By Ed McNamara
Owners and trainers aren’t the only ones who catch Derby Fever. Also in the high-risk group are hundreds of thousands of otherwise logical handicappers who convince themselves to bet on overmatched longshots.
No race is overanalyzed and obsessed about more than the Derby, and it starts during the winter. For reasons I’ve never understood, many horseplayers try to find “My Derby Horse” long before the first Saturday in May. They ignore what they’ve learned from years of experience: that lightly raced 3-year-olds can improve or decline dramatically in a hurry, and that the road to Louisville has many casualties because of injury, illness and loss of form. It happens every spring.
The frenzy peaks after the horses arrive at Churchill Downs. Glowing reports on workouts can create endless second-guessing. A colt who’s never been very quick or never run beyond 1 1/16 miles “has never trained better than he did today.” How many times have you heard that?
Handicappers abandon the basics and try to be heroes, trying to figure out reasons to back horses that don’t figure. I’ve done it lots of times, going against my better judgment and getting burned.
Seven years ago, I considered California Chrome the class of the field but didn’t like his odds, so I played a longshot who finished nowhere. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Maybe I’ll land on the wrong horse Saturday, but it won’t be because I took a wild stab.
This may sound like heresy but try to bet the Kentucky Derby 2021 as if it’s just another race. Don’t expect a horse to do something it’s never done because it won’t. Don’t get sucked into a pari-mutuel black hole trying for a cosmic insight.
First, eliminate horses whose class lines and speed figures don’t measure up, which is most of this year’s field. The morning line has six 50-1 shots, three at 30-1, four at 20-1 and two at 15-1. I’m not seduced by any of them, and it’s not as if I love chalk. Two years ago, I bet 65-1 Country House across the board, and he was my only play in the Future Wager.
I have no problem throwing $2 to win on a few bombs, and I might do that with Mandaloun and Medina Spirit (both 15-1) and Midnight Bourbon (20-1). But I think the winner will come from among Rock Your World (5-1), Essential Quality (2-1), Known Agenda (6-1), Highly Motivated (10-1) and Hot Rod Charlie (8-1).
I’m putting Rock Your World on top because he’s done nothing wrong, and I think he still has room to improve. He reminds me of 2008 Derby-Preakness champion Big Brown, who like Rock Your World began his career on turf. I’d love to get 5-1 on him, but I think he’ll be more like 7-2.
Rock Your World’s wire-to-wire Santa Anita Derby runaway dazzled Bob Baffert, who knows a little about what a Derby winner should look like.
“He just ran away from (Medina Spirit), and he just kept getting faster and faster,” Baffert said. “I was very impressed. I love those kind of big-jumping, well-bred horses. He’ll go a mile-and-a-half.”
Trainer John Sadler is 0-for-5 in the Derby, but Rock Your World is by far his best chance.
“He’s got a high cruising speed that he can carry at a classic distance,” Sadler said. “He’s not a need-the-lead type, but he doesn’t have to be way back. He can get a position and sustain it for a distance. That’s what we believe.”
Having Joel Rosario, a terrific big-race rider, is a big plus. From post 15, he’ll be able to read the break, see what’s going on inside him, and react accordingly. I think he’ll stalk in third or fourth, but if the first quarter-mile isn’t quick, he can ease Rock Your World toward the front.
I asked NBC analyst Jerry Bailey, a two-time Derby winner, what he would do if he were on Rock Your World.
“I would ride him just like John Velazquez rode Authentic in the Derby last year,” Bailey said. “Be very careful with him the first quarter of a mile from the outside post (15) and let your speed take over as you approach the turn.”
Essential Quality is undefeated and versatile, but my gut feeling is he may have plateaued. If he wins, I’ll salute him, but 2-1 is too short a price. Known Agenda was unlucky to draw the rail, which hasn’t produced a winner since 1986, but I’m confident he’ll stay the distance for the brilliant Irad Ortiz, Jr. I left Hot Rod Charlie and Highly Motivated out of my top three, but I’d include them in trifectas and superfectas.
I see Rock Your World breaking clear in upper stretch and turning back Essential Quality, who tires in the final 100 yards. Known Agenda shakes loose from traffic too late and outfinishes Highly Motivated for third.
And if I’m wrong, at least I talk a good game.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.