A writer came on a talk show I was working at ESPN New York many years ago. The way he threw water all over some overcooked radio topic was classic. And unforgettable.
“Stop,” he said in a scolding tone. “Every time I hear someone blast out all that unnecessary hype, I feel like I need to go to my garage and get my tamping tool.”
(For the record, I was not the host. His name shall go with me to my urn.)
With my own tamping tool in hand, allow me to tap the brakes on Art Collector and his 3½-length victory Saturday in the Blue Grass Stakes. Before I haul my gloomy cloud into place over his growing parade, I will acknowledge the positives that led to his Kentucky Derby futures odds being cut to 8-1 at William Hill Nevada and 7-1 at Circa Sports:
— His 103 Beyer Speed Figure was the highest for any active 3-year-old on the Derby trail, giving him triple-digit ratings in each of his last two starts.
— His closing fractions were 12.79 seconds for the last furlong and 37.41 for the last three, according to Trakus. Those are well within the frame for the last 1⅛-mile preps run by 27 of the last 30 Derby winners, according to Jennie Rees’ Final Fractions Theory.
— He steadily stretched his lead late in the race with a confident stride that looked a little like his daddy, 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini.
On its face, that looks like plenty. And maybe he will put it all together Sept. 5 and wear the roses in what will be the first Derby for journeyman Kentucky trainer Tommy Drury and the third for jockey Brian Hernandez Jr.
But here is why bettors like me are saying whoa:
— The Beyer is deceiving. The sun-baked Keeneland courses were spitting out track records like Pez dispensers. Yes, most were on the turf. But one — Speech’s 1:41.26 for the 8½-furlong Grade 1 Ashland for 3-year-old fillies — was on the main track. Art Collector’s 1:48.11 for 9 furlongs was 0.36 seconds off the record for that distance, or about 1¾ lengths.
— Art Collector and Speech both stalked the early pace in remarkably similar fashion. Trakus said Art Collector went his first mile in 1:35.44. Speech went hers in 1:35.07. The difference of 0.37 seconds was, again, about 1¾ lengths. (Somehow, Speech got a lower Beyer of 101.)
— The Blue Grass field was not great. Trainer Kenny McPeek said that was a big reason he entered his filly Swiss Skydiver. The race had only two graded-stakes winners among the rest of the starters — Enforceable in this year’s Grade 3 Lecomte and Basin in last year’s Grade 1 Hopeful.
— The simple eye test did not persuade me that Art Collector was as good as Belmont Stakes winner Tiz The Law or Santa Anita Derby winner Honor A. P. He did not even show the flash that Bob Baffert’s two-time starter, Uncle Chuck, displayed in winning in the Los Alamitos Futurity.
I admit it. Flash does not always win the Kentucky Derby. Look at American Pharoah in 2015. He finally wore down Firing Line in a way that reminded me a little of what Art Collector did in the stretch to dispose of Swiss Skydiver with at least 150 yards to spare.
Right now, though, 3-year-old talent is spread thinly across the newly anointed Derby preps. That seems to be forgotten with each passing victory by a short-priced favorite or, in the case of the Blue Grass, a short-priced second choice. Now off the trail because of a bone bruise, Wells Bayou was the longest shot to win a major prep this year, paying only $8.40 in the Louisiana Derby.
I will concede that Art Collector now has, as Vin Scully would say, a “marching and chowder society.” And he deserves it. So do Drury and Hernandez, two men who are the very definitions of seasoned professionals.
But from the standpoint of a bettor, is Art Collector worth it at 8-1 to win the Derby? It is a wise move only if it is more likely that his parimutuel odds will be much shorter at post time Sept. 5. That might take Tiz The Law and Uncle Chuck losing in the Travers, and Honor A. P. losing in the Shared Belief, and Authentic losing next week in the Haskell.
Otherwise I see Art Collector being no shorter than a third choice in the Derby and more likely a fourth. What are we talking about then? Maybe 6-1? Maybe. So it does not seem worth betting him at 8-1 right now and risking that he does not get to the gate at Churchill Downs for whatever reason.
On the other hand, between March 1 and May 12, William Hill held Art Collector’s odds at 250-1. Bettors who got him during those 73 days are the ones who should be smiling like Cheshire cats.
As for everyone hopping on the Art Collector bandwagon since Saturday, get those ankles taped. Because they might get hurt jumping on and off Derby bandwagons.
Derby futures: Who’s hot?
Tiz The Law (11-5 Circa, 11-5 William Hill).
There are a couple of ways to look at Circa cutting these odds to be level with William Hill’s. One is that it is carrying a lot of liability on the Derby favorite. The other is that for the perpetual recency bias for every prep winner of the week, there is still only one 3-year-old with three Grade 1 victories that include the Belmont Stakes. Until Tiz The Law races in the Travers next month, horseplayers and bookmakers may simply lather, rinse, repeat.
Enforceable (40-1, 50-1).
He finished fourth in the Blue Grass, meaning he has been out of the money in his last two races. While William Hill drifted him from 30-1, why did Circa shorten him from 48-1? It might be exposure. But it might also be the way trainer Mark Casse’s Tapit colt finished. At 12.77 seconds, according to Trakus, he had the fastest final furlong of the race. His 37.93 for the last 3 furlongs also fits the Final Fractions Theory. His 43 points might be enough to get in, but it feels like he needs another win before he goes to Churchill Downs.
Rushie (65-1, 125-1).
This is a stretch to call him hot after he faded to finish third in the Blue Grass. Again, Circa shortened him, while he drifted at William Hill. Those who still carry some hope for him will point out that he broke inward Saturday and was forced to take back rather than use his usual style of stalking the pace. Javier Castellano might not have known what he had under him, but why would he? This allowance winner by Liam’s Map has had six different jockeys in as many starts, and he has lost with two Hall of Famers.
Derby futures: Who’s not?
Basin (55-1, 50-1).
The top four betting choices in the Blue Grass finished second, first, third and fourth. The chalk burn was cooled by this colt, another one by Liam’s Map. As the fifth betting choice at 10-1, he finished 10th. In his four starts this year for trainer Steve Asmussen, he lost by 7¾, 5¼, 6 and 17¾ lengths, and the last three were at 1⅛ miles. It is easy to forget that he was a Grade 1 winner last year, running 6½ lengths clear in the Saratoga slop. That was in the 7-furlong Hopeful. Maybe single turns at shorter distances would provide Basin with more hope.
Swiss Skydiver (unlisted, 100-1).
McPeek said if she did not become the first filly to win in 96 runnings of the Blue Grass, he would wake her from her Kentucky Derby dream. After her second-place finish Saturday, McPeek doubled down on that by saying she would probably be pointed back to the Kentucky Oaks. Circa took that to heart. After opening her at 65-1 last week, it removed her from its Derby futures. William Hill moved her from 75-1. But don’t tear up those futures tickets just yet. She still beat all 11 males not named Art Collector, and the 40 points she earned might be enough to tempt McPeek to avoid Gamine in the Oaks and take on the boys all over again Sept. 5.
Cafe Pharoah (30-1, 20-1).
So much for all the hype about this American Pharoah colt’s trending videos from Japan. Only 17 days after his off-the-charts win in a Grade 3 mile, he was an odds-on favorite last week for the 1¼-mile Japan Dirt Derby. Racing in the mud at Oi Racecourse in Tokyo, he stumbled badly going into the first turn and never recovered, fading to seventh. That result wiped away any incentive that connections had to fight through pandemic red tape and travel to America. Now it looks like there will be no horse from Japan in this year’s Derby.