Even after the scratching of Omaha Beach, there is an absolute truth about this year’s Kentucky Derby.
It is a fantastic betting race.
Victory will not come easily on Saturday at Churchill Downs, but those who wind up cashing tickets will likely be stuffing large wads of cash into their pockets. There’s a simple reason for that: There are many legitimate candidates.
Horseplayers will have tons of options that will make perfect sense and that means their wagering money — a record 25 million in handle last year on the Derby alone — will be spread widely. Short odds won’t happen; the favorite will probably go off around 5-1, so payouts for exactas and trifectas could be enormous.
The favorite would have been Omaha Beach. With him out and now in need of throat surgery, Game Winner, Roadster and Improbable — all trained by Bob Baffert — are the top candidates to be favored.
People will bet all three, and rightly so, but no trainer has ever swept the Derby triple. The one-trainer exacta has been pulled off but is a rarity; H. Guy Bedwell trained Sir Barton and Billy Kelly to a 1-2 finish exactly 100 years ago, Herbert Thompson accomplished it in 1921 and 1926, and the last conditioner to do it was Ben Jones in 1948.
It probably won’t be really known which of Baffert’s trio will end up as the favorite until a few minutes before post time, depending on which way the bettors are going.
It may be an important detail.
Post-time favorites have won each of the last six Kentucky Derbys, coinciding with the debut of the points system that’s used to qualify for the field, and the average price on a win bet has been .90 — which, to successful bettors, marks a whopping 345% return on their investment. In a savings account with a 2% yield, turning into .90 would take just over 75 years.
At the Derby, it tends to happen in a little over 2 minutes.
There are a slew of other options beyond Baffert’s three horses.
War of Will, especially if the track is wet, will be a live contender at a nice price. Tacitus is a monster, has been training beautifully for Bill Mott and has a perfect post, midpack. Fountain of Youth winner Code of Honor is more than good enough and should be flying at the end, though if he’s had mud kicked in his face the whole way his finishing strides might not matter much.
And now that Mike Smith — who would have been aboard Omaha Beach — has gotten the call to pinch-hit for Corey Lanerie and ride lightly tested Cutting Humor, his odds will plummet. Smith is still the best big-race jockey in the world; no serious horseplayer will let him ride at a good price and not get some of that action.
But there’s only one horse in this field who has never been beaten.
It’s puzzling how Maximum Security — four wins in four starts, the last of those the Florida Derby — is not getting a whole lot of attention going into this race. This is not a typical Derby field; there just aren’t a lot of horses with runaway speed in here, so the sense is that someone is going to get near the front early and pretty much stay there until it’s time to make the move.
Ever since Orb in 2013, every Derby winner has been in the lead or relatively close at the top of the stretch.
Maximum Security will fit that mold.
Now, it should be noted that following historical trends can be dangerous. Just because Nyquist was unbeaten entering the 2016 Derby and Justify was unbeaten last year entering the race — they both won the Run for the Roses — doesn’t mean that Maximum Security merits more consideration this year because he’s the lone unbeaten in this field.
That’s not why he’s the pick. He’s the pick because he toyed with the Florida Derby field, and his speed numbers are better than anyone else in this race. Unless the Churchill dirt becomes Churchill mud, Maximum Security gets the job done.
The pick: Maximum Security over Improbable, Tacitus and Game Winner. For the exotic plays, add Code of Honor and if it’s wet, War of Will.