Gather all the mint julep ingredients and dust off your finest and most elegant headwear. The first Saturday in May in upon us, and that means one thing and one thing only in sports betting circles: It’s Kentucky Derby Week.
Like March Madness, the Super Bowl and the Masters, the Derby is one of the few annual events that piques the interest of those who otherwise don’t typically bet on sports, and persuades people to gather around the TV. Everybody will want a piece of the action come Saturday at 6:34 p.m. ET, when the gun goes off and “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports” is underway.
With the help of veteran horse racing handicapper and writer Michael Dempsey, Casino City breaks down the race with 10 key facts and figures to keep in mind before placing your Derby bets. Keep in mind that it’s still early in the week, and the odds and opinions of everyone will most likely shift as a result of workouts and post positions.
10. There is a record amount of wagers in the cards
Interest in the Kentucky Derby has been at an all-time high in recent years. When Nyquist won last year’s Derby, the attendance at the track was 167,227, the second-largest in history, and the total amount wagered ($192.6 million) was also the second-highest ever. Both records were set two years ago when 170,513 people witnessed eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, a race that prompted $194.3 million in wagers.
WalletHub.com predicts that $200 million will be wagered on this year’s race, and our expert Dempsey doesn’t disagree, even though, overall, the horse racing industry is experiencing a steep decline.
“Over the past 10 to 15 years we’ve seen a significant drop in the horse population and the horse racing handle,” say Dempsey, the editor of Turf’n’Sport, whose work also appears on Vegas Insider, Oddsshark and Bleacher Report. “But the marquee events like the Triple Crown races and, to a lesser degree, the Breeders’ Cup are still drawing interest, and the handle is going up. I think some that may be attributed to the fact that a lot less people are betting offshore nowadays, but it’s still a good sign for the sport that, at the very least, the general population still likes to watch and bet on the bigger events.”
9. Avoid the far inside and outside posts
The post position draw for the Kentucky Derby takes place on Wednesday (before this article was published), and owners, trainers and jockeys will be hoping to avoid far inside and outside starting spots in the gate. Since the 20-horse full field became the norm, it has made it extremely difficult for those horses to use early speed to get ahead of the pack, or to overcome hanging back and falling behind.
The Derby began using a starting gate in 1930, and since 1964 only one winner (Ferdinand, 1986) has come from the No. 1 post. It’s been 19 years (Risen Star, 3rd, 1988) since a horse starting on the rail even came in the money. Only one winner in the history of the race (Big Brown, 2008) has won from the No. 20 post.
“You can get yourself in a lot of trouble coming out of the one hole,” adds Dempsey. “I’m not as concerned about being on the outside. It’s not ideal, and you don’t want to be 20. Somewhere between 8 and 13 are probably the best spots to be.”
8. 10 and 5 have been prosperous
The best starting post in Kentucky Derby history has been the 10, with 11.3% of the wins and coming in the money 30% of the time. The No. 5 post isn’t far behind, with a 10.3 winning percentage and coming in the money 23% of the time. The fifth post, which boasts the best average finish in Derby history at 7.39, has also had a horse in the top five in three-straight years: Gun Runner was third last year, Danzig Moon was fifth in 2015 and California Chrome won it in 2014.
7. The “curse” of the 14 post
While horses breaking from the 13 post and out have won six of the last nine races, the 14 starting spot has been somewhat of a jinx, holding the longest current drought since producing a winner. For some reason, the last time a horse in the 14 block has won the Derby came way back in 1961, when Carry Back pulled it off. Impeachment (3rd in 2000) and Mohaymen (4th in 2016) are the horses to come the closest to winning the Derby from the 14th post.
The 12th post has the second-longest streak of non-winners at 45 years (Canonero II, 1971), followed by the 9th post at 44 years (Riva Ridge, 1972).
6. Prep races tell a story
As the Kentucky Derby field is decided in the months leading up the race, the results of a few key prep races are worth paying attention to, especially when you consider that the last six Derby winners won their final prep race.
The Florida Derby, won this year by Always Dreaming, has produced four Kentucky Derby winners in the last 15 years. During that same time period, the Santa Anita Derby, won by Gormley this year, and the Arkansas Derby, won by Classic Empire, one of the favorites on Saturday, have seen three winners each go on to prevail at Churchill Downs.
