On 364 days of the year, I lick my chops when I see casual horseracing fans show up at the track.
These folks constitute the dumb money that flows into wagering pools and distorts odds, giving handicappers like me a shot at making scores on underbet horses.
At Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York, they’re prominent -- the young mom with a baby in one hand and a Dunkin’ Donuts Coolatta in the other, calling out a bet on the No. 2 horse because she loves the jockey’s silks; the college kids doing beer funnels before blindly throwing down cash on 60-1 shots; the Manhattanites in Brooks Brothers seersucker suits and white bucks, puffing on Cohiba cigars and asking questions like “what’s a furlong?” (That’d be one-eighth of a mile.)
In my lexicon, these people are civilians. I love them. They represent alpha to me.
And then there is that 365th day, Kentucky Derby day, the one moment of the year when civilians can stand on equal terms with even the most seasoned racetrack gamblers.
We’ve got nothing on you.
In addition to being America’s marquee race, the Derby is also the most random. Luck is as important as ability. There are three reasons why: the crowd, field size and distance.
Before the race even begins at 6:24 p.m. in Louisville on May 4, the crowd of more than 150,000 people will leave the more flighty horses in the group so spooked that they’ll stand no chance of winning.
The 20 horses that are then packed into the starting gate represent double the amount in a typical race, creating nightmarish traffic jams that leave some stuck behind the early frontrunners while forcing others to fan wide around the turns.
Lastly, at 1 1/4-miles (2 kilometers), the Derby is longer than any race these horses have ever run, making it tricky to judge which will relish the distance.
My abysmal Derby record as public handicapper over the past four years attests to the chaotic nature of the race.
This is the defense I offer, at least, for picks that have finished 11th, 11th, 16th and 19th (yeah, yeah, laugh it up, civilians; I’ll come looking for you at Saratoga). Two of my selections were so battered and bruised in the Derby that they needed almost a year of rehab before returning to competition.
To better illustrate the race’s randomness, consider the fate of the two biggest favorites of the past 20 years. Excluding the Derby, Point Given and Holy Bull won 14 of 15 races during their three-year-old seasons and scored landslide victories in the industry’s Horse of the Year voting. In the Derby, they staggered home fifth and 12th, beaten by a combined 30 lengths.
The winning Derby horse paid odds of 15-1 on average over that 20-year period. Two of them topped 50-1. Compare those payoffs with the average winning return of 4-1 in the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes.
So go ahead, civilians, enjoy Derby Day.
Have a couple mint juleps, do a few keg stands, jot down your lucky numbers, call out your favorite colors and let it ride. You’ve got the force of chaos on your side.
Who do I like, you ask? You want to know so you can eliminate the horse from your wagers? I see.
That would be Revolutionary. He’s fast, he’s proven he can overcome adversity and he’s peaking at the right time. Given my record, he’s probably good for about a 14th-place finish.
So I came up with a highly scientific back-up selection process to generate an alternative recommendation.
I took a piece of my daughter’s cherry Bubbaloo gum, wadded it up good, and then, using my shirt as a blindfold, flung it at a makeshift racing program I hung up in the living room. My tosses ricocheted off the wall again and again before I inched closer and, resorting now to a technique akin to Pin the Tail on the Donkey, slapped the Bubbaloo on the paper.
It stuck on Frac Daddy, a hopeless, gangly 30-1 longshot that’s winless this year.
Let’s see the civilians try to beat this one.
(David Papadopoulos, the team leader for Latin America markets coverage at Bloomberg News, has been following thoroughbred racing for more than two decades and was runner-up in 2008 Eclipse Award voting for feature writing on the sport.)
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