The Daytona 500 is called “The Great American Race,” but I would make the argument that the Kentucky Derby should have that nickname.
The Derby had more TV viewers last year than Daytona, and the Daytona 500 had 16.7 million viewers this year on Fox, with the Derby expected to post similar numbers today. But the Nielsen family doesn’t count all the people at racetracks, off-track betting parlors and casinos.
The Las Vegas race and sports books will be standing-room only as the 3:24 p.m. post time approaches, and the crowd will be a mix of regular horseplayers and novice fans who might be watching their only race of the year.
But here’s something I wouldn’t dare write in my other gig at the Daily Racing Form: The casual fans have just as much chance of cashing a ticket or having a big score as the professionals. Barring any further scratches (No. 1 Black Onyx was scratched Friday morning), the Derby will have 19 3-year-olds who are the equivalent of human teenagers — and just as unpredictable. None of them has gone the 1¼-mile distance of the Derby, none has had to run in a field this big, and none has had to deal with a huge crowd like the one at Churchill Downs.
And there’s a 80 percent chance of rain, which can level the playing field and lead to unlikely results. A wet track in 2009 helped Mine That Bird win at 50-1. Giacomo won at 50-1 in 2005, and few experts had either of those winners. More people cashed those tickets because they played their favorite numbers or liked the horses’ backstories: Mine That Bird’s trainer drove him cross-country to get in the race, and Giacomo was named for Sting’s son (yes, that Sting).
In the past two years, we’ve watched Animal Kingdom win at 20-1 and I’ll Have Another win at 15-1. So, yes, long shots come in. A favorite did not win from 1980 to 1997, and even though we’ve had three favorites win in the past decade, it still has been more than twice as likely that a longer shot has come in.
I’ve been asked to share my picks from hours of handicapping. Bet them if you wish, or mix and match with your picks. And if you have a favorite number, or a horse’s name strikes your fancy, this is the day to play those hunches:
■ No. 12 Itsmyluckyday (15-1) — He was the Florida Derby favorite when he lost to Orb. If he had held on, he probably would be the Derby favorite. Instead, we’re getting 15-1 (though I suspect he’ll go off closer to 12-1), while Orb is the 7-2 favorite. I can’t buy that there’s that much difference between him and Orb, so he looks like a big overlay.
Itsmyluckyday should get a good trip just behind the pacesetters and be able to avoid trouble and get in position to make his move at the top of the stretch.
■ No. 8 Goldencents (5-1) — He is trained by last year’s Derby-winning trainer, Doug O’Neill. Goldencents is expected to battle Falling Sky for the lead. If he can set soft early fractions, he’ll be dangerous. But he doesn’t need the lead to win. He has shown he can go fast early and still have plenty left in the stretch run, so he’s a must-use in exotics and head-to-head matchups.
■ No. 16 Orb (7-2) — Since I like Itsmyluckyday, I have to respect this horse as well. He’s done nothing wrong this year as he’s 3-for-3. While I won’t take the short price to win, I’m not stubborn enough to leave him out of my exotics. Unless he’s filling out this exact trifecta, I’ll probably be cheering against him down the stretch in favor of long shots.
My “really big long shot” play was going to be Black Onyx at 50-1, but I’ll just be happy that they saved me money by scratching.
I wouldn’t try to talk anyone out of any horse (since, again, I didn’t have Mine That Bird), but other long shots worth considering would be No. 15 Falling Sky (50-1) if he could steal it on the front end, especially if Goldencents and/or Verrazano were to break slow or have traffic problems; or No. 6 Mylute (15-1) or No. 20 Vyjack (15-1) if there’s a speed duel and it sets up for a deep closer.
Whichever way you decide to go, enjoy the Derby. It’s your race, America.
Dave Tuley has covered the Las Vegas race and sports book beat for Daily Racing Form since 2000. He also has his own website, ViewFromVegas.com, and can be followed on Twitter @ViewFromVegas.