When it comes to sports, once again the ponies are riding to the rescue.
The NBA and NHL are a shambles and MLB struggles on in the midst of protests and the pandemic. College football has been nuked, and who knows how things will turn out for the NFL this fall?
But the latest chapter in “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” is upon us again, even though it had to be postponed for four months.
YES! — this year’s Kentucky Derby, the 146th, will once again be telecast (on NBC) and simulcast in Michigan, this coming Saturday (September 5). Post time is supposed to be 6:46 p.m., but you can count on it being a little later than that.
What happened to the time-honored “First Saturday in May?” Ha! We know by now that, because of the Coronavirus, this year’s Derby won’t look like any other in history. Empty stands and infield, no fans sipping mint juleps and wearing outlandish hats. And instead of the Derby being the first leg in the Triple Crown sequence, the Derby will be second, after the Belmont Stakes, which was held in June. The Preakness, usually the second of the jewels, has been postponed to Oct. 3.
As for the Derby, even in Michigan — where live horse racing has been virtually destroyed by bungling Lansing politicians — legally you can bet on it, for the 25th straight year, at the state’s only remaining pari-mutuel track, Northville Downs. Even with social distancing in the Era of COVID-19, the track is expecting close to a full house, with free admission — first come, first serve.
Of course, you can also legally bet on the Derby online elsewhere, 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. 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 $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, 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 (it looks like 17 this year). 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 23 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 two 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 two 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. 54 of the past 60 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 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 race.
So, which horse do we pick? Post positions haven’t been assigned yet, but it looks like Churchill Downs’s racing secretary will establish Tiz the Law as the overwhelming favorite, probably at even odds of about 7-5 (Justify went off at 7-2 in 2018). There’s a reason for that — Tiz the Law is 4-for-4 this year and 6-for-7 lifetime, with his only defeat coming as a 2-year-old on a sloppy track. This year, Tiz the Law opened in February with a three-length win in the Holy Bull Stakes, then won the Curlin Florida Derby, the Belmont, and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga by even bigger margins. He’s a New York-bred colt, trained by octogenarian Barclay Tagg, who won the 2003 Kentucky Derby in an upset with Funny Cide.
Who else is in the field? You always have to keep an eye on any horse trained by the iconic Bob Baffert, who will be going for a record-breaking sixth Derby win this year. Horses managed by the silver-haired Baffert have won 15 Triple Crown races, and he has a solid entry in Authentic, who has won four of five races this year, including the prestigious Haskell Stakes. There is some suspicion, however, about Authentic’s stamina (all of his victories have been at shorter distances than the Derby) so he enters this week at fairly long odds of 12-1.
Also in the mix is Art Collector, who enters the week as second-favorite behind Tiz the Law at odds of 5-1. Art Collector has won his last five races, including four since May. Is that too many trips in a short time? The trainer of another steed, King Guillermo, has taken the opposite, Barbaro-like approach — his colt won the Tampa Bay Derby but then hasn’t run in four months, meaning he’ll be well-rested but perhaps too much. King Guillermo is a 23-1 longshot.
Then there is Honor A.P., who will be ridden by perhaps the sport’s #1 jockey, Mike Smith. Smith won the Triple Crown aboard Justify two years ago, and he’s going for his third Derby title overall. Honor A.P. won the Santa Anita Derby in June, beating Authentic, and has finished first or second in all five of his career starts. He’s now rated 6-1 to win this year’s Derby.
Don’t forget, though, that betting continues all the rest of this week up to post time, and the odds on all 17 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 for the “chalk” — Tiz the Law to win. If you want to hedge your bet, pick Tiz the Law and Honor A.P. in a quinella, meaning they must finish 1-2 in either order. If you want to have a little fun, plunk for Tiz the Law plus Art Collector and Honor A.P. 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 16 other horses, as opposed to the skimpy fields they’ve faced in the past eight months.