Picking Mo in a Wide Open Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby week is almost here and it’s time to start thinking seriously about picking your horse.  All indications are that there will be a full 20-horse field of three-year-olds starting in Derby 137 on Saturday, May 7, in Louisville (Live on NBC starting at 4 p.m.).  There could be fewer in the race if one or more horses are scratched after the field is drawn on Wednesday, but it’s going to be a big field for sure.  

Virtually anyone who has ever owned a horse has dreamed of winning the Kentucky Derby.  But it takes a lot, including a great horse and maybe a little bit of luck to actually win this race.  

First, owners have to pay $25,000 just to enter their horse.  They then must pay another $25,000 to actually run in the Derby.   But there is more. Only those horses that make the cut are even allowed to enter.  That’s because the Derby is capped at 20 runners.  Who is allowed to enter is determined by the amount of accumulated graded stakes purse money that each horse has earned during its lifetime.  Click here for a current list of potential starters and their graded stakes earnings.

The Kentucky Derby post position draw will be held at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, May 4, at 5 p.m. EDT (Live on VERSUS).   This is a tradition “pill pull” used to determine starting gate number and thus the position in the starting gate for each horse.  In the Derby, “luck of the draw” is a reality.  Post position can make a difference in the outcome of the race.  

Picking a winner in the Derby is never easy.  And this year it’s even more difficult because the race is wide open.  That’s because there are no standouts or clear favorites.  Everybody has a theory.  Serious handicappers analyze a lot of variables like past performance information, workouts, breeding, jockey statistics, track condition, weather and even observation of the horse warming up before the race.   Others rely on more personal, less objective elements like the name of the horse, the color of the silks or post position number.

Personally, I like to make lots of bets on Derby Day.  Some I make on the basis of hard information, like how the horse performed in one or more of the Derby prep races.  On this basis, I like Uncle Mo.   I know that he didn’t run particularly well in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.  But he seems to be responding well to treatment and should be in top form next Saturday.

Trainers also tend to get my attention.  Who can resist a bet on the Nick Zito-trained Dialed In, who will very likely be the morning line favorite?  Nick is a Hall of Fame trainer who has won the Kentucky Derby twice, once with Strike the Gold in 1991 and again in 1994 with Go For Gin.  He knows how to get horses ready for this unique race.  

Some bets I make based on the stories surrounding the horse.  Each year there are great stories about owners, trainers or jockeys that make them sentimental favorites.  This year’s story about trainer Kathy Ritvo and her comeback from heart transplant surgery makes Mucho Macho Man a likely bet for me.

You can’t forget jockey Calvin Borel who is on something of a roll, having ridden three of the past four Kentucky Derby winners – Street Sense in 2007, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver last year. I will have to put a few bucks on longshot Twice the Appeal given that Calvin will be aboard him this year.

One great thing about the large Derby field is that every horse will go off at a good price (odds of 4 to 1 or better in all likelihood).  That’s excellent value when you are a serious horseplayer.  That’s why the Derby is so heavily bet each year.  Last year, a near-record $112.7 million was bet worldwide on the Run for the Roses alone.  

I remember the first time in Derby history that all horses ran uncoupled with no entries or mutuel fields as betting interests.  It was 2001, and I was running the track at that time.  I am embarrassed to admit that we actually worried that the elimination of the mutuel field – an old bet necessitated by 20 horse fields and antiquated wagering technology that only allowed for 14 betting interests – might hurt handle.  The common belief was that people liked being able to make one bet and get as many as seven horses with high odds.  We were dead wrong.  Players loved having the additional combinations made possible by the change and wagering on the Derby actually skyrocketed that year.  Once again, we learned the lesson that players can’t get enough of large, competitive fields.

If you want to do some serious handicapping, forget my advice.  You can check out the NTRA Live! Kentucky Derby preview webcast, hosted by Randy Moss, who will be part of the NBC Derby telecast. And also be sure to tune in this Monday night at 8:30 p.m. (EDT) and participate in the 11th edition of “Night School”, a live online chat that will focus on “Handicapping the Kentucky Derby.”  Jeremy Plonk, Joe Kristufek and their team of experts are sure to give you advice that will get you closer to a score on Derby Day.

Who do you like in the Kentucky Derby?  What are the stories that most interest you?  Let me hear from you.

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