The End of the Line for Derby Favorites

Roadster came rolling late under rider Mike Smith to edge stablemate Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby. Photo by Benoit Photo.

By Bill Doolittle

This is the year they’ll finally beat the favorite in the Kentucky Derby.
Finally!

It’s been six years – six long years for some – since the world’s greatest horse race ended with a result that was even a mild surprise. The Derby is always dramatic, but when the expected happens over and over, it takes a little edge off the thing.

Not that it’s bad for everyone. The favorite winning the Kentucky Derby is ideal for many. A “favorite,” after all, is the horse with the most money bet on it, hence the lowest odds. And usually that’s the horse more people have bet on and more are rooting for than any other. Lots of winners if it wins.

And that’s fine. But after a while, it gets a little old. Back in the day, they’d say it’s like rooting for General Motors. Today, it would be cheering for the rich to get richer. C’mon, Apple! Let’s go, Amazon! So many people bet on Justify last year, the track asked those who hadn’t bet on him to remain in their seats while the winners cashed out.

Neither rain nor mud could stop Kentucky Derby favorite Justify. Photo by Coady Photography.

No, just kidding. But it’s been almost like that. In a race with 20 participants, there should be all variety of winning horses. But no. Six favorites in a row. Handicappers no longer needed. Crystal ball gazers, out of business. Anybody can pick the Derby winner.

But not this year.

Finally, the stars may have realigned to produce a result with some mystery to it when the expected field of 20 three-year-old Thoroughbreds goes postward May 4 at Churchill Downs for the 145th Run for the Roses.


6 favorites in a row.

Handicappers no longer needed.

Crystal ball gazers, out of business.

Anybody can pick the Derby winner.


This year there is no “one horse.” No sure thing. Fans will recall that people started talking about Justify in January of 2018, before he’d ever run in a race, and never stopped chanting his name through the Triple Crown. There’s nobody like that this time. No American Pharoah. No California Chrome.

“They went 20 straight years without a favorite winning, and to me that was a lot of fun.”
— Marty McGee

Instead, this spring, the 2019 Road to the Kentucky Derby has been laced with upsets and oddly run races. It’s like there’s a new horse every week and never the same one twice in a row. Not wild long shots, per se, but surprises.

Finally, it looked like Roadster would take role of favorite for the Kentucky Derby when he came rolling from behind to win the Santa Anita Derby April 6.
But the very next week, Omaha Beach won the Arkansas Derby – the last big Derby prep – and looked very good doing it. When jockey Mike Smith, who’d been on both horses, chose Omaha Beach over Roadster to ride in the Kentucky Derby, that seemed to settle the question: Bettors will likely follow Smith and make Omaha Beach the favorite for the 145th Kentucky Derby.

But he’s no cinch.

Stay tuned.

Yearning for the Paydays of Yesteryear

Of course, the racing gods could amuse themselves to no end by sending a seventh-straight Derby favorite to the Winner’s Circle. But that’s not the scenario that’s been building. The 2019 Kentucky Derby looks wide open, and the rulers of chance might even let all 20 horses run for it.

“They’d better,” says “Daily Racing Form” columnist and Louisville native Marty McGee. “I know whoever the favorite is, I’m going to be against him.”

He means at the betting window.

McGee points to the decades of the 1980s and 90s in which not one favorite won. Some victories were scored by second betting choices, like Winning Colors topping favored Forty Niner in 1988, and Sunday Silence defeating rival Easy Goer in ’89. But there were plenty of surprises, too. And a lot of those were excellent horses that not everyone foresaw flowering at the Derby distance of one-and-one-quarter miles. Thinking of Ferdinand ($37), Alysheba ($18.80) and Unbridled ($23.60). Top horses at sweet prices.

Fast-rising jockey Jose Ortiz will be looking for his first Kentucky Derby victory aboard Tacitus, winner of the Wood Memorial, in New York. New York Racing Association photo by Elsa Lorieul.

“They went 20 straight years without a favorite winning, and to me that was a lot of fun,” says McGee. “Even though you hardly ever won, that still added to the intrigue of the whole endeavor.”

Especially for fans who follow the Derby preps and try to get an eye on the contenders when they arrive at Churchill Downs.

But now, who needs to study?

“So any Tom, Dick or Harry can find the favorite, and we, as everyday horseplayers, try to get away from that,” says McGee.

The good news – maybe – is that in recent seasons, coming comets like Justify, American Pharoah and California Chrome were being raved about over the winter. Winter’s gone for 2019, and we have heard a minimum of raving. It’s all up in the air.

Heck, maybe it’s a year to be on the lookout for a sign. Like when Derby fan Nancy Shinneman bet on the two horses with “bird” in their name in 2009 because she owned parakeets named Sara and Toga. Mine That Bird won and paid $103 on a $2 ticket.

Don’t get us wrong, favorites aren’t always a bad thing. People look back fondly on the 1970s when favorites rolled in like clockwork, including Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid – and second choice Affirmed that beat Alydar on a sun-splashed Derby Day.

(Hey, and while we’re beseeching the racing gods, we might as well ask for a little sunshine on this year’s Kentucky Derby, don’t you think?)

Finding Your Derby Horse

 

Vekoma, with jockey Javier Castellano aboard, earned a start in the Kentucky Derby with a victory in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland Race Course. Photo courtesy of Keeneland.

McGee’s job with the “Form” is writing feature stories about racing’s horses and people. He’s not a public handicapper looking to maintain a high percentage of winners.

“I’ve been around 45 Derbys, and I think I’ve had maybe seven or eight really good years betting the race,” he says. “But if you add up what I’ve won in the good years, it’s probably close to even because I hit ‘em pretty nice.

“That’s the way horse playing is,” he adds. “It only takes one. But if the favorites keep winning, it’s going to take more than one. That’s the reason to go against them. I want Gato Del Sol (a McGee pick at $44.40).”

And I’ll have another I’ll Have Another ($32.60).

This writer’s first advice is always to bet the horse you like in the Kentucky Derby – no matter what the odds. Best to bet lightly on the favorites; you can’t get rich on them. But pour it in, the longer the odds get on the horse you like.

“I tell you what,” says McGee. “How about a good-old $27 horse this year? A horse that’s 12-1 in the Derby is a good horse.”

Nobody should have a problem with that, and this might be the year for it.

Here is this scribe’s list of 10 names to consider for Kentucky Derby 145:

Code of Honor

Game Winner

Roadster

Omaha Beach

Improbable

Vekoma

Win Win Win

Tacitus

Maximum Security

Bourbon War

I believe one of these will win it. I kind of like the first four best. McGee isn’t telling. Good luck! V