5. Is this the year for Todd Pletcher?
Todd Pletcher is one of the best and most renowned thoroughbred horse trainers of all time, winning four Eclipse Awards, given to the most outstanding trainer each year. But the first Saturday in May has not been kind to Pletcher, as he enters this year’s Kentucky Derby with a much-publicized 1-for-45 record. That’s right. Forty-five career entries and just one Kentucky Derby winner (Super Saver in 2010).
But Dempsey says that record is a bit overplayed and also thinks Pletcher has a very good chance of getting win No. 2 this Saturday.
“Out of those 45 horses, none have gone off as the favorite,” Dempsey points out. “He’s had quite a few long shots in there, and he usually runs multiple horses in the same race. A few times he’s had four or even five horses in one race.”
Pletcher came into this season with the possibility of having as many as six horses in this year’s Derby, but it appears that he will have just three entries, with Always Dreaming expected to be one of the favorites.
“Always Dreaming is going to give Pletcher his best chance to win the Derby in a few years,” adds Dempsey.
Another good sign for Pletcher is that D. Wayne Lukas and Bob Baffert, the two active trainers tied for the most Derby wins with four apiece, will not have horses in this year’s race.
4. The jockey factor — is it overrated?
Gary Stevens, Kent Desormeaux, Calvin Borel and Victor Espinoza are the four active jockeys with three Derby wins apiece, but at this writing, only Espinoza, who will be riding Gormely, will be riding on Saturday.
Either way, Dempsey said that sometimes the jockey factor can be overrated.
“It’s definitely something you want to look at, but it’s not something that all alone will put me on or off a horse,” Dempsey said. “Most jockeys in the race — even though they aren’t as well-known as a Calvin Borel or one of the other notable jockeys — are just as capable of doing the job. We’ve seen plenty of so-called ‘unknown’ jockeys win the Kentucky Derby, so I would never discount a horse’s chances because of who’s riding him.”
3. Is there a Triple Crown threat this year?
When American Pharoah won the Triple Crown in 2015, he became the first horse to do so in nearly four decades.
Overall, only 12 horses have recorded the feat, which entails winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same year. Only 35 horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Dempsey said this year’s Derby field doesn’t really have a horse that could threaten to win the Triple Crown. In fact, he doesn’t think we’ll see another one for some time.
“It’s a very, very difficult thing to do, winning three races over a five-week period,” says Dempsey. “Not only is there the wear and tear on the horse, but the competition he or she faces in the second two legs is always more rested. Of all the horses running the Derby, only three or four will run the Preakness. Then some of the more talented horses will come back on rest for the Belmont. That makes it that much tougher to do.”
2. Favorites on fire
No favorite won the Kentucky Derby from 1980 to 1999, but that has changed in recent years. Over the last 13 years, seven of the betting favorites have cashed in, including the last four years (Nyqust in 2016, American Pharoah in 2015, California Chrome in 2014 and Orb in 2013). The last time that happened was from 1972 to 1975. We haven’t seen five favorites in a row at the Derby since 1891 to 1896, when the chalk took home six in a row.
Dempsey explains that the new point system that is being used explains the recent run on favorites because it has limited the number of “sprint racers” in the field, making the race more to form.
Having said that, he says it’s likely the prevailing favorite will not win on Saturday.
“This year’s field is much more wide open than in the last few,” he says. “Classic Empire and Always Dreaming are the favorites right now, but they have six to eight horses behind them that have a really good shot. That’s something we haven’t seen recently.”
1. Longshots worth looking at
So, with Dempsey calling for the end of the favorites’ reign at the Derby, we asked if he had any longshots we could dive in on and “bet a little to win a lot.” He gave us three, keeping in mind that his opinion could change depending on the post position:
J Boys Echo (33-to-1): Although he struggled in his final prep race with a fourth place at the Blue Grass in Kneeneland, he owns the highest Beyer Speed Figure earned this year by a Derby contender.
Hence (22-to-1): Won the Sunland Derby, which produced recent Derby winners Mine That Bird, the horse that owns one of the biggest upsets in history by cashing a 50-to-1 ticket in 2009, and Firing Line, who ran second last year.
Practical Joke (14-to-1): Trainer Chad Brown is one of the best in the business and won the Eclipse Award for top trainer in 2016. Practical Joke won two Grade 1 races as a juvenile and is lightly races so far this year with just two starts, including a place in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park.