Kentucky Derby Preview

The Triple Crown is ready to start, as the Kentucky Derby has its traditional running on the first Saturday of May. The race from Churchill Downs will be televised at 6:25 PM ET on NBC. TheSportsNotebook has been tracking these races throughout the prep season that began in January and now breaks down all 20 horses in Saturday’s Run For The Roses.

Before we jump into the field, one note is that the Derby tends to be an underdog’s race. The main reason is that there is a huge volume of horses . An average race during the week at a major track has maybe seven horses. A good stakes race might get 12-13. So you get the picture for just how big Saturday’s field is.  Further consider that all the horses, by definition, are high quality. So establishing a clear favorite is difficult, and even the horse that does get the nod as the morning line favorite gets decent odds. Bodemeister, the 2012 favorite, is 4-1. On a standard midweek race, 4-1 is the odds for the third or fourth best horse in the field. So when evaluating the horses, keep in mind that the Kentucky Derby is to horse racing, what March Madness or the NHL playoffs are elsewhere in sports—it’s one that belongs to the underdog.


We’ll break the field down into four distinct categories and start with the favorites. Bodemeister officially has the best (or worst, if you’re a bettor) odds, but if any of the following four horses won it could hardly be considered an upset…

Bodemeister (4-1): He won the Arkansas Derby three weeks ago and finished 2nd at the San Felipe Stakes in Santa Anita prior to that. The jockey is Mike Smith, whose achievements merely include winning an Eclipse Award for Jockey of the Year (the Eclipse’s are horse racing’s equivalent of the Academy Awards), was the rider of the famed mare Zenyatta and won the 2010 Belmont Stakes. The trainer is Bob Baffert, who’s been referenced throughout our earlier prep season reports as the best trainer in the West and one of the best in the world. It’s not hard to see why the oddsmakers like Bodemeister.

Union Rags (9-2): The prep races were done in Florida, where he won the Fountain Of Youth Stakes, but finished third in the more prestigious Florida derby. Union Rags put together a nice run at the end of 2011, with a second-place finish at the Breeders Cup (which is of even higher quality than a Triple Crown race), and won stakes races on the New York circuit.

Gemologist (6-1): Trainer Todd Pletcher is in a class with only Baffert when it comes to the mega-trainers who are financed at levels that would make the Steinbrenners blush and acquire the top talent. Pletcher brought Gemologist along slowly, watching him go 4-for-4 at non-descript races in Florida and Kentucky and targeted New York’s prestigious Wood Memorial for a breakout race on the national stage. Gemologist came through and won the Wood.

Dullahan (8-1): Another horse that seems to be building some momentum. It started with a fourth-place finish at Breeders, followed by a first and a third in couple late 2011 stakes races. Then a second-place finish in a March stakes race at Florida’s Gulfstream Park set the stage for a win in the Blue Grass Stakes at Turfway Park (a sister track to Churchill on the Kentucky circuit) in April. I’d like this horse is the odds were a little higher, but frankly I’m not sure the record deserves him being this high on the list of favorites.

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Those are the four horses whose odds are in single digits. For those of us who prefer to target a horse at a better price in this race, the next group offers the best combination of decent odds without getting carried away on a horse with a thin resume…

Hansen (10-1): Three weeks ago Hansen was looking like the Derby favorite before coming in second to Dullahan at the Blue Grass Stakes. He also finished second in Gulfstream’s Holy Bull Stakes, one of the prep races that started the season off in January and he won New York’s Gotham Stakes, the second-best race in the Big Apple after the Wood. Go back to ’11 and Hansen won a Breeders Cup race for two-year-olds and won another stakes race.

I’ll Have Another (12-1) & Alpha (15-1): I’m grouping these two horses together because they fit similar profiles, just from different regions. I’ll Have Another made his reputation in SoCal, winning the Santa Anita Derby and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes. The negative is that last summer he made a trip to upstate New York for the lucrative Saratoga meet…and finished sixth. Alpha comes out of New York, running second in the Wood, and winning two other stakes races. A breakout attempt was made at Breeders…but an 11th-place finish ensued.

Creative Cause (12-1): A California horse that has a third, second and first in three good stakes races, Creative Cause is ridden by Joel Rosario, who is exceeded only by Smith when it comes to elite jockeys on the West Coast. This horse ran three stakes races last year and won two, but both were on the SoCal circuit, so we have no idea how he might run at Churchill.

Daddy Nose Best (15-1):  This is an intriguing horse, in that he’s got a couple a nice stakes wins in the prep season, taking the Sunland Derby and the El Camino Real. The flip side is that the tracks in New Mexico and San Francisco do not attract top-quality horses, even for a  Derby Prep races. Santa Anita does attract god horses and a 2011 stakes race saw Daddy Nose Best finish 5th. And Breeders attracts great horses, and a sixth place finish ensued. So do the prep wins show only what weaker competition can do or that the horse is improving? If you want to believe the latter, you can point to trainer Steve Asmussen, whose record is excellent, including his work with Rachel Alexandra, who became the first filly to win the Preakness Stakes in 76 years back in 2009.

