Kentucky Derby memories: The wager that got away


Half a score — 10 Derbies — ago, it was the best of times and worst of time in my last trip to Churchill Downs for the first Saturday in May. It was the day I turned perhaps my greatest handicapping feat into… well, it was a good day that should have been a monster day.

Lemme explain. First, some background.

It was, for me, a can’t-miss Kentucky Derby, the 2012 Run for the Roses. I was tracking Bodemeister, the first Virginia-bred to start in the Kentucky Derby since Semoran in 1996. Bodemeister was looking to fill the void left by Quality Road, who would have been the 2009 Kentucky Derby favorite before a worsening quarter crack forced his withdrawal a week prior.

Bodemeister was a popular pick, a homey pick, an easy pick, a sensible pick. However, there were a few items that started to cloud my zen. 

Bodemeister would go off the 4-1 favorite. In those days of Derby, favorite status was treacherous. To manipulate a popular quote of former NFL Coach Herm Edwards, “You play to win the bet,” and in the time of my first visit to Louisville only four favorites had won in 13 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

Then there was some handicapping etiquette if there is such a thing. My friend, co-host and handicapping adversary Derby “Bill” Watson had an unwritten rule that largely has been maintained through the decades: we don’t back the same Derby horse.

Ironically, Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh is the only exception to the method. Becoming aware of Derby Bill’s selection nearly forced me break allegiance to my homestate horse, and I went searching. I didn’t know at the time, but I wanted… well… another.

Having a more real impact on the selection was pace. Even more rare than favorites winning the Derby back then were absolute frontrunners doing so. But that’s who Bodemeister was.

The car rental company foiled my car reservation for Louisville and the only vehicle left on the lot was a 15-seat passenger van that trolleyed us to Louisville, big enough to shoot basketball inside of it during rest breaks on the journey.

While walking around the backstretch on the morning of the Thursday prior, late in the training session I came by the Baffert barn. Being one of the last to asked him about Bodemeister’s path through Arkansas, he glared at me. Then he said something that completely stuck with me that went along the line of this.

“The best horses this year are coming out of California,” said Baffert. 

While Bodemeister left for Oaklawn and the Arkansas Derby, all of his three previous starts were at Santa Anita. He broken his maiden by over nine lengths before finishing second to Creative Cause in the San Felipe Stakes, who finished second to I’ll Have Another in the Santa Anita Derby.

At 12-1 in the morning line, I’ll Have Another almost appeared as an uncovered square among real Derby contenders, perhaps due to his young jockey Mario Gutierrez. It was simple who-beat-whom handicapping that usually doesn’t work but so well.

Though I moved off Bodemeister on top, I wasn’t going to abandon him completely. Baffert’s record in the Triple Crown couldn’t be ignored, so I wanted to keep him close to the top and alongside I’ll Have Another in every exotic.

In building exotic tickets in the 20-horse field of the Kentucky Derby, I believe you have to take a narrow stand atop and spread wider lower down on the ticket. Up top I would cover I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister, maybe a little love for Take Charge Indy.

In the third line in the trifecta ticket, I took 10 horses including Midlantic hopeful Done Talking (50-1), who gave Colonial Downs title-winning jockey Sheldon Russell and title-winning trainer Hamilton Smith their first taste of the Derby.

I also included Dullahan (8-1). Donegal Racing’s colt was talented, but I’m sure this was more of a sentimental play backing the frequent starters and previous winners of Colonial’s twin turf events, the Colonial Turf Cup and Virginia Derby.

The fourth horse in my calculation was Went the Day Well (20-1), I think largely because trainer Graham Motion had won the Run for the Roses the year prior with Animal Kingdom in 2011. In those days, trainers could be streaky in the Kentucky Derby.

Nick Hahn having another at the 2012 Kentucky Derby. Photo courtesy of Nick Hahn.

The race ran nearly exactly as I calculated, which doesn’t happen often with a handicapper who sometimes struggles to figure out pace. Bodemeister with Mike Smith aboard set very thrifty fractions on the front end (22.32 and 45.39) and was talented enough to maintain the lead though most of the race. At the sixteenth pole, I’ll Have Another, sixth after three quarters, took the lead to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Bodemeister held on for second from a hard closing Dullahan. 

The order of finish was typical of what you would see in previous Derbies: a stalker, a frontrunner, a closer and … and … my fourth horse, Went the Day Well.

I had the winner. I had the exacta. I had the trifecta. I… could have had the superfecta. I should have had the superfecta.

But moving through my stack of tickets, it wasn’t there. In not wanting to leave Louisville without a winning trifecta ticket, I kept my powder dry on the super, opting not to play it. In other words, I left a winning $48,046.40 superfecta ticket in my wallet, not being played.

My 50-cent trifecta ticket that cost $48 was there for $766.40 among other winning tickets. But I had had my white whale on the hook and let him get away. My hole in one bounced off the stick and trickled down the green.

I can’t remember if I didn’t like the $1 minimum increment or simply whiffed on concept while figuring the trifecta play. 

I’ll Have Another paid $32.60 to win and the $2 exacta ($306.20) and other tickets all had rewarding payoffs. And Louisville isn’t a bad place to be on the evening after you pick a Kentucky Derby winner.

The 19-6-5-13 ($2) superfecta paid $96,092.80. The one that I didn’t wager.

Sportswriter John Scheinman was gracious enough to shoot a postrace picture for me that is one of my favorites. 

“Thank you, I’ll Have Another,” it was captioned.

I did. Two weeks later in the Preakness when I’ll Have Another beat Bodemeister again with Creative Cause finishing third. I had the win, the exacta and the trifecta again.

I played the superfecta…and missed with Zetterholm spoiling the final slot. The payouts were much more modest in the 11-horse Preakness.

Three weeks later the Triple Crown was within sight for Reddam Racing, trainer Doug O’Neill, and I’ll Have Another. But then, while I was standing in a Belmont Park elevator next to legendary sportscaster Jack Whittaker, who was in a suit and sneakers, NYRA staff confirmed that they were setting up a podium for a Friday morning pending announcement from the O’Neil barn.

“This won’t be good,” muttered Whitaker confirming a rumor many of us heard earlier in the day. I’ll Have Another was scratching out of the Belmont Stakes.

Like my Kentucky Derby superfecta notion that got away, he never got a chance.