Playing the horses is out of fashion these days, and for good reason. Doing it seriously requires a degree of study that few wish to expend on a pastime, and the sort of obsessive mind that brings one back to a subject again and again despite good evidence that one should leave it alone.
We horseplayers do it, I guess, because the problems involved—picking winners at the racetrack and coming out ahead financially (they’re not the same)—are just so darned interesting. Every race presents a puzzle with more layers than an onion, requiring calculations of the speeds and running styles of the contestants, their pole positions, the distance of the race, the characteristics and condition of the racing surface and the abilities of the human actors, to name a few.
Then one must figure out how to bet, a matter which, like all financial choices, concerns the balancing of risks and rewards. Throw in the fact that track-and-tax “takeouts” remove between 15% and 25% of every betting pool before winnings are distributed and you have an equation that has stumped many rocket scientists and other brainy types.
The plus side is the pleasure one gets when one cashes a nice-sized ticket, a glow that exceeds anything that can be felt when one’s card or number comes up in a game of chance. Racing’s challenge is intellectual, not statistical, and in the moment of victory you’re the smartest guy in the room, with the applause no less real for being internal.
The cause of the above is that on Saturday the 139th Kentucky Derby will be run at old Churchill Downs in Louisville. It’s the one race to have when you’re having only one meaning that many civilians will have money on the outcome, if only because of a post-position number drawn in a pool. A few even will try their hand at handicapping, an exercise that, usually, will satisfy the urge for at least another year.
We regulars look forward to the Derby, too. That’s partly because public attention to the race expands bragging rights (people listen up when they heard you’ve picked a Derby winner), but mostly because the race presents unique handicapping questions that, when answered, increase the joy of winning.
Many non-fans are aware of the main analytical test that the Derby presents-- that the contestants will be running 1 1/4 miles, 1/8-mile longer than they’ve run before. A good deal of research has gone into determining which have the capacity to go that extra distance, the main one being Dosage Theory, which attempts to quantify how a horse’s ancestry affects his ability to win at various distances. Such info is part of the Daily Racing Form’s Derby-day coverage and, as such, can be perused by the plungers. Trouble is, most horses in every Derby field broadly qualify to win at 1 ¼ miles, so we’re back to relying on the stats and evidence of our senses.
Equally important, I think, is the impact of the size of the Derby field, which this year as in the past several will number 20 horses, barring late scratches. That’s a real herd, one so big that when it leaves the starting gate (two gates, actually) one expects to see John Wayne leading the charge, with bugles blowing.
One upshot is that post position in the Derby is more important than it is in just about any other race. The horses in positions 1 and 2 are at particular risk; if they can’t beat the field over the first 200 or so yards they’ll become penned between the rail and the horses outside them, and might not escape. No horse starting from PP1 has won the race since Ferdinand in 1986. No PP2 has scored since Affirmed in 1978.
The plight of the far-outside horses isn’t as bad, but anyone who bets on them does so knowing they’ll have farther to run than the others. Big Brown prevailed from PP20 in 2008 but he was souped up on steroids that were banned for the race the next year. I’ll Have Another won from 19 last year but also won the Preakness, showing he was a lot better than he looked in the Derby form.
The Derby’s length tempts many bettors into favoring late-running horses that have made up ground toward the ends of their previous races, whether or not they prevailed. This reasoning neglects the factor of “trip.” The banging around that’s part of just about every horse race is accentuated in the big Derby field, and any horse that runs from the middle or rear of the pack figures to encounter more of it than those up front. To win from off the pace an animal must be lucky as well as good, a tough combination.
The good news about a big field is that it usually spreads the wagering around to create a good betting race, meaning that good odds can be had on very good horses. Most Derby favorites in recent years have gone off in the 3-to-1 to 4-to-1 range, and in 2010 Lookin At Lucky was the betting choice at a whopping 6-to-1. Much the same thing promises to be the case in a Saturday field that includes four horses that appear to be outstanding: Orb (7-to-2 in the morning line), Verrazano (4-to-1), Goldencents (5-to-1) and Revolutionary (10-to-1). Each has a top-heavy win record and excellent recent form that includes a major Derby prep-race victory.
I don’t think there’s 10 cents worth of difference among the four of them, putting other factors into play. One is value, meaning trying to get more bang for the buck, so I’ll be taking the two longest shots of the top four, Goldencents and Revolutionary. Goldencents likes to run up front so he’ll have a good trip if he can do that. Revolutionary is a mid-packer, which could be a problem, but he’ll be in good hands because his jockey is Calvin Borel, a three-time Derby winner who is something of a Churchill Downs specialist. Additionally, rain is in the forecast for Saturday and Revolutionary has an off-track win on his record. Post position shouldn’t be a problem for either animal.
The Derby is a good place for longshots and I have two: Overanalyze and It’s My Lucky Day, both at 15-to-1. They look to be about a step slower than the top four on form but that’s more than balanced out by their odds and solid records. It’s My Lucky Day is especially attractive because of an off-track win and the experience he’s gained in 10 previous starts, more than any other entrant. While I reserve the right to have late inspirations I’ll be taking a $2 exacta box of 3-8-9-12, a $24 bet. It’ll pay off nicely if my horses finish 1-2 in any order.
NOTE: For my take on racing’s Triple Crown series generally check out my Thursday piece on the website chicagosidesports.com. The link is above. There’s other good stuff there, too.