It started to feel like the Kentucky Derby again Wednesday night. Out at a restaurant downtown, I met some old Australia and New York media colleagues for dinner, and Bob Baffert was already there exchanging bon mots with them.
“I can’t get away from you,” he told me before he shuffled off to the annual Kentucky Derby trainers dinner, away from riffraff like my friends and me.
Not long after that came Chad Brown and his wave of recognition from across the room. Later his self-effacing stand-up routine trended on Twitter. I, meanwhile, trended over some sea bass.
Thursday night came a chance meeting at the Isaac Murphy Legacy Awards with Oscar Gonzales from the California Horse Racing Board. And across the room at the Black Jockeys Lounge, there was Triple Crown-winning jockey Jean Cruguet, looking at 82 like he could still get a leg up on the late, great Seattle Slew.
Then came Dr. Niles Crane, who heard me talking about Baffert and Brown and Gonzales and Cruguet. He asked the wait staff for “a dustpan and broom to sweep up some of these names.”
OK, that last part was something from another era. Another medium. Please forgive my silliness. After COVID forced me to snap my streak of consecutive trips to the Kentucky Derby at 13, I am giddy that the double-shot power of Moderna allowed me to commence a new streak.
Pandemic or not, Louisville swells during Derby week. True, there will be only 45,000 people at Churchill Downs on Saturday, not 145,000. But that still a lot of people, and they still fall into two categories. They are either asking the question, “Who do you like?” Or answering it.
Betting habits never change. Neither do bettors. My friend Bruno De Julio, the workout analyst rispettato whose podcast I produce, growls with impatience at the experts manqué who emerge from 358 days of hibernation every year at this time to proselytize with their collective air of phony authority. Bruno – always by his first name, please – is the best in the business. At times, though, he is like the guy driving a Ferrari who wonders why they even bother to make Fords anymore. As a Lexus driver, I love him for that.
He is too polite to tell me that in the world of those Fords, I am a Pinto. He would be right. No matter how expert anyone becomes in racing, there is still something to learn. I hope that feeling never ends. As Bruno constantly chides anyone who pays good money to be in his better-than-good Zoom classes, “Don’t just look at the time. Look at the horses.”
Ultimately, they are what matters, right? The figs and the ratings and the final fractions and the sheets and the Beyers and the BRISes may be useful tools. Or not. But if a horse is running with a stride that does not look right or ears that are not pointed the right way, then that should mean more, shouldn’t it? Bettors never seem to pay enough attention to that, though. Again, some things never change.
We pour over past performances, as we should. They say Essential Quality has never lost. That he was the strongest horse to finish his longest race. That he has paid off every time he has been favored. That he has won stalking the pace, as he did in the Blue Grass Stakes, and also closing from nine lengths behind, as he did in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. That he has already beaten Hot Rod Charlie, Highly Motivated, King Fury, Super Stock, Hidden Stash and Keepmeinmind, all horses that will be lining up on either side of him in the big gate by the wall next to Central Avenue.
Mattress Mack is throwing down at least $2 million on Essential Quality, so he may drive the price down to odds-on. I am not a chalk player; anyone who has read this column for four years knows that. But true value is a winning ticket, and as I build Saturday’s race every which way it can be run, Essential Quality wins most of the time.
The exception is if Highly Motivated does not have to set the pace the way he did with Essential Quality chasing him four weeks ago in the Blue Grass. As Chad Brown pointed out on my podcast, if he does not have to lead the merry-go-round, Highly Motivated could be poised to pull off the upset. Yes, that would be bad news to anyone hoping Mattress Mack’s bet will turn into a free mattress from Gallery Furniture. (Oh, Mattress Mack is also on my podcast. Where is Niles?)
Bruno may be ringing me the moment he reads this: Jennie Rees’s Final Fractions Theory tells me not to throw out Rock Your World or Hot Rod Charlie – or even O Besos, a hard-charging third in the 9½-furlong Louisiana Derby with seemingly a lot of fuel left in the engine for another 110 yards.
Oh, there is also Sainthood. He outworked his more ballyhooed stablemate Known Agenda around the time it snowed here. That was only last week. Trainer Todd Pletcher suggested in so many words on my podcast (Niles?) that Sainthood might be a morning glory, but at 50-1 or more, I think he is worth a look deep in an exotic bet.
So I have given you four horses – Essential Quality, Highly Motivated, Rock Your World and Hot Rod Charlie – that could win the race. And I have given you two more – Sainthood and O Besos – that could hit the board at a big price.
