And now for something completely different. Half the year — even more in 2020 — this story has been about Kentucky Derby futures. This week — and this week only — it is about the Kentucky Oaks.
For 54½ hours, starting at noon ET Friday and ending at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, American bettors have their only legal chance to get early action on the 3-year-old fillies that will race April 30. This is the week — actually more like the half-week — when Churchill Downs makes book on its only scheduled Oaks futures. It will run almost concurrently with its fourth pari-mutuel pool for the Kentucky Derby. (The Derby pool goes until Sunday at 6 p.m. EST, a half-hour before the Oaks pool closes.)
Ponder that for a moment or two. In an era when sports gambling is expanding across the country, the amount of time allowed to bet early on the distaff answer to the Kentucky Derby will not last much longer than flowers that bloom for a day or two each spring and then fall away. Never mind Lilies for the Fillies. In a country still mired in priggish roots that are anathema to betting, these are daylilies.
In the supposed bastion of hedonism known as Nevada, even after the fire hose of racing money was reduced to a drip, bookmakers not so long ago stopped taking futures action on the Derby-eve feature. That leaves Kentucky as the land of betting plenty for the Oaks. Yet despite a 15% increase from 2019, last year’s regularly scheduled KOFW attracted only $101,841. Don’t blame COVID-19. That pool closed days before Adam Silver used Rudy Gobert’s positive test as a prod to suspend virtually all sports.
Back here in Nevada, the KOFW is off limits. At least legally. Like racetracks and simulcast rights controlled by Churchill Downs Inc., the Oaks futures and Derby pari-mutuels are still unavailable because of the stubborn, chest-thumping battle over money and power between CDI and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association. That dispute, incidentally, reaches its 500th day Tuesday. Even the hostages held by Iran in the early ’80s were freed in eight weeks’ less time.
For those in the rest of the country who actually get the 54½-hour opportunity this week, even the shortest-priced individual fillies may offer value. That is another way of expressing the cliche that the Oaks market is wide open.
This should be the time for Vequist (15-1 KOFW morning line) to dominate the betting. Last year’s champion among juvenile fillies would have been the obvious individual Oaks favorite. That was until she began her 2021 season Saturday with a bumpy exit from the gate before finishing next to last in the Grade 2 Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
In the treacherous world of foreign futures, one global book made Wholebodemeister (12-1), the 52-1 Davona Dale winner, its 4-1 Oaks favorite. Really? She is 13 times more likely to win the Kentucky Oaks than she was to win a Grade 2 race in the Florida winter? That is a tremendous underlay, which is less about the filly and more about the shiny 6½ lengths of dirt between her and the rest of Saturday’s field. More telling, her 1:36.89 for the one-turn mile got her an 84 Beyer Speed Figure, an anomalous 20 points better than her previous best as a modest allowance winner.
For bettors content to draw a line through the Davona Dale, Vequist comes at a best price of 10-1 in Europe.
“We did scope her after the race, and she was a little dirty,” trainer Butch Reid told the Gulfstream Park media team Sunday. “She had some mucus in there, and I think it definitely affected her performance a little bit. Right now she’s happy and sound, and that’s the main thing.”
Snotty pipes aside, Vequist might yet be the favorite by Sunday’s closing of the KOFW, which offers 23 specific fillies plus an “all others” mutuel entry (8-1).
Undefeated Malathaat (6-1) seems worthy of her plus-650 price in the European market, which is monitored by Oddschecker.com. She is 3-for-3, but she has not raced since she won the Grade 2 Demoiselle three months ago at Aqueduct. She had her first workout in a month when she breezed 4 furlongs Sunday in a reported time of 49.21 seconds at Palm Beach Downs. She may be back soon for three-time Oaks-winning trainer Todd Pletcher.
Li’l Tootsie (30-1) has an 89 Beyer, the highest this year among 3-year-old fillies. But the best of the crop came when Dayoutoftheoffice (12-1) uncorked a 95 in her two-length victory over Vequist in October in the Grade 1 Frizette at Belmont Park.
Vequist with a 93, Girl Daddy (KOFW mutuel entry) with a 90 and Simply Ravishing (12-1) with a 90 also got their best Beyers as 2-year-olds, finishing first, third and fourth, respectively, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Yet to race since that November day at Keeneland, Girl Daddy is 18-1 in foreign futures. Unraced since she was fourth Thanksgiving weekend in the Grade 2 Golden Rod at Churchill Downs, Simply Ravishing is 25-1 abroad.
