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Kentucky Derby mix and match

The Kentucky Derby winner will come from one of these kinds of runners: raw, barely-bridled speed, stalkers, or closers from the deep.

And that stencil determines the way a friend of mine plays the Derby, mixing and matching the best horses from each of these types of racers. It can be a little hard to believe that gate genes matter so much. But in a race with almost two dozen starters, the manner in which a horse emerges from the opening scrum determines the running style for the remainder of the race. You'd think that a gate breaking tendency that's a negative in a land run-type race could be altered through practice, that 25 trips to the starting gate might convince a horse to stop looking both ways before starting to run. Think again.

In a race with almost two dozen starters, the manner in which a horse emerges from the opening scrum determines the running style for the remainder of the race.


Speed: Whereas speed often rules the tote board in the sticks, it tends to look cheap at the Kentucky Derby. Since the break is such a ruckus, there is apt to be plenty of company up front. It requires a lot of energy to dodge legs and rumps and bust out of there. And it takes a toll. Speed extends past the horse on the lead at Churchill. The first three or four frequently display the need for oxygen toward the turn off the backstretch. Short fields make any style easier to maintain. Think twice about horses able to establish soft leads versus four or five others in New York or California. Short fields pad Beyer speed numbers. The most money I ever made on a horse race came as a result of speedballs running 1-2-3 around a track nearly under water. The horse that won was 30-1 and had recently raced, poorly obviously, in New Mexico. Maybe some good, clean, thin air was still in its system. The track was so wet it was like trying to make up ground on a water slide. If memory serves, I won most of the money from most of the pools, except for the granny pool, the show bet on one of the longest shots in any race. Most thugs and creeps within 20 miles knew almost immediately that somebody had won big. Perhaps it was because I offered to buy everybody in the grandstand a beer. So I hired a guard to escort me to the car. I should have hired a guard to watch the guard, as this guy was fuzzy around the edges. It's impossible to ignore the style that won you all the money. But this one at Churchill isn't the four furlong feature at "Hooterville Downs."

Deep closers: This is the romantic end to horse racing. The beautifully dressed young couple you see hopping up and down and hugging in all the "gaming" advertisements had a $10 ticket on the horse that came from last to first and won a photo-finish. The people in the commercials are faking it. That's what I would have to do with a ticket on a deep closer. I have lost lots of money on cheap 3-5 closers that never, ever, stop running and lunge at the last second and get third by a quarter-inch to beat me out of a gigantic trifecta, and closers that I love and go off at 25-1 and run and run and run and try and struggle and give 110 percent and lose by a nose to a horse that is so tired it has to sit down right after beating me out of the cash. Most late runners don't so much close as they pass others who are ready for the showers. I have lost so much on late runners, by so little ground, and am so overdue, that I must continue to play the occasional deep closer because if I don't, it will obviously win and pay $75. Here's what's all right about late runners. They always break bad. There's not much trouble back there with the birds. And sometimes you inherit an open rail. Here's what's bad about hanging out by the back of the pack at the Derby: You have to pass quite a few really good stalkers who were not burned out by a dumb pace.

Stalkers: This is far and away the choice group at the Derby. A brutal break can ruin you because you have to be quick enough to assume the pocket-position in the front third of the pack. Most recent Kentucky Derby winners have that signature monster move on the turn for home that is so impressive that it almost looks photoshopped: Everybody but the winner appears to be pulling a big safe. The end of the race is apt to feature two stalkers going at one another guts to guts and heart to heart, with the best of the closers swooping at them from the outside. Stalkers save ground, save energy and save you money.

My friend likes to bet with the two quickest horses, the two best stalkers, the two best later runners, 2-2-2. My preference with this angle would be 1-3-2, three stalkers being the keys.

If you're not good enough to find the best horses to represent each racing style, then you're back behind square one, aren't you?

How does this friend do? He has never asked to borrow anything and has not been seen at the ATM.