Will Popularity Equal Performance for Eskendereya in the Derby?

By Brock Sheridan, The Brock Talk

With the major prep races for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands in the books and the field beginning to solidify, it appears all but certain that Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. 1) winner Eskendereya will be your post time favorite on the first Saturday in May.  And as we mentioned  Monday, according to Churchill Downs morning line maker Mike Battaglia, Eskendereya will likely be listed at 2-1 in the program and will possibly be bet down to lower odds by the wagering public.

Since 2001, when the wagering "field" was eliminated and betting interests increased to as many as 20, only Point Given has been popular enough to dip below the 2-1 level, going off at 9-5. He finished fifth. The last horse to win at less than double odds was Spectacular Bid, who in 1979 went off as the odds-on favorite at 3-5 in victory. The 1980s and 90s were a bad time to be a heavy favorite in the Derby as Arazi (1992, 4-5), Mister Frisky ('90, 9-5), the 1989 entry of Easy Goer and Awe Inspiring (4-5) and Chief's Crown ('85, 6-5) all went down in defeat. Arazi and Mister Frisky finished 8th while Easy Goer was second and Awe Inspiring and Chief's Crown finished third in their respective years.

Going back to 1946 when the Kentucky Derby wagering format was expanded to handle 12 betting interests from a maximum of ten, 38 horses have gone off at 2-1 odds or less. (Twelve of those Derby starters ran as a coupled entry so there were actually 32 betting interests.) During those 64 years, eleven, or 28.9%, of the 38 have come home winners.

The only year in which two uncoupled Kentucky Derby starters went off at 2-1 or lower was 1978 when Alydar was favored at 6-5 over eventual Triple Crown winner Affirmed at 9-5. Affirmed of course, won and went on to win the Triple Crown in one of the great rivalries of our sport.

The only decade kind to heavy favorites was the 1970s when Seattle Slew ('77, 1-2), Foolish Pleasure ('75, 9-5), Cannonade ('74, 7-5), Secretariat ('73, 7-5 as an entry with Angel Light) and Riva Ridge ('72, 7-5) were all popular winners.

Between 1946 and 1969, only Majestic Prince ('69, 7-5), Needles ('56, 6-5), Hill Gail ('52, even) and Triple Crown winner Citation ('48, 2-5 as an entry with Coaltown) managed to hit the winner's circle and pay-off their supporters. During that span, such greats as Damascus, Candy Spots, Ridan, Bold Ruler, Nashua and Native Dancer all went down in defeat at odds of less than 2-1 as did 11 others including Coaltown.

Native Dancer and Social Outcast ran second and seventh respectively as a coupled entry to set the record as the lowest price losers at 3-5. In that Derby, Native Dancer was severely bumped going into the first turn by 45-1 long shot Money Broker and was never able to recover sufficiently to catch 24-1 winner Dark Star. Even the official chart notes that Native Dancer "was probably the best."

It is difficult to point the finger at other unfortunate favorites as well. Easy Goer lost to Sunday Silence. Hill Rise was bumped twice past the grandstand for the first time and forced wide on the far turn when second to Northern Dancer. Nashua was second to Swaps in 1955, but won the Preakness and Belmont as Swaps headed back to California. But Nashua was able to avenge his Derby loss to Swaps in the famous match race later that year at Washington Park in Chicago.

Daily Racing Form charts of other heavily bet losers are not so gracious however.  Although Arazi was 8-wide, he "came up empty" and finished 8th. In 1967 Damascus "loomed boldly... ...continued gamely to midstretch where he appeared to hang under extreme pressure." Olympia "gave way" in the stretch of the 1949 Derby at 4-5 and finished 6th.

No one knows if Eskendereya's Derby will more resemble Secretariat's 1973 track record performance at Churchill or Bold Lad finishing tenth at 2-1 in 1965. Just remember before you put your precious financial investment through the window on the first Saturday in May, that popularity and performance are sometimes vastly different.

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