By John Pricci

HALLANDALE BEACH--this is my favorite time of year, a period when people who can’t spell horse after you spot them the ‘h’ and ‘0,’ ask: “So, who’s going to win the Kentucky Derby?” I give them my standard default: “Damned if I know.”

But eventually I do offer a few names, tell a little tale to go with each mane and tail, project what horses might pay should they win, wish them well and ask them to circle back in a few days if they’d like.

We are six days from the biggest two-minute dance of them all. Many racing fans have complained about the glut of Derby talk but that dog won’t hunt here. Still, I must offer this: Ask me after post positions are drawn on Tuesday.

It’s good horse sense to posit that there’s an excellent chance Omaha Beach is the best, most complete equine athlete to line up in the Churchill Downs starting gate late Saturday afternoon. That assessment notwithstanding, if the track is fast on May 4, I will be betting against him.

Omaha Beach is certain to go favored on Saturday and I don’t believe the current winning streak of Derby favorites will extend to seven in 2019. Circa 4-1, that’s just not enough price for me to find out just how good he is vs. 19 rivals who might not be as talented but are loaded with upside.

However, it’s not like bettors can’t win a bunch of money on the Derby favorite. Remember Justify? Last year’s Triple Crown champion keyed a $69.20 exacta with the logical Good Magic, a $1-Trifecta worth $141.40 with Pletcher-trained Audible and an all-button Superfecta payout $19,618.20 when 80-1 Instilled Regard finished fourth.

If you happened to luck into the Exact Five with second choice and fifth finisher My Boy Jack, a $2 ticket changed your life: $367,160.40 worth of lifestyle. If I were the one, you’d be staring at a blank page right now. But that wouldn’t happen because a dive into this pool drowns bankrolls.

Since 2013, Trifecta payoffs has produced stacks worth $4,600 per ducat. The Superfecta? Fuggedaboudit: $44,334 on average, a respectable salary back in the day when America had a middle class. Alas, I digress.

The preceding is the reason why serious horseplayers, not necessarily big bettors, should stretch their bankrolls and step outside their comfort zone on Derby day. Even if Omaha Beach wins Derby 145, you still rate to get paid handsomely in exotics, an amount commensurate with the risk.

There’s been much talk regarding the relative lack of early speed in this year’s lineup. True that. Since a points system has replaced graded earnings as an entry-qualifying metric, no speedball has held sway, in fact not since War Emblem in 2002. Whatever the pace, the leader will be pressured.

Running style does matter, of course, and that’s where this race gets tricky. The most common phrase used by trainers to describe their horse’s best attribute generally is “he has tactical speed.” Even a cursory look at the form shows that any one of nine horses is capable of pressing the pace.

I can make a reasonable case for exactly half the 20-horse field, having no way of knowing how to rate the European and Japanese entrants. And so I will take the tack that will be used by a majority of handicappers; until I see contrary evidence I will allow the invader to beat me.

Pressers have done very well in the points era but super-exotic fillers, the kind that blow up payoffs, routinely are late runners at long odds. In fact, chances are better than 50-50 that one or two closers will fill the bottom of these buckets, but they must have racing luck in these big fields.

With no obvious speed signed on, all contenders can have their chances compromised severely by either a poor draw--post-position dynamics that force horses out of their preferred style—or pilot error, the result of split-second judgments made in a 20-horse stampede around a one-mile oval.

We will be look for three or four runners that might offer higher odds than their chances to win; value defined. There are final workouts to see and Tuesday’s all important post draw. There’s no payoff bonus for being the first kid on your block to pick the Derby winner. Stay tuned.

Storylines We'd Love to See

Like everyone else, from seasoned horseplayers to Weekend Warriors to Annual-Kentucky-Derby-Only bettors, I will play aggressively looking to score, as stated above. Absent that, these are storylines we'd enjoy watching.

The first would be a dead-heat for Derby-maiden breakers Richard Mandella and Bill Mott. I will allow my East Coast bias to make a victory by Mott sweeter. It should be obvious why. These two Hall of Famers are among the best of any generation to tighten a girth on race day.

Mitigating provincialism somewhat is the fact Omaha Beach is trained by Mandella and owned by Rick Porter. I do not know Mr. Porter beyond a few mass media scenarios, but whenever I've seen video or read his remarks, class act is the phrase that easily comes to mind.

As a strong supporter of the game and having to deal with health issues in recent years, the sentimental value attached to seeing him in a post race interview is a worthy happenstance following "America's Race."

My first writing assignment as a Newsday columnist, I got to write the sidebar following Bill Shoemaker's victory aboard Ferdinand for Charlie Whittingham at the age of 56.

Seeing 58-year-old Jon Court interviewed by Donna Brothers on horseback would be for me personally as sentimental a moment as watching the reactions of Jose Santos and Calvin Borel following victories aboard Funny Cide and Street Sense, respectively. (The fact that we picked both winners didn't hurt, either).

I'm sure there are many other stories that would do a racing heart good, like seeing all the contestants come home safely...speaking of Porter and the future of Thoroughbred Racing.


©John Pricci, HorseRaceInsider, April 28, 2019