Churchill Downs on Kentucky Oaks Day.
With Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith winning the Kentucky Oaks on Friday afternoon on 36-1 shot Princess of Sylmar, it was a pretty good reminder that anything can happen in big races like that, and the Kentucky Derby.
Getting a handle on how to approach the 19-horse Kentucky Derby is not easy. There are so many variables in play.
The first day of betting was not at all surprising, with Revolutionary the early 5-1 favorite. Orb may wind up going off as the shortest price when the race goes off, but Louisville is Calvin Borel country, and the newly minted Hall of Famer fits Revolutionary's late-running style perfectly.
Yet the early money isn't the real significant money, which most often shows up with just a few minutes to post. The Derby betting pools are so massive, it's hard to move the odds all at once. Casual fans should see this as a very good thing. Wise guys, unlike in most races every other day, can't hurt odds by betting so much money that a 4-1 shot goes down to 9-5.
There is value in the Derby, always.
Yet the questions remain: Who to bet on? How were the final workouts, and what do they mean? How do I go for a huge payoff, or play it safe? What about the weather? The pace scenario?
With post time drawing near, here are 10 last-minute updates, pieces of advice and picks that, hopefully, help you see things a little bit clearer for America's greatest horse race.
Oxbow displays a regal presence.
The workouts in the final two weeks at Churchill Downs are watched like tea leaves and argued about endlessly by early-morning railbirds. The Daily Racing Form's Mike Welsch is a master at interpreting final works. Bruno DeJulio, as well, is a tireless worker who travels to all the major race meets and is up bright and early divining what he sees for his customers at Racing with Bruno.
While he didn't make too much of it, Welsch revealed that early favorite Orb repeatedly kicked the back wall of his stall while being schooled in the paddock this past week. He liked his workout the following day.
Oxbow ripped through his final five-furlong work on April 29 in 59 and four-fifths seconds, the fastest of 35 at the distance that day. It signaled that jockey Gary Stevens might just be planning to gun the D. Wayne Lukas horse to the lead and try to go gate-to-wire. Welsch, however, didn't like the look of the horse in his subsequent gallops.
Goldencents, maybe the fastest horse in the field, had the slowest final work, six furlongs in a creeping 1:16 and one-fifth seconds on April 25 at Santa Anita Park. Welsch said the colt has been aggressive since then in his gallops at Churchill Downs. Trainer Doug O'Neill likely was trying to get his horse to relax by working him slowly. As he showed in the gallops, though, Goldencents likes to rumble, not kick back and take it easy.
Front-runner Falling Sky is another who worked very fast in his final outing, clocking five furlongs in 59 and three-fifth seconds on April 26 at Churchill downs, the best of 32 that day at the distance. He labored home, however, according to Welsch.
What these works tell you is the pace in the Derby is likely to be plenty fast, and the closers will have no excuse.
Todd Pletcher has a full house.
With Verrazano, Revolutionary, Palace Malice, Overanalyze and Charming Kitten, trainer Todd Pletcher has 26 percent of the horses in the field.
Even more imposing, only Charming Kitten appears in over his head, having never run particularly fast and never contested a race on a dirt surface.
The others, however, quite conceivably could give Pletcher a one-two or even one-two-three finish. What is fascinating is that the horses have markedly different styles:
Verrazano likes to run on or near the lead, Revolutionary comes from way out of it with a huge rush, Palace Malice stalks from off the pace and has an imposing middle move and Overanalyze churns along at his own pace, grinding down the opposition.
From here, it looks like long shot Palace Malice is primed to spring the upset in his first run in blinkers (Pletcher wins 15 percent of the time he adds blinkers). He should get first strike on the leaders, and his pedigree profile (being out of champion Curlin) should give him enough stamina to hold off the closers.
Revolutionary also could get into the mix, having run fast enough to come from behind to win.
Verrazano, however, may be victimized by the pace pressure, and Overanalyze is going to need a perfect trip as both pace players and stalkers will have an early edge on him.
The weather forecast calls for a 90 percent chance of rain Saturday, creating a very strong likelihood that there will be a sloppy or muddy track.
Although Mine that Bird splashed home from well out of it in his shocking 50-1 victory in 2009, speed is often a good asset in races on sloppy tracks because it is hard for horses to make up ground with mud flying into their faces.
