There is no single stereotyped path to Churchill Downs. But odds for the Kentucky Derby open long for almost every horse due to the sheer number of contenders who could claim a post position on May 5th.
2017 Derby winner Always Dreaming won multiple races going into the Run for the Roses. The colt was a front-runner from day one. Other Derby champions have languished in the pack in early spring, brought along more slowly by their keepers. Yet no Thoroughbred can win the Kentucky Derby without being invited to run in it. Therefore, tactics vary on how hard to run a horse in March.
It helps to compare racing to a team sport, like basketball. Hoops titans like Kansas or Villanova are usually not prohibitive odds-on favorites to win postseason conference tournaments. They can afford to coast a little and maybe lose in the semifinals. An underdog, on the other hand, must go all-out to win the bracket and then hope for an average seed in the NCAA tourney.
Likewise, an early Derby favorite might be coddled through a minor injury or growing pains while finishing 3rd or worse in lead-up races. Meanwhile, a less-hyped horse may be pushed to the limit in a desperate attempt to qualify for Louisville. Playing the odds successfully means worrying about who wins one particular race, not many smaller races.
Don’t ask trainers or owners how hard a horse is running. They’ll always say that their animal is just fine, despite any lackluster outings or head-to-head losses against Triple Crown hopefuls. Instead, let’s look at the bloodlines and track results of several well-in-the-pack sleepers on the 2018 Kentucky Derby futures board, and draw conclusions based on something besides fluffy interviews.
Here are a few horses who may enjoy much shorter odds by the time roses are blooming in Kentucky.
- (+ 6500 at BetOnline)
A horse’s sire is an important clue to its Derby potential. So, what does it mean when a pedigree’s value isn’t agreed upon?
On one hand, Tiz Mischief is a colt with a proud father. The 2018 Derby hopeful’s sire Into Mischief happened to be the most popular breeding stallion in America last year. The elder Mischief is the sire of 60 stakes horses, 32 stakes winners, and 13 Graded stakes winners, and has acquired $30M in progeny earnings, which is then invested in a lot of fillies and gourmet oats. But not everyone is convinced that the bloodline is all that it is cracked up to be.
“There will be stamina doubts about Tiz Mischief given his sire,” writes Kentuckyderby.com, “but his racing style and the fact Tiznow is his damsire suggests he has a chance of staying. His prep races should be watched closely.”
Stamina doubts? While it’s true that Into Mischief wasn’t a Kentucky Derby winner, the colt did run very fast in high-stakes races between 2007 and 2008. We’re not talking about a Secretariat-level lineage here. But not every mammal inherits every trait from its parents, or else we would each bet on the Kentucky Derby in the same way our fathers did.
Tiz Mischief’s next few races will indeed be watched closely. The 3 year old bettered his most recent time by 4 seconds in a second straight full-length race while showing at Holy Bull in February behind Audible and Free Drop Billy. However, his odds have grown longer following the latter race. Maybe not a true sleeper, but a horse which could continue to improve and land a post on Derby Day.
- (+2000 at Bet Online)
This colt is certainly not a long shot to reach the Derby. A product of the vaunted Godolphin Racing stable, Enticed is sitting pretty with 13 total points as of early March.
But gamblers don’t find the horse very enticing, as its odds are staying long while the field tightens. Part of the problem is that despite having won 2 out of 4 starts as a young Thoroughbred, Enticed finished out of the top 3 at Holy Bull and ran slower than Derby long shots. It doesn’t mean he can’t win a Triple Crown event later on, but there isn’t much buzz that ever came with losing races.
That could be an opportunity for the futures bettor. Remember, racing analysts aren’t looking for solid, consistent racing. They’re looking for special talent. The public thinks racehorses run as fast as they can around a track and that’s it. Owners, trainers, jockeys, and journalists know better. Enticed is still being whispered about as a shockingly gifted horse due to his awareness in tight scenarios on the track.
