LAS VEGAS – “Who ya got?”
That’s what everyone’s asking on the First Saturday in May as post time approaches for the Kentucky Derby.
I haven’t had as much success on Derby Day as I’ve had with the Breeders’ Cup. I’ve been betting every year since I won my first Derby bet on Strike the Gold (9-2) in 1991 (see, I didn’t always just bet longshots). Out of those 27 years, the only other times my “Derby horse” won was Go For Gin (9-1) in 1994, Grindstone (5-1) in 1996 and Funny Cide (12-1) in 2003.
However, the beauty of the Derby is that my biggest scores have actually come when I hit other bets. That’s because the payouts are always through the roof thanks to the 20-horse field. Allow me to share three quick stories to illustrate how to search out value even when your top pick doesn’t run as you expected.
1995: I was working at the Daily Racing Form’s main office in Phoenix. Legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ top horse was Timber Country, who a lot of people believed could end the 16-year Triple Crown drought since Affirmed in 1978. I had long been a fan of “hidden entries,” where a trainer has multiple horses but they’re not coupled, so when I saw his second-stringer Thunder Gulch going off at 24-1, I bet $20 to win and also hit the $480 exacta. Skeptics will say that a race like this was fixed for the connections to get the bigger payoff, but with so much on the line with future breeding fees, etc., that doesn’t make sense. Besides, from my time at DRF, I learned that “insiders” didn’t necessarily handicap any better than the rest of us; I know I never came close to break-even when betting on supposed inside information from owners, trainers, jockeys, grooms or backstretch workers. Lukas was as surprised as anyone that day.
2002: This was the first Derby after my daughter Jordyn Rose Tuley was born three days prior. Looking at the chart of the race, I can’t even remember who my top horse was (and I’m sure I bet less than $100 total as we were preparing to raise a daughter in an uncertain post 9-11 world). All l remember was seeing an exacta “will pay” chart showing the 5-13 paying more than $1,000 either way. That was #5 War Emblem (trained by two-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert) and #13 Proud Citizen (trained by four-time winner Lukas). I couldn’t believe it was 500-1 that the two best Derby trainers of that time could run 1-2. I bet a $2 exacta box and cashed for $1,300.
2005: The previous fall, I had Wilko to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at 28-1. When handicapping the 2005 Derby, I was convinced that a torrid speed duel was going to set it up for a horse to pull a Silky Sullivan and close from the clouds. The closers I liked best were Wilko and Giacomo, who only had a maiden win, so I went with Wilko as my top choice. Fortunately, I did bet $20 on Giacomo who won at 50-1 as I had learned that you could be two horses to win in a 20-horse field. However, I wish I had been more creative with my saver bets as the Giacomo/Closing Argument/Afleet Alex trifecta paid $133,000 while I was holding a Wilko/ALL/Afleet Alex tri wheel ($36 bet, so since I also had a Wilko/Afleet Alex/ALL tri wheel, it would have cost me just another $72 using Giacomo the same way to have a six-figure payday).
I’m not sharing all this to brag (well, maybe a little bit LOL), but more importantly instead to show that you don’t have to limit yourself to betting your top horse straight or boxing your top selections. And there’s the opportunity to have a great score even when you’re not “right.”
Having said all that, we’re of course going to try and handicap the Derby to the best of our ability. Follow along with my bets if you wish, or mesh my handicapping with yours if you agree with some of my takes but not others. Believe me, I’ve always said not to follow anyone blindly (including yours truly) – and that to give a man a winner lets him cash for a day, but teach a man how to bet lets him cash for a lifetime – so as I wrote in the VSiN/TVG “Inside the Derby” digital magazine ($19.99 at vsin,com/derby but free to Point Spread Weekly subscribers), “If you find yourself believing you have the winner, this is the time to not let anyone talk you off your horse.”
Also, my graded handicap of the entire Derby Day card at Churchill Downs is available under separate cover for subscribers. As I was quoted by my editor in the Derby issue: “I’ve had several years where I lost the Derby, but ended up with a profitable day thanks to the overall existence of unsophisticated money in the betting pools all day long.”
