What a wonderful world we live in! Calvin Borel rejoices aboard Super Saver after winning the 2010 Kentucky Derby. Calvin’s last 4 Derbies: First, Third, First, First. But he has his work cut out for him this year aboard Twice the Appeal.
It has been said that the problem with life’s most important, game-changing moments is that so often, we don’t know that they are happening. We spend the rest of our lives lamenting our lack of vision, realizing that if only we had been awake at that magic juncture, we could have seized the day, and changed everything. Well let me tell you something, dear friends. That moment is coming on Saturday – two minutes of transcendent perfection, when 20 utterly mediocre 3-year-old thoroughbreds will lunge from the gate and send the fortunate few who are prepared into an impossible state of electric ecstasy. And I am taking a stand for you, right now, right this very moment. I will not let you walk into that nexus of perfection unprepared. You WILL be ready. You will “be there”.
There is a tiny possibility that this write-up will find its way into the hands of Paul Farmer, or Meb Keflezighi, or even Eric Holder. And if you really are busy saving the poor people of Haiti, or chasing Olympic marathon gold, or destroying the United States Constitution, reading about the Derby results in the Sunday paper is going to be just fine. I’m not talking to them, really, I’m talking to YOU. You’re like me. Life has broken you – it breaks us all. You were not there when the moment arrived. You missed the on-ramp to greatness. No dragon’s blood stains your sword. You did not save the world – you just bought the T-shirt.
And sure, you’re probably a good parent, a good wife, a good coach, a good friend. St. Peter will be on your side, spinning your resume like crazy, trying to get you into a bleacher seat inside the gates. But life in so many ways is long and unsatisfying, and you’re just trying to get from another endless today to the weekend. You thought there would be more than this.
I could have been a contender. My 7th grade English teacher read my paper about the origin of leprechauns, and took the time to write a note next to my “A” – that I had a certain flair with the pen, and that one day, she could imagine me becoming a journalist. I could have been a journalist. With a little extra effort and the right decisions, that could have been me, sitting in that monstrous glass echo chamber across from Port Authority, my office next to Maureen Dowd, furiously recording reality. (That is to say, that real courage consists of doing exactly what you want to do every waking moment, that a society built on hard work and a genuine sense of community and charity is somehow inferior to one in which we encourage the less fortunate to angrily demand their due through thankless Big-Brother-intermediated confiscatory redistribution, and that, for some completely inexplicable reason, Dick Cheney really did shoot that guy in the face on purpose.)
But it was not to be. I did not follow the road less travelled. I am not a journalist. I’m a cog in the Great Machine, and my primary virtues are paying the bills and keeping small children from wandering into traffic. I irresponsibly hive off two or three hours three times a year – for the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont – to cough my rantings down on cyberpaper, only to have most of you ungrateful bastards scroll down callously to the betting selections. I work hard on this piece of crap, damn it. Show me a little respect! I know you are broken, but let’s build the moment together. And then let’s hit the Derby exacta for $2,000 and become stronger together in the broken places. You will never be Jonas Salk or Grete Waitz. But there will always be sickness and suffering, someone will always come along who is a little faster, and one day, the right meteor at the wrong time will give this planet the fresh start that Greenpeace thinks it deserves. Until then, trust me – “I hit the $2,000 exacta in the 2011 Derby” is going to take you a long way at cocktail parties and in those quiet moments when you wonder why you’re here.
Instead of reading the Past Performances and trying to factor in the possibility of a sloppy track for the Derby, Maureen is drinking before noon again and reading her own book. What price vanity?
Mood is everything for the Derby, and the only way to get in the right mood is to watch and listen. Here are two great ones – Smarty Jones in 2004, and Giacomo in 2005. The former is announcer Tom Durkin at his finest, as the two favorites “hooked up at the top of the stretch”. The latter was the classic race “breakdown”, where a recklessly hot early pace led to a wild cavalry charge – a wall of random horses turned for home together, leaving Tom Durkin to helplessly sort them out like a guy with mild amnesia at his 30th high school reunion.
The 2004 affair was so glorious it was almost unbearable, and Tom Durkin’s call was so perfect that to this day, every time I hear it, I get chills and start to tear up.
“And undefeated Smarty Jones comes wide off the turn! And these two hook up at the top of the stretch! Lion Heart is all heart! Smarty Jones is all out! And those two…deadlocked at the eighth pole…and Smarty Jones is roused to the lead by journeyman jockey Stewart Elliott and they have taken the lead away from Lion Heart.”
Hoo boy. Give me a minute…. Talk amongst yourselves…. (And by the way, if you’re from Philadelphia, and this is the first time you saw that, shame on you.)
