We read about cycles, third off layoff's, the "sheets" and everything else in angle and fitness lore in horse racing when we handicap, and more so come Derby time.
I spend, like many of you, hundreds of hours in a database researching layoff horses, 2nd off layoffs, 3rd off layoffs, sprints under belt after layoffs, bounces, time between starts, work patterns and a hundred other things to help figure out when a horse will fire, or regress. They are certainly important to us as every day horseplayers.
However, one thing that throws everything and everyone off in making hard and fast rules handicapping in such a way is when a horse races flat in a prep race for a major event. These are generally random occurrences and can not be modeled or predicted.
Horse's can race 'off' - with no punch, willingness or finish - for a number of extraneous reasons: Mainly they're sore, or they're sick.
We've seen it throughout racing history, and we see it each day as bettors and horse owners.
A couple of the more common flat preps come Derby time have some big names attached.
Remember Secretariat's Wood? He was poor by his standards, showed little willingness, looked uncomfortable and was an auto-pitch for some after the regression. Later on, though (much later on) we learned he raced with an abscess in his mouth - a painful thing and an easy reason to explain his effort.
Almost thirty years later, Monarchos had his shine taken off the rose in the Wood, too, and went from being a horse compared to Spectacular Bid to an 11-1 shot a month later. It wasn't because he ran a top before, or was a bad horse, or any other handicapping reason. He raced with sore hocks, they got the needed treatment, and he bounced back with a winning race and a good number.
If lesser horse's had these issues, they might've finished way up the track in the Wood; not be as competitive as both were. We'll never know, but the proof was in the pudding, obviously (and especially) in Big Red's case.
More recently, we saw Blame lose the Jockey Club Gold Cup where he was sick and raced really flat, and beat Zenyatta a month later. Frac Daddy tore a hoof and with better preparation almost won the Arkansas Derby at bomb odds just this year.
Sick horses and sore horses race badly. We don't need to explain it, or handicap it with fancy form cycle analysis. They just race bad. But oftentimes they bounce back with big efforts, where they're back to their old selves.
This year Vyjack raced fairly well in the Wood, coming third to a couple of good horses in Normandy Invasion and probable Derby chalk Verrazano. It was reported afterwards that he had lung infection (a fancy name for a chest cold). To some 'cappers this made some sense, because (if you're a harness fan) he hung like a chandelier in the last sixteenth. This past few weeks he has visited a hyperbaric chamber, had the required meds and looks no worse for wear. His work tab seems fine.
To other 'cappers the race just said what his pedigree says: He's a miler, and he's a pitch for the Kentucky Derby.
While some might, I will not be worrying about his virus when handicapping the race this year. I think he'll be the same horse that raced in the Gotham, where he moved wide in a quickening pace like a good horse does. That of course begs the question, will that be good enough; can he handle the distance; is he a Derby horse? All legitimate questions and a lot of people don't think so. But maybe they might be leaning on the performance in the Wood as a confirmation bias.
Let's for arguments sake say he isn't sick in the Wood and comes home a few ticks quicker, beating Verrazano. People are talking him up as a possible favorite. Instead we're looking at a longshot.
I am leaning to putting a couple of dollars on Vyjack. I understand the pedigree, I understand his limitations on paper, and I know Rudy's barn has been terrible of late, but I also understand that coming third in the Wood with a virus is not easy to do. Vyjack is a good horse.