By Steve Brady
Woody Allen once famously said that “90% of life is just showing up.” His words have special meaning on the first Saturday in May. As this year’s Kentucky Derby entrants convene on a track that few of them have ever run on—at a distance none of them has been proven at, against competition few of them have ever faced, in a stampede twice the size any of them has ever found themselves in—it is challenging to pick with any certainty a horse that will come in the money. Much less the winner. Or a likely exacta.
The past couple of years, the racetracks in Southern California (Santa Anita and Hollywood Park) have offered a promotion called, respectively, Show-vivor or Show-Me-The-Money. The idea of both is to pick one horse in one race per day to finish in the money (win, place or show), and see how long you can “show-vive” in the contest. It sounds relatively easy. (Just pick the favorite; the favorite’s gotta at least show, right??) But as anyone who’s been eliminated on Day #1 can attest, it’s tougher than it looks. Even heavy favorites don’t always finish in the money—not even in a five-horse field.
With 20 horses starting in this year’s Derby, even a show payout on an obvious favorite is likely to more than double your investment—and that’s a lot better than pissing it away like I’ve been doing the past few years.
Although it is commonly noted that the favorite has won the Derby the last two years (and three times in the last five), it is also worth noting that, in the past 12 years, the post-time favorites have won only four times. Of those same 12 years, the favorites have come in the money 7 out of 12 times. Certainly no guarantee, but it’s a better than 50% chance of at least doubling your money.
In addition, the single-digit favorites who don’t finish in the money are much more likely to be stuck out beyond Post 9. In the past dozen years, of the 32 post-time, single-digit-odds runners who started in Post 9 or beyond, only eight have even finished in the money. The only glaring exception to this trend was last year’s winner, Big Brown, who, after being marooned at Post 20, bided his time in sixth place, then scooted to the lead at the quarter-mile pole and coasted home to win by almost five lengths. He was an especially talented horse in what was considered a pretty weak field.
Here’s what I’m getting at: The closest thing you get to a sure thing in the Derby is betting a single-digit favorite inside the 10-hole to show. And if he’s got enough speed to stay on the pace, so much the better.
The obvious favorites in this race are:
I Want Revenge 3-1 [morning-line odds] Jeff Mullins [trainer]
IWR exploded once he got off the West Coast synthetics and started running on natural dirt. He put up two consecutive plus-100 Beyers, in two consecutive graded stakes wins. Consider his astounding performance in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. After getting left flat-footed at the gate, he and jockey Joe Talamo patiently chased a relatively slow pace, got boxed in on the rail, and still managed to break away and split foes in the stretch to gain the lead and win by a length and a half. He’s a deserving favorite, but he’s in Post #13. He’s not getting my show money.
Dunkirk 4-1 (Todd Pletcher)
Obviously has immense talent. In his third career race, he went off as the even-money favorite in the Florida Derby. In that race, he finished a nice second to Quality Road—now off the Derby trail with hoof issues—and earned a career-high 108 Beyer. He’s been working very fast, and gets Edgar Prado in the irons. Certainly a tempting win candidate. He’s in Post #15.
Pioneer of the Nile 4-1 (Bob Baffert)
PON has won his last four consecutive graded stakes races. It would be reckless to ignore the fact that he has already beaten Papa Clem and Derby favorite IWR in the Grade 2 Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Meanwhile, Eclipse Award winner Garrett Gomez had his choice of mounts, and picked PON over Dunkirk. Still, while PON has done nothing wrong, and keeps on winning, he remains untested on natural dirt, and still hasn’t taken on an especially large field. He also relies on closing tactics. Between the number of late runners in this field, the possibility of traffic problems in a 20-horse field, and a perusal of Churchill Downs results early this meet, it looks like an on-the-pace style will be more successful come Saturday. I don’t think the #16 hole will be as draining on PON as it might be for some others, yet I still don’t like the single-digit, outside-post candidates. I’m gonna keep looking for my surefire show bet.
Friesan Fire 5-1 (Larry Jones)
This is my pick. He’s another horse who just keeps winning and doesn’t seem to get enough respect. I’m pretty confident he’ll come in the money, and that makes him my heavy show bet. He starts from Post #6, and has no intimidating speed to his inside. He can get in a nice spot towards the front, just off the rail, letting Papa Clem, Join in the Dance, Regal Ransom, Atomic Rain and even I Want Revenge battle for position up front. He should be near the pace without burning himself out, or getting hung wide. Meanwhile, he’s been working out beautifully for trainer Jones. Plus, he won the Louisiana Derby on a sloppy track, and rain is predicted for Saturday in Louisville.
Longshots who could surprise:
Regal Ransom 30-1 (Saeed bin Suroor)
The top money-earner ($1,297,000) in the field, RR has worked well over the Churchill track after shipping in from Dubai.
Papa Clem 20-1 (Gary Stute)
Papa Clem has certainly been consistent. He beat IWR in the Lewis Stakes (just behind PON) and won the Arkansas Derby. On Thursday he worked three furlongs in a blistering 34-second bullet at Churchill. I think he’s got a shot.
Musket Man 20-1 (Derek Ryan)
MM could surprise everyone on Derby Day. He’s won five of six races—the other one, he came in third. He’s been working very nicely at Churchill, and he attracts Eibar Coa for the mount. He should be up towards the front for most of the race; we’ll see if he can hang on in the stretch.
General Quarters 20-1 (Tom McCarthy)
GQ is worth a $2 flyer based purely on a warm-'n'-fuzzy play. He’s the one-horse barn of 75-year-old, semi-retired trainer and ex-school principal McCarthy. After getting outbid for GQ in the yearling sales at Keeneland, McCarthy picked him up in a $20,000 claiming race at Churchill Downs a year later. Oh yeah, and he earned a 102 Beyer in a stakes race at Tampa Bay Downs on Valentine’s Day.
Chocolate Candy 20-1 (Jerry Hollendorfer)
CC seems to be the wise-guy pick. He’s continued to improve with each race. Right behind PON and IWR in the CashCall Futurity, he’s another who seems to work well underneath the Twin Spires.
Steve Brady is Sports Media America's horse-racing columnist. He handicaps races in Southern California and works in Los Angeles as a commercial actor and comedy improviser with Cold Tofu.