Unfortunately, Tom Durkin has lived through one too many chaotic stretch calls like the 2005 and 2009 Derbies, and so he has decided to hang up his microphone this year, sadly. He just can’t handle the stress of the first Saturday in May any more. He will be sorely missed, and his successor, Larry Collmus, has a high bar to clear. But we will all be rooting for him to capture the magic for us.
Now let’s get down to business.
What makes this particular Derby potentially great is how wide open it is. There is no clear favorite in the race. In all of the major preps, the favorites went down like a ton of bricks. In the Florida Derby, arguably the strongest field, second choice Dialed In (8) ran down a gritty Shackleford (14), and will likely be the favorite for the Derby when all the money is down. Lukewarm Florida Derby favorite Soldat (17) couldn’t make the lead, despaired, and ran 5th. In the Wood Memorial, Uncle Mo (18), the runaway winner of last year’s Breeder’s Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, went off at an incredible 1 to 9, and got an easy lead, but he had nothing at the top of the stretch and two also-rans ran right by. In the Arkansas Derby, The Factor, a 4 to 5 shot, got bounced around and clunked it up for 7th, leaving Archarcharch (1) and Nehro (19) to finish 1-2 and head to the Derby. Both look like real contenders. Finally, in Santa Anita, Anthony’s Cross and Silver Medallion appeared ready to run well and head to Kentucky, but neither showed up, with neophyte Midnight Interlude (15) running down grinder Comma to the Top (6) – both are going in the gate on Saturday.
As a result, the field is now a jumble, and it looks like Dialed In will be the post-time favorite. This fact alone tells you the whole story of this Derby. Dialed In’s fastest Beyer speed figure (the statistic followed by most horse handicappers that scores performances in a way that makes them comparable against all other tracks under all other conditions) is a 97, and his Florida Derby effort was a 93.
Generally, experienced Derby players will toss out any horse that hasn’t achieved a 100 Beyer in a race of at least one mile in length. In this year’s Derby, there are only two horses out of 20 with a 100 or better Beyer – Uncle Mo and Soldat. By this measure, this is likely the weakest Derby field in modern times. In this kind of field, anyone can win, so for the love of G-d, GET A PRICE!
This dude (Houston software developer Glen Fullerton) was given $100,000 but had to bet it to win on the Kentucky Derby last year. He picked Super Saver, and took home $900,000. Take that, Jonas Salk!
Before we get to my selections, let’s talk a little bit about pace scenario, because, like nowhere else, pace makes the race at the Kentucky Derby. There appear to be at least 7 horses in this field that want to be on the lead or at least very close to it. That would normally be enough to expect a very fast early pace, setting the race up for the closers. However, none of these 7 is a genuine speed demon – a pumped up sprinter who will gun to the lead no matter what and take the consequences. They are all legitimate “route” horses who have shown they can run a two-turn race. It is possible, despite the supply of front-runners, that we could get a controlled pace. When that is coupled with the absence of a genuine “monster closer” in this field – Dialed In has gotten a lot of hype but his finish in the Florida Derby only looks spectacular because everyone else but Shackleford stopped, and Nehro looked terrific flying late in both the Louisiana and Arkansas Derbies to finish 2nd in both, but never ran a 100 Beyer – well, considering how hard it is to get a good trip back there, an OK performance on the front end could be worth a lot in this particular Derby.
I’ve been looking for the front-runner who looks like he wants it, but I’m also looking for closers who will be able to capitalize on a hot pace if it develops. It’s not an easy task given how lousy this field is. But I have some suggestions.
First, here are the 6 horses I think have the best chance to win the Derby, with likely post-time odds and comments:
- Uncle Mo (18) (likely 4 to 1) – if he had won the Wood in style, he’d be 8 to 5 at the highest on Saturday. As it is, he now has people wondering if his stomach virus is gone, or if he even wants to go a mile and quarter. If he runs like he did at Churchill last year, he’ll destroy this field. But he has done nothing in 2011. At 4 to 1, he’s just not good value. And besides, he got the 18 post, which is terrible for a horse that needs to make the lead. He will likely get caught wide on the first turn now.
- Dialed In (8) (likely 4 to 1) – Lightly raced but has done nothing wrong. Three wins and a 2nd in four races. Two graded stakes wins. And he looks the type – one big run at the end. But a 93 Beyer in his last outing, and he was all out to beat Shackleford, who busted his butt on the front end the whole way? In a normal Derby year this horse is 20 to 1, at least. I have to pass.
- Nehro (19) (likely 7 to 1) – This has been my horse since his 2nd in the Louisiana Derby, and I was planning on making him my top pick and betting the yogurt out of him. I just don’t know at 7 to 1, though, so I’ll have to play it by ear. Man he came flying in the Arkansas Derby, but his Beyers aren’t there and going back to front in the Derby is like Ulysses trying to find his way home. I will say this, though – if I were this year’s Glen Fullerton, I’d put the $100,000 on Nehro, regardless of the price. The outside post (19) will not hurt him as much, as he’ll try to settle further back.
