One loss shouldn't dash the hopes of Kentucky Derby prospects but a trend over the past five years indicates that it's a bad omen. The five most recent Derby winners have gone 12-for-12 in their preps. Throw out a defeat in a grass race by Animal Kingdom and another year is added to the streak. Meanwhile, the likelihood of sports betting winning approval in the courts or by Congress grows. But would this be a bad thing for racing?


MIAMI--Classic Empire, the Juvenile Champion and early Kentucky Derby favorite, might have disappointed in the Holy Bull because he became unnerved by shipping into Gulfstream from the Palm Meadows training center on the morning of the race.

Maybe it was a developing foot abscess that went undiscovered until a few days after the race. Perhaps it was a little bit of this, a little bit of that.

Whatever it was, failing to win in his first start as a 3-year-old makes him unlikely to wear the roses on the first Saturday in May, according to a trend over the past five years. Since 2012 the winner of the Kentucky Derby has been undefeated in his 3-year-old campaign.

I brought this up for the first time a year ago and Nyquist kept the streak going, winning both his sophomore starts before Louisville. That made it 12-for-12, still a small sample but sizable enough to not be disregarded.

American Pharoah won both his preps. California Chrome was 3-for-3 prior to the Derby. Orb also was 3-for-3. I’ll Have Another was perfect in a pair of preps.

The last time the eventual Derby winner suffered defeat prior to the Run for the Roses carries an asterisk. Animal Kingdom ran second in a turf allowance at Gulfstream in his 2011 debut. He rebounded to win the Spiral, on an artificial surface, in his final Derby prep.

So when you’re trying to identify the horse most likely to win America’s greatest race, keep in mind the phrase often attributed to Vince Lombardi even though he didn’t originate it: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”

A Pletcher irony

The most recent Derby winner to score the first win of his 3-year-old campaign in the big one was Super Saver in 2010. How ironic that he is the only Derby winner for Todd Pletcher, who seems to have a herd of streaking Classic hopefuls with sparkling records at this time of year.

This year’s hot prospect is Battalion Runner who has won impressively at seven furlongs and a mile and a sixteenth and is being pointed toward the Florida Derby.

Pletcher has another flashy 3-year-old named Malagacy, who won his 5 ½ furlong debut by 15 lengths in the slop then came back last Sunday to take a 6 ½ furlong entry level allowance by 7 on a fast track. His first race was on Jan. 4, so he is this year’s candidate to rekindle talk of the Curse of Apollo; no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old since 1882.

Thankfully, Pletcher has tamped down such talk. He feels Malagacy’s future is around one turn.

Coincidentally, Pletcher’s rival Chad Brown said the same about Favorable Outcome after his big win in the Swale.

If and when these two hook up it could be something to see. Unfortunately, there is nothing left on the Gulfstream stakes schedule for 3-year-old sprinters.

However, the Hutcheson failed to fill earlier in the meeting and Tim Ritvo said he would consider bringing it back later in the season if there is a call for it. A Malagacy-Favorable Outcome confrontation would add even more luster to the traditionally sensational Florida Derby card.

Sports betting: blessing or curse?

Some societal changes can be seen coming years away; decriminalization of marijuana, same sex marriage. It was clear they were inevitable, only a matter of time. Legalization of sports betting is beginning to slide into this category.

Obstacles that have limited legal sports betting to Nevada are under relentless challenge. New Jersey, which has been clutching at every straw to salvage what’s left of the casino business in Atlantic City, has been frustrated by the courts in its effort to join Nevada for the better part of the decade.

A couple of New Jersey congressman, Frank LoBiondo and Frank Pallone Jr., are introducing a bill in Congress that would give states a four-year window to decide whether they want sports gambling. President Trump, a former Atlantic City casino owner, is said to have no objections.

Now Maryland is joining the cause. A bill, H989, has been introduced in the legislature. It would allow the state’s tracks and casinos to apply for sports betting should the federal prohibition against it be eliminated.

The barrier is the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act of 1992, which prohibited any state but Nevada from taking action on individual games. Professional sports leagues have been ferocious opponents of all attempts to get around this law. But opposition appears to be softening.

NBA commissioner Adam Silver was the first to break from the pack. In an op-ed in The New York Times in November 2014, Silver wrote, “Gambling has increasingly become a popular and accepted form of entertainment in the United States.” Noting that it is estimated that as much as $400 billion is wagered illegally in the U.S., Silver continued, “Congress should adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports.”

Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has joined the chorus. A year ago, he said, “It’s important for baseball to give fresh consideration to the issue.” More recently he has amplified this position. “There’s this buzz out there in terms of people feeling that there may be an opportunity here for legalized sports betting. We are re-examining our stance on gambling.”

The NFL remains publicly opposed to gambling on its games but it has overtly supported fantasy sports, disingenuously saying it doesn’t consider this gambling. Some NFL owners have a piece of the fantasy sports action.

The fact that the league seems on the verge of allowing the Oakland Raiders to move to Las Vegas, where a new stadium would be wedged between casinos whose biggest sports business is the NFL--$138 million was wagered on the Super Bowl--is a further indication that the league isn’t as anti-sports gambling as it claims to be.

The expectation is that if and when sports betting is legalized, it will be limited, at least initially, to existing casinos and race tracks.

This might not be a good thing for racing. Slots were supposed to save race tracks. They have done exactly the opposite. Slots have become ubiquitous while race tracks are closing down or running fewer dates. The promised purse subsidies are under assault.

Sports betting could be slots squared. It is said slots players don’t gamble on the horses to any substantial degree and vice versa.

Horse players do gamble on sports. A lot. There is a finite amount of gambling funds among the public. Money now invested in races would be re-directed to games.

Also, sports betting is capital intensive. One certainty is Congress and the states would insist on a prohibition of betting on credit. This would take significant sums out of players' pockets.

Horse racing relies on churn. Sports betting doesn’t to any great extent.

As a fan, I would love to see tracks allowed to handle sports. As someone who loves racing, I’m concerned it could be the final nail in racing’s coffin.

February 16, 2017