GELFAND & EKSTROM: Two Views on the Kentucky Derby

Photo Credit: Jamie Rhodes (USA Today Sports)

The 145th Kentucky Derby runs Saturday afternoon. Here are two perspectives on the race from staff writer Sam Ekstrom and resident gambling guru and columnist Mike Gelfand.

Sam: I hadn’t planned on researching the nature of an entrapped epiglottis for this story, but it’s the phrase of the week in the horseracing community after opening-line favorite Omaha Beach was scratched from an already wide-open field. The malady, which can inhibit breathing in horses, removes the primary Derby hopefuls. It also removes veteran jockey Mike Smith, who chose to ride Omaha Beach instead of Roadster, another contender who might’ve earned the favorite nod had Smith taken his mount.

In fact, there are roughly half a dozen horses that might’ve laid claim to expectant favorite status at various points in time throughout the prep season, but due to a slew of upsets and poor performances, the favorites wound up being those that won most recently, as opposed to those who might have a more consistent track record.

Let’s first talk about the now defunct Omaha Beach, who was among the late bloomers with back-to-back tight wins by a length or less in the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby – his first two true challenges – in which he beat other viable Derby choices Game Winner and Improbable. Those two wins at Oaklawn, where he gamely outdueled excellent horses down the stretch, were enough to make him a deserved favorite. Perhaps more relevant was his work in the slop (two wins in the last three races) which might very well have come into play with rain in the forecast Saturday in Louisville.

Omaha Beach would have been tough, but not unbeatable. Surely, many bettors would have gone into this race hoping to capitalize on some of the value available on the second, third or fourth choices, which will all receive more wagers in light of the scratch.

The new favorite is Game Winner at 9-2. He was the odds-on Derby favorite after winning the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile in November, but his two losses by a nose and a half-length, respectively, during the prep season kept his invincibility in doubt. That nostril-length loss, however, came after a late charge against Omaha Beach, who is now out of the picture.

Improbable is very much in the same boat as Game Winner, also having lost by a neck and a length, respectively, in his two races pre-Derby. He got nipped at the wire by underdog Long Range Toddy in one of the two Rebel Stakes races, then lost a stretch-run sprint against … yes, Omaha Beach. He looked very comfortable in the mud on the latter of those two races and might have expected to find himself in another duel against the same horse. No longer.

Those are my favorite two of the top contenders, and I’ll explain later why I’m tossing some others from my ticket. But first, here are value horses that have caught my eye.

War of Will is another horse that lost some steam after a 12-length loss in the Louisiana Derby when jockey Tyler Gaffalione got stuck in traffic and couldn’t find an outlet. It’s obviously key to navigate through a crowd in the congested Derby field, and his 1-post won’t do him any favors in that regard, but with longshot Haikal joining Omaha Beach on the scratch due to a foot abscess, the inside post favorably gets to move inward one slot. War of Will was a tour de force in the Grade 3 Lecomte in January, then topped the Grade 2 Risen Star out of the 14th post. Impressive. If he can emerge from the frenetic start in a stalking position near the front of the pack, he’ll be comfortable.

Speaking of the Louisiana Derby, one horse did manage to weave through competitors and steal a victory, 22-to-1 longshot By My Standards. In his first real test, By My Standards rallied at the rail to pick off Spinoff, another upset bid, to win the Grade 2 race (though it helped him out when War of Will got trapped). Still, it’s always worth keeping an eye on improving horses that handled a step up in class with aplomb as By My Standards did.

Finally, don’t sleep on Vekoma. The unusually-gaited three-year-old emerged in November with a win in the Grade 3 Nassua, then lacked a big enough finish to close in March’s Fountain of Youth in his first start following a four-month layoff. But the response to that third-place finish was a convincing win at Keeneland in the Bluegrass where Vekoma was hardly challenged in the final furlong of the 1 1/8 mile route.

Some horses I don’t love?

Maximum Security has a sterling unbeaten resume after a three-length win in the Florida Derby, the horse’s first graded test, but the opposing jockeys let Maximum Security glide to the front and set a slow pace at his leisure, which won’t happen at Churchill Downs on Saturday. He hasn’t been truly tested.

Tacitus won the Grade 2 Florida Derby and Wood Memorial by stalking 8-10 lengths back and using late speed to surge to the front. That’s a dicey strategy in a 20-horse field, and there are fewer true pacesetters that will wear out this group early.

Roadster impressively beat Game Winner at Santa Anita, yes, but it came in a tiny six-horse field. Additionally, Florent Geroux will be Roadster’s new jockey in the Derby while the venerable Smith watches from the sidelines. And what make Smith choose not to ride Roadster?

Since my original betting angle was to beat Omaha Beach, my strategy isn’t changing a whole lot, although any value Game Winner might have had is probably out the door. Same with Improbable.

For starters, I’ll be placing smaller win bets on Vekoma, By My Standards and War of Will in pursuit of a big return.

Exotically, I’d try those three horses in exacta and trifecta tickets on top of Game Winner and Improbable — and probably vice versa, too. Use closers Plus Que Parfait, Win Win Win and Country House on the bottom in trifectas to catch a sweeter pot. Maybe Tacitus as well.

Don’t forget 2017 when the $1 trifecta paid over $8,000 because two longer shots took the place and show underneath winner Always Dreaming. The payout could match that in 2019 if the winner comes in at 15- or 20-to-1.

