For the committed and the obsessed, some of whom are so obsessed that they ought to be committed, handicapping the Kentucky Derby begins in winter with a mindset best stated by Shakespeare himself:
“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”
This is our wish, our prayer, our greed. Because if you pick the right horse, you can by gawd buy a new kingdom.
Or, at the very least, an obnoxiously large new flat screen for the man cave.
But the Bard has a better line for Derby 139. It speaks more specifically to the shape of Saturday’s race while also addressing the generally crazy quality of every first Saturday in May.
“Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.”
There is ample reason to believe that the foolery of this entire weekend will ultimately revolve around a colt named Orb.
Orb looks, acts and runs like a king’s ransom. Everyone adores him – clockers, handicappers and karma-loving soothsayers who believe all good things come to those who wait. (Orb’s owners and trainer have pined for a rose blanket all their lives.)
The equine behavioralist is wowed by Orb too. Kerry Thomas, aka the Herd Whisperer, sees in Orb the same ineffable traits that led him to predict that Animal Kingdom and I’ll Have Another would win the last two Derbys.
But those two horses were longshots. Orb is the morning line favorite, at 7-2 – and therein lies the rub.
It’s hard to accept such stingy odds in a 20-horse field stocked with multiple contenders that are good enough to win. Orb is a deserving favorite, but he does not tower over his rivals.
So let’s indulge our inner Hamlets and hunt for some alternatives.
Verrazano’s virtues are as plain as the eyesockets in poor Yorick’s skull. He’s so good at times it’s scary.
Undefeated in four starts, Verrazano owns the build and the brio of a true boss hoss. And he’s the most consistently fast horse of this 3-year-old crop.
But word on the backside is that he’s not the same horse he was in the winter. He might have run too fast for his own good, and his young body hasn’t recovered from all the stress. Verrazano is a dicey proposition at 4-1, only a tick higher than Orb’s pinchpenny odds.
Normandy Invasion is thrice the price on the morning line, but his odds are sure to drop from 12-1. The betting public is a sucker for horses who finish with a powerful closing rush, even if those runs fall short. All he needs is more distance, they say, though history says otherwise more often than not.
On a different kind of D-Day, Eisenhower bet with both fists on a Normandy invasion, and it would pretty cool to see that name painted on the paddock at Churchill Downs. Can’t see it happening, though.
Normandy Invasion is a slight colt that has been pushed hard in recent months. He has looked splendid on the training track, but ace workout analyst Bruno DeJulio thinks that’s probably a mirage.
Once Normandy Invasion receives his race-day dose of Lasix, a diuretic, he is liable to shed enough water weight to reveal some muscle wasting. Bettors won’t know if that’s the case until the colt goes out for the post parade. That might be too late.
Better safe than sorry, I say. Normandy Invasion probably lacks the physical power required to win such a taxing race. Besides, even at his best, he has yet to run very fast this year.
He’s off my tickets.
Speaking of noms de guerre, Revolutionary is a horse I’ve liked since December. He is uncommonly versatile, able to win near the lead or from the back of the pack. He’s unusually determined too.
Revolutionary won his penultimate prep race, the Withers, by overcoming more traffic jams than a rush-hour commuter on Spaghetti Junction.
He won his last race, the Louisiana Derby, with the kind of long, extended run that spring 3-year-olds seldom make without spitting the bit in deep stretch. Instead, Revolutionary dug in and repelled the rally of Mylute, a longshot to consider for the bottom slots of trifectas and superfectas.
Revolutionary is a son of 2007 juvenile champion War Pass out of a mare by A.P. Indy, the 1992 Horse of the Year. He has the genes to succeed on Derby Day.
But does he have temperament? Or the body?
The small, nearly black colt occasionally wastes emotional energy objecting to routine difficulties such as being crowded by other horses and getting dirt kicked in his face. His chances Saturday depend on the ability of his crafty Hall of Fame jockey, Calvin Borel, to work out a clean trip that keeps Revolutionary calm until it’s time for his considerable competitive spirit to kick in.
He’s a decent bet at 10-1, but with Borel aboard, don’t be surprised to see him drop as low as 7-1.
The former is a cause celebre because one of his minority owners is University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. But contrary to popular belief, the connection won’t kill his odds. There are too many handicappers who distrust Goldencents’ ability to carry his speed for 1 ¼ miles.
They might be right – but I’ll be betting otherwise.
Goldencents is an improving horse that can run fast early and sustain his momentum late. That’s rare.
He’s also extremely competitive, to a fault perhaps. At times Goldencents is so eager blow past other horses that his jockey must strain to restrain him. This wastes energy, something a horse can ill afford in such a demanding race.
You’ll know in the first 60 seconds if Goldencents is relaxing enough to maintain his strength for the grueling final minute.
His young jockey, Kevin Krigger, can’t afford to be too nervous about making his Derby debut. The horse will sense his anxiety, add it to his own and bye-bye roses.
Orb aside, Itsmyluckyday probably owns the best blend of high speed and cool temperament in the field. He has the capacity to relax off the early leaders and make his move as his rivals start to tire.
And therein lies another rub. Because Itsmyluckyday has more early speed than Orb, he will get first run on the leaders. Orb might never catch up, especially if he gets bogged down in traffic.
Orb beat Itsmyluckyday with consummate ease in the Florida Derby and might do so again on Saturday. But Itsmyluckyday is a fat 15-1 on the morning line, which means Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia considers Orb six times more likely to win.
That’s absurd. Orb might be better, but he’s not that much better. Thus Itsmyluckyday is a superior bet.
I rarely bet to win, so odds aren’t a huge consideration. I plan to use Orb, Itsmyluckyday, Revolutionary and Goldencents in roughly equal measure in my trifectas and superfectas. I’ll sprinkle in some Verrazano and Mylute too.
Other horses have a chance to crash the board – Java’s War is especially intriguing – but you can’t bet every plausible contender without investing $400 or $500. That’s too much for mere mortals.
Suffice to say that it will be my lucky day if the superfecta looks like this: 1. Itsmyluckyday; 2. Revolutionary; 3. Orb; 4. Goldencents.
Postscript: Horses have brains and personalities, and their mental/emotional makeup is critical to their ability to thrive in an epic stampede like the Kentucky Derby. To learn more about those hard-to-quantify abilities, get a copy of Kerry Thomas’ behavioral scouting report.
It costs $20 but if you plan to bet a decent amount of money – or just want a fascinating read – it’s worth the dough.