LOUISVILLE, Ky.— Unlike last spring, there’s no 3-year-old dazzling the racing world with his potential and his presence the way Justify did. The most popular adjective attached to Saturday’s 145th Kentucky Derby is “wide-open.” Few handicappers will dispute that in a 19-horse race with no standout and plenty of disagreement.
Adding to the chaos is that for the third consecutive year, the Derby will be run on a wet track. On Friday morning, it was raining hard at Churchill Downs, and weather.com was calling for an 80-percent chance of rain for Saturday. Sunday, not surprisingly, is supposed to be clear.
Mr. Derby, five-time winner Bob Baffert, is running the top three betting choices — the Santa Anita Derby winner, Roadster; last season’s 2-year-old champion, Game Winner, and the quick but temperamental Improbable. The 4-1 morning-line favorite originally was Omaha Beach, but he was scratched Wednesday because of a throat problem. Mike Battaglia’s revised odds made Game Winner the 9-2 favorite, with Roadster and Improbable the co-second choices at 5-1.
"I think it’s a nice group of horses,” Baffert said, “but none of them are really popping off the screen. Whoever gets the trip is going to win it.
"It’s a different feel from last year and with [2015 Triple Crown winner] American Pharoah. Last year with Justify I knew I had the horse, I just needed some luck. It was my race to lose, so there was more pressure. I’ve got three nice horses this year, but there’s a lot of parity. There’s about 10 horses who look pretty good.
Ten might be a stretch, but settling on a four-horse exacta box will be a serious challenge. Besides Baffert’s trio, among the leading candidates is trainer Bill Mott’s Tacitus, who won the Wood Memorial despite a rough trip. Tacitus (8-1) is impeccably bred for the 1¼-mile Derby distance (by top sire Tapit out of the champion mare Close Hatches). Tacitus has the rare ability to make a sweeping move on the far turn, a surge that often blows open the Derby.
Then there’s the field’s only unbeaten horse, trainer Jason Servis’ 4-for-4 Maximum Security, a former $16,000 maiden claimer who stole the Florida Derby on an easy lead. “That horse, he’s kind of a freak,” Baffert said. Maximum Security (8-1) has some believers, and it’s foolish to disregard a colt who’s never lost, but don’t expect Luis Saez to get away with fractions of 48 4/5 seconds and 1:12 4/5.
Fun facts: The Derby favorite won the last six years, and Orb, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist, Always Dreaming and Justify each won his final prep. So maybe the smart move would be to go against the grain of this supposedly wide-open Derby by boxing four of the top betting choices.
OK, boring, right? It’s a Derby tradition for many players to stab at the score of a lifetime, trying to convince themselves that slow, outclassed horses have a chance. Fourteen in this field are double-digit odds, and 10 are 20-1 or higher. Shrewd handicappers won’t hesitate to throw out pretenders whose speed numbers and class ratings don’t measure up.
The temptation for small players will be to bet a little, dreaming of getting back a lot, on three or four longshots, or maybe more. Chances are excellent that those tickets will be good only for recycling, but if you bet just once a year, fire away. Derby Day is also amateur day, so have fun.