- Archarcharch (1) (likely 12 to 1) – The Arkansas Derby winner showed the push-button move you like to see for the Derby, as getting first run can be the difference. The only problem is: he was running out of gas at the wire, and Nehro went by him with ease two jumps past the finish. If he’s only got one extra gear, it might not be enough. But the higher his odds go, the more sense he’ll make. The inside post (1) could be trouble – it was for last year’s post-time favorite, Lookin At Lucky, who got bounced around out of the gate by a crush of horses and ran his guts out to finish 6th. (Lucky won the Preakness, and no surprise there, as he was my top Preakness pick last year. Yawn.)
- Midnight Interlude (15) (likely 15 to 1) – The upside play. He was a maiden winner coming into the Santa Anita Derby, and ran down Comma to the Top like a champ, despite the easy lead that C to the T had enjoyed. (Santa Anita is rocket fast – the track is made of some substance out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit that has $25k claimers breaking world records. 47 and 1 for the first half-mile at Santa Anita is crawling – I could do 47 and 1 there on a tricycle.) For the right price, it’s worth hoping for more upside.
- Shackleford (14) (likely 25 to 1) – He came into the Florida Derby at 68 to 1, looking like nothing on paper, but jockey Jesus Castenon sent him to the lead and he stayed there until the bitter end. He had a monster workout at Churchill prepping for the Derby, and it looks like they’ll gun him to the lead again. (Think Hard Spun, who would have won the 2007 Derby that way if it hadn’t been for Street Sense and the perfect ride he got from Calvin Borel.) He looks too slow on paper, but frankly, they all do. Someone has to win.
Assuming the public gives Uncle Mo and Dialed In the expected support, I will not be putting them in my exacta wagers, let alone betting them to win. I don’t suffer through 364 days of existential angst to slap my discretionary dollars down on a short-priced horse with a tummy ache, or on a one-run closer who needs every step to get by a gassed frontrunner going 14 flat for the last eighth.
No self-respecting horse handicapper would publish an analysis of any race, let alone the Kentucky Derby, without making a clean call. I’m picking Nehro to win. But that’s different from the horse being the best bet. My final win bet, if I make one, is going to be directly dependent on the odds that are determined by actual betting. Here’s what it would take for me to bet each of these horses to win:
- Dialed In and Uncle Mo: 10 to 1
- Nehro: Given my conviction, I’m willing to drop it to 8 to 1
- Archarcharch: I’m just not fully feeling it and I would need something in the high teens to 1
- Midnight Interlude and Shackleford: 20 to 1
So I’m most likely to bet Nehro and Shackleford, but we’ll see.
You’ve been hanging on by your fingernails since March Madness ended, and they’re actually talking about no professional football in the fall. Are you really going to try to turn $20 into $100 betting on one of the favorites?
The following horses will be featured in my “deeper exotics” (trifectas and superfectas), and one or two could sneak up into an exacta box:
- Pants on Fire (7) (likely 20 to 1) – Based on name alone, I’m almost inclined to throw caution to the wind. Gritty winner of the Louisiana Derby looks a little too slow with too long of a layoff
- Mucho Macho Man (13) (likely 25 to 1) – For the exact opposite reason, I don’t want to bet on this horse, but the breeding is there and the price will be right. Another gutsy grinder who looks a little slow
- Animal Kingdom (16) (likely 30 to 1) – I have a friend who has this friend who….. oh never mind.
- Comma to the Top (6) (likely 30 to 1) – If it’s a controlled pace, the Santa Anita Derby runner-up could gut it out for a minor piece of the pie
- Twice the Appeal (3) (likely 20 to 1 now) – This clunk-it-up-looking winner of the Sunland Derby was headed for 50 to 1 until Calvin Borel climbed aboard. Now he’ll be 20 to 1 and a genuinely bad bet to win. But with Calvin aboard, he automatically has a chance to hit the board, because Calvin will save ground taking him up the rail and he knows how to navigate the final turn at Churchill like no one else. Calvin fans will remember well that Mine That Bird, 50 to 1 winner of the 2009 Derby, came out of the Sunland Derby.
- Derby Kitten (9) (40 to 1 maybe) – This horse won the Lexington two weeks ago, didn’t have enough money to enter the Derby, but slid in when Toby’s Corner, the Wood Memorial winner, got injured. Winning at Keeneland tells you nothing (handicapping Keeneland is like betting on roller derby), but I’m feeling a superfecta supercharger here! It’ll only increase your 10-cent superfecta by a few bucks, so what the heck. [UPDATE: no 10-cent supers in the Derby! See note below. Can you believe these knuckleheads?]
