The first weekend in May is upon us and that means it’s time for the running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday (6:30 PM ET, NBC). This is a race with a history and a structure that has rewarded longshots, but over the last two years, a favorite has won each time. Does 2015 see a return to the big-priced winner? Here’s a look at how the 20-horse field breaks down…
American Pharoah (5-2)
Both of the favorites have been prepared by powerhouse California trainer Bob Baffert, who is one of two trainers (along with Todd Pletcher) whose presence looms over the sport.
But Baffert hasn’t won at Churchill Downs since 2002 with War Emblem and this year is his best shot. American Pharoah is ridden by Victor Espinoza, who rode California Chrome to victory here and at the Preakness Stakes a year ago. Martin Garcia, whose biggest win came at the Preakness Stakes in 2010, is aboard Dortmund.
As you can imagine, both horses are extremely well-decorated after the prep race season. American Pharoah ran mostly in Arkansas and California, and won the Arkansas Derby, the Rebel Stakes and Del Mar Futurity, all high-profile races. Dortmund stayed in SoCal, where he won the prestigious Santa Anita Derby, the Robert B. Lewis and the San Felipe Stakes.
It concerns me though, that Dortmund didn’t win outside of southern California. Not because tracks are different or there’s any sort of “home track advantage.” But I always wonder if the horse’s owners know something if they don’t take the financial risk to pack up their horse and take a shot at some big purses elsewhere in the country.
Carpe Diem (8-1)
Firing Line (12-1)
This is the window where Pletcher is prominent, as the trainer of Carpe Diem and Materiality. You can probably say that this Derby is the horse-racing equivalent of a big-market Yankees-Dodgers World Series. You have the two most lavishly financed trainers handling the top four horses in the field, with Baffert based in the West and Pletcher based in the East.
John Velazquez is the rider of Carpe Diem and he won the Derby back in 2011 with Animal Kingdom at longer odds than this. Materiality won the Florida Derby in April and that race is considered by insiders to be as close as you’re going to find to a “bellwether” race that will give an indicator of Kentucky Derby performance. Upstart finished second at the Florida Derby and his jockey is Joel Rosario, who won at Churchill Downs in 2013 aboard Orb.
THE 20-1 SHOTS
Nothing incredibly noteworthy here. I’m intrigued by Mubtaahij because I’m always interested in the Ireland-bred horses that come over. In the case of Mubtaahij, the interest is heightened because he’s yet to run a race on American soil. He had success at Meydan, a very lavishly funded track in Dubai, in the presence of the sheiks. I don’t know how that translates to Saturday, but I’m curious to find out.
THE 30-1 SHOTS
El Kabeir is clearly the horse to watch here, and I’ll be interested to see if he really closes at 30-1 by the time betting is finished (unlike other sports, if you bet a horse, you get the odds that betting closed with, not the number that existed at the time of the wager). Calvin Borel is aboard this horse and no jockey in the field has enjoyed the kind of success at Churchill Downs that Borel has.
He won this race three times between 2007-10, including with 50-1 longshot Mine That Bird in 2009. This particular horse won a couple good races at Aqueduct in New York and finished third in the high-profile Wood Memorial. I think El Kabeir has got to be included in any sort of wagering plan.
The other notable horses here fall into the “silly storyline” category. Like, if Stanford wins, does it foretell that the Stanford Cardinal are going to win the Pac-12 in college football? Or that Stanford grad Andrew Luck is going to win the MVP and/or Super Bowl in the NFL? Or if Far Right wins, does it foreshadow that Ted Cruz is going to win the Republican nomination? Yes, anyone that thinks of this stuff clearly has too much time on his hands.
THE 50-1 SHOTS
Ocho Ocho Ocho
Nothing’s really hidden in the past performances to suggest a breakout here. War Story has a nice name, and the famous D.Wayne Lukas is the trainer of Mr. Z. I’m partial to Lukas, who is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, who I root for in college sports and a friend of Bob Knight’s, one of my all-time favorite people in sports. But Lukas hasn’t been a major player along the lines of Baffert or Pletcher for a long time and Lukas hasn’t won the Kentucky Derby since 1999.
BAD BETTING ADVICE
I’m not a betting person, unless you count hypothetical wagers, so I won’t be putting my money where my mouth is. I don’t have a strong view on the winner, as I feel like this is the year the Derby returns to form and starts rewarding the underdog, much like its spring sports partners, the NCAA Tournament and the Stanley Cup playoffs do. But none of them really jump out at me, so I’d wager equal amounts on Materiality, Mubtaajhi, Upstart and El Kabeir and if any of them win, I’d turn a profit. I’d also throw down a simple bet on El Kapeir to finish in the top three.