LAS VEGAS – Whether you're back East at 6:26 p.m. EDT or in a race book here (where it will be 3:26 p.m. PDT Saturday), the “most exciting two minutes in sports” will be must-see TV in the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby.
Seasoned handicappers and novices alike will be trying to figure out the best horses to bet from the 20-horse field, and those that come up with the winner – or the right combination of horses to cash multi-horse wagers like the exacta, trifecta, or superfecta – will usually be rewarded. The Derby has a tradition of producing longshots – including two 50-1 winners in the past decade (Giacomo, 2005, and Mine That Bird, 2009) – but last year when Orb won as the favorite, he still paid 5-1 to his backers. But also remember that Golden Soul finished second and paid $38.60 to place and $19.40 to show, and even with the favorite winning the exacta paid off at $981.60.
So, the main advice I'd pass on to those that might not necessarily follow horse racing every day is to not let yourself get talked out of a bet. If you really like something, whether it's through tireless studying the past performances or just going on a hunch, go for it. The Derby goes to the horse that peaks (or gets the best racing luck with the perfect trip) on the First Saturday in May in its 3-year-old year, and nobody knows for sure who that's going to be.
If you're following the Derby at all, you're sure to hear all sorts of stats thrown your way and most are nonsense. For years, we were told that you couldn't bet a horse that didn't have a certain pedigree (we won't bore you with a discussion of the Dosage Index), or a gelding, or a horse that didn't start as a 2-year-old, or one coming off a layoff of a certain number of weeks. All those (and more) have fallen by the wayside as trainers don't prepare their horses like they used to for the Derby and the rest of the Triple Crown races, and we've seen that any gameplan can succeed with the right horse.
The biggest myth going nowadays is that you can't win from the No. 1 post position. No one wanted to get that at the post-position draw on Wednesday (and it was a huge topic on the NBC Sports Network coverage) as no one has won from the rail since Ferdinand in 1986. Yes, that's a long drought and there's a reason behind it as the No. 1 post actually starts inside the rail and either has to run right for the lead to avoid running into it, or needs to take back and risk betting boxed in among the cavalry charge of horses or sit way back. This year, Vicar's in Trouble drew the rail and Churchill Downs morning-linemaker Mike Battaglia even said he raised him “a little bit” to 30-1. But if he's your horse, don't get talked off him. I don't know if it'll be this year or in the next three years or the next ten, but one of these years a horse is going to win the Derby from the No. 1 post and at overlay odds.
Another long-held belief was that horses were at a huge disadvantage starting from the auxiliary gate (the main starting gate holds 14 horses, then there's a second gate on the outside with six more slots). But that's mostly been put to rest as Big Brown won as the favorite from the outside No. 20 post in 2008 and, in fact, the last three Derby winners have come from the auxiliary gate with Animal Kingdom (16), I'll Have Another (19) and Orb (15). The other stat you're likely to hear is that no horse has ever won from the No. 17 gate – and Commanding Curve drew that slot this year – but it's silly to think that's anything but mere coincidence as it's no worse than post 16 or 19. Consider also that there's been 34 starters from post 17 and there's been 139 runnings of the Derby, so the vast majority of times it wasn't even possible for a No. 17 horse to win.
I've rambled long enough without mentioning that No. 5 California Chrome is the 5-2 morning-line favorite off his four-race winning streak and a 5¼-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby and getting a so-called favorable draw. No. 11 Hoppertunity, the runner-up in that race, was the second choice on the morning line but scratched Thursday morning and that role will now be taken by Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong, who was 8-1 after drawing the No. 20 post but will now probably go off lower.
California Chrome is being called the best Derby horse since Big Brown and being highly touted as the horse to end the Triple Crown drought as that hasn't been accomplished since 1979 with Affirmed. It's interesting to note that for overcoming such odds, he's being offered at +800 (odds of 8-1) to win the Triple Crown at the Wynn Las Vegas. “Any horse” to win this year's Triple Crown is +650 (odds of 6.5-1), while you can also bet against it by laying -850 (risk $850 to get back a profit of $100).
No matter who you're considering, it's worthwhile to keep an eye on the odds during the course of the day on Saturday. While I'd say the top three horses have odds that shouldn't fluctuate too much, there are others that are likely to see their odds rise and become worth a shot if ignored by the betting public. However, there's one horse that if almost certain to get bet lower and diminish his betting value: No. 19 Ride On Curlin. That's because he has jockey Calvin Borel, a Churchill favorite and winner of three Derbys in 2007, 2009 and 2010 (and he was third last year with Revolutionary). He's almost sure to get bet down over the weekend, so if you like him and have a book where you can lock in your odds instead of going through the pari-mutuel system, that would probably be the way to bet him.
Happy handicapping and enjoy your Derby Day.
Dave Tuley is an award-winning journalist who has covered the Las Vegas race & sports beat since 1998, first for the GamingToday newspaper in Vegas and has written for Daily Racing Form since 2000. Tuley started his own website, ViewFromVegas.com, in 2007 and has written for other websites, including ESPN.com. In 2006, he won "Best News Story" by the Professional Football Writers of America, the only time a gambling story has won a PFWA award. Tuley, 47, grew up in the Chicago suburbs and is married with children in Vegas. His roots can be seen in the names of his three children: daughters Jordyn and Peyton (named for Walter Payton, not Peyton Manning) and son Maddux. Dave can be followed on Twitter @ViewFromVegas.