Take Charge Indy (15-1): I find this absolutely mystifying. Take Charge Indy won the Florida Derby, the single best prep race of the season and the one that’s been the most reliable bellwether for predicting the Kentucky Derby. The horse is ridden by Calvin Borel, who’s had more success at Churchill than any other jockey. How is Take Charge Indy not among the favorites? The explanation has to be that the morning linesmakers consider the Florida Derby a fluke and five mediocre outings prior to be indicative. That’s understandable, but when we get to the end and I give my picks, be assured Calvin and Take Charge Indy will be in the mix somewhere.

Shop Kentucky Wildcats basketball gear at Fanatics! Now let’s move to five horses priced at 20-1 and 30-1 respectively. I’d only take a horse at this price if I really liked the jockey or trainer and I was mixing him with some sort of betting package that included a favorite…

El Padrino (20-1): This one’s a candidate to look out, trained by Pletcher and ridden by Javier Castellano, one of the better jockeys on the New York circuit. There’s no significant wins to look at, but there is a respectable 4th at the Florida Derby, and he finished in the money in two other stakes.

Went The Day Well (20-1): Jockey John Velazquez is even better than Castellano in New York and has a win in a stakes race at Turfway. The strength of this horse is he’s relatively unknown with only two other races on his resume, both in Florida and producing a 1st and a 4th. I say it’s a strength because of the odds—if he were a favorite, the morning linesmakers would be overreacting.  But at 20-1 you can make a credible case that his true talent is not yet known.

Daddy Long Legs (30-1): He went across the ocean to win at the Meydan Racecourse in Saudi Arabia in March. No one really knows how good the horses are, as with gambling being illegal in the Muslim country there are no odds posted. He did run at Breeders and finished last.

Prospective (30-1): Success has come in Tampa, with a win in the Tampa Derby, plus another stakes race there back in mid-January. Prospective finished second  in California’s Sam F. Davis Stakes and won 2 of 3 at the Woodbine track in Canada. But his most high-profile race came in the Blue Grass Stakes where he finished sixth.

Sabercat (30-1): Asmussen is the trainer, but that’s all this horse has to recommend him. He ran two high-profile prep races in Arkansas, finishing 3rd in the Arkansas Derby and 8th in the Rebel Stakes. His wins have come at Delta Downs and Monmouth, neither of which is a major track, but was mediocre at Saratoga and here at Churchill last fall.

In 2009 Mine That Bird came out of nowhere and paid $97.50 on a $2 bet. There was no reason whatsoever to pick him other than that Borel was the jockey. If you’re looking to blindly throw a dart and hope it hits the bullseye, these five horses get 50-1 odds…

Optimizer (50-1): D. Wayne Lukas’ horse won his maiden at Saratoga last August and has been running stakes races ever since. Eight of them to be precise. There’s been zero wins and only twice in the money.

Rousing Sermon (50-1): He’s been around the money fairly consistently in SoCal. Five stakes races p[produced a win, two 2nds and two 3rds, and three prep races this year resulted in a two 3rds and a 5th. If you were looking for a longshot on the trifecta this would be one to keep in mind.

Trinniberg (50-1): He’s got a couple stakes wins at Aqueduct in New York and at Gulfstream this year, albeit neither one a major prestige race. A trip to Breeders produced a seventh-place finish.

Done Talking (50-1): I’m surprised there’s not more respect here, given his win in the 17-horse Illinois Derby, the only prep race whose field size even comes close to what we’ll see on Saturday. Critics will say quantity doesn’t mean quality and that’s a fair point. Hawthorne Park in Illinois doesn’t usually attract elite horses and Done Talking’s other wins have come at the minor tracks in Delaware and Philly , while he finished 10th in New York’s more respected Gotham Stakes.

Liasion (50-1): The jockey/trainer combo is here with Baffert giving this horse to Martin Garcia, the same team that won the 2010 Preakness with Lookin’ At Lucky. But Liasion has run three races of significance in SoCal and yet to finish in the money.

That’s the field. As far as the odds, be aware that as betting action develops, the numbers will change. And unlike other sports, in horse racing you get the price that goes off at post time, rather than the number you bet. So the odds you see here can create the framework, but they will change.

In a race known for the upsets, you have to really like a favorite to waste time on them and Bodemeister is the only one of the big four that I really like. I’m very high on Hansen and as I already alluded, I like Take Charge Indy. I also like El Padrino. So the plan is this (and this will be posted in my Bad Betting Advice section, which includes equally misguided hypothetical bets on the NBA & NHL playoffs, plus baseball..

*Put all four horses in a “box “ and bet $24 on the exacta. What this means is that I’m taking every possible combination of 1-2 finish with Hansen, Bodemeister, Take Charge Indy and El Padrino. There’s 12 in all, so this is really twelve bets at $2 apiece, but at the window you can just ask for an exacta box.

*I’ll put $4 on both Hansen and Take Charge Indy to win. I’m citing $4, because when winnings are quoted in the media  afterwards they are always based on $2 bets. For the record, my official pick is Hansen, but given the odds on both horses, I feel it makes sense to hedge and just take both. I like Hansen and Take Charge Indy decisively above the rest of the field.