For bettors, the search for Derby bragging rights
by Nick Hahn
It’s horse racing season. The season within the never-ending season. Spattered across the winding playoff seasons on the ice and hardwood and in the heart of spring fever lies the Triple Crown, the most popular and visible part of thoroughbred racing. If the starting bell of the Derby were New Year’s Eve, we’d be in the week of Christmas. The ball is about to drop, and our most important handicapping choice of the year looms.
In my circles, Triple Crown selections are held to a different standard of accountability, especially in the first leg, the Kentucky Derby. Your friends can remember and remind of your Kentucky Derby choice until next year’s Kentucky Derby – unless, of course, it’s a winner. In that case, your friends – who are handicapping foes, too – attempt to erase it from memory.
Why? This is the one race horseplayers strive to get right, above all others. It’s the only race in North America that allows 20 horses, and it’s the most popular. There are stories of true horseplayers passing on this race, but I’ve actually never met anyone that does. Consolation prizes and respect can be sought in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, yet the Kentucky Derby selection is your badge for another year.
Where you finish can be important. The pick of one of the smartest handicappers I know once finished 18th in a 19-horse field, a feat recalled year after year. I may have finished 19th in the 20-horse year, but I can’t fully recall that one. Of course, I don’t need to recall it, since everyone else does.
The Kentucky Derby preps are a hard movie for which to arrive in the middle. This year, it’s been difficult for even those who have been watching from the start. Many believe the streak of winning post time favorites, currently at four, is in severe jeopardy, perhaps disrespect to the likely favorite of this year edition, Classic Empire.
There was a time when Derby favorites were cursed. For the two decades after Spectacular Bid (1979) until Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), the Derby favorite came up short. The same was said for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner, who didn’t appear in the Derby winner’s circle for 22 years until Street Sense in 2007. Nyquist, the reigning Kentucky Derby winner, was a Breeder’s Cup juvenile winner. Last year’s BC Juvenile winner was Classic Empire.
Now that the Juvenile jinx has been snapped, it’s the UAE Derby that has never produced a Derby winner. But – do we now need to watch the replays from Dubai to see Thunder Snow? There was once a time you could throw out geldings, the 19th post position starter or even Pletcher. Streaks end and streaks begin.
However, what we may be looking for may not be about a streak at all. This is the time of year we’re paying attention to everything the top two dozen or so three-year-olds do, looking for the little bit of separation. What did contenders do today? Work, travel, feed, rest, shower? Body language, what’s the body language? Check the daily reports. Watch video.
And then we watch the race. There’s the occasional reunion, wedding or graduation that interrupts the calendars, forcing you to come up with creative solutions to watch live or – alas — suffer through a mild tape delay. I can’t tell you stories of all the places I’ve watched Triple Crown races. Security centers and jails; large galas or completely alone, wedding receptions and hospitals, on and off track. Live or tape delay. When tape delay, turn off cell phones and don’t speak to anyone until after the viewing.
Handicappers thirst through the droughts. It took me 11 years to get my first Derby winner, Barbaro. By that time, I had attended more Derbys than I picked right. Meanwhile, my radio co-host, “Derby Bill” Watson was gathering winners in multiples, making for a slow turn of the calendar month until a chance for redemption the following May.
And then there are the times of feast. I’m not boastful here but I’ve picked three winners in the last five years. I won’t burden you with the list. (I’ll Have Another-2011 American Pharoah-2015 and Nyquist-2016, I thought you secretly wanted to know, Sundance). Neither of the last two was hard to find. Nyquist was undefeated coming into the race, while American Pharoah had won four straight.
I’ll Have Another was a better score, going off at 15-1. He was a gift from none other than trainer Bob Baffert in a lightning strike moment while praising a successful Kentucky Derby prep year in California. Though I’ll Have Another wasn’t his horse, his praise of the West Coast crop led me eventually to I’ll Have Another, along with next three finishers for the exacta and trifecta outright in order.
I’m a genius, right? Well… The superfecta paid $48,046.40 for a buck – but I didn’t play it. Lesson learned: take your measured chances.
Perhaps like many of you, I still don’t have my Derby horse and it’s getting late. I’m alert for the smallest of details but not hyper-focused. I’m narrowing my scope but trying to eliminate bias. Superstition will ruin solid handicapping. That white horse will get you nearly every time.
I’m watching. This is really important. I have to live with my decision for 52 weeks — and I have to finish ahead of you.