Mine That Bird shocked racing fans in 2009 when he came up the rail to win the Kentucky Derby at odds of 50-1 (Photo courtesy Eclipse Sportswire).
For the next two weeks, handicappers will be doing their homework.
They will scan past performances, video replays, tea leaves or anything else that will help them solve the riddle of the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports.
In the end, they hope to defy the odds, correctly picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby, America’s most famous horse race and its greatest handicapping challenge.
No other race brings into play the variety of factors that make the Derby such a spectacle. It features 20 horses – 20 young and maturing horses – that will race at a mile and a quarter distance for the first time against a collection of the best horses of their generation.
The challenge comes from selecting the one horse out of the 20 that will win the race, and settling on the best way to do that presents a worthy test for even the most seasoned of handicappers.
There’s certainly no single, sure-fire path to success, but some advice can always come in handy. So as a helpful guide in advance of racing’s most eagerly awaited day, here’s a couple of pointers to keep in mind as you plot your wagering strategy.
RIGHT EVEN WHEN YOU’RE WRONG
Considering how difficult it can be to pick a Derby winner, it’s best to give yourself some wiggle room. That lesson was hammered home to me in 1992 when I was dumb enough to believe that English invader Arazi would win the Derby.
Too much emphasis was placed on his smashing win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile the previous year at Churchill Downs and conveniently ignored was some shaky 3-year-old form overseas.
I decided to chase the exactas and used Arazi on top and then underneath in the exactas, mixing him with three longshots in hopes of squeezing more juice out of a wager that centered on a 4-5 shot.
But then it dawned on me. What if the Arazi of 1992 was not the same Arazi as we saw in 1991? He could be a bust. So, as a back-up plan, I boxed my three longshots – two of whom were Lil E. Tee and Casual Lies – in a separate exacta play.
As it turned out, Arazi made my win prediction look pretty dumb when he faded to eighth, but who cared? Lil E. Tee, at 16-1, and Casual Lies, at 29-1, finished 1-2 and I had an exacta ticket worth $854.40.
Yes, sometimes it pays to be wrong.
THE WHEEL DEAL
For some handicappers there’s nothing heroic about wheeling a horse in the exacta. It takes some of the fun and challenge out of handicapping.
But, hey, what’s more fun than cashing a big ticket, and sometimes wheeling a horse and including him in combinations with every other horse in the race is the only realistic way to match the winner and runner-up in one wager.
Take 2006, for example. If you liked Barbaro, the payoff was $14.20 for $2 for being an astute handicapper.
Had you chased the exacta on your own, chances are you wouldn’t have used 30-1 shot Bluegrass Cat in the play. But if you wheeled Barbaro in the exacta, you collected on a $587 exacta that might have otherwise eluded you.
The exacta wheel can also serve as an ideal stand-in for a place bet.
Just consider 2009. Let’s say you liked Pioneerof the Nile, who was the 6-1 third choice in a 19-horse field. If you bet $40 to win and place on him, you would have collected $168 for his runner-up finish in a 19-horse field. But if you made it $40 to win and $38 in exactas with Pioneerof the Nile underneath everyone, you would have hit a $2,074.80 exacta thanks to some help from a victorious 50-1 shot named Mine That Bird.
In a race like the Derby, one in which anything can indeed happen, covering all your options might be the best bet of all.
MINE THAT BIRD IN THE 2009 KENTUCKY DERBY