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Derby Watch: The price is right on favorites

By Ron Flatter  ( 

April 21, 2017 10:10 AM

LAS VEGAS--It is time to go shopping for a Kentucky Derby favorite – and for a good price on him.


That’s right – on a favorite. It is not just a matter of finding a value play among the long shots, because this year they all may be long shots.


Classic Empire came out of an impressive, comeback victory last Saturday in the Arkansas Derby as a consensus but flawed betting favorite. He is 9-to-2 at Wynn Las Vegas and 5-to-1 at William Hill. In Europe he is still available at 7-to-1. The exception to the rule is off shore, where Classic Empire is 5-to-2 at Sportsbook in the Caribbean.


“He’s a loser for me in the future book,” said Johnny Avello, who sets the odds at Wynn. “That’s why I have him at 5-to-1. He may go off less than that.”


Classic Empire was 125-to-1 when Avello opened Derby futures last September, not long after the colt sired by Pioneerof The Nile spun and threw his rider in a race he was favored to win at Saratoga. That turned his Hopeful Stakes into a hopeless, loose run. But his Derby odds turned much shorter after a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victory in November stamped him as the 2-year-old champion for 2016.


Nevertheless, Classic Empire has since gotten a reputation like Tony Romo’s – full of talent but even fuller of injuries. The image of his sweat-soaked coat before a third-place thud two months ago in the Holy Bull Stakes is indelible. It preceded trainer Mark Casse’s discovery that Classic Empire had a hoof abscess. That dominoed into a back problem and even one noteworthy refusal to work out last month before Casse returned him to full fitness. Presumably.


“He wasn’t 100 percent,” jockey Julien Leparoux said after he rode Classic Empire to last Saturday’s half-length victory at Oaklawn Park. “I was expecting him to be a little tired, but he did it.”


 “He just has so much ability,” Casse said. “I knew if we could get him here that he’d be tough. He’s been a challenge, but the last month-and-a-half have been good.”


While it is true that Classic Empire’s triumphant return has not tamped down all the skepticism about him, he is not alone attracting criticism. His rivals have produced inconsistent results, slow winning times and tepid speed ratings during seven months of Derby preps.


It is no wonder, then, that the betting pattern leading up to this year’s Derby brings back memories of 2010. The way-back machine reminds us that that was during a two-year span when 3-year-olds were unusually brittle, falling off the Derby trail with alarming frequency. It was also the second year in a row that the favorite was scratched from the Derby on the week of the race. Not that Eskendereya was a consensus choice; that year’s favorite beforehand in the final Kentucky Derby Future Wager was “all others.”


As a steady rain fell on race day seven years ago Lookin At Lucky would rise to be the shaky choice of bettors. His odds of 63-10 made him the longest-priced favorite in Derby history. Stuck in gate 1 – which has produced only one winner in the last 54 years – he never had a chance. At 8-to-1 Super Saver glided over the slop for trainer Todd Pletcher’s only Derby victory. The longest shot on the Churchill Downs tote board that day was only 31-to-1 – one year after 50-to-1 Mine That Bird won the race.


That seems like a million years ago, especially since favorites have won the last four Derbies – the last three at odds of shorter than 3-to-1. When Nyquist won last year the top four betting choices finished in that order for the only time in Derby history. The $1 Superfecta was worth back a piddling $542.10, the lowest such payout in the history of the race.


“There’s been a lot of chalk lately,” Avello said. “That’s why I haven’t won on the Derby the last four years. In a 20-horse Derby I’m always looking for a better price. How do you bet a 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 horse in a 20-horse field on that track?”


Don’t expect to see 2-to-1 or 3-to-1 this year, though. Most of the horses likely to land in the Derby field are in a tight betting bunch among the 34 choices left on the Wynn card. And Avello predicted it will stay that way right up to race time.


“You’ll see 10 horses that are priced anywhere from 10-to-1 to 25-to-1,” he said. “Then you’ll get another six horses that are somewhere around maybe 8-to-1 to 12-to-1, and then another four horses anywhere from 4-to-1 to 8-to-1. That’s wide open to me.”


There is even more evidence to back Avello’s forecast. Of the 26 points preps in the U.S. this year, only two had winners still on the Derby trail that earned a Beyer Speed Figure of at least 100 – J Boys Echo in the Gotham Stakes and Irish War Cry in the Wood Memorial. Both races were run in New York at Aqueduct, which has spawned only one Derby winner from a graded prep in the last 14 years.


It begs the question what horse may lure the professional bettors’ money. Avello believes it could be another horse that came through New York that is now a 14-to-1 shot on his board.


“I kind of like Practical Joke,” he said, referring to last year’s winner of the Hopeful and Champagne. “The knock on him is the distance, but I like everything I see about him. I like his progression leading up to the race. He could be a wise-guy horse on Derby day. When that happens the wise-guy horse gets more play than he should, so if he’s not 12-to-1 on race day I’m probably not interested.”


The Derby field will not be set until the post-position draw at Churchill Downs on Wednesday morning, May 3. The race itself has a post time of 6:34 p.m. EDT on Sunday, May 6. In recent years the race itself has begun about 15 minutes after post time.


Empire, Dreaming, Irish are top Derby choices

Classic Empire is followed by Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming and Wood Memorial winner Irish War Cry at the top of most current betting pools to win the Kentucky Derby.


At Wynn Las Vegas:

  9/2 Classic Empire

  6/1 Always Dreaming

  7/1 Irish War Cry

  8/1 Girvin

  8/1 McCraken

10/1 Gunnevera

12/1 Gormley

14/1 Practical Joke


At William Hill:

  5/1 Classic Empire

  6/1 Always Dreaming

  8/1 Irish War Cry

  8/1 McCraken

  9/1 Gunnevera

12/1 Practical Joke

14/1 Tapwrit


At Sportsbook in Antigua:

  5/2 Classic Empire

  3/1 Always Dreaming

  6/1 Irish War Cry

  7/1 Gunnevera

  7/1 Irap

  9/1 McCraken

10/1 Gormley

11/1 Tapwrit


Bettors in Europe appear to be more circumspect about Classic Empire. That is according to’s survey of 14 European bookmakers that have posted Kentucky Derby odds. The best win odds include:

  7/1 Always Dreaming

  7/1 Classic Empire

  9/1 Irish War Cry

12/1 McCraken

16/1 Gunnevera

16/1 Practical Joke


When the Derby was pre-empted by a prayer

Haven’t we all had those moments when we surf the net and stumble onto an unexpected discovery?


That is exactly what happened when I came upon an old Sunday radio special that CBS News put together back in 1964 to remember a quarter-century of news events.


The great World War II era newscaster H.V. Kaltenborn – he of the perfect diction and classically rolled Rs – caught my ears with his story of why the live, national radio call of the Kentucky Derby, probably in 1940, never made it on the air. The reason was something that seems quaint now, but it fit perfectly into the mood of a nervous American public, much of which wanted the country to take an isolationist tack against the tide of war.


“We had a hard time getting on a prayer by the Archbishop of Canterbury for peace as against the Kentucky Derby,” Kaltenborn said. “We set (the broadcast priority) for the prayer, and by jinx if the two didn’t come at exactly the same time. I’ll never forget the feeling in the words of the announcer of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville as he said, ‘Gee, we’ve just had the biggest letdown of our lives, because you took the time that we had taken for the Kentucky Derby, and the audience didn’t get any of it.’”


If that indeed happened in 1940, then 35-to-1 long shot Gallahadion outlasted odds-on favorite Bimelech in the stretch with millions fewer people knowing about it at the time – at least until the Sunday newspapers arrived.

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