Twenty horses, many believe, is too many for one starting gate, or in the case of the Kentucky Derby, two starting gates.
They are correct. Twenty horses is six too many for any horse race. The crush of horseflesh guided by adrenaline-stoked jockeys, the sheer importance of this singular success, the pre-race hyperbole, a $2-million purse, instant celebrity, the potential of ancillary financial reward -- all conspire against the truly, or even reasonably run race. This is the typical Kentucky Derby in the dark age of the Triple Crown's long-vacant throne.
Who do you like? This is a stupid question nowadays.
How do you play the Derby? That is the question.
Since 2008 only one Derby winner, Big Brown, has returned less than $10.00.
Since 2008 -- admittedly a small sample but nevertheless current and reflective of recent trends -- only one Derby winner, Big Brown, has returned less than $10.00. The favorite that year, the last horse to win both the Derby and Preakness, paid $6.80 at Churchill. In subsequent years, Mine That Bird paid $103.20, Super Saver $18 and Animal Kingdom $43.80.
For various reasons, with the exception of Mine That Bird, it was not unreasonable to back Super Saver or Animal Kingdom. Each has demonstrated the ability to win. Both were well connected. The winner of the annual CNBC contest that sends a person to Churchill Downs with $100,000 to bet on one horse placed the wager on Super Saver and left with $900,000.
But unless someone hands over a valise full of bundled $100 bills and asks for your selection, attempting to isolate the winner is no longer the best approach to the Kentucky Derby. Who's your Derby horse? Who cares? Nothing skews a result like spent horses staggering past the three-sixteenths pole, getting in the way, a blistering pace that turns the last quarter-mile into a survivalist lottery or jockeys caught-up in the moment simply losing their places. If you really like a horse, the Preakness is only a fortnight away.
Despite the misplaced importance of selecting the Derby winner, there are better ways to approach the race with the profit motive given foremost consideration.
There is a Hall of Fame trainer who became know a decade or so ago for the frequency with which he cashed large superfecta tickets, particularly during the summer meeting at Saratoga. Eventually, his method became known to those with connections on the other side of the betting windows. When a specific set of circumstances were in place -- specifically the wide-open race with a large field -- the bet was -- and in all likelihood still is -- an eight-horse superfecta box. The key was anchored not in picking winners but in the process of elimination.
This method is the perfect betting approach to the modern Kentucky Derby, a race that attracts more stupid money than any run on the planet. Almost everyone with even a modicum of interest has some money in a betting pool, the combination of which is staggering.
The cost of a $1, eight-horse superfecta box is $1,680, a large wager for many individuals but not necessarily for a partnership. Fractional wagering, now in vogue, significantly reduces both risk and reward. Large money should be the goal on Derby day. Leave the roll of dimes in the desk drawer.
The potential glitch, and with it the possible dissolution of long and valued friendships, rests in designation of the person or people who will winnow a field of 20 down to eight. But in the absence of another major race that couches a field of 20, this is, after all, a situation that presents itself only once a year and holds great promise if only occasionally successful. Sometimes ego must be set aside in the interest of the greater good, a concept grasped more readily by a horseplayer than, say, a member of the Congress. Nevertheless, handicapping by committee never works, so this is a task best left to the designated few.
A friend who last year began orchestration of such a wager from behind a well-known bar in Saratoga Springs disagrees. He prefers the uninformed and blithely ignorant to be involved because the process of consensus by chaos sometimes leads to the inclusion of horses that elude both reason and the most obtuse accepted logic.
Even in an age in which chaos has overtaken the 20-horse Kentucky Derby and gutted the meaning of form, there is a pride of ownership in the selection of a winner on the first Saturday of May.
Either way, this approach can turn Derby day from a celebration of thoroughbred horses into a tribute to solvency by windfall.
Consider the possibilities:
The superfecta of 2008, with favored Big Brown leading the well-supported, star-crossed filly, Eight Belles, under the wire: $55,738.80.
In 2009, the year of Mine That Bird in the mud, with well-regarded Pioneerof the Nile second: $557,006.40.
Super Saver, with Ice Box second in 2010: $202,569.20.
Last year, with Animal Kingdom in the winner's circle and Nehro second: $48,126.
A score in any one of these years, even with $1,680 risked upon each, would have left the participants more than happily in the black or, green.
Even in an age in which chaos has overtaken the 20-horse Kentucky Derby and gutted the meaning of form, there is a pride of ownership in the selection of a winner on the first Saturday of May. If that is your goal, you should already be down in one of the various futures pools. Bragging rights, however, are seldom accompanied by a six-figure payoff. A consortium of like-minded horseplayers is far more likely to come away with a bagful of money.
And that, after all, is the real point.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He also has been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul can be contacted at email@example.com.