This year’s Kentucky Derby — the 145th — will once again be telecast (on NBC) and simulcast in Michigan, this coming Saturday (May 4). Post time is supposed to be 6:46 p.m., but you can count on it being a little later than that.
For the 24th 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 the same day.
Of course, you can also legally bet on the Derby online, although the last three Michigan governors (including the present one) and most state legislators seem not to realize that. 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.
Does this year’s $2 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 2012, when a 12-1 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, 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 22 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 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 winners American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify last year. 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. Since 1937, 61 horses before last year had entered the Derby who didn’t race 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. 54 of the past 59 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 horses in this year’s field, and many of the rest, meet this standard.
One other complicating factor: Even with just three 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 race.
So, which horse do we pick? With post positions now assigned, Churchill Downs’s racing secretary has established Omaha Beach as the 4-1 favorite (Justify went off at 7-2 last year), with three horses trained by the iconic Bob Baffert ranked just behind —Gamester at 5-1 and Roadster and Improbable, both at 6-1. Horses trained by the silver-haired Baffert have won 15 Triple Crown races, including five Derbys. Remember, though, that 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.
What’s the line on favorite Omaha Beach, anyway? He won both his races this year — the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby — and he’s ridden by perhaps the sport’s #1 jockey at this time, Mike Smith, who was aboard Justify last year. Omaha Beach drew the #12 hole, which is perfect for him, in the middle of the field at the starting gate. His handler is Richard Mandella, who has proven you can be in the Hall of Fame as a trainer and yet never have won a Derby.
But can anyone beat Bob Baffert? Any one of these Baffert-trained horses could win: 1) Gamewinner annexed the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile last year although he hasn’t won since, finishing second in two stakes races this year. He’s ridden by the same jockey who piloted Orb to victory in the 2013 Derby; 2) Improbable has two wins and two seconds this year and has drawn the #5 post, which is far enough away from the rail that he shouldn’t get “pinched” at the start.; and 3) Roadster, who won the Santa Anita Derby less than a month ago (the same race Justify won last year). Roadster has the disadvantage of having drawn the #17 post, from which no horse has ever won the Derby. But, of course, we’ve seen how “impossibilities” in racing have very recently turned into “It just happened!”
Other horses considered near the top tier include Maximum Security, who has won all four of his starts this year. He’s 10-1. So is Tacitus, who won both the Tampa Bay Derby and the Wood Memorial, albeit against mediocre competition. A sidebar: there’s the first-ever Japan-bred horse ever to be entered in a Derby, a 50-1 longshot named Fence Sitter.
I’ll call for the Baffert dominance to be broken — Omaha Beach to win. If you want to hedge your bet in Baffert’s direction, pick Omaha Beach and any one of the Baffert horses in a quinella, meaning they must finish 1-2 in either order. If you want to have a little fun, plunk for Omaha Beach and any two of the Baffert 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 four months.