The latest chapter in “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” is upon us again.
YES! — this year’s Kentucky Derby, the 148th, will once again be telecast (on NBC) and simulcast in Michigan, this coming Saturday (May 7). Post time is supposed to be 6:57 p.m., but you can count on it being a little later than that.
Let’s just say it— the past four years have been the WORST debacle for the Derby in the history of horse racing in North America. Let us count the ways:
1) In last year’s Derby, a 15-1 longshot, Medina Spirit, apparently won by half a length but then was disqualified for failing a post-race drug test (betamethasone). Another longshot, Mandaloun, was declared the winner and won the $1.86 million purse (but bettors were allowed to cash in immediately after the race based on what Churchill Downs then believed were the final on-track results). Furthermore, Medina Spirit’s trainer, Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who had already won six Derbys in his fabled career, was suspended by racing authorities for two years, a punishment he is still appealing. Two horses in this year’s race were formerly trained by Baffert, but not now. If that wasn’t enough, Medina Spirit dropped dead after a workout last Dec. 6. Maybe from a broken heart?
2) The 2020 Derby was unlike any other in history. Because of the Coronavirus, the race featured empty stands and infield, with no fans sipping mint juleps and wearing outlandish hats. And instead of the Derby being the first leg in the Triple Crown sequence on the first Saturday in May, it was postponed four months until September, after the Belmont Stakes, which was held at its regular time in June. The Preakness, usually the second of the jewels, was postponed to Oct. 3. It was the first time since 1931 the Derby wasn’t the first race in the Triple Crown and the first since 1945 it wasn’t held in May. Other than that, this was the only recent Derby that produced a result without controversy — Authentic won it in an upset, holding off the favorite, Tiz the Law, who had already won the Belmont. Oh, by the way, who trained Authentic? Bob Baffert.
3) In 2019, the apparent winner, Maximum Security, became the first horse ever disqualified by the stewards on a foul claim, and a controversial one at that. The runner-up in the actual race, 65-1 longshot Country House, was declared the winner. The huge payout to those who bet on the winner was the second largest in Derby history.
4) In 2018, it was Bob Baffert again. He trained Justify, who won the Derby and went on to win the Preakness and Belmont, making the colt the second Triple Crown winner in a four-year span. American Pharoah also pulled off the hat trick in 2o15. Who was that horse trained by? Bob Baffert. However, months after the race, The New York Times dropped a bombshell story that Justify had also failed a drug test, but long before Derby.That raised the question of whether Justify should have been allowed to compete in the Derby at all, forever tainting his victory although his official on-track achievements can’t be taken away from him.
This year? The only thing worse than the above would be a seven-horse pile-up on Churchill Downs’s far turn, with deaths and injuries, human and equine. It’s always a possibility in racing, plus all the barn fires and mysterious diseases that have killed countless race horses in the past few years, especially in California.
Let’s pray that doesn’t happen. If not, this year’s Derby appears to be back to near “normalcy,” on schedule and with a full crowd, always one of the largest in sports. In Michigan — where live horse racing has been virtually destroyed by bungling Lansing politicians — legally you can bet on it, for the 27th straight year, at the state’s only remaining pari-mutuel track, Northville Downs.
Where to bet on the Kentucky Derby in Michigan
When it’s time to get your bets in on the Kentucky Derby, you have two main options to consider. Here’s the scoop on each of them:
- Mobile or online: Kentucky Derby betting online or via your mobile device are hands-down the most convenient options. TVG Racing, an industry leader in horse racing betting, is the place to go on both fronts. Setting up an account is a piece of cake, and you can place your bets whenever you’re ready in quick and painless fashion.
- Betting at a teller: If you’re near Michigan’s one operating race track, Northville Downs, then you can place your bets onsite with a betting kiosk or live teller. Many tracks also provide simulcasting of races from across the nation.
So, with a little bit of planning and a credit/debit card, you can set up a pre-paid 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. Also, Advanced Deposit Wagering (ADW) is now legal in Michigan, meaning you can go to the Northville Downs website RIGHT NOW and find out how to bet there.
Does this year’s $3 million classic remind us of recent years when favorites like Orb, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist and Justify all won? Or will it be more like 2020, when Authentic pulled an upset at odds of 8-1, or 2012, when a 12-1 long shot named I’ll Have Another embarrassed the favorites? Or what about 2003, when Empire Maker was a prohibitive choice 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, especially so this year. 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, 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 long shot champ in 1990, Unbridled; 1993’s Sea Hero, at 12-1 odds; and the first-place finisher 25 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 a nine-furlong Derby prep race. 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, the same thing happened with 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 winners American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify four years ago. 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 Derby 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 had won the Derby since Apollo in 1882, and he was the only colt ever to do it. Until four years ago, 61 horses had entered the Derby since 1937 who hadn’t raced at 2, and only three managed to finish as high as runner-up. But we should all know by now what happened in 2018 — not only did Justify win the Derby after never having raced at 2, but he went on to win the Triple Crown.
So, do we junk the System? Yes, we’ve got to. It’s just not cutting it as a predictor anymore. Too many things have changed in the racing game for The System to be relevant.
But we’ll save one component of The System— actual on-track performance. 55 of the past 62 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 contenders in this year’s field, and many of the rest, meet this standard.
One other complicating factor: Even with just four days remaining before the race, we can’t be absolutely sure what horses are going to start. Remember, past favorites like A.P. Indy in 1992 have been scratched on the eve of the contest.
So, which horse do we pick? Post positions have been assigned, and Churchill Downs’s racing secretary has established Zandon, starting from post position #10, as the pre-race favorite at odds of 3-1. That’s not as strong a betting choice as Tiz the Law was two years ago at 3-5, but that colt had already won the Belmont three months earlier. Zandon won last month’s Blue Grass Stakes, but is that enough of a test?
Who else is in the field? The second betting favorite is Epicenter, at odds of 7-2. Trained by North America’s all-time winningest trainer, Steve Asmussen, Epicenter has won four of his last five races, including the Louisiana Derby.
What about jockey John Velasquez, who has won three previous Derbies? Furthermore, he was aboard Medina Spirit last year and that would have been a fourth. His mount this year, Messier (named after the former hockey star), is the third betting favorite at odds of 8-1. The bay colt has finished in the exacta (top two) in all six of his career starts, winning three. Watch out!
Here’s something else to ponder: No horse has ever won the Derby starting from #17 post position. And the #5 hole is the only one in the history of the Derby that has produced double-digit winners (10, most recently Always Dreaming in 2017). That means that, in this year’s field, you should look hard at Classic Causeway in the former category, Smile Happy in the latter.
It’s important to remember — betting continues all the rest of this week up to post time, and the odds on all 20 horses in the field are certain to change by late Saturday afternoon. Remember, too, how “impossibilities” in racing have very recently turned into “It just happened!”
When all is said and done, let’s NOT go for the “chalk” (the favorite) this year — let’s pick Epicenter to win. Trainer Asmussen has won three Triple Crown races, but never the Derby. He’s due. If you want to hedge your bet, pick Epicenter and either Messier or Zandon in a quinella, meaning they must finish 1-2 in either order. If you want to have a little fun, plunk for all three of the above-named horses in a TRIFECTA, but you have to pick ’em in exact order of finish.
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 fourth months.