It was a blinding sight at 3:30 a.m. Thursday, when an insomniac writer faced a blank screen with visions of Kentucky Derby prep races begging for perspective. That is when an inner Archimedes was heard barking an exclamation from a flooded, 2,200-year-old bathtub.
Has it occurred to anyone how the buildup to the Derby marches in step with the college basketball calendar? The second half of the conference regular season comes in conjunction with the early win-and-you’re-in races. Championship Week happens around the time the climactic preps begin. By the time the Derby field takes shape with the Blue Grass and the Wood Memorial and the Santa Anita Derby, it will be Final Four weekend.
During a President’s Day weekend when we look forward to Villanova playing Creighton, and Michigan visiting Wisconsin, and Gonzaga – well, never mind Gonzaga – the Derby preps start to look more important. The winner of Saturday’s $400,000 Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans is virtually assured of getting to Churchill Downs on May 1. (There are some mathematical permutations that say that is not assuredly true, but eight years of reality say it is.)
Now comes a familiar history lesson. The fierce truth about the Fair Grounds being anything but a Derby proving ground is déjà vu for regular readers of this column. It bears repeating for any horseplayer thinking of going long with futures bets on horses coming out of Saturday’s race.
From 52 runnings of the Risen Star only War Emblem, sixth in 2002, and Country House*, second in 2019 on the way to that big, fat, stewards’ asterisk in Kentucky, went on to wear roses. That 2-for-52 translates to 3.8 percent. The strike rate is about the same for the Louisiana Derby – 4-for-107 (3.7 percent) – again with Country House* being the most recent.
Contrast the Fair Grounds with Gulfstream Park. The 78 runnings of the Fountain of Youth have produced 13 Kentucky Derby winners (16.7 percent). The Florida Derby is off the charts at 24-for-69 (34.8 percent). Santa Anita has also been fertile; the San Felipe is 13-for-84 (15.5 percent), the Santa Anita Derby 19-for-85 (22.4 percent).
What may be changing, though, is the style of horse that successfully comes out of the Risen Star. The winners the last three years, including two divisions in 2020, were either frontrunners or stalkers. That ended six consecutive victories by closers, the types of horses that have been disadvantaged since the Kentucky Derby established its points system of qualifying in 2012-13. If this new trend continues, maybe it is only a matter of time before the Risen Star produces its third winner at Louisville.
(Yes, Country House* was a closer. But anyone who regarded that outcome as anything but a fluke of regulatory fiat ignored his 65-1 odds – or cashed a big ticket on him.)
Mandaloun (9-2) inherited the morning-line favorite’s mantle for Saturday’s of the Risen Star when Keepmeinmind (3-1) was rerouted to the rescheduled Southwest Stakes next weekend at Oaklawn Park. He has been an off-the-pace horse, but he showed flashes of being a pace chaser in his wide run to third place last month in the Grade 3 Lecomte. Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is adding blinkers, which may lead to Mandaloun going forward Saturday.
Lecomte winner Midnight Bourbon (6-1) led the whole way and held on late to finish first in the Lecomte, in which Proxy (8-1) was in striking distance the whole way before settling for second. Starrininmydreams (12-1) also figures to be prominent early.
If Mandaloun, Midnight Bourbon, Proxy or Starrininmydreams scores Saturday or gives the winner all he can handle, being forwardly placed turning into the 448-yard homestretch at the Fair Grounds could be seen as translating favorably in 2½ months to the 411-yard run home at Churchill Downs.
Conversely, Springboard Mile winner Señor Buscador (6-1), Defeater (12-1) and O Besos (12-1) are all closers, so bettors may be best advised to take heed before thinking they carry Derby-winning form.
For most gamblers it comes down to whether the price is right, not just in weekend races but in long-term futures. The definition of “right,” though, changes as the pages of the calendar are turned.
It is getting close to that time when it becomes less attractive to jump on a horse at 150-1 to win the Kentucky Derby when he clearly has no shot at anything more competitive than a weekday allowance race. Circa Sports has escalated the odds recently on scores of its longest Derby shots. Meanwhile, William Hill Nevada dropped 41 horses altogether this week from its futures.
With 11 weeks until May 1, a 9-1 price for Life Is Good still looks like a sucker play. But 50-1, which looked too cheap a month ago, may yet be a good price to take for a horse like Mandaloun.
This dive into the deepening waters of prep races brings back the basketball analogy. Was Illinois worth a bet last month at 16-1? How about Texas Tech at 32-1? With Selection Sunday only 30 days away, do these odds look better now?
It is not exactly closing time at the bar on Saturday night, but with the Blue Grass and Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby just six weeks off, now may be the time to fish or cut bait on Derby futures. Or just be content waiting until race week in late April.