And I have dropped a ton of names. Hey, I used to work at WQAM in Miami with Hank “The Hammer” Goldberg. I learned from the best.
Wait. I think I see Bruno calling.
“Quit paying attention to the names, Ford.”
Ah, Derby week. It is good to be back.
Racing notes and opinions
Travel Column vs. Clairière. That rivalry is turning into the best in racing. Travel Column has beaten Clairière twice, and that is why she may undercut undefeated Malathaat (5-2) and become the post-time favorite Friday to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Oaks. With only one race as a 3-year-old, Malathaat might not have qualified for the Oaks if she had faced Travel Column (3-1) or Clairière (5-1). Those two have traded punches in three graded stakes, all at 8½ furlongs. Yes, the scratching of pacesetter Ava’s Grace hurts Clairière, but I think Chad Brown’s New York filly Search Results (3-1) and California shipper Moraz (30-1) will provide enough early speed to stretch the field and give Clairière a target. Trainer Steve Asmussen was high on Clairière when I spoke to him about her in December, so I will ride his confidence into an on-the-nose bet on her in the Oaks – and roll that into an Oaks-Derby double play with Essential Quality, Highly Motivated, Rock Your World and Hot Rod Charlie. Vertically, I will include Travel Column and Ashland runner-up Pass The Champagne (15-1).
The Kentucky Oaks is scheduled for Friday at 5:51 p.m. EDT and the Kentucky Derby for Saturday at 6:57 p.m. EDT. Those times are subject to the drag that NBCSN (Oaks) and NBC (Derby) invoke. Whenever the horses are seen circling behind or around the gate, it is odds-on that someone sitting inside a truck that has a peacock logo is ordering the starter to hold the load.
Some undercard plays Friday at Churchill Downs: Big Dreaming (10-1) is a big price coming off a six-month layoff to race in a sneaky good turf allowance in the fifth. ... Maxfield (4-5) is an easy single in the Alysheba. ... Not so easy, but undefeated Aunt Pearl (4-5) in her first start since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf should be a single in the Edgewood. ... With all the speed in the La Troienne, I am coming in hot with a closer, Dunbar Road (5-2). Still, I would be stupid not to include Shedaresthedevil (8-5), especially after she scored big for me when I hit the Pick 4 last year on Oaks day. ... Throw out her one race in the slop, and Abrogate (8-1) is 3-for-3. I like her to win for Asmussen in the Eight Belles. ... I like Fiya (4-1) to win his sixth in a row, this time in the Turf Sprint.
And Saturday: Gotta get Got Stormy (8-5) in the Distaff Turf Mile, especially since she has won her last three when she has not raced against the boys. ... Just single Eclipse Award winner Gamine (1-5) in the Derby City Distaff, formerly the Humana Distaff, formerly the Humana Handicap, formerly the Brown & Williamson. It is the race to be named later. ... Undefeated in four one-turn races including two Grade 1s, former Derby favorite Jackie’s Warrior (3-1) is an easy choice in the Pat Day Mile. And he might carry the longest odds of his career. ... What is Baffert doing bringing his wife’s allowance winner into the American Turf? Winning it with Du Jour (5-1). ... Peter Miller with a long shot in a sprint? Sign me up for Shashashakemeup (12-1) in the Churchill Downs. ... I am a sucker for winning streaks, especially when the Pegasus Turf is part of them. Go with Colonel Liam (3-1) to make it four in a row with a win in the $1 million Turf Classic.
Reputationally, I am the last guy to ask about the weather, especially since it rained here parts of the last two days after I said it would be dry all week. So here is what the National Weather Service said about Louisville. Friday: Sunny with a high near 71 and a northwest wind 8-15 mph with gusts to 26 mph. That means a tailwind in the homestretch, good for closers. Saturday: Sunny with a high near 74 and light and variable wind becoming southwest 5-10 mph in the morning. If the National Weather Service is wrong, complain to me. I am used to it.
Last but not least to Nevada, whatever talks there might have been this week to cobble together an end to the Churchill Downs impasse with racebooks did not result in a deal by Thursday night. One manager told me his sportsbook would take bets on the six graded stakes from Oaks Friday and seven from Derby Saturday and honor mutuel prices while leaving Pick 4s and superfectas off the menu. Expect to see limits on wins capped around the state – and even some casinos deciding not to book either the Oaks or the Derby.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and 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 all 20 horses 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 will talk about his $2 million bet 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.