The latest chapter in “The Fastest Two Minutes in Sports” is upon us again.
YES! — this year’s Kentucky Derby, the 147th, will once again be telecast (on NBC) and simulcast in Michigan, this coming Saturday (May 1). 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 Derby, as all railbirds know, was unlike any other in history. Because of the Coronavirus, the 2020 year Derby 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.
But this year’s Derby is back to near “normalcy,” on schedule and with limited crowds. In Michigan — where live horse racing has been virtually destroyed by bungling Lansing politicians — legally you can bet on it, for the 26th straight year, at the state’s only remaining pari-mutuel track, Northville Downs. In the Era of COVID-19, the track, without live racing, is requiring reservations if you want to see the Derby at the Downs, but there will be an express line for those who want to bet and leave.
The Native American tribe that runs Firekeepers casino in Battle Creek will be showing the Derby and wanted to offer fixed-odds wagers on the race, but can’t for technical reasons. That would have meant that, instead of a 3-1 and/or shifting odds, you could put a buck down and win $2.75 no matter what the odds do. Fixed-odds horse racing is the latest trend. The Michigan Gaming Control Board doesn’t allow it in the three Detroit casinos or via Internet wagering because none of the money would go to horse racing. However, the state doesn’t control what the tribes offer on their own land. The three Detroit casinos will show the race, but no betting.
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 may not 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 $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 last year, 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 24 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 three 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 61 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 the undefeated (in five races) Essential Quality as the favorite at odds of 2-1. That’s not as strong a betting choice as Tiz the Law was last year at 3-5, but that colt had already won the Belmont three months earlier. Essential Quality won the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile last year and this year’s Blue Grass Stakes.
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 seventh Derby win this year (he’s tied right now with Ben Jones at six all-time). Horses managed by the silver-haired Baffert have won 16 Triple Crown races, including three of the last six Derbys. In 2020, Baffert saddled Authentic, who edged Tiz the Law for the win. This year, Baffert is training 15-1 Medina Spirit, with Authentic’s jockey, John Velazquez, aboard.
What about Mike Smith, perhaps the sport’s #1 jockey? Smith won the Triple Crown aboard Justify three years ago, and he’s going for his third Derby title overall. His mount this year, Midnight Bourbon, is not considered one of the top contenders in Saturday’s “Big One” (he’ll probably go off at something like 15-1), but watch out!
Another major threat to Essential Quality is 6-1 Known Agenda, handled by Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, who has saddled more Derby entries than any other man in history (55 as of this year), although he’s won only two. Known Agenda has recently donned blinkers and won two straight, including the Florida Derby, where his Equibase Speed Figure of 112 was the highest among all 3-year-olds in 2021.
Other contenders include 1) Hot Rod Charlie, whose trainer and jockey aren’t as well-known as others in the field but who is second on the Derby points leaderboard thanks to his victory in the Grade 3 Louisiana Stakes in a track-record time of 1:55 over a mile and 3/16 at the Fair Grounds; 2) Rock Your World, the only other colt with an unblemished record entering this year’s Derby, although he’s raced only three times. One of those wins was less than a month ago, in the prestigious Santa Anita Derby; 3) Highly Motivated, who was a close second to Essential Quality in the Blue Grass.; and 4) Arkansas Derby winner Super Stock, who is trained by the highly regarded Steve Asmussen. These four horses will probably go off at odds of anywhere between 5-1 and 10-1, except for Super Stock, who may not fare quite as well at the windows between now and Saturday.
And that’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 Hot Rod Charlie to win. If you want to hedge your bet, pick Hod Rod Charlie and Essential Quality in a quinella, meaning they must finish 1-2 in either order. If you want to have a little fun, plunk for Hot Rod Charlie plus Essential Quality and Known Agenda 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.