Who's the Favorite?- by Eric Mitchell

(Originally published in the April 21, 2012 issue of The Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and opinions at the bottom of the column.

By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter

By Eric Mitchell A year ago racing fans were scratching their heads over the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) contenders. What to do with a field of longshot horses that kept beating each other up throughout the spring with no one able to string together consecutive victories, or even good consecutive finishes, in the prep races?

For the 2012 Kentucky Derby, we have the opposite problem—too many good horses.

“Normally, three weeks out from the Derby, I can say it is between A and B,” said Mike Battaglia, the morning line oddsmaker for the Derby about determining the favorite. “This year it is between A, B, C, D, and E. I cannot remember a year when I thought it was so close between this many horses.”

Incidentally, Battaglia has been making the Derby morning line since 1975.

“All I know at this point,” Battaglia continued, “is that whoever it is, 5-1 is going to be the lowest, maybe even 6-1.”

A possibility exists for co-favorites, though Battaglia said he’s never done that before. In hindsight, he said he could have made Street Sense and Curlin co-favorites in 2007 because only 10 cents on the dollar separated their final odds.

We’re seeing the stage set this season for the longest-priced favorite in the Kentucky Derby’s 138-year history.

The record for highest-priced favorite isn’t an old one. Two-time champion Lookin At Lucky holds the title after breaking from unlucky post 1 in 2010 at odds of 6.30 to 1. Before Lookin At Lucky, the longest-price was 6.00-1 on Harlan’s Holiday in 2002.

The leading contenders for favoritism make great fodder for debate. But before we jump in, it is important to remember the favorite is not the horse an oddsmaker believes will win. The favorite is the horse the oddsmaker believes the betting public will put most of its money on.

In order to separate the leading contenders, Battaglia said he’ll be closely watching the morning works, not just the times but how easily they’re covering ground. He’ll also be talking to the clockers, who have sharp eyes for an improving horse and listen to the buzz among serious horseplayers.

Santa Anita Park oddsmaker Jon White has said Bodemeister’s 91⁄2-length romp in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) makes him a deserving Derby favorite.

“This was Bodemeister’s third straight triple-digit figure after he earned a pair of 101 Beyers at Santa Anita,” White said. “I definitely think Bodemeister is going to be the Kentucky Derby favorite based on that speed-figure power and his brilliance in the Arkansas Derby.”

Not so fast, says Battaglia. Bodemeister’s win at Oaklawn Park was impressive, but prior to that race his only win out of four lifetime starts was in a maiden special weight at Santa Anita in February.

“It is tough for a lightly raced horse to come back in three weeks and run well in the Derby,” Battaglia said.

Dullahan also ran a tough race in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), but his previous win came on the turf and the win at Keeneland was over a synthetic surface, which the public tends to knock at the mutuel windows. Look no further back than last year with Animal Kingdom, who raced for the first time on dirt in the Derby and exited the gate at odds of 20-1. Animal Kingdom came into the Derby off a win in the Vinery Racing Spiral Stakes (gr. III) on Turfway Park’s Polytrack.

Because Hansen didn’t win the Blue Grass, New York Racing Association line maker Eric Donovan believes Union Rags could still wind up the favorite.

“There are a lot of people who are very much in the corner of Union Rags and believe he had a troubled trip the last time out,” Donovan said. “Hansen has done very little wrong, but there is sentiment he is not a mile and a quarter horse.”

And what about undefeated Gemologist, winner of the Resorts World Casino New York City Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I)?
“He is proven in both his races and trained by a top guy (Todd Pletcher). He’ll be right there,” Donovan said.

Then we’ve got I’ll Have Another, winner of the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) and the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), and Creative Cause, who won the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) and finished a nose back in second in the Santa Anita Derby.
“There are just too many of them right now,” Battaglia said.

OK, so how about who’s likely to win the Derby?

“It is amazing to me how much they move forward; the right one peaks at the right time,” Battaglia said. “It happens every year. A horse jumps up and runs out of his skin. It is the hardest race to handicap.”

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