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Finding the ingredients for a winning Derby ticket

Ron Flatter  
VSiN.com

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Maiden winner Lone Sailor is a long shot, but he may have the analytical profile to hit the board in next week's Kentucky Derby. (Churchill Downs photo)

Las Vegas

This should be the easy part, shouldn’t it? After spending the winter and early spring focused on the road to the Kentucky Derby, concocting a winning ticket should be a breeze.

But with favorites finishing first every year since 2013, the real challenge is creating a ticket that will at least pay back the cost of the bet.

There is one media “expert” out there who claims to have picked the last nine Derby winners, including 50-1 Mine That Bird in 2009. Closer inspection, though, reveals that he has lobbed out multiple names every year. Hell, I threw five names out there last spring including Always Dreaming, and I cashed a ticket on him. But I lost money, because I had Classic Empire as the foundation of my vertical bets. In my book, that does not count as a correct Derby pick.

Let me be blunt and leave no room for retrospective error. I like Audible to win next Saturday. If his race-day odds bear any resemblance to the 9-1 price he carries now in futures betting at the Wynn Las Vegas, I should be able to build some bets that will get me my money back. (It also does not hurt that I got him in January at 200-1.) But my strategy next weekend also depends in part on the favorite Justify (3-1) staying off the board – and yes, I am trying to beat him.

After combining Jennie Rees’s Final Fractions Theory with the minimum Beyer Speed Figure of 95 (see last week’s column), there are eight candidates that I feel can win the race. But figuring out the others that may hit the board becomes much trickier. It is not so much picking a winner as it is the best of 19 losers.

For me the equation will take into account three more variables – pace, conditional experience and the added distance.

Pace

This may be easy. Promises Fulfilled (75-1) should run off and set blazing fractions. Maybe not the insane 46.37-second half-mile that fried him in the Florida Derby. Even though Dale Romans has replaced jockey Robby Albarado, there is only so much that Corey Lanerie can do if Promises Fulfilled wants to take off. Either way there is every chance that the field will be more stretched out in an honest run chasing him up the backstretch.

That means closers have a fighting chance to hit the board. The names Vino Rosso (14-1), My Boy Jack (25-1), Lone Sailor (50-1) and Firenze Fire (75-1) jump off the pages of past performances. Deep closers seldom win the Derby, but as 33-1 Lookin At Lee proved last year, they can finish second and pay big dividends.

After seeing him give Noble Indy (28-1) all he could handle down the stretch in the Louisiana Derby only to finish a neck behind in second, maiden winner Lone Sailor looks like the live chance in this group to do some damage to the tote board.

Conditional experience

That’s a fancy way of saying dirt in the face. Last week on my racing podcast, Eclipse Award-winning writer and handicapper John Scheinman scoffed at that angle.

“When was the last time you went to the racetrack, sat down to handicap a race and go, ‘Yeah, did he ever get dirt in his face?’” he asked. “The only time you would ever consider something so silly is in the Kentucky Derby.”

But I beg to differ with my learned friend. A clouds of dirt has been cited by trainers as the reason for losses. While it may be a convenient excuse after the fact, I believe it really does come into play for inexperienced horses literally facing heavy kickback for the first time. It is especially noticeable for UAE Derby winners coming over here, and it is why I am throwing out Mendelssohn (6-1).

It is also a factor for me when it comes to Noble Indy (25-1) and, yes, Justify.

“He can get into position pretty early,” Justify’s trainer Bob Baffert said. “The really good horses like him can sort of stay out of the way if they break well.”

But for a horse with only three races in him against small fields at Santa Anita, that is a big if.

“You can poke a hole in the fact that he’s only run at one racetrack, and his three starts have come in two five-horse fields and a seven-horse field,” said Justify’s lead owner Elliott Walden of WinStar Farm. “What you can’t poke a hole in is his talent. Given my druthers I’d rather have talent than experience any day of the week.”

