In March of 2017, Always Dreaming was hovering around 50-to-1 odds to win the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Though the proud colt was starting to win what races it entered, its track times, pedigree, and famous trainer (Todd Pletcher) had not yet proven enough to bookies.
Those same odds-makers got soaked when Pletcher’s Thoroughbred bathed in bouquets and gourmet oats after the win in Louisville. Always Dreaming woke up on Derby Day as a co-favorite. But gamblers who had ventured a (+5000) wager on the house in late winter were the real victors.
It helped that in March, as always, the field of Derby post hopefuls still numbered in the hundreds. The sheer number of horses who could potentially comprise the final field of 20 help to keep futures lines longer. But there are a few other factors at play too, factors grasped by the bettors who cash in.
The Kentucky Derby can be defined in many ways. But it’s the one way that the Run for the Roses is not typically defined which is often the key to betting on the race successfully.
When The Odds Defy Common Sense
Pundits scoffed when handicappers said that the March Madness money line for 1st seeded Kansas and 16th seeded Penn was too exaggerated. Bettors were putting couch-cushion money on the Quakers with promise of a big payoff. Ivy League basketball has been criminally underrated in the past, and Kansas was missing its reliable big man.
Part of the ridicule came from a misunderstanding of how handicapping works. Handicappers do not predict who will win. What we do is gauge the actual chances of an event occurring against the sports-book odds of the event occurring. If a horse would likely win a race 7 out of 10 times, and its odds are (+150), then we advise slapping a fifty on that filly. If the same horse would be likely to win the sweepstakes 9 out of 10 times but its money line is minus a billion, then the handicapper must advise against the bet while acknowledging that yes, the horse will most likely win.
Kansas was most likely to defeat Penn in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 64. But Penn threatened to take a double-digit lead in the 1st half and drew to within 4 points midway through the 2nd. The Jayhawks won and advanced as expected, but handicappers were proven right.
The question New York pundits don’t ask themselves is whether a (-1500) favorite could really beat the underdog (or the field) a total of 15 times in a row without a hiccup. If Kansas and Penn lived out Groundhog Day and played their contest over 10 times, the Quakers would almost certainly steal a game and possibly 2 or 3 games.
Sports journalism cannot help but create a myth of destiny in sports. Always Dreaming was not pre-ordained to win the 2017 Kentucky Derby. If Pletcher and the horse had to do it another 10 times, they wouldn’t always win. They wouldn’t always benefit from a track so muddy that standing water riffled over the hooves of the Thoroughbreds, or shrug-off a late charge from Irish War Cry time after time.
That doesn’t diminish the champion colt’s accomplishment at all. Gamblers think of the Kentucky Derby as a race which occurs on a Saturday afternoon in May. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, the Derby is already happening. Right now. It always is. Just as athletes in other sports do not wake up on the day of a race, finish first and celebrate without a clear, defined set of goals and actions leading up to it and following it, no horse can win the Kentucky Derby if it doesn’t otherwise race well and qualify. No trainer’s colt can earn a betting market if someone doesn’t think it can reach Churchill Downs.
The Kentucky Derby is a tournament. Its “preliminary” round is fought in the 2-year-old phase, when Thoroughbreds compete to impress trainers, handicappers and money-makers during a course of development. Its elimination-bracket begins as colts run in major sweepstakes like the Florida Derby and The Wood. And the tournament final is in Kentucky on May 5th.
Betting action doesn’t control the odds for the Derby. If gamblers want to go all-in on a horse which may not even qualify for Louisville, no casino will complain. But no athlete is as susceptible to myth-making as a pony. The idea that a Derby win happens in a “moment of destiny” plays havoc with the betting lines in March and April. Bookies seem to lack real perspective on the horses.
Even to the point of taking sides in a horseracing feud.
Bolt d’Oro vs McKinzie or Ruis vs Baffert?
Track junkies were enthralled on March 10th as Kentucky Derby hopefuls flew away from the pack and got into a duel down the stretch of the San Felipe Stakes. McKinzie, a Bob Baffert horse, raced to a sizable lead around the final turn. But that was before Bolt d’Oro, Mick Ruis’ powerful colt and a current favorite for the Derby, began running him down on the final turn.
McKinzie won in a photo-finish. But a steward’s inquiry disqualified the Baffert horse, ruling that it had bumped the late-surging animal on its outside. The Ruis camp declared another triumph. Baffert, meanwhile, turned the air blue.
