With its cramped 20-horse field and carnival atmosphere, the Kentucky Derby is one of the toughest sporting events on earth to handicap. The bad part about this is it's something of a crapshoot. The good things about this are: (a) The best horse doesn't always win, and (b) you can get a great price on a really viable contender.
If you want to bet the Derby favorite -- this year, deservedly, it's I Want Revenge at morning line odds of 3-1 -- then be prepared to drop at least a couple hundred dollars on the horse's nose if you're interested in seeing any real return on your investment. Although my personal record of betting the Derby is spotty at best, that's simply not the course of action I'd recommend, whether betting the Derby or any other horse race. Instead, it's the value plays I look for -- and this Saturday's field offers several solid options.
Adding to the annual Derby clusterfuck is many tracks which host key prep races have, in recent years, switched from dirt (Churchill's surface) to synthetic surfaces. (The biggest heartbreaker among these converts is Keeneland, the Fenway Park of horse racing.) Despite four straight major stakes wins heading into the Derby, the fact that Pioneer of the Nile has never raced on dirt makes him a somewhat dicey proposition. So throw him out, as well as the two other entrants (Mr. Hot Stuff and Chocolate Candy) who've never traversed a soil surface. Also toss the favorite and the other two horses (Friesan Fire and Dunkirk) going off at 5-1 or less. Those gents are good, but there are rivals at better prices who are just as capable of entering the winner's circle on the outskirts of Cassius Clay's old Kentucky hometown.
Of the remaining contenders, there's one horse with a great back story who's a decent play, and another three who offer exceptional value. The one with the great back story is General Quarters, the lone horse in the stable of retired high-school biology teacher Tom McCarthy. There have been great David v. Goliath stories in the Derby's rich history, but this would take the cake -- by about 15 lengths. Better yet, General Quarters actually has a lot going for him: He's the most experienced horse in the field with 11 starts, and is one of only seven to have notched a triple-digit Beyer speed figure, widely considered to be a prerequisite for victory. If he goes off anywhere near his morning line odds of 20-1 -- fat chance, as feel-good stories tend to get overbet -- I'll have a tiny bit of action on him just to feel as good as McCarthy does if and when he enters the winner's circle.
At odds of 50-1, morning line longshot Summer Bird will definitely garner a portion of my overall wager. While most analysts feel that the early pace will be manageable, the Derby is exactly the sort of race that tends to see a knucklehead burner take things out way too hot, thus setting up an ideal scenario for a deep closer such as Summer Bird. He's only raced thrice and won once, but he was gaining serious ground at the end of the 1-1/4 mile Arkansas Derby, where he finished third, and missed a triple-digit Beyer by a mere point. Very, very intriguing play, to put it mildly, especially on the bottom of exotic wagers.
Now we arrive at the two horses (other than the favorites, which for the aforementioned economic reasons, I shy away from as a rule) I think might actually win the race: West Side Bernie and Papa Clem. Both have resumes that resemble the horse that should have won the 2005 Derby, Afleet Alex, who ended up winning the final two legs of that year's Triple Crown after finishing third at Churchill. Both have top-flight jockeys -- Stewart Elliott abord Bernie and Rafael Bejarano aboard Clem -- aboard, and both are priced fatter than 20-1 on the morning line (Clem at exactly 20-1, and Bernie at 30-1), posing sensational wagering opportunities for horses of this caliber.
So who wins? Clem, namely because he's actually beaten the favorite and has essentially improved with each race, another component I look for in a three-year-old at this stage of his career. Bernie will be a length behind him at the wire, and Summer Bird will be flying in for third, biding his time for the Belmont, where he'll hope to replicate the success of his upset-minded sire, Birdstone.
Then again, you could always bet on the horse whose name you like the most. That's as good a criteria as any in a race as wide open as this. But most importantly, do overdo it on the juleps. They make for a killer buzz.