In a normal year, I’d feel compelled to berate anyone who was making a stupid pick. But this year, there probably really are no stupid picks. Outside of Uncle Mo at his best, this is a really unaccomplished group of 3-year-olds. They may evolve into something better, and maybe on Saturday we’ll see a horse step up and stake his claim to destiny. But looking at this list, and reading the Past Performances, any one of these 20 horses is capable of winning this race with a conceivable improvement, a perfect trip, or both. And this is why it’s a really terrific Derby for the fanatics.
Every year I make a list of the resources you should consult to maximize the quality of your handicapping and of the total Derby experience. I imagine that almost no one has bothered. This year that’s not acceptable. You are responsible for the quality of your experience. I cannot lift you up out of your dreary life for the full two minutes if you don’t do the homework. DO THE HOMEWORK DAMMIT!
- The Daily Racing Form Kentucky Derby page has it all… news, all the prep races, past winners, the Derby Top 20, contender profiles, and a link to the Ultimate Kentucky Derby Guide. For $7.95, you’ll get all the expert picks, full profiles on all the horses, Past Performances for the entire card on Saturday (of course you should bet the whole card!), and several Mint Julep recipes. Besides, DRF needs the money. Horse racing is on the ropes, you know. Don’t be the one who drives it into bankruptcy.
- Steve Crist’s DRF blog is the best thing you can read on horse racing. He is brilliant, an expert handicapper, and has just the right edge for the job. He’s had bad luck on the Derby recently, but you don’t have to take his picks. This is about the experience!
- Past Performances for the Derby – you’ll never see Beyers like this for a Derby again. (Or will you?)
Are you ready? Please tell me you’re ready! Here, my desperate friends, is the field for the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby!
|1.||Archarcharch||Jon Court||Jinks Fires||10-1|
|2.||Brilliant Speed||Joel Rosario||Tom Albertrani||30-1|
|3.||Twice the Appeal||Calvin Borel||Jeff Bonde||20-1|
|4.||Stay Thirsty||Ramon Dominguez||Todd Pletcher||20-1|
|5.||Decisive Moment||Kerwin Clark||Juan Arias||30-1|
|6.||Comma to the Top||Patrick Valenzuela||Peter Miller||30-1|
|7.||Pants On Fire||Anna Napravnik||Kelly Breen||20-1|
|8.||Dialed In||Julien Leparoux||Nick Zito||4-1|
|9.||Derby Kitten||Javier Castellano||Mike Maker||30-1|
|10.||Twinspired||Mike Smith||Mike Maker||30-1|
|11.||Master of Hounds||Garrett Gomez||Aidan O’Brien||30-1|
|12.||Santiva||Shaun Bridgmohan||Eddie Kenneally||30-1|
|13.||Mucho Macho Man||Rajiv Maragh||Kathy Ritvo||12-1|
|14.||Shackleford||Jesus Castanon||Dale Romans||12-1|
|15.||Midnight Interlude||Victor Espinoza||Bob Baffert||10-1|
|16.||Animal Kingdom||Robby Albarado||H. Graham Motion||30-1|
|17.||Soldat||Alan Garcia||Kiaran McLaughlin||12-1|
|18.||Uncle Mo||John Velazquez||Todd Pletcher||9-2|
|19.||Nehro||Corey Nakatani||Steve Asmussen||6-1|
|20.||Watch Me Go||Rafael Bejarano||Kathleen O’ Connell||50-1|
And here, my huddled masses, yearning to be free from the tyranny of the same old thing, are the stone cold locks. As for last year, I’m offering two tracks, one for the reckless, and another for the rockless. Get out $100, and get a trash bag ready for what’s coming back!
Dragon Slayer Track
$10 to win on the 14 and 15 ($20)
$2 exacta box with the 1, 7, 14, 15, and 19 ($40)
$2 exacta box with 14 and 19 ($4) – the “Captain America is a genius” double-up
50¢ trifecta: 14, 15, 19 over 1, 7, 14, 15, 19 over 1, 3, 7, 8, 14, 15, 18, 19 ($36)
Confiscatory Redistribution Track
$10 to win, place, and show on 19 ($30)
$5 to show on 14 and 15 ($10)
$2 exacta box with 1, 3, 7, 14, 15, 19 ($60)
[NOTE: I was forced to amend these picks when I found out that stupid Churchill Downs isn’t offering 10 cent superfectas on Derby Day! It’s a $1 minimum! As if that’s going to increase the handle…. These guys never learn!]
Dragon Slayers will be able to buy a car if the picks are really good (maybe not a new car). Confiscatory Redistributors will be able to put fuel in a car for a few months if things go well.
One last thing. If it rains and the track comes up sloppy, you have to think about Soldat (17). He did his 103 Beyer in a mile and an eighth allowance race in the slop at Gulfstream Park. But he’d still need the lead. Thought you’d want to know that.
I’m exhausted now. I can only take you to the water. Drink, damn you, drink.
Defender of the Faith