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Early Derby futures a risky bet

By Ron Flatter  ( 

November 16, 2021 07:54 PM

And so Corniche is still the 6-1 favorite in Las Vegas futures to win next year’s Kentucky Derby. And stablemate Messier is a second choice at 20-1. And since Bob Baffert trains them, their status is more up in the air than George Clooney was in that movie when he had less of a hassle getting on and off airplanes than us mere mortals.

For serious futures bettors, backing Corniche and Messier now are options that cannot be taken seriously. Think about it. Even if Baffert were not looking at billable hours from attorneys to restore his good name and his horses’ Derby status, who in the world is taking 20-1 six months in advance of any horse race?

If it is the middle of November, it must be time for that annual reminder that futures bets are for suckers. Even the O.G. of these Derby pools said so.

“When you’re betting a horse at 15- or 20-1 in October, November, December, you’re really taking a bad price, unless this horse is an absolute superstar,” DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello said — in 2017. That was when he was still at the Wynn Las Vegas writing the best Derby futures anywhere.

Lesson No. 1: Don’t be a sucker. With self-discipline, Derby futures can be worth a look in November.

(As someone who has never won such a bet, my advice must be taken with a grain of salt the size of Bonneville. I did have tickets on Mandaloun last year and Audible in 2018, both at triple-digit odds. I would trade the supposed credibility that comes with getting a whiff of a payoff for a ticket that was not wallpaper or, in the case of Mandaloun, a potential piece of plaintiff’s evidence in a lawsuit in which I am not taking part.)

A few other lessons are worth applying now, especially since Caesars Sportsbook at William Hill Nevada has the domestic market to itself. It will have company when Circa Sports at The D and Golden Gate casinos in Las Vegas set their own prices around Dec. 1. Coming this month from Churchill Downs is also the pari-mutuel Kentucky Derby Future Wager, whose decision-makers have to weigh the question of whether to include individual Baffert horses in the first pool. And if New Jersey bureaucrats can figure out which end is up, maybe fixed-odds Derby betting will be available there before the next pandemic.

After putting on the sucker repellent, consider these seven thoughts:

Set a limit. I never bet on anything shorter than 100-1 before the Fountain of Youth. After that I take it down to 50-1 until the big preps, such as the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass and Wood. Too much can go wrong between now and Derby day to be putting money on anything shorter. Just look at I Want Revenge and Omaha Beach, morning-line favorites who were race-week scratches. Some wise bookmaker should offer bettors the option of laying horses to miss the Derby altogether. Not that that would raise any suspicions of nefarious activity.

Don’t bet on unknown trainers. Park the snark long enough to consider the raw facts as defined by who looked after the horses that were on cashable win tickets since 2010. Baffert. Baffert. Mott. Baffert. Pletcher. O’Neill. Baffert. Sherman. McGaughey. O’Neill. Motion. Pletcher. I count eight winners from the barns of Hall of Famers — Baffert (4), Pletcher (2), Mott and McGaughey — and two more with O’Neill, who routinely wins meet titles in Southern California. Compare those with some of the trainers whose names are attached to some short-priced horses from Caesars at William Hill. Are Carlos David and Octane worth the risk at 60-1? How about Luis Mendez and Big City Lights? If a miner’s lamp is required for a deep dive into Google to learn about them, take a pass.

Be careful with unrequited trainers. Brad Cox, Steve Asmussen and Chad Brown have won a combined seven Eclipse Awards as annual champions. They also have won a combined zero runnings of the Kentucky Derby. Yet Cox and Asmussen feel like better long-range plays for May 7 than Brown. They all want to win the race, but Cox and Asmussen seem to go after it harder than Brown. Cox even might end up with last year’s victory if Mandaloun were to be promoted over a disqualified Medina Spirit. Asmussen has won more races at Churchill and, for that matter, in North America than any other trainer, so it seems like only a matter of time for him. Conversely, Brown is wired to dominate his native New York, especially Saratoga, not to mention any turf course on which his horses set foot. As Brown joked last spring at a trainers dinner in Louisville, if he wanted to win the Derby, he might have to “sneak out at Churchill on Friday night and put grass seed all over the main track.” Horseplayers should take that hint.

Don’t chase the bombers. Deal Go Down opened at 200-1 and has moved to 300-1. Run Curtis Run and Tops The Chart went from 250-1 to 300-1. Mr. Mox is the longest shot on the Caesars at William Hill board, going from 225-1 to 350-1. They are clearly going the wrong direction. They are about as attractive a futures bet right now as the Detroit Lions. If horses are not showing promise now, never mind graded stakes. Their owners and trainers are more likely harboring more realistic dreams of allowance success.

Stay with blue-chip sires. Time for another list, this time of stallions who produced the last 12 Derby winners. Protonico. Into Mischief. Lookin At Lucky. Scat Daddy. Bodemeister. Uncle Mo. Pioneerof The Nile. Lucky Pulpit. Malibu Moon. Flower Alley. Leroidesanimaux. Maria’s Mon. Throw out Protonico, which a court might do when it rules on Medina Spirit. Lucky Pulpit and Leroidesanimaux would have to be seen as making less than stellar contributions to their progenies’ gene pools. With Flower Alley’s resume muddled by his move to South Africa, the other studs have distinguished breeding records. One other thing to remember: No stallion has sired two consecutive Derby winners. That fact stands an excellent chance of living another year, since no 2-year-old by Protonico is lurking in the futures.

Look for overlays within boundaries. For all the criticism Todd Pletcher gets about holding the record with 57 losers in the Kentucky Derby, he has also had two winners, putting him in a club of only 19 trainers — and only five who are still active. That makes Annapolis worth a look. First, he is by War Front, who has been more of a producer for the turf but is not without dirt acumen; see Omaha Beach and War Of Will. Then there was Annapolis’ Beyer Speed Figure of 89 as a pace stalker who won the Grade 2 Pilgrim last month at Belmont Park. Those and a 2-for-2 record are big pluses. So why is he still a 150-1 long shot? He has not faced tough competition; the Pilgrim had only three other starters. He looked like a closer in his debut, and that style seldom pays off in the Derby. He has never gone two turns, and for 2-year-olds that can be as big a deal or even bigger than the gradually added distance of upcoming races. However, if all these things were easy, Annapolis would not be 150-1, and he would not be the value play he is right now.

Don’t ignore Baffert. Just because his horses are equi non grata at the home office of racing, that does not mean they — or Baffert — will be in May. The problem is sorting the wheat, underlays like Corniche and Messier, from the chaff. Kamui’s last-place finish in the Bob Hope and Montebello’s two seconds in minor stakes are not the stuff of which Baffert’s Derby legends are made. Rockefeller saw his odds shorten from 75-1 to 65-1 after he won the Grade 3 Nashua last weekend at Belmont Park, but that was a continent away from Corniche, who beat Rockefeller by seven lengths in the American Pharoah Stakes. Maybe the next Baffert overlay has yet to come out of the barn.

There is one other proven, safe strategy when it comes to Derby futures. Ignore them. The lure of the big prices notwithstanding, it is tough enough to pick out a winner on race day.

In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available at This week’s episode features a preview of graded stakes in Kentucky, California and New York with Channel Cat’s trainer Jack Sisterson, Churchill Downs TV analyst James Scully and Race Day Las Vegas handicapper Ralph Siraco. The RFRP is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.


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