GELFAND: The Kentucky Derby and Me

Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve never cared that much about the Kentucky Derby, and the reason is quite simple: it’s a sporting event.

And the reality is that long ago, horse racing ceased to be a sport. These days, it’s a gambling event. So sad. But the Sport of Kings is really the sport of aging degenerates.


Having said that, I freely admit that friends and family members have suggested that I might be addicted to betting the ponies. But the thing is, those of us who suffer from the OCD plague are going to need something to obsess about. The key is to find something that won’t leave us broke and destroy our relationships.

That’s where horse racing comes in. I’m a financial survivor of the racetrack. As for my relationships…well, it’s true that I once (sort of) joked that if the racetrack hadn’t destroyed my marriage, nothing good would have come of it. But that was just a cheap one-liner.

Yes, horse racing might be a foolish pleasure. (Coincidentally, Foolish Please won the 1975 Kentucky Derby, defeating Avatar by 1 3/4 lengths.) But it’s much too late for rehab. The only 12 steps I care about are those taken when the gate opens. (Early speed is what matters most.)

On Saturday, I’ll almost certainly be betting the horses, but not at any fancy racetrack with lavish purses. I’ll be sitting at my computer, wagering on horses worth an average of about $1 million less than the ones at Churchill Downs. These days, I’m playing a shabby little track in the Ohio Heroin Belt. Cheap horses are more likely to be susceptible to the unique biases of the track itself. Whenever possible, I look for a fast rail and a speed-favoring track. Three easy pieces: (a) get the lead; (b) get to the rail (c) win the race.

But if nobody can win on the front end, that’s good, too.

Paradoxically, the race that got me started was, indeed, the Kentucky Derby. The year was 1961 and I was 10 years old when my mother and I set out to Las Vegas to visit my beloved Aunt Harriet, who was actually a cousin, and her husband, Sammy, who belonged to another kind of family. Harriet and Sammy had gone out to Vegas in the early 1950s, shortly after Sammy’s pal, a local mobster named Davie Berman, had left for the more fertile pastures of Nevada.

Davie had enjoyed success in Minneapolis until the city elected a crime-busting mayor by the name of Hubert Humphrey. Luckily, Las Vegas was a town that was rapidly growing, thanks to a somewhat pragmatic outlook on the Seven Deadly Sins and all their lucrative manifestations.

The election of Humphrey had been a bad break for Davie — and Sammy — but it was just a minor setback. In 1947, legendary mobster Bugsy Siegel, who had built Vegas’ cornerstone hotel, the Flamingo, had been gunned down in an apparent misunderstanding over the division of profits. Davie and a nationally prominent hoodlum named Mo Sedway then marched through the lobby of the Flamingo, announcing that they were now in charge. No one disagreed.

Sammy wound up running a gift shop in the lobby, which was quite lucrative, especially on days when his silent partners didn’t show up to scoop large bills from the cash register. It was Sammy’s finest hour, ever, and he was delighted to see us. He squired us down to the showroom that night and planted us at a front-row table, where we were treated to the comedy stylings of a young comic whose career would blossom for the next 50 years. Naturally, I was eager to tell my less fortunate friends that I had seen Bill Cosby working blue.

But that wasn’t the highlight of the trip. The next day Sammy took us to the sportsbook, which I remember only as a frenzied cauldron of panic betting under a blue cloud of asphyxiating smoke. No doubt my mom’s Lucky Stripes contributed to the carcinogenic haze.

Those were the days when horse racing really was the Sport of Kings, just maybe not the richest kings. The sentimental favorite in the race was a little brown colt named Carry Back, promoted as the People’s Choice because he had come from modest means. The little guy’s mom — who had the not-so-royal name of Joppy — had been sold for $150 bucks, plus another $150 to settle the boarding tab of his previous owner. His sire — who had the pony-ring name of Saggy — was commanding all of $500 to impregnate mares.

The racetrack is no place for sentimentality. Like life itself, there are no happy endings. But my mom didn’t know that, so she bet on sentiment. And Carry Back won, paying the rather common sum of $7 for our $2 wager.

Carry Back went on to become the first horse to win over $1 million, which is probably about what I went on to lose in the next 55 years. No need to get excited — I went on to win, uh, maybe almost as much, “almost” taking in a lot of territory.

I’m not going to try to get even on Saturday, and certainly not via the Kentucky Derby. It’s a terrible race to bet.

Barring scratches, there will be a full field, meaning 20 horses scrambling for racing room, with lots of jostling, bumping and losing momentum in order to avoid collisions. There will be a traffic jam on the rail, while running outside means taking the long way home. It’s impossible to predict how all these animals will react to a frenzy the likes of which they’ve never experienced. Plus, it’s not like the jocks will be entirely predictable.

Still, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a peek at the past performances, so, strictly as a public service, a few thoughts.

First, according to the notoriously unreliable Mainstream Media, the favorite will be Justify. And why not? He has crushed the field in his three races, culminating in a monster victory in the prestigious Santa Anita Derby. His trainer, Bob Baffert, has bagged four Derbys. But Justify didn’t run as a two-year-old, and no horse unraced at 2 has won the Kentucky Derby since 1882.  I’m not sure that matters, but he has had three big races in 48 days, which is asking a lot of a horse who never raced before those three victories.

If, as expected, Justify is a heavy favorite — maybe 3-2 — you could do worse than put your money on Bolt d’Oro, who is plenty fast, built for stamina — important, because none of these animals has run the Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles — and finished second to Justify by 3 lengths in the Santa Anita Derby. If Justify, a speedball, can get a little pressure on the front end, Bolt d’Oro might be able to sit back a bit and launch a move on the turn for home. Jockey Victor Espinoza, who has won the Derby three times, takes over the mount, and that might be the key to scoring an upset.

Quickly, then: the second favorite on the morning line is Mendelssohn, who is also the richest in the field, having won nearly $2 million. But most of that money was won in a mind-boggling, 18-length victory in the UAE Derby. The thing is, though, horses that win in Dubai generally come over here and (figuratively) fall on their faces like it’s a cheap vaudeville act.

Sadly, there are at least 10 horses that would seem to have a shot at winning, which is a big reason I avoid betting the Derby. Tradition says I have to pick one of them, and that it has to offer a decent return, so I’m going with Audible. Why?

  • He’s a closer, which is good in a race filled with speed. But he doesn’t have to come from the clouds, which is also good, because Kentucky Derby winners almost never come from way, way back.
  • He’s won four straight after losing his first race, and he’s improved in every race.
  • He can make a monster move as they turn for home, which is what I think the winner will do unless Justify takes them wire-to-wire.
  • His trainer is Todd Pletcher, won last year with Always Dreaming.
  • Audible comes to the Derby off a victory in the Florida Derby — just as Always Dreaming did last year.

But all of those reasons wouldn’t send me to the window except for the fact that Audible is 8-1 on the morning line. I wouldn’t take much less in a 20-horse field. Of course, with a price like that, I would bet him to win and in an exacta, boxed with Justify.

There is just one negative: I don’t believe I have ever picked the Kentucky Derby winner.


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Mandatory Credit: Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

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