The horses who have already won on a wet track are: Revolutionary, Giant Finish, Itsmyluckyday, Falling Sky and Vyjack.
The Sire Ratings guide from Progressive Handicapping, which looks at the performance of offspring across thousands of races, reports many of the horses in this year's Derby are bred to excel on off tracks.
Giant Finish, a huge long shot in the race, is top rated with an "A," which mean the offspring of his sire, Frost Giant, win an impressive 30-34 percent of their starts on wet tracks. The ratings help project how a horse that has never tried a wet track might run. Also highly rated are Oxbow, Normandy Invasion, Palace Malice (who has a second-place finish in his only wet-track try), Lines of Battle, Itsmyluckyday and Falling Sky.
Revolutionary and Java's War, both by the sire War Pass, are the lowest-rated horses in the field with a "C." However, Revolutionary has already not only won on a wet track, but it was the fastest race of his career.
While no horses in the field are remotely as fast as Bodemeister and Trinniberg were last year, it doesn't mean the pace in the derby won't be contentious.
Falling Sky wants to be on the lead, and he wired the field this past winter winning the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs.
Verrazano also wants to make the pace or be right on it, as he showed in his determined victory in the Wood Memorial.
Throw into that mix Oxbow, whose fast workouts this past week appear to show he is intent on getting away fast, and even long shot Giant Finish likes to get into the early mix.
But Goldencents in the horse that guarantees a pace war. His victory in the Santa Anita Derby was a tour de force of pace pressure, as he sat off the right flank of leader Super Ninety Nine until he broke his heart. Then, when Flashback put in his late run, Goldencents still had enough to hold him off.
When the gate opens, expect jockey Gary Stevens to commit Oxbow from the No. 2 post position to the lead. Falling Sky should tuck in right behind him, with Verrazano and Goldencents tracking those two from up close. Except for Oxbow, those runners have excellent post positions from which to get away cleanly.
The pace should be reasonably but not overly quick, possibly in 23 and two-fifths seconds for the opening quarter-mile. From there, Goldencents and Verrazano will turn up the heat and the race will be on.
The two best sleepers in the Kentucky Derby are Palace Malice, one of five runners for Todd Pletcher, and Oxbow, out of the barn of Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas.
Despite always being highly regarded in the Todd Pletcher barn, Palice Malice has a mere maiden victory to his credit and a bunch of close-but-no-cigar finishes. He looked at home in the Blue Grass Stakes, only to get nailed on the line by Java's War.
Hall of Famer Mike Smith, who has won each of the three Triple Crown races and 17 Breeders' Cup races, picks up the mount, and he won the Kentucky Oaks on Friday for Pletcher on Princess of Sylmar at odds of 36-1.
Palace Malice, by champion Curlin out of a Royal Anthem mare, is bred to run all day. He has shown excellent tactical capability, seizing the Blue Grass lead when asked. In the Louisiana Derby, he loomed boldly on the inside, only to run into a nightmarish wall of runners squeezing him against the rail. Still, he didn't completely collapse and only lost by a little more than seven lengths.
He adds blinkers, and they may be just what the doctor ordered if they can keep his mind on business. Palice Malice has ample seasoning, a good post position and could strike first if and when the front-runners begin to tire.
If he can hold off the closers after that, he's going to be draped in roses.
Oxbow drew the No. 2 post position, which likely will force jockey Gary Stevens to commit him to the lead, which is exactly where he should try to be.
Normally a stalker close to the pace, Oxbow threw what looked like a stink bomb in his most recent start, trailing in last place before rallying mildly in the Arkansas Derby.
None of the horses in Oxbow's immediate vicinity have much early lick, and I can visualize him getting out fast, avoiding a crush going into the first turn by scooting out into the three or four path and setting sail on the front end, just as he did in his authoritative victory in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes.
Fast works recently may be setting up Oxbow for a theft on the front end. If the other jockeys let him go winging alone, he may never look back.
If you want to make big money at the Kentucky Derby, there is no better way to do it than playing the $2 superfecta. The bet requires players to pick the top four finishers.
Since 2000, the median payout for the superfecta at the Kentucky Derby is $84,860.40. The top payout was $864,253.50 in 2005, when 50-1 shot Giacomo beat 71-1 shot Closing Argument. The lowest payout was a still-healthy $3,270.80, when Fusaichi Pegasus won in 2000.
