This year’s Kentucky Derby — the 144th — will once again be telecast (on NBC) and simulcast in Michigan, this coming Saturday (May 5). Post time has been pushed back to its latest ever — 6:50 p.m.
For the 23rd straight year, legally you can bet on it at the state’s only remaining pari-mutuel track, Northville Downs, which will also offer live standardbred racing that same day.
Of course, you can also legally bet on the Derby online, although Michigan’s governor and Legislature seem not to realize it. With a little bit of planning and a credit/debit card, you can set up a prepaid account with a number of internet betting sites and then watch the race in the comfort of your living room, office, field tent or jail cell.
Does this year’s $2 million classic remind us of recent years when favorites like Orb, California Chrome, American Pharoah and Nyquist all won? Or will it be more like 2012, when a 16-1 long shot named I’ll Have Another pulled an upset? Or what about 2003 when Empire Maker was a prohibitive favorite over all the other horses? No, he didn’t win.
In other words, Derbys are like snowflakes — they’re all the same, yet they’re all different. The race is always run at Kentucky’s Churchill Downs, it’s always a mile and a quarter, the horses are all 3-year-olds, and, in recent years, the field has always been huge — up to a maximum of 20 entries. But everything else is different and varied — trainers and owners and jockeys and especially the horses they’re handling, and track conditions, as well as the past performances of all the contenders.
Let’s start with this question. In trying to pick a winner in 2018, should we pay any attention to statistics? For example, should we stick with “The System,” employed for more than three decades by The Detroit Free Press’s former racing writer? “The System” has been a lot of fun because it sometimes predicted dark horses (figuratively) that did far better than expected — the 8-1 longshot champ in 1990, Unbridled; 1993’s Sea Hero, at 12-1 odds; and the first-place finisher 21 years ago, Silver Charm.
“The System” always consisted of four components — the Dosage Index (DI), the Center of Distribution (CD), the Jockey Club’s experimental free weight handicap or “weight ratings” (EWR), and performance in nine-furlong Derby preps. These were very “inside horse racing” sabermetrics for handicapping the Derby.
Problem is, in the past two decades, the DI, CD, and EWR have been so discredited for various reasons that they have revealed “The System” to be an anachronism.
In 2000, for instance, The System foretold that the 2-1 favorite, Fusaichi Pegasus, couldn’t win the Derby. He did, anyway. In 2001, same thing with the 17-1 long shot Monarchos, who also won. “The System” also concluded that the following horses could never win — Real Quiet in 1998; Charismatic in 1999; Giacomo in 2005; Mine That Bird in 2009; California Chrome in 2014; and — get this! — the great Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in 2015. They all won.
It’s also unusual for horses to undertake a Run for the Roses with only two races as a sophomore (3 years old). Conventional wisdom calls for at least three. Before 2008 and 2009, the last two Derby winners with only two preps as 3-year-olds were Sunny’s Halo in 1983 and Jet Pilot in 1947 — but then Big Brown and Mine That Bird did it back-to-back.
Another unwritten rule of the Derby is that no horse can win it all after a long layoff. But in 2006 Barbaro destroyed that shibboleth when he became the first horse since 1956 to win after more than four weeks’ rest.
Then there is the “curse of Apollo.” No horse who was unraced as a 2-year-old has won the Derby since Apollo in 1882, and he was the only colt to do it. Since 1937, 61 horses have entered the Derby who didn’t race at 2, and only three have managed to finish as high as runnerup. But there’s a real chance the jinx will be broken this year, because two of the favorites, Justify and Magnum Moon, never raced before 2018.
So, do we junk The System? Yes, finally. It’s just not cutting it as a predictor anymore. But we’ll save one component of it — on-track performance. 53 of the past 58 winners have finished “in the money” (win, place or show) in at least one nine-furlong (mile and an eighth) Derby prep. Bottom line: all of the top horses in this year’s field, and most of the rest, meet this standard.
One other complicating factor: Even with just five days before the race, we can’t be sure what horses are actually going to start. Remember, past favorites like A.P. Indy in 1992 have been scratched on the eve of the race. And let’s not forget that the all-important post positions haven’t been assigned yet. That will happen Tuesday (May 1) at 11 a.m.
The Ballenger Report is going to press before the morning line (the odds on all the horses at the start of Derby week) is established, but it looks like Justify will be the favorite at odds of roughly 3-1.
So, which horse do we pick? Justify probably will be certified as the 3-1 favorite when race secretary Mike Battaglia sets the morning line. He’s won all three of his career starts, all this year, including an impressive romp in the prestigious Santa Anita Derby in late March. He’s trained by the legendary Bob Baffert, winner of 12 Triple Crown races, including four Derbys, and he’ll be ridden by crafty veteran Mike Smith.
Second choice looks to be Magnum Moon, like Justify unraced at 2. Magnum Moon, winner of both the Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes, will start out at about 4-1, but remember that betting continues all week right up until post time, and the odds on all these horses are certain to change by late Saturday afternoon. Magnum Moon is trained by one of the sport’s best, Todd Pletcher, who is also handling three other good horses in the race — Audible, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy. Pletcher has entered more horses in the Derby than all but one trainer in history, but his winning percentage doesn’t match Baffert’s — Pletcher’s only win came with Super Saver in 2010. He has three Triple Crown triumphs total in his career.
Other horses considered to be in the top tier are Mendelssohn (at 9-2), runaway winner of the United Arab Emirates Derby in Dubai two months ago; Good Magic (at 7-1), who annexed the Blue Grass Stakes; Bolt d’Oro (at 7-1), runner-up to Justify at Santa Anita; Audible (at 10-1), who won the Florida Derby earlier this spring; and Vino Rosso (at 12-1), who won the Wood Memorial.
I’ll call for the “Curse of Apollo” to be broken — Justify to win. In fact, let’s double down on that — pick Justify and Magnum Moon in a quinella, meaning they must finish 1-2 in either order. If you want to have a little fun, plunk for Justify, Magnum Moon and a 20-1 hardworking longshot called My Boy Jack, who has raced more times than any other 3-year-old this year, in a TRIFECTA.
Anyway you cut it, the biggest challenge for each of these colts (there will be no fillies this year) will be negotiating his way around and through 19 other horses, as opposed to the skimpy fields they’ve faced in the past four months.