In an unusual year, the Breeders’ Cup draw unfolded in its usual fashion Monday evening. There were too many people considered too important not to make too many speeches, including one too many book plugs, before the 184 horses were drawn one by one into the 14 championship races.
During those 85 minutes of perfunctory pill pulls and mangled horse names at the Keeneland sales ring in Kentucky, there was a moment that resonated less like the ringing of a bell and more like the banging of a frying pan.
“Post position 11 for Ivar, the morning-line choice at 4-1,” co-host Nick Luck said.
Ivar? Ivar is favored in the Breeders’ Cup Mile? Not this year’s 2,000 Guineas winner Kameko? Not last year’s Mile winner Uni? Instead it is a South American-bred horse that pulled off a 14-1 surprise in winning last month’s Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile.
Can you hear my drums, Fernando? I know I am not alone in beating one for so many years that it needs fresh canvas and maybe Questlove to take over.
Say it with me: “The morning line is one person’s opinion. The morning line is based on zero betting dollars. The morning line is worth every cent put into it.”
Use one of those Bart Simpson chalkboard generators to write these truisms over and over again, if only to reinforce that horseplayers should not genuflect at the looming altar of those odds that are digitally carved under the program numbers.
So why is the morning line considered gospel? Partly gamblers’ laziness. But also because some of these opinion shapers are very good at what they do. They include Mike Battaglia, who pioneered the craft a half-century ago. He has been estimating post-time odds longer than most horseplayers have been alive. His track record is good reason that he commands the respect he enjoys across North America.
Try as I might, I could not reach him to pick his brain. He might have been a little busy at his old Kentucky home writing the odds estimates that were recited Monday evening.
But nobody is perfect, and there is evidence that Battaglia got it wrong in the Mile. Kameko has been the foreign futures favorite for weeks, now showing at 9-2 in global wagering and according to Oddschecker.com, which monitors 21 bookmakers in Europe. Uni is next at 6-1.
Easy as it is to scoff at international betting markets, they do reflect real money and have been accurate in gauging U.S. parimutuels. Limited as they may be, domestic futures booked in Nevada by Circa Sports and William Hill are usually in step with foreign betting.
Take a snapshot of the best futures prices at the moment the morning line is announced, and compare those with the final parimutuels. In the Belmont Stakes in June, the advance fixed prices were closer than the morning line to the post-time odds for seven of the 10 horses. In the Travers in August, futures were more accurate for six of the seven starters. For the Preakness last month, it was seven of 11.
The glaring exception to the trend was the Kentucky Derby. There the morning line was more accurate than the futures in forecasting 15 of the 16 horses’ post-time odds. It was probably no coincidence that that morning line, unlike the other three, was written by Battaglia.
Another factor that made the Derby different was the greater liability that bookmakers faced on that race than any other. With the pandemic postponement from May to September, bets were taken on the 2020 race for more than a year. That could also be an excuse for why the futures were not that accurate a barometer for the Derby’s parimutuel bettors.
For handicappers racing the clock to wade through all 14 Breeders’ Cup races, not to mention the Keeneland undercards Friday and Saturday, shortcuts become a perilous necessity. Envy is thrust on the horseplayer who ignores the morning line and all the other noise to accurately gauge those last flashes of the mutuels. Many of us, however, look quickly to the morning line to sniff out overlays.
It finally must be reinforced that morning lines are predictions of where the money will go, not how the race will be run and won. No doubt Battaglia believes that horseplayers will put a lot of weight on Ivar’s victory in the Shadwell Turf Mile, which happened to be over the same course and distance as Saturday’s running of the Breeders’ Cup Mile.
I respectfully beg to differ, even going as far as to say on Twitter that I will take a bite of my pillow and swallow it if Ivar goes off as the favorite. Just in case I have to pay off, please let anyone other than the My Pillow guy recommend a proper condiment.