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Pulling a rabbit out of your Derby hat now that field is set

By Ron Flatter  ( 

May 3, 2017 12:33 PM

LAS VEGAS--It was something I said that was a complete slip of the tongue – I am good at those – that may yet come true Saturday in the Kentucky Derby.


This all has to do with Classic Empire – the winter-book favorite, the presumptive favorite, the morning-line favorite and, most important, the current 4-to-1 betting favorite at Wynn Las Vegas. He drew post position 14 Wednesday in the full field of 20 and was also made the 4-to-1 morning line favorite at Churchill Downs.


A supporting role that is not inconsequential, though, will be played by State Of Honor (25-to-1 Wynn, 30-to-1 morning line), the long shot that drew gate 6. He is a candidate to lead the field through the first half of the race.


What they have in common is trainer Mark Casse, 56, an Indiana native who has dominated the Canadian racing scene for more than a decade. He has been to the Derby with three other horses that finished no better than fifth. There is no question that Classic Empire, America’s top 2-year-old last year, represents the best chance Casse has ever had to win the roses.


So how does Casse map out a victory? Even a month ago I wondered if he thought about having State Of Honor be a “rabbit.” The idea would be to establish an honest Derby pace to be chased by Classic Empire, a colt that has never been more than 2¾ lengths off the lead in the first half of a two-turn race.


That led me to a media teleconference with Casse – and my mal mot.


“If both of them were to get in the Derby,” I asked, “could you see a scenario where State Of Honor could actually end up being Classic Rabbit’s pace-setter?”


Yes, in that most Freudian of ways I said “Classic Rabbit.” After we shared a chuckle about that, Casse dismissed the premise – with his own oops.


“Absolutely not,” he said. “They’re owned by two different owners. They’re going to go out and do the best they can for each other – I mean each individual owner.”


OK, so there was a slip of the tongue there. Before conspiracy-sniffing cynics get carried away, Casse made a valid point. That is because State Of Honor may actually have the goods to finish first on his own. He has the speed ratings and finishing times in his last prep to merit consideration, even though there has been only one front-runner like him to lead from gate-to-wire in the last 28 runnings of the Derby.


Provided he gets around or through the early traffic, it is hard to ignore the likelihood that Classic Empire will be looming close to the lead throughout the race. He would be helped by a front-runner like State Of Honor that could separate the wheat of the field from chaff.


There are also jockey assignments to thicken the plot. Because regular rider Julien Leparoux cannot be aboard both horses at once, he opted for Classic Empire, leaving Casse to call on José Lezcano to ride State Of Honor. That is the same José Lezcano who got an 11th-hour call to ride Frosted in the 2015 Travers Stakes. That was where we saw Lezcano aggressively suck Triple Crown winner American Pharoah into a speed duel, leaving deep-closing Keen Ice to steal the win in what proved to be the only race Pharoah would lose that year.


Even if this diabolical plot were actually being considered, there are curses that may foil it. Another speed horse like Irish War Cry (6-to-1 Wynn, 6-to-1 morning line) or Fast And Accurate (75-to-1 Wynn, 50-to-1 ML) could end up on the lead. And no matter who is out front, some of Classic Empire’s rivals like second choice Always Dreaming (6-to-1 Wynn, 5-to-1 ML) could also benefit from someone else’s pace-setter.


So forget that I even brought it up – unless, of course, it comes true.


Here is the full field for the Kentucky Derby, including post positions and their morning-line odds:


Like father like son – and other draw notes

  • It was a cruel coincidence that Lookin At Lee (25-to-1 Wynn, 20-to-1 ML) drew gate 1 – a.k.a. the kiss of death for the Derby. His sire – Lookin At Lucky – was stuck there as the 6-to-1 favorite in 2010. The late jockey Garrett Gómez could not avoid being hemmed in on the rail, getting banged into it twice in the cavalry charge to the first turn. On a sloppy track Gómez and Lookin At Lucky finished sixth behind the winner Super Saver. This year, though, Lookin At Lee is a closer, so jockey Corey Lanerie may just take him back in the field early to avoid the traffic. The last winner from the “1” hole was Ferdinand in 1986, when only 16 horses started. 
  • Drawn to the outside of the 20-horse field, Patch (35-to-1 Wynn, 30-to-1 ML) will be running blind to start the Derby. Most horses in that position would see the entire field to the inside, but Patch lost his left eye last summer. Trainer Todd Pletcher explained that it mysteriously swelled and had to be surgically removed. Patch’s only win was in a maiden race with 13 other horses in February at Gulfstream Park. In his last race he started from the rail and finished second in the Louisiana Derby.
  • Thanks to defections since the final preps Sonneteer (50-to-1 Wynn, 50-to-1 ML) made it into the Derby field despite never having won a race. His best finish was second in March in 0the Rebel Stakes – at 112-to-1. A deep closer that made up 10 lengths to finish fourth in last month’s Arkansas Derby, Sonneteer will be only the second maiden to start the Kentucky Derby since 1998; Trojan Nation finished 16th last year. Brokers Tip was the last maiden winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1933.
  • The Derby has a listed post time of 6:34 p.m. EDT Saturday, but around that time the horses and jockeys may still be in the paddock waiting for the playing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” According to a Tweet from Rob Hyland the Derby will actually start at 6:51 p.m. Hyland ought to know. He is a producer for NBC Sports, which is televising the race.


Whither the value of the morning line

It is not hard to find morning-line odds on the Kentucky Derby. Inextricably linked to the draw for post positions, they are an easy and even lazy way for us in the media to quantify a horse’s chances of winning the race.


But those odds that look so authoritative are ultimately worthless. What Sports Illustrated’s Whitney Tower wrote in 1959 still holds true:


“While most track patrons accept these opening odds as official, they by and large are unaware that morning-line odds are entirely the opinion of one man: a man paid by the track to guide rather than confuse the vast betting public.”


That man for the Derby is longtime Kentucky oddsmaker Mike Battaglia. He knows his craft, and his morning lines offer a credible snapshot of the betting to come. But in fact his estimates – like mock drafts and presidential polls – are not the last word. This is why I lean toward odds that reflect real wagering, such as what has been going on for weeks in here in Vegas and off shore.


Furthermore, as the Daily Racing Form’s Mike Watchmaker pointed out Thursday on Twitter, the morning line adds up to 138.03 when converted to a decimal equivalent. “That suggests 110 percent is mathematically possible, which it isn’t.”


So take the morning line for what it is. As one trainer told me at a Kentucky Derby draw years ago, “They are worth every dollar that goes into them.

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