“Who do you like?”
That’s something you’ll hear countless times if you’re hanging out at the race books leading up to the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby at 3:24 p.m. today.
Just about everyone will have an opinion, some more educated than others. Before giving my picks — since it’s just one man’s opinion and this is the biggest handicapping challenge of the year with a 19-horse field of fast-developing 3-year-olds — I’d like to share the consensus of the sharpest Derby handicappers: the future-book bettors.
No, I don’t know them all personally, and I don’t have the time to hover at the betting windows all winter and spring, so instead I ask the race book directors what the biggest liabilities are in their future book. This has been a pretty good barometer the past couple of years.
In 2012, I wrote in my Daily Racing Form column that the Lucky’s race books (now owned by William Hill) had a lot of liability on I’ll Have Another and quoted marketing director Dan Shapiro as saying, “We got hit at 200-1 on I’ll Have Another well before he even won the Robert B. Lewis. Someone in Southern California knew something.”
It turned out it was trainer Doug O’Neill and his barn that made a $100 bet at those odds and another six bets before the odds were lowered to 25-1. I’ll Have Another won the 138th running of the Derby as a 15-1 shot on the first Saturday in May.
Last year, John Avello of Wynn Las Vegas called Orb his worst-case scenario, and he had received support all the way from his opening odds of 200-1 all the way down to when Avello tried to stop the flow of money by dropping him to 4-1. Orb won last year’s race at 5-1.
So, who are the book’s biggest liabilities this year?
For the second straight year, there’s no big long shot, as Avello said the Wynn’s only bad result is California Chrome.
“I opened him at 300-1 last summer, and we have a bet on him at just about any number you can name,” Avello said. “They’ve never stopped betting him, even at 4-1 and 3-1 this past week.”
LVH race and sports book director Jay Kornegay said the worst-case scenarios are Vicar’s in Trouble, Wicked Strong and California Chrome, and added that “all worst cases are scraps. No worries on any of them.”
At William Hill, the only loser for the house is Wicked Strong. So either the casinos did a better job of booking the Derby futures, or no trainers made it to Las Vegas in time to get their horses at big odds.
But if you trust the trend of the future-book bettors getting it right (or you just like cheering against the house), your plays would be the chalky California Chrome with Wicked Strong and Vicar’s in Trouble.
As for yours truly, I’m going to try to beat the chalk, so here are my top plays:
1. Chitu (No. 13) was 20-1 on the morning line and is being overlooked coming out of the Sunland Derby (the race that produced Mine That Bird), but his prep races are the equal of the top contenders. He has tactical speed and should be able to move into position behind the early speed horses, all of whom drew inside of him and could get involved in a suicide speed duel. Chitu, trained by Bob Baffert, should get first run on the leaders, then it’ll be a matter of if he’s good enough to hold off the closer. At 20-1, I’ll love my chances in the stretch.
2. Samraat (No. 6) went off at lower odds than Wicked Strong in the Wood Memorial, 3-1 as opposed to 9-1. If Samraat had held on to win, he might have been the undefeated Derby favorite. Instead, he finished second, and now he’s 15-1? That’s pretty good value on a serious contender.
3. Intense Holiday (No. 16) is the big closer if you really think all of the speed horses are not going to be able to get the distance. He has consistently come off the pace, including his victory in the Grade 2 Risen Star. He’s a must-use in exotics, and I’ll also be shopping for head-to-head matchups.
4. Wildcat Red (No. 10) is one more pick for those wanting to play superfectas. He gave up the lead late in the Florida Derby, so that’s why we’re getting a decent price, but he has shown he can sit off the pace and could help light up the tote board, as well.
Dave Tuley has covered the Las Vegas race and sports book beat since 1998 for Gaming Today, Daily Racing Form and now for ESPN.com. Tuley also has his own website, ViewFromVegas.com, and can be followed on Twitter @ViewFromVegas.