Las Vegas oddsmakers have professional personalities that reflect the racebooks where they work. Paul Bach at Caesars Sportsbook at William Hill Nevada and Paul Zilm at Circa Sports provided perfect examples last weekend after the final Kentucky Derby points prep of 2021.
Epicenter’s victory in the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds attracted the usual flavor-of-the-week attention. But plenty more racebook idiosyncrasies were on display, many of which might attract the average bettor or even repel the seasoned horseplayer.
Most notable was Circa raising the odds for two-thirds of the 238 horses it has listed in its 2022 Kentucky Derby futures. It started right at the top with Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Corniche. After opening him Dec. 1 at 9-1, Zilm has drifted him gradually to his current price of 12-1, not far from the 15-1 where Caesars at William Hill started him in early October.
Most of the upward movement at Circa was with horses that are at least 100-1. At the same time, Zilm cut the odds for 13 horses, mostly those already carrying shorter prices. He also posted four new choices, leaving only 61 to hold firm from last week.
“Obviously, we have taken action on a few horses, which resulted in the lowering of prices,” Zilm said. “I pretty much raised a bulk of the field to counter that and make sure I get back to the hold percentage I started with.”
Intentional or not, Zilm’s moves also reflected Circa’s aggressive personality, a characteristic that has been consistent in the 2½ years it has been in the Derby futures business. It also reflects sportsbook director Matt Metcalf’s reputation for being unafraid to take bold risks in booking everything from the NFL to tennis.
Conversely, Caesars at William Hill held the line from last week on about 90 percent of the 184 horses in its Derby futures. Corniche, for example, has held steady at 6-1 since his Breeders’ Cup triumph in early November. This week the book shortened the odds for six horses, went longer with only two and added six new names.
That was in keeping with Caesars at William Hill’s conservative approach to horse futures, a reputation that has been honed for more than a decade going back to the days when Joe Asher, now president of sports betting for International Game Technology, was running William Hill.
The merger with Caesars might have made the name of the book unwieldy, but Bach has stayed the course with an approach that suggests a loyalty to the bottom line for his company, no matter what it is called. Asher may be gone, but Bach still has his hand on the tiller of the futures, as he has for more than 10 years.
Where this will be most important to gamblers will be late in the Derby campaign, when both Circa and Caesars at William Hill will have a good idea about their exposure. For now Corniche is not allowed in the Derby, so both books would be well positioned to come out ahead on all the money that has been bet on him. If he should be moved away from the banned Bob Baffert to another trainer, Corniche would create more liability, even if the expectation of that has been baked into the current odds.
“I tend to have Baffert horses lower,” Bach said in October. “They always get played off the board, regardless of odds.”
That rings of someone who has homed in on the end of the Derby trail. Not that Zilm hasn’t, but it is clear he is unflinchingly watching day-to-day activity. One thing he does not want at Circa is a dormant market.
“There are definitely some betting interests that have shown zero interest at the price they are,” Zilm said. “I have been raising the odds to see where the resistance might be.”
Casual players might see that as a boon, but that does not turn a bad horse into a good play. That is why seasoned bettors might see the higher odds as fool’s gold. Not to pick on Eloquist, but does this maiden winner who was 14¼ lengths up the track in the Remsen Stakes look any more like a Derby winner at 400-1 than he did last week at 350-1?
It is just one more reason for bettors to have a number in mind for any given horse — and not to let that number be swayed only by the marketplace. It also serves as a reminder that barring a dead heat May 7, a maximum of one of these horses will win the Kentucky Derby.
Put it this way: When it comes to winning the roses and the bets that go with them, the most important movement between now and next spring will not be with the odds. It will be with a horse.
Epicenter (40-1 Circa, 25-1 Caesars at William Hill): This colt by Not This Time went from maiden winner to Derby points getter when he scored in the inaugural Gun Runner. Epicenter, trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, will try to overcome Fair Grounds history. Only five Derby winners ever have come through the New Orleans track, including asterisked winner Country House in 2019. Working in his favor, though, was a Derby-friendly, pace-chasing style that the long homestretch at Fair Grounds does not routinely reward. A 40-1 price seems expensive to find out if Epicenter will continue to be an exception.
Echo Zulu (30-1, 75-1): Circa took some serious action on the soon-to-be-crowned champion 2-year-old filly of 2021, cutting her from 100-1 to 30-1. She, too, is trained by Asmussen, who has shown no inclination to point her away from the Kentucky Oaks. If, however, she were to blow away rival fillies in the February running of the Rachel Alexandra, who knows?
Newgrange (80-1, 100-1): It was not that this Violence colt was a debut winner Thanksgiving weekend at Del Mar. He and Doppelganger reportedly were the two Baffert colts being aimed at Saturday’s Sham Stakes, which suddenly has become a proving ground for Churchill Downs. Authentic and the late Medina Spirit made their 3-year-old debuts in this Santa Anita race before winning the last two runnings of the Kentucky Derby. Yes, the Baffert factor cuts both ways, but there was enough interest in Newgrange that Circa lowered him from 125-1.
Cyberknife (32-1, 50-1): On the surface this looks like a hot horse. Circa moved Cyberknife from 55-1 and Caesars at William Hill from 75-1. He is a $400,000 Gun Runner colt trained by soon-to-be two-time Eclipse Award winner Brad Cox. He broke his maiden Sunday at Fair Grounds an hour after Epicenter’s victory, but that was on his third try. Cyberknife barely won the race, tiring late in the 8½ furlongs at a less than blazing pace. This does not bode well for 1¼ miles in May.
Rocket Dawg (35-1, 45-1): Hot last week, he is definitely not this week, but he had an alibi. Rocket Dawg was the very definition of rank through the first half of the Gun Runner Stakes. Jockey Florent Geroux had his hands full fighting the Classic Empire colt until the needle hit empty with 3 furlongs left. Rocket Dawg finished next to last, nearly 24 lengths behind as the 4-5 favorite. If Cox can figure out what got into this maiden winner — and get it out of him — maybe his backers can draw a line through last weekend. The books have gone opposite directions with him. Circa drifted him from 20-1. Caesars at William Hill cut him from 60-1.
Kevin’s Folly (225-1, 175-1): He was the fourth betting choice in the Gun Runner, and he finished fourth. Nevertheless, this Distorted Humor colt trained by Tom Amoss was moved from 200-1 at Circa and 150-1 at Caesars at William Hill. Even though he punched at his weight last weekend, Kevin’s Folly has come up short in his three stakes starts, previously finishing third in the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga and eighth in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland.
In addition to this final racing report for Point Spread Weekly, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features an interview with Legacy Equine Academy’s Ron Mack about expanding diversity in racing. VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo of Gaughan Gaming handicaps weekend races. The RFRP is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.