It’s Derby Week and the question all over town from experts to novices will be: Who You Got? As of today it looks like there will be a full field of 20 horses for the 138th Kentucky Derby and as ever, there will be plenty of options and justifications. As far as picking horses goes there are literally a multitude of methods for picking horses. Some people like grey horses, some people just pick the chalk (favorite), some people have a favorite trainer or jockey. My favorite methods are the unconventional, nonsensical, and implausible methods that people use. The best example of this is Richard Dreyfus’ character Jay Trotter in the movie “Let It Ride” who goes into the paddock and asks every patron who they like while eliminating their selection for himself.
I couldn’t find the full scene, so the trailer will have to do. But “Let it Ride” is a classic movie on betting culture and horse racing and I usually always find time to watch it leading up to the First Saturday in May. As for me, I have my own selection process. And it isn’t always dedicated to breaking down Beyer Figures or Fractions.
Looking at the Race from a Bird’s Eye View
The thing I like to tell people with the Derby is that really anything can happen. The race is run once per year and it is literally a once in a lifetime experience for the horses and it is an impossible scenario to simulate or re-create for them. The horses have never run the mile and a quarter distance, they’ve never been in a full field of 18+ horses, they’ve never run in front of 160,000+ screaming and inebriated fans who have been sipping on Mint Juleps. The 3-year olds only have one opportunity in their lifetime to win the Kentucky Derby and the conditions during a Kentucky Spring can be nearly impossible to predict.
So when you start throwing trends at me I am bound to just believe that trend is due to be stopped. Take for example the Favorite Curse where no favorite was able to win the Derby for what seemed to be an eternity and then Fusaichi Pegasus came through to bust that myth, while . Then a gelding hadn’t won the Derby since 1929 when Funny Cide hit the reset button on that in 2003. Followed by Big Brown winning the first leg of the triple crown out of the #20 position, something that had never been accomplished.
Aside from the trends here is what we know: It’s a long race. It’s a big crowd both on the track and in the stands. You can look at front runners, horses that sit off the pace, deep closers, tactical jockeys, polished trainers, etc. But even good horses fold in the final turn when they hit the wall of noise that greets them from the grandstand. The horses that win the Derby are resilient and mentally tough and that’s what I really look for in a race horse to be a Kentucky Derby Champion.
The race takes its toll on any thoroughbred. The first turn is essential for most horses (outside of deep closers) and the race can literally be won or lost in the first 1/2 mile as some jockeys choose to compete for position along the rail while others get shuffled to the outside, clip heels, have to start and stop, etc. This first turn can typically eliminate about 6 horses every year which makes the post position draw very important.
I guess my point is that I can literally draw up a hundred different scenarios that would make an argument for every horse in the field to win on Saturday, but the fact is that no one knows what is going to happen. I would have never selected Mine That Bird in 2009, even after the race was run and Calvin Borel was throwing Roses into the crowd I sat in my box at Churchill Downs with my program open asking myself, “What Did I Miss?” Fact is I saw the race with my own eyes and still didn’t believe that the 50-1 shot nor would I have wagered on him if the race had been won the following week.
The guy who had the most logical rationalization for betting on Mine That Bird in 2009? Cal Ripken, Jr. The Hall of Fame Shortstop of the Baltimore Orioles justification for picking MTB was extremely easy: Ripken wore #8, so did MTB. Ripken played for the Orioles, a bird. Ripken’s first name is Cal, short for Calvin, and MTB’s jockey was Calvin Borel. Outside of that, I still can’t imagine why anyone would have picked Mine That Bird, but I think you get my point. ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN.
We’ll breakdown the horses as the week goes on, but for now here are my favorite non-analysis methods for picking horses at the track and for the Kentucky Derby specifically.
-Repeating Letter Horses: Super Saver, Big Brown, Street Sense, Go for Gin, Sunday Silence.
-Sticking with your Number(s): Some people have their numbers and they never stray. In the Derby, historically speaking, the #5-#9 starting positions are the sweet spot.
-Have a Phrase to Put with Every Horse: It can really be anything, I’ve heard of folks put a phrase after each horse’s name and whichever sounds best that’s who they pick. i.e. “In Bed” or “With Bourbon”. So for the Derby, Daddy Knows Best “In Bed”, Done Talking “In Bed”, El Padrino “In Bed”, even Optimizer “In Bed” could be nice options for that phrase. Or Creative Cause “With Bourbon”, I’ll Have Another “With Bourbon”, Prospective “With Bourbon”, Went the Day Well “With Bourbon” could all work as well. But you can have your own, and when using this method it’s important to make it yours and have as much fun as possible.
-Pick A Horse in the Paddock Based on Looks: Because it’s rare to have time off from work, why spend your entire day looking in a racing form breaking down everything? Just show up choose the best looking horse and move on.
-Bet the Chalk OR Bet the Longest Shot on the Board All Day. Just don’t deviate. Typically the favorite wins 1/3 of the races in horse racing, which is a really good percentage. So if you want to cash some tickets and don’t want to think too much, just go with the shortest odds horse. Trouble is, you won’t win much money. So you could go the route of just betting the longest odds each race, if it hits just one you’ll likely made money on your afternoon (depending on how much you spent on alcohol).