We’re less than 48 hours out from the Kentucky Derby, but the final field may still not be sent. Trainer Bob Baffert announced this morning that Hoppertunity, considered a contender by many, would be scratched due to a foot injury, making room for Pablo Del Monte to draw in off the also-eligible list. Trainer Wesley Ward has until 9 a.m. on Friday to decide if the horse will run.
If not, 19 horses will go to the early Saturday evening, with Derby dreams on the line, and whether you’re watching from home, attending a Derby party, or heading to the track to watch Kentucky Derby 140, you’ll find no shortage of race analysis in print, online, and on television. The fan education site Hello Race Fans! (to which I contribute) offers a cheat sheet on all the contenders along with wagering strategies, and below you’ll find our stable of handicappers, offering their perspectives, suggestions, and picks for the race.
Horse racing is the only sport in the U.S. on which you can bet legally online, and even a $2 win bet makes watching the race more exciting. Two options for wagering from home are NYRA Rewards (for New York and Connecticut residents) and Twin Spires, both of which offer wagering from mobile devices.
Michelle Berne, Hialeah Park racing analyst; 7th place finisher at 2013 Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge, assistant trainer: While handicapping is by definition an analysis of statistics, the Kentucky Derby is the most over-analyzed event of the racing year. So we are taking a novel approach, one known as KISS: keep it simple, sports-fans! (Or something like that!)
California Chrome’s four straight wins have been impressive, but there was never a straw in his path. His only bad effort was on the big stage on Breeders’ Cup Day when things did not go his way. Also, he may be able to outrun his humble pedigree, but that Not for Love on the bottom concerns us. He may have given Chrome his grit, but he won’t help him much with getting a mile and a quarter.
Wildcat Red also may face similar pedigree limitations thanks to his sire D’wildcat. Wicked Strong is purported to have disliked Florida, so wants to be excused for two poor efforts there. But one good effort does not a Derby winner make (see also Danza and Dance With Fate), and there will be many more horses to pass in the 2-0-horse field on Saturday.
We are also eliminating those who, while no doubt talented, threw in a sub-par effort last time out: Uncle Sigh, Vinceremos, Tapiture, and Candy Boy.
That puts the focus on contenders who have run well consistently and are associated with top trainers and riders. These include Samraat, Chitu, and General a Rod. Samraat’s admirable five-for-six record was hard-fought versus Uncle Sigh all winter. The expertly managed Chitu is only a half-length shy of being undefeated and gives the visual impression of a horse with room to improve.
The top pick is General a Rod. Never respected at the windows, he makes his third start of the form cycle for top conditioner Mike Maker. He possesses speed, versatility, and gameness, and jockey Joel Rosario should be able to work out a good trip from the eight post position.
Good luck to all those taking a stand on Saturday, and safe trips to all the horses and the jockeys.
Who do YOU like in the Kentucky Derby?
Seth Merrow, publisher of Equidaily.com and handicapper for Capitol OTB: I’m going for a replay of the strategy I touted in this space last year: the seven-horse exacta box. Again, it’s not a bet that makes sense on an everyday basis, but in the Derby, with its unique 20-horse field, the exacta box can offer fun, excitement, and value.
At the $1 bet increment, a seven-horse exacta box will cost $42, and we win if any of our seven horses come in the top two.
And the Derby exacta payouts over the last five years have been (at the $2 increment): $981.60, $306.60, $329.80, $152.40 and $2074.80.
OK, I missed last year. So why try again? Well, my seven horses finished 1-3-4-5-6-8-17. Yep, I had five of the top six horses, but I didn’t hit the exacta. Too close to not give it another shot.
Here we go (listed in order of preference):
Intense Holiday: Looked good winning Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds. Second-place finish in the follow-up Grade 1 Louisiana Derby will only help our price. Trained by Todd Pletcher and picks up John Velazquez to ride. Reported to be working well in the lead-up.
California Chrome: This one will be the favorite, bolstered by the fact that he’s coming into the Kentucky Derby off of four bang-up wins, including an impressive performance in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby most recently. His recent consistency is better than the rest of the field can boast.
Wicked Strong: Showed promise as a 2-year-old but wasn’t able to validate that earlier this year in Florida. However, his win in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial on his return to New York clearly stamps him as a serious contender. Unfortunately, he was stuck with the far outside post position, but with his come-from-behind style, maybe it will work out.
Danza: Shocked the Arkansas Derby at 41-1. Very lightly raced, but that win might indicate that he’s getting good at just the right time.
Tapiture: This one sat at the top of my Derby list for a long time based on his stellar win in the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn in February, but he was disappointing most recently, running fourth in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. That effort should mean he’ll offer some value this weekend, and he’s eligible to rebound on the return to a track where he won a stakes race last year.
