For racing purists, the Kentucky Oaks stretch duel between the still undefeated Malathaat and the formerly undefeated Search Results provided plenty of excitement Friday afternoon in the 75-degree sunshine at Churchill Downs.
For gamblers, though, it was pretty entertaining to see one click of the tote board about 2½ hours earlier. That was when Mattress Mack dropped the gauntlet on what he promises will be a seven-figure investment Saturday in Kentucky Derby favorite Essential Quality.
The owner of Gallery Furniture and a renowned whale of a sports gambler, Jim McIngvale put $500,000 on a Friday win bet, the equivalent of an appetizer. The main course is coming Saturday, when he reaches deeper into the $4 million he wired to the Downs.
“I’m going to be betting with both hands,” is what he told Horse Racing Nation right after he moved the needle. Actually, he pegged it.
When one of his associates proxied his ante at a betting window around 3:15 p.m. EDT, Essential Quality went from a 5-1 second choice to a 3-5 favorite. At the time McIngvale’s money represented about 40 percent of the win pool. Four hours later, though, the pool was catching up with Mack. Essential Quality had drifted to even money.
Wait ’til Saturday.
Mack said this week he would probably bet $2 million on Essential Quality to win. By the time McIngvale and everyone else are done before the Derby’s 6:57 p.m. EDT post time Saturday, that stake might be about 3 percent of the total win-place-show pool. In other words, expect plenty more movement in the odds between now and post time.
Friday’s Oaks might have provided a good omen to McIngvale. That is because another favorite prevailed in the Oaks. Despite a poor start from post position 10, Malathaat (5-2) and his Hall of Fame jockey John Velázquez appeared unfazed, especially chasing soft early fractions of 23.60 and 47.47 seconds.
“The strategy was to break well and get a good position,” he said. “I thought I would take my chances and put my horse into the position that I should have been. She helped me get there.”
That was within striking distance of Search Results (5-1). Velázquez took Malathaat wide through the second turn and was set to pounce down the middle of a track that yielded the sixth-fastest time in the 62 times the Oaks has been run at its current 1⅛-mile distance.
“It was just a matter that hopefully there was enough pace up front that they would come back to her a little bit,” said winning trainer Todd Pletcher, now a four-time Oaks winner. “She’s the kind of filly who loves a target.”
Going stride for stride through the deep stretch with that target, a.k.a. Search Results, Malathaat finally got the lead and won by a neck. Now she is 5-for-5. Search Results is 3-for-4.
With 60-year-old Jon Court riding, Will’s Secret (26-1) came out a nose ahead of Clairière (7-1) in the show photo to finish third. Will’s Secret is trained by Dallas Stewart, who has a penchant for getting long shots to hit the board and fatten exotic bets in the biggest races. Friday’s trifecta paid 463-1.
“This filly’s been knocking heads all year,” Stewart said of Will’s Secret, a five-time starter since Dec. 20. “We ran hard in Hot Springs (for two stakes wins), and now we ran hard here.”
At a time when horse racing long ago preceded the NBA into a mindset of load management, rolling a young filly out for five starts in a little more than four months is strictly old school. In contrast, Malathaat was rested for four months between her three victories as a 2-year-old and her two victories as a 3-year-old, both in April.
Running a filly a little or a lot is a gamble, a word that should have a lot more definitions in the dictionary. As a noun it has just one. “An enterprise undertaken or attempted with a risk of loss and a chance of profit or success.”
Still, it just seems like Malathaat and Will’s Secret and Mattress Mack are in different leagues. Major league? Minor league? Perhaps those distinctions are in the eyes of the gamblers themselves.
Ron Flatter’s regularly scheduled racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It is posted more frequently during coverage of big events like this week’s Kentucky Derby. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. There are two episodes this week. One is a pop-up featuring Las Vegas bookmakers and horseplayers Chris Andrews, Johnny Avello and Duane Colucci. They analyze every horse in Saturday’s running of the Derby. The regular episode from Louisville includes trainers Brad Cox, Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher plus jockey Luis Sáez, Kentucky turf writer and publisher Jennie Rees and Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale, who talks about his $2 million worth of bets on Essential Quality. Every episode of the RFRP is available at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.