So after that lengthy intro, my 1-2-3-Longshot picks were already posted in “Inside the Derby” and I stand by that list: #4 Flameaway, #6 Good Magic, #16 Magnum Moon and longshot #3 Promises Fulfilled.
Let’s go through the entire field (since maybe something I point out will make you consider a horse even if I’m throwing them out) and then I’ll list my preliminary list of raceday bets.
#1 Firenze Fire (50-1)
Tuley’s Take: I’m not using Firenze Fire on any tickets, and it has nothing to do with him drawing the rail (the dreaded #1 from which no horse has won the Derby from since Ferdinand in 1986). He’s just not fast enough to compete with this field. He’s going to get shuffled back, and while he has enough of a closing kick to “pass” some of the horses that are fading late, there are half a dozen closers that I prefer to get into the money.
#2 Free Drop Billy (30-1)
Tuley’s Take: This is another toss-out right off the bat. I see him as a plodder with only a slightly better chance than Firenze Fire to hit the board but would also need the race to completely fall apart.
#3 Promises Fulfilled (30-1)
Tuley’s Take: I admit to being more than a little biased here. When filling in on Ron Flatter’s weekly horse racing column back on March 2, I hit Promises Fulfilled’s 18-1 wire-to-wire upset of the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park on March 3. I passed on him in the Florida Derby when he set the early pace and then backed up and finished last, but that was to be expected as he didn’t need that race for qualifying points and was basically a glorified workout for the main goal, the Kentucky Derby. We’ll see a top effort again Saturday, but unlike most people who say he must have the lead, I expect he’ll sit off the pace of the fastest of them all, Justify. However, if Justify does rate, that could give Promises Fulfilled the chance to set a leisurely pace and have enough left for the stretch run). I’ll be betting him to win but won’t use in as many exotics as my other top choices just because he is just as likely to finish last as first). Win or bust (but worth the flier).
#4 Flameaway (30-1)
Tuley’s Take: When anyone asks, “Who is your Derby Horse?” this is it. Flameaway is the biggest overlay on the morning line at 30-1 – and I’ll still say that if he gets bet down to 20-1. He’s won at five different tracks (note: Justify has won at just Santa Anita) and on a synthetic racing surface, on turf, on a muddy track (so I have no reason to abandon him if it rains Saturday in Louisville) and a fast dirt track. Flameaway a racehorse! His best race was the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs; it looks like he went wire-to-wire in the PPs, but he was actually headed by Catholic Boy in deep stretch and fought back to win. He had runner-up finishes in the Tampa Bay Derby and Blue Grass Stakes, but that’s what’s helping us get this price. He should be able to sit just off the pace and get first run on the pacesetters turning for home. Again, I love how Flameaway fought to the end in the Sam F. Davis, and even though he was passed by Good Magic in the Blue Grass, he held on gamely and didn’t back up despite setting fast fractions (reminds me of a past Derby winner of mine, Funny Cide, in his Wood Memorial loss to Empire Maker). I’m betting Flameaway in every possible way.
#5 Audible (8-1)
Tuley’s Take: Audible is a legitimate contender off fourth straight victories, including romps in the Holy Bull and Florida Derby at Gulfstream. He’s a “push-button” horse who sits off the pace and then consistently fires when asked. The #5 post allows Javier Castellano to put him in perfect position. I’m just not convinced he’s as fast as the other live stalking horses we have in this field, but I’ll be using him on many of my secondary tickets.
#6 Good Magic (12-1)
Tuley’s Take: If I love Flameaway, I must like Good Magic, too, as he beat Flameaway in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. And I do. Now, regular readers will know I fade Good Magic in the Fountain of Youth and won with Promises Fulfilled at 18-1. That was because Good Magic was coming off a four-month layoff since his win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and I saw him as a very vulnerable favorite. That worked out as planned, but then Good Magic showed his true form by rebounding in the Blue Grass. Just like in both his wins, Good Magic should be able to find a clean trip a few lengths off the lead (assuming he had position himself ahead of the bulk of the congested field heading into the first turn). He’ll be on most of my main tickets. Note: unless his odds unexpectedly drift up, I don’t see him as an overlay; however, I would term him “the most likely winner” so you might consider a win bet, especially if you don’t like my top choice.