“That’s some bulls***,” said the winning trainer of 4 Kentucky Derbies. “(The opposing jockey) had a better story, I guess. I’m shocked, after the way (their horse veered toward my horse) at the top of the stretch. I don’t know what they’re looking at.”
The fact that owners, trainers, and jockeys would bicker after a closely-contested race between top Thoroughbreds is not surprising. What is surprising is how sportsbooks are reacting to what happened at Santa Anita.
US Racing, for instance, is currently offering a (+250) futures bet on Bolt d’Oro to win the 2018 Kentucky Derby. Meanwhile, Bovada Sportsbook has the Thoroughbred at (+700) odds for the same result. Bet Online is offering a (+600) futures bet on the Ruis horse.
Wow. that’s a gigantic gap even at this early stage. It’s obvious that the track-specific betting book is siding against Baffert’s explanation that it was his colt that was interfered-with first. The broad-based casinos, on the other hand, are taking the legendary trainer’s word for it.
The good news is that speculative futures gamblers don’t even have to know who is correct. San Felipe was only one race. There will be more displays-of-form to come for the Derby field, such as The Wood Memorial in April. Obviously, the Baffert horse and the Ruis horse are each running fast in March.
Looking at the scenario with a little perspective, the bettor must only determine that Bolt d’Oro has an actual chance of winning the Derby that is at least between the 2 extremes posed by the different betting markets. For Bolt d’Oro to be a bad bet at (+700), the track handicappers would have to have been so incredibly wrong about the San Felipe controversy that even Baffert skeptics were persuaded to shorten lines on the horse too far.
Observe the book-making tactics. Racing books are not about to promise a 6-fold payout on a winning Bolt d’Oro futures bet. Their experts know that there is limited value in a photo-finish in comparing the staying power of a pair of Thoroughbreds anyway. The big casinos want more people betting, and offering longer odds on a clearly talented horse is a strategy to get newbies in the door.
But if some high-roller goes all-in on Bolt d’Oro now, the clever scheme could turn into a bath in May.
Long Odds and a Short Path
Bolt d’Oro also has the advantage of leading the Kentucky Derby’s points leaderboard, meaning that at least the bettor can feel assured that the horse will run in Louisville. Sportsbooks are offering long odds for a number of other beasts currently in the top 10, raising the issue of whether there is also increased betting value on the horses with an easy path to the post.
Enticed is currently 2nd in points, while enjoying only (+1500) or similar on futures betting boards. The 2018 Gotham Stakes winner “answered questions” with an almost 3-lengths win at Aqueduct Racetrack. Right now the Thoroughbred is in a pack of other horses at 12/1 odds or higher. But he’ll be at the Derby with a pretty good starting spot, assuming no devastating setback occurs over the next month.
Promises Fulfilled is also considered relative long-shot as of mid-March, with a (+1600) line at Bovada. However, the colt is not only likely to run in the Kentucky Derby but is busy out-running fields of favorites on the track. Good Magic is a 10/1 Derby hopeful, 5th on the Bovada futures board, who faced off with Promises Fulfilled at the Fountain of Youth on March 3rd. But the underdog colt ruined bookies with a steady, lopsided win and whipped other Derby prospects such as Machismo in the process.
Handicappers have shied away from drawing conclusions about the race, in which several sprinters from a strong field could not be coaxed by their jockeys into running faster. But no horse that can turn a much-anticipated race into a snoozer should be counted out for the Derby, especially when he’s almost certain to appear in it. Promises Fulfilled’s futures line shortened after the Fountain of Youth win, but the horse is still an extremely solid wager at 16-to-1.
Betting on Reality is Hard Enough
Don’t believe the myth. Hollywood might have you believe Secretariat had a special gleam in his eye the morning of the Kentucky Derby, and ran for the honor of his long-lost sire. In reality, the great horse took a trajectory to Churchill Downs, suffering ups and downs along the way. The history-making race was the result of Secretariat’s magical racing skills. Not the other way around.
Pick a horse that is on the road to the Roses.
Betting on a consistent, healthy, Derby points-leader with winning results on the track is a far stronger play than listening to any excuses, hunches, and blame-shifting from trainers waging a PR battle.
Your wallet is too important to be affected by politicians on the stump. Learn to ignore the noise, and potential value in Derby lines will jump out from the board on every update.
Don’t wait too long, either. March is the time to place those bets. After all, shorter odds for the 2018 Kentucky Derby could be just a couple of Baffert vs Ruis vs Pletcher debates away.