Wildcat Red: Has not been worse than second in seven lifetime starts. Likely to be part of the early pace up front, and if the pace is reasonable, he’s capable of being in the hunt down the stretch.
I had Hoppertunity in my mix and his late scratch forced me down my list of contenders to a bit of a conundrum: I was torn between picking Samraat or Ride On Curlin.
I’ll give Samraat a slight edge and throw him into the play. His second-place finish in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial was the first defeat in his six-race career. He has plenty of heart and a running style that should have him in a good position when the real running starts. His jockey Jose Ortiz is a Derby rookie but a real up-and-comer.
Brian Nadeau, handicapper at Horseplayer Now and Brooklyn Backstretch: Betting the Derby is all about searching for value, and this year that certainly applies with vulnerable favorite California Chrome drawing poorly and destined to encounter heavy pace pressure from his outside. What I’ll be looking to do is play my top pick, MEDAL COUNT, with some prices in the exotics, while making sure all of them have shown the ability to pass horses in the lane, as this is a Derby that seems like it will fall apart in the final furlong.
Medal Count is by Dynaformer and had no chance in his two most recent dirt races, which were contested over intense speed-favoring tracks, so I think he has plenty of hidden form and is coming up to the race of his life. I’ll be boxing him in the exacta with Danza, Hoppertunity, Intense Holiday, Commanding Curve, Candy Boy, Ride On Curlin and Wicked Strong, all who are stalker/closers that fit the race profile. I’ll also wheel Medal Count over those seven horses in the trifecta, which will cost $42 for $1. And lastly, since he should be in the 15-1 range, I’ll make a “ladder” bet on Medal Count, betting him to win and putting more to place and more to show on him.
Jessica Paquette, Suffolk Downs racing analyst (@jmpaquette): In what has shaped up to be one of the most wide open Kentucky Derby fields in recent memory, narrowing in on one winner may be very difficult. A wise play may be to play a multi-race wager, like a daily double with the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic and Kentucky Derby.
Wise Dan, the two-time reigning Horse of the Year, should be a formidable threat to repeat and while he will be a short price, you could single him and go as deep as you feel comfortable with in the Kentucky Derby. There is a good chance you could get a big price on the second half of that double.
Ed DeRosa, director of marketing for Brisnet.com: The two things I’ve compared this year’s Kentucky Derby to most are a roulette wheel and the NCAA men’s basketball championship tournament.
A roulette wheel because just as any of 38 numbers—0, 00, and 1-36—can come up in roulette, seemingly any horse can win the Derby, including longshots Giacomo (2005) and Mine That Bird (2009).
Unlike roulette, which pays 35-to-1 regardless of the number that comes in, different horses pay different prices. As a handicapper, I’m trying to find the Derby number paying 40-to-1 instead of 35-to-1.
For me, those numbers this year are 4 (Danza), 6 (Samraat), 8 (General a Rod), and 19 (Ride On Curlin).
The compulsion with a race like the Derby is to PICK A WINNER, and that’s a fair goal given the fame attached to tabbing a winner of THE race, but it’s not necessarily the best way to bet because any horse can win, and more than one can offer value.
My wagering strategy is to concede that while either California Chrome or Wicked Strong can win, they’ll do at underlaid odds—like getting 35-to-1 in roulette. Instead, I’m playing the four horses I mentioned above in an exacta box. That costs $12 per dollar. I’ll also protect with California Chrome and key him on top of the trifecta, which costs another $6 per $.50. I won’t use Wicked Strong at all, bucking the thought that he just didn’t like Florida and instead betting that maybe he only likes New York.
As for THE pick: that distinction goes to #19 Ride On Curlin, who is the inspiration for my NCAA comparison.
Going into this season, the University of Kentucky was ranked #1 and some even thought they could go undefeated. Similarly, Calvin Borel proclaimed Ride On Curlin his Derby horse after the horse broke his maiden at Ellis Park last July. He hasn’t won since, and Borel even opted for other Derby hopefuls before reuniting for this race.
The Derby is about peaking at the right time. Of the past five Derby winners, three of them—Mine That Bird, Super Saver, and Orb—never won again, and it’s not as if those last two were big shocks in the winner’s circle: Super Saver was second choice (with Borel aboard), and Orb was the favorite.
Ride On Curlin is the horse ready for his One Shining Moment in this year’s Derby, which would be Borel’s fourth shining moment on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. There are always “what ifs” involved when betting a horse to run better than he ever has before, but 15-to-1 is a fair price to take on that happening.