#7 Justify (3-1)
Tuley’s Take: Will the morning-line favorite fall victim to the “Apollo Curse” because he didn’t race as a 2-year-old (don’t get me started on that as Apollo showed it could be done) or be a Triple Crown candidate? I’ll pick the former, not that Justify isn’t extremely talented but because of the other obstacles he has to face (and certainly an underlay at 3-1 or anywhere around that). The lack of a 2-year-old foundation is compounded by having only three races and all at the same track (Santa Anita) and against fewer combined horses (17) than he’ll face Saturday. I also believe his lack of experience will have him bolting to the lead thinking he can dominate this field like he did in his prior three races (yes, I’m guilty of anthropomorphism). While I’m mostly throwing him out, he is the fastest colt in the field and I will include in some tickets just so I’m not kicking myself for not cashing in case he comes in with some of my longshots.
#8 Lone Sailor (50-1)
Tuley’s Take: Lone Sailor is in Exhibit A in my attempt to build a case for a ticket of come-from-behind types in case all the speed horses run each other into the ground and set it up for the deep closers. He’s consistent with his closing kick and the fastest the pace the better. His #8 post should help in getting position on the other closers, though with Hofburg right next to him, they could be moving in tandem (so if you’re only looking to include two deep closers, I’d go with them).
#9 Hofburg (20-1)
Tuley’s Take: See my comments on Lone Sailor above. Hofburg’s odds are much shorter and he is a more likely win candidate. Bill Mott is a Churchill Downs legend and doesn’t just enter horses to get a clubhouse seat; he obviously thinks highly of this lightly raced colt as he entered him in the Florida Derby off just a maiden win. He could be peaking at the right time, so beware, though with so many so-called experts jumping on the bandwagon, I doubt he goes off at 20-1.
#10 My Boy Jack (30-1)
Tuley’s Take: Here’s a third straight deep closer, though he’s considerably slower than Lone Sailor or Hofburg and would be the one to drop, in my opinion. He looks like the “just happy to be here” horse as his connections (including the Desormeaux brothers) sent him out to win the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland to get enough Derby points. Use sparingly.
#11 Bolt d’Oro (8-1)
Tuley’s Take: This colt scares me. I wanted to throw him out completely as I’m not impressed in his running times on the fast track at Santa Anita; however, his second-place finish to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby can be easily excused as he didn’t need to qualifying points as much and he’s certainly a candidate to turn the tables. Still, we can’t bet ‘em all and I’m going to toss him and hope he doesn’t bust up a winning ticket.
#12 Enticed (30-1)
Tuley’s Take: I called Flameaway the biggest overlay on the board, but this would be my second choice. He should get a clean, stalking trip and could loom large at the top of the Churchill Downs stretch. The only thing working against him is the Derby record of Godolphin, 0-for-10 with no finishes better than fourth. That’s another of the trends that will end one of these years. It could be this year, though I would need the full 30-1 to take a flier (though I will at least use him on my “deep closer” ticket).
#13 Bravazo (50-1)
Tuley’s Take: Yet another closer, though one of the ones I like least overall due to his slower time in Louisiana. His last race was also five weeks ago, but it’s hard to question trainer D. Wayne Lukas, 82, who has forgotten more about horse racing than most of us know. Does the octogenarian have one more miracle in him? It would be a great story, but I’m likely to just have him in my deep closers box.
#14 Mendelssohn (5-1)
Tuley’s Take: Just like Justify trying to overcome history, Mendelssohn is trying to become the first to pull off the UAE Derby/Kentucky Derby double. If he repeats his last performance, the rest could be running for second. UAE winners are 0-9 on the First Saturday in May with none finishing better than sixth place. Will the trip from Dubai take too much out of him? Well, he did win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar last November. And then traveled to win in Ireland and then in Dubai, so he is ship-worthy. I’m using on some of my secondary tickets, but I’m mostly taking a stand against him.
