Basketball, bourbon, and horses; those are the hallmarks of the Bluegrass State. And every year, on the first Saturday in May, the eyes of the world will be on Louisville, Kentucky, for “the most exciting two minutes in sports”. There’s nothing that makes a day at the races a little more interesting, other than a nice mint julep, than to throw down some cash down betting the ponies. So, I thought I’d give you a guest post today that brings some serious analysis of the 143rd running of the Kentucky Derby. For those of you, like me, who won’t be going to Churchill Downs on Saturday, our friends at twinspires.com have you covered. I’ll let my man Ness take it from here:
Hey guys, Ness here. Hope you enjoyed our first Bourbon Review. In keeping with my annual tradition of handicapping the Derby, here’s a guide for those of you looking to bet the ponies on Derby Day. At the very least, it will give you a cheat sheet so you can quickly regurgitate info on a horse and impress your Derby party guests. Good luck!
I’ll give a quick background on what I look for on Derby Day, then explain what types of bets I’ll make, and finally try to make a quick comment on every horse running the Derby. If you just want the horses I’m probably going to bet and don’t want to read all the stuff, just scroll to the bottom to see my picks.
*Disclaimer* The types of bets I suggest for the Derby I would not suggest making in any other race the entire year.
Reason being, the odds and long shots in the Derby make the extra payouts/investments totally worth it. For example, you’ll get a favorite at 4/1 or 5/1 this year instead of 2/1 or 6/5. You’ll also get horses that can close fast and take second or third by a nose that are 18/1 to 50/1, depending. Those odds will result in a huge pay out. For example, in 2013 we hit the $1 Exacta and the $0.50 Trifecta when Golden Soul at 50-1 came in second. That paid $2,222.22 (now 2 is my lucky horse racing number). Also, no guarantees (even though we’ve hit the Trifecta and Exacta 4 of the last 5 years). Sometimes, even if you hit the Exacta or Trifecta, you may only break even because you have so many other combinations that lost…but again, breaking even with the chance of a HUGE payout is a great trade off as far as I’m concerned.
First, a little about what I look for when handicapping the Derby. My strategy centers around identifying three horses that have the qualities that I think it takes to win at Churchill. The Derby is SO HARD to win. The saying goes there are 1,000 ways to lose a race and only one way to win. And that is amplified when you have 20 horses and two starting gates. So, first of all, I will throw out the horses that draw the first or second post…and potentially the third, depending. I do this even if I love the horse (like this year #foreshadowing). Next, I look for horses that have a particular style that can win the Derby. This is the first time any of the horses have run 1 1/4 mile, plus Churchill Downs has the longest home stretch in America. This means we want a horse that can break quickly and sit just off the pace, stalk the lead horses for most of the race, and then have a big kick at the end.
Next I try to throw out half of the field, which is tougher than you’d think. There are 20 horses that are only three years old and lightly raced, so picking half of them and saying “this horse has no chance to finish at least third” is hard to do. But you have to have an opinion when you bet the Derby or else you’ll be spending so much money on combinations . . . you might as well get paid for being right. That being said, I’m just going to give my opinion, but if you prefer a horse over ones I chose, then go with your gut, sub that bad boy in, and tell me how much you won!
Finally, I will make the following types of bets (more or less) with those three main horses and seven other horses.
- $1 Exacta Key ($27) where you key the three main horses over the 10 total horses underneath
- Three different $0.50 Trifecta Keys ($21 each or $63 total). three main / three main / seven others, + three main / seven others / three main + seven others / three main / three main. The thinking here is that if two of my three main horses run to form and finish in the top three, and my other options finish in the top three as well, then we hit a huge payout
- $1 Trifecta Box ($6) to cover the above bet should my main three finish in the top three instead of just two of them
- $1 Oaks/Derby Daily Double ($10) where I’ll key the favorite in the Oaks plus my 10 from the derby
- A couple long shot bets if I love a horse just to say I have a ticket
Now, for this year’s Derby, many feel it is wide open. I tend to disagree. I think we can narrow it down to three horses that have a real shot: Irish War Cry, Classic Empire, and Always Dreaming. The one that scares me is the horse coming across the pond from Ireland – Thunder Snow – but I’ll get into that below.
