned the hard way the grimace was an act.
That mistake lost subscribers for The Downey Profile the following year, when Downey made another unforced error, picking against Street Sense. But for a nose loss in the Blue Grass Stakes, Street Sense would've been in The Downey Profle Top Four, something Downey recognized before the Derby. Calvin Borel was supremely confident, and Downey knew that too. However, he stupidly picked Nobiz Like Shobiz to win. A real head-slapper.
In 2008, Big Brown, the strong post-time favorite, was a terrible fit in The Downey Profile. Downey picked Top Four horse Colonel John, but Colonel John was not a good fit in the Derby. Later that year, he improved and won the Travers Stakes.
Mine That Bird was impossible to handicap in 2009. Downey's top choice, Pioneeerof the Nile, finished second, returning $8.40 to place and $6.40 to show.
2010 was the first of all the succeeding years that Downey joined the track clockers, all of them professionals, during morning workouts in the days leading to the Derby. This was a good move. That week, he could see Ice Box was on fire, and Ice Box was the best horse on Derby day, but traffic trouble cost him the win. Fortunately, Downey included Super Saver in his selections, and the pair yielded an exacta worth $152.40 on a $2 wager.
The only year Downey went outside his Top Four in search of a winner was 2011. After all the workouts were in the book, one of the track clockers, a longtime veteran, said in exasperation, "I haven't seen the winner." Shackleford led the field through six furlongs in a modest 1:13.48 and picked it up to go a mile in 1:37.49 before giving way to finish fourth. Animal Kingdom, the winner at 20-1, competed for the first time on dirt in that Derby. Shackleford beat Animal Kingdom in the Preakness next time out.
In 2012, Downey was on hand to see I'll Have Another exiting the van at Churchill Downs after being flown in from California. He turned to Darren Rogers of the Churchill Downs publicity team and said, "That horse has the ugliest head I think I've ever seen," unfortunately failing to take into account all the stable hands high-fiveing as they unloaded the 15-1 Derby-winner-to-be.
Orb was just outside The Downey Profile Top 4 in 2013 and ralled in the slop from far back to win. Downey was on Verrazano of team Pletcher-Velazquez, and he didn't run a step. This was the year that a clocker who is famous in our world, and who had been in Florida for the winter, said to me a few days before the Derby, "Orb just put in the best work I've seen from him all year." Live and learn.
The following year, 2014, was the first of six straight that Downey picked the winner of the Kentucky Derby. Okay, the stewards disqualified the sixth winner, Maximum Security, but he won the race and is a finalist for 2019 Horse of the Year.
Downey knows more about the Kentucky Derby than he did 17 years ago. But it's horse racing, and anything can happen. All we can do is all we can do, and then we hope for the best. Is seven winners in a row even possible? In a Groundhog Day world, maybe it is.