The run for the roses takes place on Saturday, four months late and without fans.
And yet this could have been the most talked about Kentucky Derby in years.
The key phrase is “could have.” A longer ramp up to the Derby opened the door for more three-year-old horses to mature, bolster their resumes and join the crop of contenders. That notion wasn’t incorrect as a loaded field of winners looked to be on track for the big race right around the time of its originally-scheduled running on May 2. But even horses are subject to the injury bug.
- Undefeated Arkansas Derby champion and Bob Baffert superstar Nadal broke his leg during a workout and retired.
- Strangely, there were two halves of the Arkansas Derby this year, and the winner of the other half, Charlatan — another Baffert horse — suffered an ankle injury.
- Maxfield, the winner of the Grade 3 Matt Winn at Churchill Downs suffered a non-displaced condylar fracture.
- Louisiana Derby champ Wells Bayou had bone bruising.
- Third-place finisher in the Arkansas Derby and fourth-place finisher in the Florida Derby Gouverneur Morris contracted colitis.
And then there was Tuesday’s news that took money out of this writer’s wallet: Art Collector, likely the second choice in the Derby, was scratched with a minor foot injury. I placed a futures wager on Art Collector at 25-1 after he won a June allowance race at 1 1/16 miles at Churchill. He then proceeded to win the graded Bluegrass Stakes and romp home in the Ellis Park Derby without having to break a sweat, likely putting him at 5-1 odds at race time. Oh, what could’ve been.
So who’s left?
On paper, the Derby seems like Tiz the Law’s race to lose. He’ll be one of the most lopsided favorites in Kentucky Derby history after winning the Holy Bull and Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, a watered-down Belmont Stakes in the first leg of the Triple Crown and the Grade 1 Travers Stakes at Saratoga. Tiz the Law is six for seven in his career and seems to be improving, posting an absurd 115 speed figure in the Travers. The only time he lost was on a sloppy track, and the forecast for Saturday is gorgeous.
Tiz the Law is an outlandish 3/5 on the morning line (bet $100 to return $160), which could drop even further by race time. That’s no way to wager, so we’ll have to either find the horse that can beat him or the horse that can finish second to capitalize on the exacta. The favorite drew the second-from-the-outside gate, however, which may provide some adversity.
To help handicap, I’ve enlisted our favorite local horseplayer and friend of the website Mike Gelfand to give his two cents — that is, if we can pull him away from Indiana Grand to play the real equine athletes. But first, a few thoughts from yours truly.
Because of all the dropouts, I think bettors can trim some of the fat in the race to simplify the handicapping process. Of course, those are the famous last words. Every horse has a chance, however small. You’re probably thinking of longshot Country House winning a year ago, but that was also in a slopfest and required a controversial disqualification of the favorite.
Roughly a dozen of those horses have been vanquished handily by some of the favorites in previous attempts in graded stakes. Finnick the Fierce has shown little menace, Major Fed tried a graded stakes at Churchill in May and couldn’t hang, South Bend posted a career-best speed figure in the Travers and still lost by nine lengths. That’s how good Tiz the Law was.
Mr. Big News, Winning Impression, Money Moves and Necker Island — a possible pace-setter — also lack the pedigree to be taken seriously.
There are likely only six to eight horses in the conversation, and to find the one that can best Tiz the Law we’ll probably have to find one with late speed. Tiz the Law stalks off the shoulder of the leader before exploding at the top of the stretch. He’s handled every increase in distance and has shown he can handle a hot pace, like a 46-second half mile in the Belmont. His Travers trip at 1 1/4 miles was much more moderate, however, so he’s yet to be faced with a hot half mile in a 10-furlong race.
My personal favorite closer (who is arguably not a closer at all) is Ny Traffic, who’s had one of the best Derby prep seasons without logging a victory. (Full disclosure: He’s the second horse I have futures money on at 70-1.) He lost by a length to Wells Bayou in the Louisiana Derby, lost by a length to Maxfield in the Matt Winn and lost in a photo to Authentic in the Haskell. The fact that Ny Traffic ran his best race in the Haskell at 1 1/8 miles with a hot pace is encouraging, and he’s listed as having the third-best late speed figure in the field. His past performances don’t paint the picture of a traditional closer. Ny Traffic stalks the lead throughout the race but seems to reserve his best kick for the final furlong. Just watch the home stretch of the Haskell to see what I’m talking about.
I’m passing on Authentic, the Haskell winner, who is third choice on the morning line. Not only did he draw the outside post, but he’s a front-running horse that’s unlikely to hold off an athlete like Tiz the Law, who ran the Belmont four seconds faster than Authentic ran the equally-distanced Haskell (yes, I know time isn’t everything). Honor A.P., another West Coast horse, should stand a better chance at 5/1. He stalked his way to a Santa Anita Derby win before losing next time out at Del Mar, but I like that he’s been working out at seven furlongs. He reminds me a bit of Baffert superhorse Improbable.
I had a long paragraph typed up about Tampa Bay Derby champ King Guillermo, who’d been tearing up his five-furlong workouts after a four-month layoff, but he scratched on Thursday. INJURY BUG STRIKES AGAIN.
I was inclined to try an exacta box with King Guillermo, Ny Traffic and Tiz the Law. But with King Guillermo ousted, I need another value horse to add to the ticket for max profits. I’ll go with Storm the Court. He was the surprise Breeder’s Cup Juvenile winner in 2019 but endured a tough stretch on dirt before trying turf on Aug. 9. Now he goes back to dirt, where he’s been ripping up workouts at Del Mar. Toss him in with Ny Traffic and Tiz the Law and hope for the best. I’m excluding Honor A.P. from the ticket, who I like, but if the top two horses go 1-2, where’s the satisfaction in winning a chalky bet like that?