Racing notes and opinions
With heavy rain forecast by the National Weather Service for Friday and a 50 percent chance of showers Saturday, the Risen Star could play out on a muddy or sloppy track. Four of the 12 expected starters sport wet-race experience. They include would-be favorite Mandaloun. Sired by the top 2020 stallion Into Mischief, he broke his maiden last fall sprinting over a Keeneland course rated good. Coming back from a two-month break, 2-for-2 Starrininmydreams won by a nose for trainer Dallas Stewart going 8½ furlongs in Churchill Downs slop in his last start. O Besos broke his maiden in a wet December sprint that was taken off the turf at the Fair Grounds. Sermononthemount (50-1) was a debut winner in the slop at Delta Downs in December but looks out of his league this weekend. The same may be said for Señor Buscador, one of only two stakes winners in this field and one of seven that is coming off Lasix. Midnight Bourbon is the other, having won the Lecomte over Proxy, Mandaloun and Santa Cruiser (15-1). He and Joe Talamo used the rail to their advantage last month. This time they start from post 6 and have to go nine furlongs. Wet conditions could favor him again, and with blinkers added it is hard to look past Mandaloun. By Tapit out of an Include mare, it is also hard to ignore the wet-weather possibilities for Proxy, and he gets Hall of Fame jockey John Velázquez flying in from Florida. Chalky though they may be, the top three in the Lecomte will be my exacta and trifecta plays with Starrininmydreams thrown in, too. More is the pity on those poor souls who ignore Stewie’s long shots. The Risen Star post time is Saturday at 7:18 p.m. EST.
The 3-year-old debut of 2020 juvenile champion Essential Quality was postponed because of a winter storm that is expected to pound Hot Springs, Ark., this weekend. Oaklawn Park’s races Saturday-Monday were postponed, including the $750,000 Grade 3 Southwest Stakes, in which trainer Brad Cox’s colt was expected to be favored. That Derby prep has been pushed to next Saturday. Absent that race this weekend Darley America president Jimmy Bell discussed the breeding of Essential Quality on the new episode of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. One topic that came up was the headstrong nature of Tapit and his progeny and whether more docile mares are preferred as breeding partners.
Although it is a bona fide, minor points prep for the Kentucky Derby, Saturday’s $100,000 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields is a better bellwether for the Preakness Stakes. Tank’s Prospect, Snow Chief, Tabasco Cat and Charismatic are among the horses that came through northern California on the way to winning at Pimlico. There is a big asterisk, though. That was before the race was moved to Berkeley in 2009 after Bay Meadows was closed and eventually torn down in San Mateo. Now run over nine furlongs on a synthetic track, this is the third year it is an automatic qualifier for the Preakness. The deep closer Rombauer (8-5) is favored on the strength of his graded-stakes starts as a 2-year-old, including a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 American Pharoah. He also had a bullet 59.2-second work over five furlongs at Santa Anita last Saturday. The lean here, though, is with Petruchio (3-1), a maiden winner on turf that finished third in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity. If there is a course horse worth watching, it may be It’s My House (20-1). He was a maiden winner at six furlongs last month, and he gets hot local jockey Billy Antongeorgi. The concern is that he comes off Lasix, but the risk-reward quotient makes him worth including in exotics. Wet weather with a cross wind is forecast for the El Camino Real Derby, which is posted for Saturday at 7:37 p.m. EST.
Pool 3 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager is this weekend. It was scheduled to open Friday at noon EST and close Sunday at 6 p.m. The morning line shows Essential Quality and Life Is Good as the individual co-favorites at 8-1. Last Saturday’s Grade 2 San Vicente sprint winner Concert Tour, 20-1 on the morning line, has been bet heavily here in Las Vegas. My guess is that he is closer to 10-1 in the national pari-mutuels. Would I bet on it? Not at odds that short.
Don’t hold your breath for anything beyond minimal coverage in this space of next week’s $20 million Saudi Cup. It was bad enough that this race had a still unaccounted-for false start in 2019. Worse yet was the draconian punishment of jockeys Mike Smith and Irad Ortiz Jr. for crop use in its inaugural running last year. There was also the use of an after-the-fact U.S. government doping indictment as an excuse not to pay Gary and Mary West $10 million when Maximum Security won the race. It goes beyond that. Since the regime that runs that event and that country has a track record of murdering journalists, I do not feel welcome covering the race, even from a third of a world away. Social distancing, indeed.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. The first win-and-you’re-in prep for the Kentucky Derby and the return of a 2020 champion highlight the current episode of the RFRP. Fair Grounds track announcer John G. Dooley previews Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes in New Orleans. Darley America president Jimmy Bell discusses the upcoming return of 2020 juvenile champion Essential Quality. DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello handicaps weekend races. The RFRP is available for download and free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.