It is easy to say Life Is Good has re-established his place as the consensus public favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. It is more difficult to interpret the opinion of sharp bettors.
With his 2-for-2 record and his Sham Stakes victory and his debut Beyer Speed Figure of 101 and his six-time Derby-winning trainer, Bob Baffert, Life Is Good closed Sunday as the 7-1 individual favorite in Pool 3 of the monthly Churchill Downs pari-mutuel offering. It carries the name “Kentucky Derby Future Wager” as if it is the one and only — and as if those other markets in outposts like the Nevada desert are rogue impostors.
Silly money drove the KDFW market just as it did with Las Vegas bookmakers, who are happy to take it. Life Is Good is best-priced in Nevada at 8-1. Whether it is a closing pari-mutuel or a fixed price, 7-1 or 8-1 is awfully risky weighed against the possibility of a horse missing the race, getting a poor draw, running a sloppy track or starting at post-time odds of 4-1.
Sucker bets have not been limited to Circa Sports or William Hill Nevada or — sniff, sniff — the KDFW. How does Bezos look now at last month’s price of 26-1?
Snark aside, last weekend’s Churchill Downs pool actually came with a couple of revealing prisms. Like any horse race, the sharp wagers usually come in late after bettors have a chance to see how the pari-mutuels unfold. Look, then, at the betting pattern in the KDFW from Sunday evening, when 19% of the win handle came in during the final hour.
In those last 60 minutes, “all other 3-year-olds,” the mutuel field that did not include 23 selected horses, shortened from 9-2 to a closing price of 3-1. That might have been a sign of sharp bettors chasing value for a good many Derby starters yet to be determined. They might have been hedging against other bets. They also might have precious little confidence in the 23 listed horses.
A more meaningful reflection of sharp dollars probably showed up in the KDFW Exacta wager, which attracted 28% of the money bet during the weekend. Here were the shortest-priced combinations, showing odds to one.
64.40 Essential Quality — “all others”
75.00 Life Is Good — “all others”
77.60 “All others” — Essential Quality
79.40 Greatest Honour — “all others”
87.00 Essential Quality — Life Is Good
88.60 Greatest Honour — “all others”
93.00 “All others” — Life Is Good
Remember, “all others” does not include the 23 horses nominated to the KDFW. So an “Essential Quality — ‘all others’ ” bet does not include Life Is Good, nor does “Life Is Good — ‘all others’ ” take in Essential Quality. They do, however, include unlisted horses like El Camino Real Derby winner Rombauer and Risen Star runner-up Proxy. They even include Bezos.
If it is accepted that wise guys make up a greater percentage of the Exacta pool, then last year’s juvenile champion, Essential Quality, is held in higher regard than Life Is Good, and Holy Bull winner Greatest Honour is not far behind.
What bettors do with this information is one of the many forks in the Derby road. Some might follow and use it as a guide to separate contenders from pretenders. Some might contradict and look for value elsewhere. In other words, a deep dive into KDFW betting trends might add some framework. But it is no magic wand.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S HOT?
Mandaloun (27-1, 22-1): He has gone from “hot” to “not” and back to “hot” again. His victory as the 2-1 favorite Saturday in the Grade 2 Risen Star at the Fair Grounds made trainer Brad Cox look good for adding blinkers. The Into Mischief colt had the focus he lacked in his only loss, last month’s third-place finish in the Grade 3 Lecomte. It brought him a Beyer Speed Figure of 98, fourth best among the current Derby crop. The Grade 2 Louisiana Derby next month figures to be his last stop before Churchill Downs.
Proxy (55-1, 50-1): His 1¼-length loss to Mandaloun in the Risen Star was the worst performance of his five-race career. That is another way to say he has been competitive with two wins and three close seconds, the last two in Derby preps at the Fair Grounds. This Godolphin homebred by Tapit has traded credible punches at the graded-stakes level despite having four jockeys riding him for trainer Mike Stidham. A Louisiana Derby rematch with Mandaloun and Lecomte winner Midnight Bourbon figures to be in his immediate future.
Rombauer (100-1, 75-1): Eventually this deep closer will have to get back to the dirt, where he is 0-for-2. He was an impressive winner Saturday in the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, but it was telling that he was made the 6-5 favorite even though his only previous victory came on the turf last summer at Del Mar. Translation: weak field. He, too, has gone through four jockeys in his five races, most notably carrying Mike Smith to a close second-place finish to Get Her Number in last fall’s Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S NOT?
Senor Buscador (55-1, 55-1): His first race off Lasix was a big disappointment, especially to bettors who made him a 5-2 second choice before he finished fifth in the Risen Star. He had nothing left at the end of a wide trip, leaving him with his first loss in three races. The two wins were at Remington Park in Oklahoma, not exactly a cradle of champions. Still with no Derby qualifying points, the Mineshaft colt will be a long shot to get the points he needs to make it to Kentucky, presumably with a top-two finish in a major prep next month.
Santa Cruiser (250-1, 200-1): Still just a maiden winner in five starts, he was the only top-four horse from the Lecomte that failed to finish in the top four of the Risen Star. Instead, he finished seventh, which could not have come as a surprise to bettors who made him a 21-1 long shot. Trainer Keith Desormeaux has not shied from tough competition for the Dialed In colt bred and owned by Calumet Farm. The bigger challenge could be succeeding in two-turn races, in which Santa Cruiser has lost his two starts by a combined 26¼ lengths.
Beep Beep (250-1, unlisted): After a debut victory nearly three months ago at Churchill Downs and a bumpy fourth-place result in a two-turn race at the Fair Grounds, the Whitney Stables homebred finished last in the Risen Star. Trained by Norm Casse, the Tapizar colt has had gate issues at New Orleans, where he has also been disadvantaged by wide early trips. Going on and off Lasix might not have helped him either.
In addition to this report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently for coverage of big events. You can also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition features a Black History Month roundtable on ideas to expand diversity in racing. Panelists include Tonya Abeln of Churchill Downs Inc., Leon Nichols and Calvin Davis of the Project to Preserve African American Turf History, trainer Graham Motion, Najja Thompson of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders and Aidan Butler of The Stronach Group. The RFRP is available for download Friday and free subscription now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.