In what is already an unprecedented year for the Kentucky Derby, one thing remains as certain as ever. The last impression is the most influential factor in the setting of odds.
Recency bias was, is and will always be a loud, clear and predictable factor in horse futures. But value at that point is just as likely to be diluted.
Shortly after post-time favorite Wells Bayou won last weekend’s Louisiana Derby, his odds to win Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs shortened significantly. In the William Hill Nevada futures book, he went from 60-1 to 20-1. His global odds moved from 55-1 to 20-1. In Europe, Oddschecker.com said his best price was cut from 33-1 to 25-1.
Is the price right? Getting odds of 20-1 or 25-1 might look tantalizing what would normally be five weeks before the Kentucky Derby, especially since the 100 points earned for a Louisiana Derby victory would usually guarantee a place in the 20-horse starting gate.
Looks, however, are deceiving, and not just because this early spring is the new Christmas on the pandemic-altered Triple Crown calendar. Late December, after all, is usually where the Derby trail would be more than five months until post time. In that sense, the Louisiana Derby is about as far out from this year’s Run for the Roses as the 2018 Springboard Mile was from last year’s.
But even if this were a routine year, bear this in mind. Eleven horses in the William Hill futures have shorter odds than Wells Bayou. At the Derby last year, Gray Magician had the 12th-shortest parimutuel odds at post time, going off at 33-1 before finishing last of the 19 starters. The last time the Derby’s 12th choice was as short as 20-1 was in 2000, and that was a three-horse entry. None of these long shots in the last 20 years finished better than fifth.
So it might not be worth betting Wells Bayou now at 20-1. Aside from the idea that this might not be a value price, he also might not make it to the gate Sept. 5. Just ask anyone who had a bet last spring on Omaha Beach.
But because the Derby is so far off, there is still every chance that Wells Bayou will win another prep race, shortening his odds even more. So horseplayers should not so much judge his last race as forecast his next one, wherever and whenever that may be.
For now, though, he is a Derby underlay. One of the few good things about having everything pushed back four months is that futures options are still plentiful. Usually by now the list of possible Derby starters would be winnowed to about 30 or 40. This week William Hill still lists 180 horses, ranging from Authentic, the 9-2 favorite, to Violator, the longest shot at 500-1.
It is not unheard of for horseplayers to say they will bet nothing shorter than 100-1 until maybe two months before the Derby. (I have said that to myself for years, but admittedly I have never cashed a Derby future ticket.) That being the admittedly rigid case, here alphabetically are seven would-be overlays at William Hill that could provide value late this summer:
American Theorem (100-1). His seventh-place finish at 15-1 odds in this month’s Rebel Stakes may have been just a case of his not liking the sloppy track, not to mention his coming off a five-month break. After a debut sprint win in August, he was a distant second to Eight Rings last fall in the American Pharoah, a race named for his Triple Crown-winning sire. Although his damsire Maria’s Mon was the father of two Derby winners, this ridgling might be nothing more than a glorified sprinter. Therein lies the risk. George Papaprodromou has yet to say where he expects to race American Theorem next as he hopes to train his first Derby horse.
Chance It (100-1). Is he still on the Triple Crown trail? The winner of the Mucho Macho Man Stakes fizzled early this month when he finished fifth at 5-2 odds in the Tampa Bay Derby. Trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. was at a loss to explain what went wrong, but he was not alone; the race with soft fractions was won by a 49-1 long shot. By Currency Swap out of a Pleasantly Perfect mare, Chance It had four wins and two seconds in his six previous starts, all at Gulfstream Park. That is where Joseph scratched him out of a poor draw in last month’s Fountain of Youth. That left two options: to ship for the first time or to take a longer break than desired. So is Chance It just a course horse? Joseph said no, but last week he was still mulling whether to move forward to the postponed Triple Crown or cut his colt back to one-turn races.
Green Light Go (100-1). The extra time until the Derby might benefit this colt. That is because he was diagnosed with a fever that took him out of last month’s Fountain of Youth. In his last race, Green Light Go lived up to his name at Gulfstream Park, failing to change leads until the eighth pole and finishing a distant third in the 7-furlong Swale Stakes. It was the 3-year-old debut for the Hard Spun colt that was a Grade 2 winner last summer at Saratoga and was second to highly regarded Tiz The Law in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes last fall at Belmont Park. A bullet work last week at Palm Meadows provides encouragement as trainer Jimmy Jerkens looks to graduate Green Light Go to a yet-to-be-determined two-turn race.
Liam’s Point (150-1). An odds-on favorite in his only race, this Todd Pletcher-trained colt cruised three lengths clear at the top of the stretch. But then he faded and wandered and held on for just a three-quarter-length victory over the 7 furlongs last month at Gulfstream Park. Sired by Liam’s Map, he looked green despite insistent urging from jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. But his early fractions of 22.30, 45.40 and 1:10.97 suggest there is something to build on, wherever Pletcher decides that may be.
Mailman Money (100-1). Poor starts have troubled this well-bred colt by Goldencents out of an Unbridled’s Song mare. Trainer Bret Calhoun’s front-runner was bumped at the start of last weekend’s Louisiana Derby, forcing him to expend early energy that left him an empty 11th. Despite a bumpy start, a rough run to the first turn and a wide trip, he still finished fourth last month in the slower division of the Risen Star. He made his debut with a 24-1 upset win over stablemate Digital. He followed that up with, yes, some contact out of the gate on the way to a 5¾-length victory in a 1-mile-70-yard race taken off the turf two months ago at Gulfstream Park. Since Calhoun has decided that Digital is not cut out for 9- to 10-furlong races, Mailman Money represents his best Derby chance.
Market Analysis (150-1). Winstar. China Horse Club. See those names on the owners’ line, and the name Justify comes to mind. Just like the 2018 Triple Crown winner, this quarter-million-dollar colt did not race at age 2. Off some eye-popping workouts he won his debut in January in a sprint at Gulfstream Park. But racing for Pletcher with Hall of Famer John Velazquez riding, Market Analysis finished a distant sixth this month in the Tampa Bay Derby. With Honor Code his sire and an Exchange Rate mare his dam, this colt is bred to go longer in spite of what happened at Tampa Bay Downs. The questions are when and where — and if that translates into a worthy Derby bet.
No Parole (100-1). This speed colt sired by Violence won his first three races by a combined 34 lengths. But then with Joe Talamo on him for the first time, he stopped running in the final turn and crossed last this month in the Rebel Stakes. Was he not comfortable with someone other than James Graham on his back? Did he not like the Oaklawn Park slop two races after winning by 13 lengths in the Fair Grounds mud? Did he not know what to do with horses in front of him for the first time in his four races? Trainer Tom Amoss has not said where he will bring back No Parole, as he hopes this will be a case of drawing a line through one bad race.
Whether any of these horses pans out in the Kentucky Derby may be more of a guessing game this year than in any of the previous 145 runnings of America’s biggest race. That is largely because these horses, at about 3½, will be older than any others that ever ran for the roses.
This uncharted territory creates more chances for more months to bet three-digit long shots in a search for a pot of gold. Here’s hoping it’s not fool’s gold.