The horseracing calendar is divided into three parts. The Kentucky Derby trail gets all the attention early in the season. The popular Saratoga and Del Mar meets are the focus during the summer. The ramp up to the Breeders' Cup dominates the fall discussion. Of course, there is important racing intermixed in those slots but this represents the predominant focus among horseplayers and the general public alike. The opening salvo is upon us.
The 148th running of the Kentucky Derby is Saturday. The field is one of the strongest assembled in years. It might be the most intriguing since Street Sense won in 2007 over Hard Spun and Curlin. There are lightly-raced, full-of-promise types that could become superstars, maybe as early as Saturday. The two favorites, Zandon and Epicenter, are handled by two of the most prominent trainers in the industry, Chad Brown and Steve Asmussen. Both have won just about everything...but a Kentucky Derby. Todd Pletcher and Brad Cox are here, too, and loaded. Bob Baffert isn't. His former assistant Tim Yakteen is here with the Baffert runners, Taiba and Messier. Common perception is these horses are still under the tutelage of Baffert and need to be taken seriously.
As horseplayers, these are the days we get excited for. Both Friday and Saturday have full fields of high quality runners. The handicapping process is much easier when intent is clear. The horses this weekend are entered to win. Bettors that connect the dots will get paid. The pools will be large and a few puzzlers could produce boxcar payouts.
Speaking of handicapping, it must be remembered that for all of the information, knowledge and experience one possesses, the process to identify live horses is still an educated guess. Now, it's true, some of us may have been educated at Harvard while others at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, but no one has the answer. With all of the noise around workouts, trips, breeding, jockey decisions, etc. it can be easy to become disoriented and second guess yourself. Don't do that. Stick to your instincts. Certainly incorporate opinions and ideas from those you trust but don't move off your spot because someone else "knows" something. You'll never forgive yourself. I learned that lesson the hard way.
In the late '80's, I was pretty new to the game of horse racing. I befriended a group of older, grizzled veterans of the game and they helped indoctrinate me to the nuances of handicapping. One day, I went out to Canterbury Downs to bet a horse (Sharp Times) who would go off at 7-1. I had three or four solid angles on him and this was, to my recollection, the first really strong play I had as a horseplayer. One of the guys in the group spent the first three races of the day trying to talk me out of that horse and into one he was high on. He wore me down. I changed my bet to his horse and the rest, as you may already know, is history. Sharp Times won easily. Of course he did, or I wouldn't remember it today. It turned out to be a valuable lesson. If its your money, your opinion is the only one that counts.
CHECK HOW SPEED, CLOSERS ARE DOING
There is rain in the forecast. Most of the rain will come on Friday, it appears, but possibly some rain in the morning on Derby day. Note where horses are winning from throughout the week. The way the track is playing will have a serious impact on the Kentucky Derby (and all the races, for that matter). The pace of the Derby could be fast and if the track is playing fair to closers it is worth taking note.
CONSIDER THE UNIQUE HORIZONTALS
It's worth considering the additional multi-race wagers that marry up races over the two days, or specific races within the same day. Your opinions might be stronger in the races that are offered in these bets, as opposed to the more traditional sequences we are accustomed to. Check the Churchill Downs betting menu for which races are hooked up in these bets.
LONGSHOT TOP CHOICE
I'm not going to let the cat out of the bag, but I have a strong opinion on a horse in the Kentucky Derby this year. It is a longshot and I believe, barring traffic issues, he's going to run a huge race on Saturday. I haven't had this strong of a feeling since California Chrome in 2014. Let's hope the results are similar.