churchill downsBecause so many bettors got walloped last Saturday – or failed to make the money they deserved – Kentucky Derby 141 deserves a parimutuel post mortem.

Scads of trifecta and superfecta bettors, myself included, cashed lightly or didn’t cash at all because they tried to hammer a square peg into a round hole. They tried to make this Derby fit the mold of Derbys past.

Even my man El Toro screwed it up.

“I went fishing for a payout that wasn’t going to be there,” he said.

El Toro is the superfecta savant I wrote about in 2013, at which time he had taken the Derby for $68,000 over the previous six years. He hit for another $7,700 last year. Dude knows what he’s doing.

Toro wins partly because he’s willing to spend the money required to cover up to 10 horses in third place and maybe 15 in fourth. He doesn’t tilt at the windmills of Derby history, which shows that one or two unlikely longshots lumber into the top four almost every year.

Though their pockets aren’t as deep or their risk tolerance as high, most Derby exotics players operate under the same assumption. They put on the bottom of their tickets as many longshots as they can afford. It’s a solid approach.

But this year, it was the wrong approach.

Derby winner American Pharoah | Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs

Derby winner American Pharoah | Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs

No. 141 was not a typical Kentucky Derby. The field was uncommonly deep with high quality horses. Seven were a clear cut above on speed and class: American Pharoah, Dortmund, Frosted, Upstart, Firing Line, Carpe Diem and Materiality. Everyone saw this. Everyone talked about this. Very few, however, accepted this – at least not in a way that showed in their betting.

Trifectas and superfectas were structured in the usual fashion, spread wide on the bottom and littered with the names of such dubious animals as Far Right, War Story, Danzig Moon and Keen Ice. To crack the superfecta, the slowpokes would have to clop by four of the seven superior horses. That wasn’t very likely.

The unlikelihood was reflected in the picks made by 23 writers at the Daily Racing Form. Each picked four horses, 92 picks total. Eighty-three of them came from that small group seven standouts.

Derby 141 was a race to bet with a laser, not a shotgun.

“Instead of spending two grand to cover up cloppers on the bottom, which is something I usually preach,” Toro said, “I would have been much better off building a $20 ticket that singled American Pharoah (to win) and boxed five other horses for the next three spots.”

Yes, I know, hindsight is 20/20. But this strategy screamed to be played in foresight.

Unfortunately, most bettors had their sights trained on the past. They’d seen too many tris and supers invaded by the likes of Golden Soul (35-1) and Commanding Curve (38-1) to believe it wouldn’t happen again.

It certainly could have happened again, theoretically anyway. But smart bets are made according to what is probable, not merely possible.

The most probable outcome of Derby 141 was that the standouts would dominate the race. And they did. Five of them ran 1-2-3-4-6. The fifth-place horse, Danzig Moon, never sniffed the superfecta. He finished more than three lengths out of fourth.

If history was a hindrance this year, so too was greed.

Exotics bettors lust for the fat payoffs the Derby usually provides. They were so determined to make a big score that they willed themselves to see a pot of gold that wasn’t there. Under no plausible circumstances was this Derby going to yield a five-figure payoff on a $1 bet. The good horses simply were too good and too plentiful to let it happen.

Smart betting is akin to playing smart offense in football: Take what the defense gives you.  On Saturday, it gave us a race with a small field of genuine contenders. The right play-call was to construct a compact ticket with relatively few combinations – and to bet it as many times as possible.

Toro’s alt-ticket, for example, would have cost $120. For the same $2,000 he spent on the old-style ticket, he could’ve bought the alt-ticket about 17 times.

The payout of Saturday’s superfecta was the lowest in 18 years – $634.10. That’s not much of a score. Multiply it by 17, however, and you’ve got $10,779.70.

Now that’s a score.