#15 Instilled Regard (50-1)
Tuley’s Take: It took a while to get to another toss-out, but here it is. Instilled Regard won the Grade 3 Lecomte at Fair Grounds and followed that up with two lackluster fourth-place finishes. Now, I’m a forgiving handicapper and could ignore those, but I wasn’t that impressed by the Lecomte win either. He has the look of a horse that will just plod along in mid-pack and never threaten.
#16 Magnum Moon (6-1)
Tuley’s Take: Among the “favorites” at single-digit odds, this is the one I’m using in most of my exotics. Even though he didn’t race at 2 like Justify, he has more of a foundation with four career starts and two of them in graded stakes (Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby). He should be forwardly placed and should be in contention in the stretch (and he’s yet to have a horse pass him in deep stretch). Almost called Magnum Moon my “most likely” winner horse over Good Magic, but that’s how much I respect Good Magic. Ignore at your own risk.
#17 Solomini (30-1)
Tuley’s Take: Morning-line maker Mike Battaglia put a whopping seven horses at 30-1, and this is the fourth that wouldn’t surprise me if he won. Solomini’s odds shouldn’t really be this high, though maybe it’s because he’s eligible for a “non-winner of two races” condition since he was disqualified from his victory in the Los Alamitos Futurity. He finished behind Magnum Moon in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and should be running late again. Trained by supertrainer Bob Baffert, he’s also of a so-called “hidden entry” as he runs uncoupled with stablemate Justify. See Timber Country/Thunder Gulch in the intro. As I said on Ron Flatter’s VSiN podcast, I wouldn’t be the biggest shock (to me, at least) to see Baffert in the winner’s circle with Solomini and trying to explain away the loss by favored Justify. Worth a saver ticket.
#18 Vino Rosso (12-1)
Tuley’s Take: We’re back to another deep closer. He doesn’t fire as consistently as some of the others, but he certainly came through in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. The faster the early pace, the better for his chances as I put him with Lone Sailor and Hofburg as my favorite closers if wanting to narrow down from the bigger “deep closers” ticket.
#19 Noble Indy (30-1)
Tuley’s Take: There are some things to like about this longshot (the aforementioned “hidden entry” angle being one, plus he was passed in the Louisiana Derby stretch and re-rallied), but not sure he can overcome the outside post. I’m taking a stand against him and if he beats me, so be it.
#20 Combatant (50-1)
Tuley’s Take: He’s no Big Brown, winner of the 2008 Derby from the outside post, so most people are going to disregard him immediately (and having just a maiden win with five straight losses doesn’t help fill the bandwagon), but this 50-1 shot should at least outrun his odds. He’s never been worse than fourth, so he could clunk on up for a piece of the money, so he will be part of my “deep closers” ticket.
Note: We’ll know by 9 a.m. ET if anyone scratches early to allow also-eligible #21 Blended Citizen into the field; if he does, I would also include him in the “deep closers” group off his rally to win the Jeff Ruby Steaks (that’s not a typo) at Turfway.
Tuley’s “Takes”…potential tickets to play:
Win and Place on #4 Flameaway (I’ll add show if he’s at least 20-1)
$1 exacta wheel with 4/ALL ($19) and $1 exacta ALL/4 ($19) in case another bomber comes in (also makes up for low place price if one of top contender comes in)
Win on #3 Promises Fulfilled in case he steals it on the lead
Exacta and trifecta box with #3 Promises Fulfilled/#4 Flameaway/#7 Justify in case they run away from the field and no one catches any of them
Exacta, trifecta, superfecta boxes with my top four picks: #4 Flameaway, #6 Good Magic, #16 Magnum Moon, #3 Promises Fulfilled…feel free to add or sub-in your personal choice(s)
Exacta, trifecta and perhaps superfecta box with my “in-case-it’s-a-suicidal-pace-and-sets-up-for-deep-closers” scenario with #8 Lone Sailor, #9 Hofburg, #12 Enticed, #13 Bravazo, #18 Vino Rosso, #20 Combatant