When California Chrome coasted across the Kentucky Derby finish line two weeks ago, there were mixed emotions in Las Vegas race books.
Those who bet the 5-2 favorite were obviously happy as the chalk won America’s biggest horse race for the second straight year, and especially those who used him with long-shot runner-up Commanding Curve to hit the $340 exacta or the $3,424.60 trifecta with Danza running third. Of course, there were also plenty of people tearing up their tickets as they either tried to beat California Chrome or just couldn’t find the right horses to connect the dots.
Across the betting counters, there were also some bittersweet bookies as it was a great day of racing and great for the books’ bottom line. It was later confirmed by Vinny Magliulo of the Las Vegas Dissemination Company, which acts as the wagering hub for Nevada, that while the books’ $5.6 million handle on the Derby was about $200,000 less than last year, the all-day handle made up for that as it was nearly $10 million compared with $9.8 million last year.
As alluded to in my column two weeks ago, California Chrome was the worst-case scenario for the future books at Wynn Las Vegas, LVH and William Hill. But no need to cry for the books, as they know that any time a horse is aiming for the Triple Crown (a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Affirmed in 1978) it’s not only good for horse racing but also good for local business as it continues to bring customers back for the Preakness and Triple Crown.
“There’s a lot of buzz with California Chrome having won five races in a row and in impressive fashion,” Magliulo said. “There’s no question that it will help the handle for the Preakness with a legitimate Triple Crown threat, and if he wins Saturday, we’ll have a phenomenal Belmont.”
After the Derby, John Avello, director of race and sports at Wynn Las Vegas, made California Chrome plus-280 to complete the Triple Crown (with a price of minus-340 on the “no”). Avello said he took more money on the “no” over that weekend, but by Monday morning had lowered the price to yes plus-210/no minus-250 because it was looking more and more like the Preakness field would have about nine or 10 horses as opposed to a full field of 14 (10 entered Wednesday).
After taking the usual bets you’d expect on the “yes” (since most people prefer to bet and cheer for something positive to happen, especially at a plus-price), Avello said he started to see more money come in on the “no” and raised the price to yes plus-215/no minus-255, but as of Friday afternoon, it had dropped to plus-200/minus–240.
“Maybe they were laying the ‘no’ because of some rumors about California Chrome’s health, but now we’re only getting ‘yes’ money,” Avello said. “I thought I was going to get rid of some of my liability, as we’re upside down on him in two future books (California Chrome was bet from 8-1 to 7-1 to win the Triple Crown before the Derby, and the ‘any horse’ to win the Triple Crown was mostly around plus-650). But now it looks like we’ll lose in all three futures if he does it.”
As for today’s race, California Chrome was made the 3-5 morning-line favorite, but advance wagering Friday had him down to 1-2. Now, I know a lot of readers think he can’t lose (at least to this field), and if you think that’s the case, there’s plenty of ways to bet him without settling for that short price to win. You can try to find the horses to complete the exacta, trifecta or superfecta, like those lucky souls in the Derby, or you can use him to anchor daily double, pick 3s, pick 4s, etc.
But I’m going to try to beat California Chrome, so here are my picks:
1. Social Inclusion (No. 8) didn’t make the Derby field due to not having enough points in qualifying races, which I thought was a shame because he would have been my Derby pick. He’s obviously not as seasoned as California Chrome (11 career starts vs. three for Social Inclusion), but he has just as much upside and can steal the race on the lead at 5-1 on the morning line (he was up to 8-1 in Friday’s early wagering).
2. California Chrome (No. 3) is legit, so I can’t totally toss him in my exotics, but I’m not convinced he’s Triple Crown-worthy. If Victor Espinoza rates too far off the pace, he could get left behind.
3. General a Rod (No. 2) was never in the running in the Derby and has every excuse to bounce back and run better here. He was 15-1 on the morning line, but I saw him up to 22-1 late Friday. That would be an overlay.
Long shots: Big closers don’t usually win the Preakness, but if there’s a suicide speed duel and those horses all back up, the closers I like best are the filly Ria Antonia (No. 6) and Pimlico horse-for-the-course Kid Cruz (No. 7).
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.