Oh yeah, and if it rains on Derby, this is all gonna change! (Classic Empire, Gormley, Thunder Snow, Tapwrit, and Hence are all winners on their only wet track outing)
Horse Breakdown by Post Position:
- Looking At Lee– Has been getting better race after race and has a closing style that can come up and get a piece at the end. But the one spot is horrid. The trainer thinks he can get out quick and have a shot since this should be a slow pace to the race, but I think it is too much to overcome for him to win. Won’t include.
- Thunder Snow (IRE)- Dang…I really liked this horse and at 20/1. I REALLY liked this horse. He’s gone 1 3/16 mile and WON and has WON on dirt twice. There is also a big race in Europe on Derby day and the owner/trainer decided to bring him to the Derby to race instead. Plus he’s a first-time Lasix and I was drawling at the price. But then he drew the two spot. I can’t put him in as a top three, but will be hard to keep out of the next seven.
- Fast and Accurate- Michael Maker is a good trainer and knows Churchill well. This horse is sired by Hansen, which was a great band in the 90’s if you ask me (MMBop!). He’s undefeated this year, but likes to get out to the front and win on a lead. Not exactly the style I’m looking for in the derby. Slower Bayer Speed figures make me think he won’t hang on. I’m going to pass.
- Untrapped- Steve Asmussen horse with only one career win, albeit that was at Churchill last November. Good showing at the Rising Star in February, but Speed Figures have declined since then, not what you are wanting to see. As my friend DK says, “He gone.”
- Always Dreaming- Here is one of my three. The major concern with him is that Todd Pletcher’s horses sometimes peak too early and then have a horrible Derby showing. That may be the case here, but if you look at the Florida Derby, this is probably the best race any of the horses in the field have put on tape so far. Tons left in the tank. Out of Bodemeister (Empire Maker), he has a great stalking style with a clear kick at the end. I’m taking a chance that this horse doesn’t go full Pletcher on us and put him in all my bets.
- State of Honor- This horse always seems to be in the money since last October, but can’t seem to win since breaking his maiden. Speed Figures have been increasing, but I don’t think he’s of the quality of a top-tier horse. I want to keep him in my next seven, but I think he’s gonna end up in the eighth spot, just outside my betting strategy inclusion.
- Girvin- This horse had the most points in the Derby Point system to get qualified this year. Lifetime he’s raced 4 races with 3 wins and 1 second, so he’s a really good horse. He also has the stalking style I like here, but I just like others better at Churchill. You have to keep him in the seven, but I won’t keep him in the top three.
- Hence- Here’s a horse that scares me. Asmussen trained, Speed Figures rapidly climbing, and the stalking style. Hasn’t had much competition though at this point. I’m keeping underneath, but he’s such an unknown I could see him winning as well if he steps up to the challenge.
- Irap– This horse, like Hence, has it going on as well. I just don’t like him to win. His only win was at the Bluegrass Stakes in mid-April at Keeneland. That race hasn’t been a great indicator of how the horse performs in the Derby. But everything else says this is a great horse with a shot. Despite that, his style is to get out in the front and hold…which won’t be a style to get a piece in the Derby in my opinion. Will not include.
- Gunnevera- I’m really not too sure on this horse. Solid speed figures, closes hard, but heavily raced against good competition. Probably need to keep him in the seven, but not on top for me.
- Battle of Midway- Ran well at the Santa Anita Derby, but at some point you have to just start throwing out horses. Lightly raced, always finishes in the money, but doesn’t have they style or speed in my opinion to make the top half. Will look to others.
- Sonneteer- Least amount of points to qualify for the Derby. If a couple other horses wouldn’t have scratched he would not have been in. Therefore, I’m not including him…I think…he does have a hell of a kick and will be HUGE odds (50/1 morning line right now)…so maybe I’ll add him in somewhere if I’m feeling frisky, but not to win.