True, Justify caught some Santa Anita mud in the proverbial eye in his impressive allowance win in March. But if Mike Smith is faced with the dilemma of absorbing the dirt or taking him wide next week, it will be a whole different experience for Justify. I am counting on it.

Added distance

This goes beyond trying to figure out which horses will be able to keep going strong their first time racing a 10th furlong. This also gauges a tiring horse that may still hit the board after fading late in the race.

Again, look no further than last year, when 40-1 long shot Battle Of Midway was only a half-length behind Always Dreaming at the quarter-pole. He finished 7¾ lengths up the track, but he still wound up third, paying $20.80 for a $2 show ticket and completing a $16,594.40 jackpot for a winning $2 trifecta bet.

To me Enticed (20-1) could fill that bill, and he is a better horse than Battle Of Midway. He was running on empty late in the Holy Bull, and caught in some bumpy traffic in the Wood Memorial he wound up three lengths behind Vino Rosso in second place.

There are still plenty of other things to consider between now and race day, not the least of which are post positions and the weather. The draw is Tuesday at 11 a.m. EDT. The weather is supposed to be partly cloudy next Saturday, but one thing I have learned in 11 previous trips to the Derby is that it will rain some time during the week, and long-range forecasts are about as reliable as that guy who has used several dozen horses to pick the last nine Derby winners.

Put it this way. Even after watching prep races and dissecting past performances and charts over the last seven months, there is still a lot to do over the next eight days.

Racing notes and opinions

Futures odds updated Thursday by the Wynn Las Vegas have drifted the favorite Justify from 14-to-5 out to 3-1 to win the Kentucky Derby. Good Magic shortened from 11-2 in to 5-1. Magnum Moon and Mendelssohn were next at 6-1 followed by Bolt d’Oro at 8-1 and Audible at 9-1. Everything from 6-1 and up carry value, especially for those who went on Twitter on Thursday to criticize some of Johnny Avello’s odds. To those critics I simply say the betting windows are open.

After a fever forced him to be scratched from the Kentucky Derby, Gronkowski – the colt – is being prepared to race in the Belmont Stakes, his owners at Dubai-based Phoenix Thoroughbreds said this week. “It’s unfortunate that (he) will not be able to race in the upcoming Kentucky Derby,” minority owner Rob Gronkowski – the Patriots tight end – wrote on Twitter. “I know he will come back strong and healthy, and I am excited to see him race again very soon.” Based in England and trained by Jeremy Noseda, Gronkowski qualified for the Derby via the new European trail of prep races. There was no overseas alternate to replace him.

Last year’s Derby and Oaks winners will be back at Churchill Downs for races Friday. After finishing second last month for trainer Todd Pletcher in the Gulfstream Park Mile, 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming returns for the $400,000 Grade 2 Alysheba, in which New Orleans Handicap winner Good Samaritan figures to be the favorite. Trained by Bob Baffert, 2017 Oaks winner Abel Tasman will be the heavy favorite in a small field for the $350,000 La Troienne. Both races are 8½ furlongs on the dirt.

Rushing Fall, the winner of the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, may be pointed to Royal Ascot. Trainer Chad Brown said that the Group 1 Coronation Stakes on June 23 was one option for the undefeated 3-year-old that may race next Friday in the Grade 3 Edgewood Stakes at Churchill Downs. If she does not go to England, Rushing Fall could wind up racing in open company in the Grade 2 Penn Mile on June 2 before going to the $1 million Grade 1 Belmont Oaks Invitational in July.

Starting either Monday or Tuesday this column will appear at daily next week and originate from Louisville. I will also be adding a pop-up podcast Wednesday with VSiN handicappers Dave Tuley, Vinny Magliulo and Patrick McQuiggan. Both will be available at VSiN.com.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Guests this week include WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden, who has Justify, Audible and Noble Indy in the Derby field, and Christina Blacker, host and handicapper from TVG. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.

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