And with that, I give the floor to Mike Gelfand, who may or may not have had to rewrite this column after the entrapped epiglottis news…

Mike: Thanks, Sam. When I became a public handicapper at Canterbury Downs in the mid-80s, there were scholars who spent decades devising statistical formulas for the single purpose of handicapping the Kentucky Derby.

I quickly figured out that this was so pointless and absurd that a far better use of my time would be to simply ignore the Kentucky Derby and other elite races. As I understood it, the money I won on a 10-1 shot in a maiden claimer in the Heroin Belt was not only more generous than what the Derby winner was likely to pay, but I’d have about 3,000 more opportunities to cash on cheap claimers in a given year than the buffoons who specialized in just one race.

In short, I’m a horse player and I need volume. And the Kentucky Derby is just another race.

So in the 25 years I spent at Canterbury Downs and then Canterbury Park, I almost never knew — even on the first Saturday in May — who was even running in the Kentucky Derby. Of course, I couldn’t admit this to the punters who wanted my pick. When they asked, I would look pensive and then, after a thoughtful pause, say, “I just don’t know how they’re going to beat the favorite.”

These days, those effete specialists have either gone to that racetrack in the sky or taken up spelunking, numismatics, or other more satisfying hobbies.

Now, a lot of the mystery is gone. As it turns out, the Derby is susceptible to the same handicapping principles as any other contest. You win the Derby in uncomplicated fashion. Namely, you get a good break out of the gate, settle in two or three lengths behind the leader, make a move into the turn for home, and, if you’re good enough, take the lead in the stretch drive and then report to the winner’s circle.

It sounds easy, but picking the winner got a bit more complicated on Thursday with the medically-induced defection of the presumed favorite, Omaha Beach.

With Omaha Beach sidelined, the spotlight shines instead on not one horse but the three who will be saddled by Bob Baffert, who leads all trainers with five Kentucky Derby victories — including last year’s Triple Crown winner, Justify.

Baffert’s contenders all seem to be groomed from conception with the purpose of going after this $3 million purse. They all have early speed, they all are capable of a winning move into the turn, and they all have regal breeding and bankrolls.

But it’s telling that none will look like a real favorite on the tote board. As of Thursday night, bettors had a slight preference for Game Winner, who finished a nose behind Omaha Beach in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. I suppose the logic here is that with Omaha Beach benched, Game Winner is the next best thing. Problem: he failed at 1-2 and didn’t earn a stellar speed figure; plus, in his next race, he again went off at 1-2, this time in the prestigious Santa Anita Derby, and lost to Roadster.

Roadster, on the other hand, is also a Baffert horse and is scheduled to break from the 17-hole. He sports odds of 5-1 on the revised morning line. Fun fact: 40 horses have departed from the Post 17 in the Derby, and none wound up in the winner’s circle. And I’m not sure he’s fast enough to stay in contact with the pace setter.

That would be an issue because closers no longer are a sound wager in this race. In the last five Derbies, the winner was either second or third at the first call. Considering the fact that we’re talking about races that typically sported close to the 20 maximum contenders, that’s a compelling statistic. (And, as you have inferred, it’s also damned near impossible to wire the field. Although this year’s pace might be slower than any of the five previous Derbies, so I wouldn’t rule out a gate-to-wire winner.)

The third Baffert horse, the ironically named Improbable, is also 5-1 on the morning line. He’s another horse who, despite a somewhat troubled start, finished second to Omaha Beach. That was in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, a race that has produced quite a few Derby winners. Problem: he hasn’t won a race since last year.

So the public is betting that one of Baffert’s horse will win the race, but I wonder. In 22 of the most recent 25 Kentucky Derbies, the winner had a speed figure of 102 (per Bristnet.com, the gold standard) or more in his race leading up to the Derby. By that standard, the Baffert guys don’t qualify.

So I’m going with Tacitus, who won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. The Wood doesn’t produce a lot of Derby winners, but this is clearly no ordinary Kentucky Derby. In the Wood, Tacitus was eight lengths back in mid-race, thanks largely to some traffic issues. But the pace in that race was hot, and I think he’ll be much closer on Saturday. Plus, his speed fig in that race was — yes — 102.

I’m also going to use Vekoma, 15-1 on the morning line, who stalked a frenetic pace and went on to crush the field by a growing 3 1/2 lengths in the Blue Grass at Keeneland. He’s an X-factor because he might not have defeated much in that race, but his speed alone makes him a contender.

But I would bet Tacitus to win and place, because both pools will return generous rewards no matter who finishes first or second. Then I’d move on to the trifectas. I’m thinking Tactius and Vekoma in first with the three Baffert horses in second and then look for a long-shot closer in third. I would also use the three Baffert horses in first with Tacitus and Vekoma in second and third, also along with other closers in third. High-priced closers to consider in third: Tax (20-1) Cutting Humor (20-1), and Code of Honor (10-1).

Don’t misunderstand: I still have more than a little disdain for the hype and pretension of a race that strikes me as more of a distraction than a seismic sporting event.

Having spent way too much time handicapping this one race, I suppose that I have a moral obligation to make a few bets. And for that I blame myself, which will undoubtedly give me something in common with anyone foolish enough to take my advice.

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