I don’t want to focus on the dark cloud behind the dark cloud these days, but I’m just not that into this jewel of the Triple Crown. Never was, really. The search for value at the racetrack has little to do with the size of the purse or the smug aristocrats who spend a million bucks for animals with pedigrees even more grand than the pedigrees of the oil sheiks and ruthless industrialists who swoon over their 1,000-pound toys.
There will probably be about 300 other races I can play on Saturday, and somewhere there’s one with six fine athletes who spring from the gate and ultimately sag turning from home while the two horses with the worst speed figures collect the garbage as the true athletes respond to frantic whips by popping their tails and spitting the bit and shortening their stride. That, Sam, is what horse racing is about. That $200 exacta that has the punters scratching the few hairs left on their heads while they take another look at the past performances and attempt to figure out where they went wrong.
In fact, I think I’ve found the perfect race on Saturday: a maiden claimer in a fully subscribed race at Mountaineer Park. Oh, some people insist that those West Virginia tracks are not on the square, which makes me do a spit take as I attempt to take a swig of my mint julep. (Hint: four parts bourbon, one part Robitussin. Mint optional.)
Nevertheless, I will miss the roar of about 100,000 besotted customers, an image that always makes me feel better about watching the race with only the cat for company. I’ll probably make a few five-dollar exacta plays just for the action, but if Tiz the Law is as good as his speed figures, a lot of happy idiots will be cashing that $2.60 win ticket — virtually, of course — even as I’m shifting my attention to the Mountain State. In fact, in my head, I’m already there.
In the meantime… let’s ask the obvious. Do we try to beat the favorite or do we concede the race and look for one of the many long-long shots that would fill out a decent exacta?
If Tiz the Law regresses a bit, there are certainly horses who might be able to take advantage. Because the race is four months late, some of these animals will mature and improve significantly; horses often grow bigger and faster during their three-year-old seasons, so it makes sense to try to figure out which ones are surging. Guess work, to be sure. But horse racing is not an exact science, and the sheer numbers of horses in the race makes for exponential x-factors.
I’m just going through the entries here, from the rail to the fence, and right away I see Max Player. He’s run five races, with his speed figures ascending each time. But what I find most interesting is that after his most recent effort, in which he finished third in the Travers — 7 1/2 lengths behind Tiz the Law — he galloped into a new barn and is now under the care of Super Trainer Steve Asmussen. Horses tend to improve in Asmussen’s barn. Sometimes so dramatically that I am amazed and perhaps confused. There’s plenty of speed in this race and he won’t be anywhere near the lead, so if jockey Ricardo Santana can get a clean trip close to the rail — an almost impossible task — Max Player, who is 30/1 on the morning line — might be able to inherit third place. It’s an angle, anyway.
Over the years I’ve generally underestimated the talent on the West Coast, so I’m not going to forget Honor A.P., the best three-year-old in California. Has jockey Mike Smith really won just one Kentucky Derby? This might be his last best chance to get No. 2.
I like the morning line odds (50-1) on South Bend, the eight-horse, more than his numbers. But I would put a sentimental two bucks on him to win because Bill Mott, the smartest and most honest horseman in the country, took over the training chores just recently. In his most recent race — his first in Mott’s barn — he showed improvement in a late-running fourth in the Travers. Tiz defeated him by 9 1/2 lengths, but I’m guessing he’ll keep improving. He could complete a trifecta or superfecta. In fact, I just wrote myself into keying him in fourth. Oh, I should have mentioned that Mott was the winning trainer (aided by a disqualification) of last year’s Derby. I can’t remember the name of Mott’s horse. I have watched 40 Kentucky Derbies, and maybe three times I could remember the name of the winner two months later. Horseracing has consumed much of my life, but I’m a player, not a fan.
Now I’ve got to figure out who might set the pace and perhaps keep on going to finish second or third. Tiz the Law, like all great horses, is not pace dependent. If he runs his race, he’ll be wherever jockey Manuel Franco wants him to be at the first call, which most likely will be third or fourth. I think you’re onto something with Ny Traffic, Sam. He won’t be far from the pace, and he’s one of those odd one-pace horses who are likely to be in the same position at the end as they held at the beginning.
However, it looks like Authentic might be a bit quicker, which is why he’s just 8-1 — that and the fact that he’s trained by Bob Baffert, who has won this race five times. Sam, I agree with you that his outside post is a stone-cold bummer, but who knows how many of these horses will bow out before the race? Baffert also trains Thousand Words, a million-dollar yearling who deserves a look just because of Baffert.
I lack the space, energy and enthusiasm to mention all 18 horses, but every damned one of them has a chance to improve dramatically, regress horribly and get tangled up in a 10-horse jam as the jockeys try to save ground going into the first turn. Some will be eliminated almost from the start, which isn’t quite as distressing as losing your future-book wager because of a scratch. Which is why I mainly show up virtually about an hour before the races at my favorite Heroin Belt tracks. Ohio is the home of 18 electoral votes and three racetracks, which strikes me as the perfect ratio.
All right, Sam, you’ve wagered me into a corner, so I’m just going to make two plays:
First, I’m going to bet $5 exactas on Tiz the Law over any other horse I’ve mentioned, with the exception that the projected payoff is more than $20 for a $2 wager.
Second, I’m betting a 10-cent superfecta using Ny Traffic, Max Player, Honor A.P., and Authentic in first, Tiz the Law in second, ALL in third and, as promised, South Bend in fourth. This bet is almost statistically impossible to win, but let’s face it: you can’t have more fun for $6 and you won’t wake up the next day feeling forlorn, ashamed, dissolute and desperate. Believe me, I know.