The latest chapter in “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” is upon us again.
YES! — this year’s Kentucky Derby, the 149th, will once again be telecast (on NBC) and simulcast in Michigan, this coming Saturday (May 6). Post time is supposed to be 6:57 p.m., but you can count on it being a little later than that.
Last year’s winner was a shocker — a onetime maiden claimer named Rich Strike, a last-minute entry from the also-eligible list when two other horses scratched, roared from behind to win at near-record longshot odds of 80-1.
The four years before that constituted the WORST collective debacle in the long history of the Derby. Let us count the ways:
1) In the 2021 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. He can compete in this year’s Preakness and Belmont Stakes, but in February a judge upheld the Derby ban. If that wasn’t enough, Medina Spirit dropped dead after a workout on Dec. 6, 2021. 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 the 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, let’s hope last year’s Derby proves the classic is back on track, 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 29th straight year, at the state’s only remaining pari-mutuel track, Northville Downs, now in its final season because the track property has been sold to non-racing interests.
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. Northville also provides 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 years before the last five when favorites like Orb, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist and Justify all won? Or will it be more like that 2020 melee, when Authentic pulled off an upset at odds of 8-1, or 2012, when a 12-1 longshot 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 longshot champ in 1990, Unbridled; 1993’s Sea Hero, at 12-1 odds; and the first-place finisher 26 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 five 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 five 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 63 winners have finished “in the money” (win, place or show) in at least one nine-furlong (mile and an eighth) Derby prep. Trouble is, 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 five 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. Two horses were scratched last year 36 hours before the race, and that’s how Rich Strike, taking their place, was allowed to enter.
So, which horse do we pick? Post positions are being assigned today (May 1), and that can be all-important. For example, the #5 post has won more than any other (10 times), and horses running from the #10 hole have finished in the money 25 times, more than any other (including Secretariat in 1973). No horse has ever won from the #17 post.
This year, Churchill Downs’s racing secretary has established Forte as the pre-race favorite at odds of 5-2. That’s not as strong a betting choice as Tiz the Law was three years ago at 3-5, but that colt had already won the Belmont three months earlier. Forte won last year’s Breeders Cup Juvenile, and this year has won the Fountain of Youth and last month’s Louisiana Derby. He’s won 6 of 7 career starts.
Who else is in the field? The second betting favorites are Kingsbarns and Tapit Trice, both at amazingly long odds of 11-1. TT has won $880,000 in his career already after costing $1.3 million at auction two years ago. He enters the Derby on a four-race winning streak, which was capped off by a neck victory in the Blue Grass Stakes last month. Kingsbarns won the Louisiana Derby on March 25 and is undefeated in three career starts, all of them this year.
What’s significant about all three of these horses is that they are all trained by the same man — the highly-regarded Todd Pletcher. He’s one of three trainers with multiple entries in this year’s Derby. Pletcher hasn’t been that successful in the Derby, though — he’s won it only twice with a total of 62 entries over the years.
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 go with Pletcher’s horses, the favorites this year, and let’s pick Forte to win. If you want to hedge your bet, pick Forte and either Tapit Trice of Kingsbarns 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.
Do you want to be really adventurous and plunk for a longshot like Rich Strike last year? How about Raise Cain, who has won this year’s Gotham Stakes and has two wins, a second and a third in seven career starts but is rated at 81-1 odds in the Derby. Another longshot at maybe 45-1 is Mage, who has a win, a runner-up and a fourth in three career starts. He’ll be ridden by a top jockey, Javier Castellano.
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 few months.
FOOTNOTE: What about horse racing in Michigan? Does it still exist? Yes, but barely.
Fact is, the state Lottery, the three Detroit casinos, the staggering number of Native American-owned casinos, and a hare-brained 2004 constitutional amendment have brought what once was a thriving racing industry to its knees.
Four decades ago, Michigan was one of the top half-dozen standardbred (harness-racing) industries in the country, and the thoroughbreds were still racing at the Detroit Race Course (DRC). As many as eight race tracks were in operation — DRC, Hazel Park, Northville Downs, Jackson, Saginaw Valley Downs, Sports Creek Raceway near Flint, the Muskegon Race Course, and even tiny Mt. Pleasant Meadows, which featured quarter horse sprints and Appaloosas. Today, only one track remains — Northville Downs, a standardbred facility, but it has been sold and will be a torn down. Fortunately, 52 race dates are ongoing at Northville this year and there might be some racing next winter before the historic track’s demolition. A brand new track is scheduled to be built in Plymouth Township, next door to Northville, so that the pacers and trotters will be able to compete in the pari-mutuel game as early as the fall of 2024 or, if not, 2025.
Fighting back against this downward spiral, the American Horse Racing Council produced a 2016 study showing that the equine industry has a $2.6 billion impact on Michigan, including a $389 million contribution from racing that produces nearly 4,000 jobs.
Is there any hope things might improve? Maybe, because the Agricultural Equine Fund brought in about $9.5 million last year, and anything over $8 million results in a payment of the excess to the track and the horsemen and breeders that can be used to bolster standardbred racing at the new facility. Other sources of money include simulcast wagering ($1.76 million), Advance Deposit Wagering ($878k), Lawful Internet Gaming taxes ($3 million), and Internet Sports Betting Taxes (around a half million).
But it will take a lot more than that to revive the ancient “Sport of Kings,” the victim of repeated failures by successive governors and legislatures over the past two decades that have needlessly damaged the equine industry at a time when the state needs every economic tool in its arsenal in order to thrive.