The colt’s pedigree is Medaglia d’Oro and It’s Tricky, each gifted Thoroughbreds. He has shown bursts of sudden speed and an aptitude for beating other contenders in head-to-head sprints. At the Kentucky Jockey Club in November, Enticed swung dangerously wide before running down Tiz Mischief and 3 other Derby hopefuls for the crown. A lot of value in this wager at 45-to-1 odds.
He Hate Me
- (+8000 at Sportsbook.ag)
This 50-to-1 long-shot is a great story of life imitating art. The colt is named after former pro running back Rod Smart’s precocious publicity stunt in front of Vince McMahon’s XFL cameras. “When I’m running past him, he hate me,” said the marketing genius who later played snaps for the Carolina Panthers.
Racehorses do not, in fact, hate each other, even when one is galloping past. But they must grow, develop, and mature like any human athlete. He Hate Me is a fast, talented colt who was described as youthful and impatient in test races. His jockey attested to the horse being spooked by a parade in May. But in a handful of outings, He Hate Me has won twice and placed in a race at Belmont.
The choice to bring a Thoroughbred along slowly is not without its downside. This long shot has some catching up to do, both on the track and in the Derby standings where a lack of races equals a lack of points. Make no mistake, it could happen. He Hate Me has shown world-class speed in the stretch. The animal was well behind entering the lane at the Tremont Stakes but shot into the lead to embarrass Direct Dial.
- (+4500 at BetOnline)
Has Sporting Chance gone from Derby Day favorite to long shot? It wasn’t long ago that this horse was a 15-to-1 bet at some casinos, even though Derby futures odds tend to shorten as the field narrows over time. The Thoroughbred has done nothing to disappoint, outside of getting hosed in a recent result at Oaklawn.
There was a stewards’ inquiry into the stretch run of the race at Southwest in late February, in which jockey Luis Saez and Sporting Chance were impeded by Combatant and Mourinho in a squeeze. Regardless, the colt actually made up ground in the final 16th, causing trainer Wayne Lukas to praise the horse afterward.
Sporting Chance is a winner and a strong Thoroughbred in the stretch. His points need to come up in a hurry to earn a spot. Should bettors throw out the February result? Maybe not under normal circumstances. But when slow-moving bookies are still offering short odds and others a potential jackpot on the winner, a futures bet at (+3500) could make sense with this horse.
- (+7500 at Sportsbook.ag)
Regulate is another aptly-named horse because Derby gamblers must regulate their own childish sense of wonder before considering him. To listen to racing pundit Keeler Johnson of Bet America, this Thoroughbred is made of magic dust.
“I couldn’t help but think back to American Pharoah when I saw that Baffert had entered #8 Regulate (in a major sweepstakes at Santa Anita)” writes Johnson, going on to say that a few recent downer results mean nothing when a horse is as talented as Regulate. “I get the impression that there’s more to Regulate than first meets the eye.”
Comparisons to American Pharoah are heady stuff for a colt which has never won and only placed in a March 8th outing in Arcadia. But a look at the knowns-and-measurables tells another tale. Regulate’s highest E speed is 102, and his pedigree is sublime. His maternal great-grandmother is Toussaud, whose son Empire Maker won the 2003 Belmont Stakes.
Perhaps most importantly to some analysts, Regulate is a Baffert horse. In case anyone reading this lives under a rock (or just far away from Kentucky), Bob Baffert is a trainer who has won 4 Kentucky Derbies, 6 Preakness Stakes, 2 Belmont Stakes, and 3 Kentucky Oaks. Cough.
A long-shot futures bet is never a sure thing. It’s not even a sure hunch. It’s a Hail Mary. Bettors must play in advance if a jackpot is in the offing on a horse bound to be favored later in spring. With Regulate’s odds missing from some markets and (+4000) or longer in others, might it be wise to count on a better-than 40-to-1 chance of another Baffert miracle?