The bet can be made for a mere $2 if you pick the horses in order, but it's probably better to box four horses for $48, so if you have the top four, they can finish in any order and you will win.
The Derby looks fairly wide open this year, with no overpowering favorite, and even the third-tier runners don't appear too far behind.
An idea superfecta box this year might feature a strong contender (Orb), a mid-priced horse that has proven to be very fast (Itsmyluckyday) and two sleepers. In our case, we like Palace Malice and Oxbow.
Get the wheelbarrow ready.
Play it safe with Orb.
The beautiful thing about the Kentucky Derby is that with so many horses in the field, meaning so many betting interests, the payouts in all positions are almost always good.
He runs virtually the same race every time: You can close your eyes and visualize him circling the field four wide and coming down like a hammer to win. That he is four wide means he is losing ground on his competition and still winning. A better trip makes him even more formidable.
Yet, as of Friday night, Orb was a healthy 6-1 favorite and if he stayed at that price, he would pay $14 for every $2 bet to win. For a safe play, that's a lot of money. An across-the-board wager (win, place and show) is even safer. If Orb finishes second or third, you still would recoup or come closer to recouping your investment.
Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel, who will pilot Revolutionary.
Incredibly, of the 19 horses in the Kentucky Derby field, only two of them have finished in third place more than once. Revolutionary and Charming Kitten, both trained by Todd Pletcher, have done it twice.
Revolutionary is an ideal candidate to finish third in the race. He likes to come from the back of the pack, and sometimes that rallying style can fall short unless it is timed absolutely perfectly.
Three-time Kentucky Derby-winning rider Calvin Borel will ride Revolutionary for the first time, and he is a master at finding his way to the rail to save ground. He is a Churchill Downs legend for this, and he fits Revolutionary's style perfectly.
Yet perfection is what he will need, along with the collapse of the front-runners to benefit his style. There is decent but not overwhelming pace signed on for the Kentucky Derby this year, and I can see Revolutionary launching his rally but not passing all the horses.
At 5-1 in the early wagering, he is not a very good bet, but if you are a show bettor, he might just be perfect.
If Itsmyluckyday had held off Orb in the Florida Derby, he would probably be the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. But he didn't; he finished second.
Yet in his prior two starts, Itsmyluckyday was sensational, cruising to a dominant victory in the Gulfstream Park Derby and then setting the track record by vanquishing champion Shanghai Bobby in the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes.
The Beyer Speed Figures for the two races were both above 100, which is a standard of excellence few runners, including Orb, in this field have reached.
Orb, however, appeared to flick Itsmyluckyday aside with ease in the stretch drive of the Florida Derby, and it has to be a concern for those backing the colt for victory.
Itsmyluckyday has every right to run a big race on Saturday, but there just might be one horse, Orb or someone else, who is going to beat him.
He is a good candidate to come in second.
Mike Smith winning the Kentucky Oaks on Friday.
Something keeps bringing me back to palace Malice as an ideal candidate to upset the Kentucky Derby.
The son of champion Curlin was regarded as the top two-year-old in trainer Todd Pletcher's battalion of monsters last summer at Saratoga, and because he has only won one of six starts, he has gotten lost in the sauce.
At 25-1 in the early wagering, he is not being taken seriously as a candidate for victory.
Yet he adds blinkers for the first time, which should focus his mind and hand.
He made serious bids to win the Grade 2 Risen Star, which he lost by a mere half-length, and the Blue Grass Stakes, a race in which he got nailed on the wire by Java's War. If Palace Malice wins those races, he ranks among the favorites for the Kentucky Derby.
Palace Malice has been working well at Churchill Downs. His final work was four furlongs in 47 and one-fifth second on April 27, the second-best work of 70 at the distance that day. He should sit a perfect tracking trip behind the leaders, about seven to 10 lengths behind, and has the push-button ability to move when asked on tiring horses.
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith picks up the mount, and he won the Kentucky Oaks on Friday for Pletcher on Princess of Sylmar at odds of 36-1.
I like Smith's chances to pull off his own personal Oaks-Derby Double by putting Palace Malice into the winner's circle.