The Beyers across two seasons can be misleading, though, since they are tamped down early each year to allow room for possible improvement later on the calendar. Beyerologists cannot hand out 95s in March like they were Skittles at Halloween. Otherwise they would be cornered into giving 110s to pedestrian winners of autumn stakes.
If recent momentum is the gauge preferred by Joes more than pros — and isn’t it always? — it lies with Clairiere (5-1), the KOFW morning-line favorite. The Steve Asmussen-trained filly won the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra, albeit with a soft 83 Beyer. Not to forget that it is Brad Cox’s world nowadays, the current training champion with two wins in the last three Oaks has Travel Column (6-1), the frontrunner that lost the lead late to Clairiere 2½ weeks ago.
There are two overarching ways to look at the KOFW. One, this could be the only chance to get a good double-digit price on a horse that will most certainly shorten to single digits in a little more than eight weeks. Two, the Oaks is a mask for a game of Three-card Monte. Just because this lone opportunity exists to dive into the race early, that does not mean bettors have to grab the bait.
Put it this way. If a 10-1 wager two months before the Kentucky Derby is a bad idea, why is it any better for the Kentucky Oaks?
Caveat punter — but only for a little more than two days.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S HOT?
Essential Quality (6-1 Circa, 4-1 William Hill). All he had to do was show up and win Saturday in the twice-postponed Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The male juvenile champion of 2020 needed only to be shown the crop by jockey Florent Geroux in his first race as a 3-year-old. Under that hand ride he splashed his way to a 4¼-length triumph. It came against a field that might have looked better before the race than it did after, but Essential Quality has a way of making other horses look bad. If he looks as good winning his last prep next month, he will be very short-priced at post time May 1. Yes, 6-1 may look good compared with race day. But so did I Want Revenge and Omaha Beach, whose race-week exits turned futures tickets into cautionary lessons.
Greatest Honour (7-1, 5-1). Deep closers always catch the eye — and the betting money. Yes, he looked like a stallion among colts Saturday. In winning the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth, he made up 8½ lengths and passed eight supposed rivals like they were standing still. In a way, they were. The 1:44.02 time was the 26th slowest in the 67 times the race has been run at 8½ furlongs. Historic trends also say deep closers do not win the Kentucky Derby. Country House needed a disqualification ahead of him to do it two years ago. Then again, Orb did it in 2013, and his trainer was Shug McGaughey, the same man who looks after this guy. Greatest Honour might make believers of fellow skeptics if he wins the Florida Derby, but that does not necessarily make him worth 7-1 in March.
Life Is Good (7-1, 9-2). He has not raced since he won the Grade 3 Sham Stakes on Jan. 2, but he has looked good in workouts, firing a bullet two weeks ago. Last time anyone checked, he is still trained by Bob Baffert, a Derby-winning machine. He will be a big favorite Saturday for the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. A win there will make him the Derby favorite until Essential Quality and Greatest Honour race again. But seriously, 7-1? If he wins this weekend, wrap him in cotton and carry him to Kentucky.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S NOT?
Jackie’s Warrior (200-1, 60-1). Not every Into Mischief colt is built to run for the roses. He was 4-for-4 in one-turn races, including a pair of Grade 1s. But going two turns in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Saturday in the Southwest, he looked overmatched, finishing fourth at Keeneland and third in the slop at Oaklawn. No more second turns for this guy. It is just another example of how fleeting early opinion can be. Last fall William Hill opened him as the 15-1 Derby favorite.
Senor Buscador (not listed). A strained ligament took the Remington Springboard Mile winner off the Derby trail. After his fifth-place finish coming off Lasix on Feb. 13 in the Grade 2 Risen Star, he drifted to 55-1 in the Las Vegas futures. His injury was discovered the morning after a Friday workout, and that took his name off the boards.
Notable Exception (not listed). Late comedian and racing fan Tim Conway guest-hosted a TV show on ABC in the winter of 1969. It was a sketch comedy called “Turn On,” and it was reputedly canceled before the first episode was even finished. The same might be said of this Calumet Farm homebred sired by Street Sense and trained by Jack Sisterson. A maiden winner, Circa opened him late last week at 450-1. He looked listless finishing ninth as a 42-1 long shot Friday in the John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park. Right after that, Circa dropped him. Is there any collector’s value in a futures ticket on Notable Exception?
In addition to this report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently for coverage of big events. You can also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Originating from Santa Anita, this week’s episode is centered on the Big ’Cap and Kentucky Derby points preps in California, New York and Florida. Former NFL quarterback and longtime horseplayer Shaun King and South Point sportsbook director Chris Andrews are among the scheduled guests. The RFRP is available for download Friday and free subscription now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.