- J Boys Echo- Tied for the highest Speed Figure in the race at 102, plus I think he has a cool name. Other than that, nothing really stands out to me. Appears he needs to be on the lead to win and that may be tough from the 13th hole. Plus #13…I’m not superstitious, but I am a little stitious, so I”m going to look elsewhere.
- Classic Empire- Here’s another one of my three. He’s the overall favorite at the morning line, but still getting a good price at likely 4/1 or 5/1 (I think Always Dreaming will be the favorite at race time). Has the highest Bayer of the bunch at 102. Sired by Pioneer of the Nile, this horse is deservedly the morning line favorite with a great stalking and closing style. He should be included in all your tickets.
- McCraken- Probably would have been the Derby favorite had he run better in the Bluegrass Stakes (3rd). Undefeated prior to that and has the good stalking style I like. If he bounces back from Bluegrass Stakes, he COULD win, verified by his being the second favorite in the morning line odds. My thing is, when a horse like that gets beat for the first time, they either come back strong, or more likely, they may never win again (see Nyquist from last year…won all races up to and including the Derby and hasn’t won since). So, won’t have him in my top three due to that, but definitely have to include in the next seven.
- Tapwrit- Another Pletcher horse that has potential. Speed Figures trending up quickly each outing, except the last Bluegrass Stakes where he came in fifth. If you “draw a line” through that race, he’s a great horse on pace for his best outing yet…but as I mentioned about Pletcher horses, you have to wonder “did he peak in Tampa Derby and now on down swing? Or is he more like Bluegrass Cat from 2006?” We will see. Since I’m uncertain, I can’t include him in the top three, but will keep him in the seven.
- Irish War Cry– If you make me pick one horse as the horse I’m saying is going to win the Derby, I’m picking Irish War Cry. Perfect style, only triple digit Bayer twice, great breeding (Curlin), and the trainer also trained Animal Kingdom, who I’m very fond of as he was the winner of the first Derby I ever went to (and he won me a nice Exacta). The only downside I see is that no horse has ever won from the 17th post position. Literally the only post with 0 wins (38 starts, zero wins; one 2nd; two 3rds). But I’m not worried. He’s in a great spot to be the first. I have him in my top three and is my top overall choice (the favorite can’t win five years straight, can it?)
- Gormley- Third in points, Speed Figures trending in the wrong direction as of late, but he did win the Santa Anita Derby last out. This horse either wins or doesn’t even hit the board. I’m going with doesn’t hit the board with the 18th post position. Again, you have to throw out 10 horses, so I’m gonna toss him begrudgingly. (Editor’s Note: A good friend REALLY likes this horse, so it will likely come back to haunt me.)
- Practical Joke- Hate that he is in the 19th spot. Ton of class and, when he wants too, he can pass horses with EASE. But not sure he can maintain that in this long home stretch at Churchill. I’m torn as he COULD hit the board, but really does’t have a good chance at winning due to lack of closing style. May keep him in exotics.
- Patch- This will be the crowd favorite. He only has one eye and is in the 20th spot. I think it’s his left eye that is gone, so he won’t see ANY of the other horses break. Which is fine for how he runs, but I think he’s just a little too green to show up in the Derby. Only raced three times so far and not a lot of competition. I’m going to pass for now, especially since he will be a crowd favorite and therefore won’t bring the price he should, but think he could be a good horse down the line.
Here’s what you’ve been waiting for, my main bets for Derby:
- $1 Exacta ($27) 5,14,17 / 2,5,7,8,10,14,15,16,17,19
- $0.50 Trifecta ($21) 5,14,17 / 5,14,17 / 2,7,8,10,15,16,19
- $0.50 Trifecta ($21) 5,14,17 / 2,7,8,10,15,16,19 / 5,14,17
- $0.50 Trifecta ($21) 2,7,8,10,15,16,19 / 5,14,17 / 5,14,17
- $1 Trifecta Box ($6)
So there you have it, my best guesses for having some fun and (hopefully) making a little money on Derby Day. And, if I end up having a good betting day at the Oaks on Friday, I’ll probably throw in a few more long shot combinations, because it’s Derby and that’s when miracles happen. So, have a great Derby week and, more importantly, a few mint juleps along the way.