Who will be the Kentucky Derby favorite at race time has become as interesting a question in some racing circles as who will win the race.
Because of its unique stature in American sports, the Kentucky Derby attracts not only the money of people who bet on Saturday but also the casual American sports fan.
More than $100-million will be bet Saturday, including at least $20 million in the win pool — the wager that requires your horse to finish first.
Last year’s favorite, Dialed In, had 13.55 percent of the win pool and went off at 5.2-to-1. Pants On Fire was second choice at 8.1-to-1, and more than half the field (10 horses) were than 18-to-1. The 11th choice in the field, Animal Kingdom, won at 20.9-to-1, and the 12th choice, Shackleford, finished fourth at 23.1-to-1 before going on to win the Preakness.
The smarter the people in a pari-mutuel pool, the truer the odds will be, but the aforementioned casual American sports fan (and his or her money) is what makes Derby betting so hard to predict.
Pants On Fire was bet so heavily in the win pool last year in part because his jockey, Rose Napravnik, was attempting to become the first woman to win the Derby, and that story garnered a lot of attention beyond the hardcore fan, which in turn deflated the horse’s price.
Twice the Appeal was another horse who should have been higher odds but wasn’t because of appeal to the casual sports fan. Calvin Borel, who had ridden three of the previous four Derby winners going into 2011, was aboard Twice the Appeal. Many viewed his fair odds as being 20- or 30-to-1, but instead he was the co-sixth choice at 11.9-to-1.
Wagering on horse racing online is legal in most U.S. states, and as that method of betting on horses increases — especially around the Triple Crown — horses and their connections that are featured on TV will take more money than they used to.
Bob Baffert trains Bodemeister, and that alone is enough to get attention since the Racing Hall of Famer is a three-time winner of the race, but the conditioner’s recent heart attack is sure to be a big story on NBC’s coverage.
Michael Matz trains Union Rags, and like Baffert, he is a Derby-winning trainer. His story of heroism when rescuing kids from a burning plane and competing in the Olympics are well known from when he trained Barbaro, and those stories are likely to get some play this week again.
Among myself, Mike Battaglia, and Mike Watchmaker, I am the only one who thinks that Union Rags will be favored over Bodemeister. I have Union Rags as the 5.5-to-1 favorite while Battaglia, who is Churchill’s official morning line oddsmaker, has Bodemeister at 4-to-1, and Watchmaker, who is Daily Racing Form’s oddsmaker, has the Arkansas Derby winner at 9-to-2.
There’s no chance any horse besides Bodemeister or Union Rags will be favored, but there could be some surprises among the third through seventh choices with Creative Cause, Dullahan, Hansen, I’ll Have Another and Take Charge Indy vying for those positions.
The “X” factor involved in some of those horses taking more money than they should is that Hansen is the 2-year-old champ, has an charismatic and enigmatic owner and is nearly white. I’ll Have Another has a name a lot of people will enjoy joking about, and Take Charge Indy has the Borel factor.
Last year, no horse was worse than 40-to-1. That won’t happen this year because the top half of this field is better than last year, but it’s still tough to envision any horse being worst than 75-to-1, and on my line I didn’t go lower than 60-to-1 on Trinniberg.
As a bettor, which horse has the title of “favorite” is far less important to me than what his odds are. As a fan of racing, though, it’s great to see the sport in the limelight enough that more people than usual want to bet on it.
Kentucky Derby champion Animal Kingdom was unable to go out a winner, fading quickly in the Queen Anne Stakes on Tuesday in his last race before retirement.