Seriously? The favorite carries odds of 8-1 for a horse race that will not start for another 164 days?
Let the overrating and underlaying of the star of the moment begin. Essential Quality has shortened to an unsensible futures price to win the Kentucky Derby. William Hill Nevada cut his odds yet again last weekend, the latest move that has taken him incrementally from 20-1 to 12-1 to 10-1 to now 8-1.
Apparently some antsy max bettor saw yet another replay of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, looked at that 3-for-3 record again and reviewed the maiden breaker at Churchill Downs just one more time. Or maybe the William Hill bookmakers decided they wanted to tamp the steam they were expecting.
It was not just here in Las Vegas. In the global market (read: Central America), Essential Quality moved from a 30-1 opener to 11-1. In Europe, where the eight horses listed do not even amount to a toe in the Derby betting water, he is still 12-1. No bargain there either.
Since trainer Brad Cox has not charted a path to May 1 at Churchill Downs, Essential Quality will not be seen racing again before the end of this annus horribilis worstest. The memory of his three-quarter-length triumph nearly two weeks ago at Keeneland will be what stokes the embers of betting momentum among public players.
That will be especially evident during Thanksgiving weekend, when the first parimutuel Kentucky Derby Future Wager will be opened and closed by Churchill Downs. At this time last year, William Hill’s favorite, Tiz The Law, was also 8-1, and he closed 11-1 in the KDFW. Still no real value there.
While racing’s Joes glom onto Essential Quality no matter the price, the pros will be shopping for early long shots. The oft-told story of the bettor who got Justify at 300-1 before the 2018 Kentucky Derby is the bait that keeps futures players coming back year after year.
Even Authentic was 50-1 last year in early fixed-odds futures and even in the parimutuels. That’s right. He closed 50-1 in the first KDFW pool. That might not be the triple-digit score last seen with Justify. But at least there was some sense that a player making five or six Derby futures bets could get something back.
As for which horses to bet now? A few criteria are popular to play, even if they should not always be.
What hath Baff brought? The answer is always a work in progress from the Hall of Fame barn of Bob Baffert. Look at his last two Derby winners. Authentic did not make his debut until last November. Justify, of course, did not start a race until February of his 3-year-old year. Baffert has four 2-year-olds currently listed by William Hill. Debut winner Classier (40-1) is the co-second choice despite his eighth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The $1 million colt Spielberg (75-1) was a disappointment Sunday, finishing fourth as a 3-5 favorite in the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar. Savile Row (100-1), a Quality Road colt with some blue-blood owners, was a first-out winner 1½ weeks ago at Del Mar. Freedom Fighter (130-1), sired by Violence, has been on a break since he won by a head in his August debut at Del Mar. It feels like the best Baffert option is yet to come. How about Exotic West, the Hard Spun colt who brings a bullet work into his first start Saturday at the junction of turf and surf? Expect William Hill to book him next week.
Undefeated is unimportant. The breezy opinion is that any horse that has lost so much as once is not worth betting for the Derby. The problem with that angle is that nine of the last 12 Derby winners were losers at least once as 2-year-olds, and Justify never even raced at that age. Always Dreaming and Country House were a combined 0-for-4 as juveniles. It is hard to fault horses for having unblemished records, but history says that betting 3-for-3 Essential Quality (8-1), 2-for-2 Jaxon Traveler (60-1), 2-for-2 Huntsinger (75-1) and the long list of debut winners carries no guarantee of success.
Beyer beware. On Dec. 31 every year, I make it a point to take a screenshot of the Daily Racing Form’s best Beyer Speed Figures for 2-year-olds, because that list resets early in the new calendar year. Of the 21 horses listed at the end of 2019, only two — Tiz The Law and Honor A. P. — got to the big new Churchill Downs gate Labor Day weekend. OK, throw that out because the race was so late this year. In the last 12 runnings of the Derby, the only winner to show up on that best-of list of 2-year-olds was American Pharoah at the end of 2014. For what it is worth, the best Beyers showing up in the current Derby futures include a 100 for Jackie’s Warrior (40-1), 96 for Highly Motivated (45-1), 95 for Essential Quality (8-1), 94 for Hot Rod Charlie (50-1), 92 for Keepmeinmind (75-1) and 91 for Reinvestment Risk (100-1).
Breeding success. It is not much of a sample, but it is worth noting that the last three Derby winners were sired by stallions that ranked in the top 10 while their offspring were in their 2-year-old seasons. Based on earnings calculated by the Blood-Horse, Into Mischief was the No. 1 sire last year, and he produced reigning Derby winner Authentic. Lookin At Lucky was No. 9 the year before Country House was promoted to the 2019 victory. Scat Daddy was No. 6 ahead of Justify’s triumph in 2018. Four futures candidates stand out as colts by current top-10 stallions, including Mutasaabeq (75-1) by No. 1 Into Mischief, Essential Quality (8-1) by No. 2 Tapit, King Fury (120-1) by No. 4 Curlin and Therideofalifetime (100-1) by No. 10 Candy Ride. A sagacious horseplayer might be well served to bet on the last two.
So dig in. The futures market is open. It will only look like more of a food court when the KDFW is launched next week and when Circa Sports puts up its Derby odds as soon as next Wednesday. If there is any sound advice, it is not to be in a hurry to find that great bet, especially since the race is still 5½ months away. Hopefully.
A legendary columnist from New Jersey, a seasoned bookmaker from Las Vegas and the late Hall of Famer from Louisville are on Friday’s episode of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. Jerry Izenberg tells stories of his 70 years covering big races and other sports. South Point’s Chris Andrews handicaps weekend races. There is also an archived interview with the late Paul Hornung. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod will be available for download Friday morning and free subscription now at Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.