2013 Kentucky Derby Betting: Favorite Currently Unclear
by Trevor Whenham - 4/29/2013
We are in a strange situation heading into this Kentucky Derby. With post time less than a week away, we really don’t have a clear sense of which horse is going to be the Kentucky Derby favorite. Most times we know which horse will be the favorite or at least which two horses have a chance. This year, though, things are muddy.
For the entire prep season it has seemed all but certain that Verrazano would be favorite. He is undefeated and unquestionably impressive. Lately, though, it seems like some of his support has cooled. It could be that he hasn’t raced at two — a curse for horses in this race — or that his last win wasn’t as dominant as people hoped. Or perhaps it is concerns about trainer Todd Pletcher’s ability to win this race after winning just once in 31 previous tries.
While he is still favored in futures pools and could easily be post-time favorite as well, there are cases to be made for others. Florida Derby winner Orb has worked exceptionally and could easily overtake Verrazano. Revolutionary could as well — especially as the public gets more and more excited about Calvin Borel riding him. Goldencents could be favored, too — his trainer won the Derby with a Santa Anita Derby winner last year, so he could do it again. A case could even be made for Normandy Invasion, a buzz horse who is training very well.
So, five horses could potentially be favored. The question is, though, whether any of them would actually want to be. If you look at the recent history of the race, the answer is that being favored is far from a benefit.
Favorites typically win about a third of all races. If you take a long-term view of the Derby, then the race meets — and slightly exceeds — those expectations. There have been 138 editions of the race, and 52 favorites have come through. That’s just short of 38 percent. Based on that, then, betting on the favorite in the Derby seems like a pretty good idea — especially in a year like this when the race is top-heavy, so the odds for the favorite won’t be bet too low. When you look at a much shorter time frame, though, things are not nearly so encouraging.
In 1979 Spectacular Bid won as the overwhelming 3/5 favorite. Over the next 20 years, though, there was not a single winning favorite. Fusaichi Pegasus finally broke the streak of favorite futility in 2000. In the 12 years since then, though, only three favorites — Smarty Jones, Street Sense and Big Brown — have won the race. That’s just 25 percent, and Street Sense was only favored by the narrowest of margins over Curlin. In the last 33 years, then, we have seen the favorites win just four times — a stunningly bad rate of just 12 percent. It has been better lately but still far from good.
So, why have favorites been doing so poorly lately in the Kentucky Derby? There are several good reasons. Here are four of the most significant:
Field size - The maximum field size for the Kentucky Derby is 20 horses. It has become far more common for the field to reach or near the limit recently than it used to be. The larger a field is, the more horses the eventual winner has to contend with and the greater the chances that a horse can encounter traffic that derails their hopes of winning. A big field makes it tougher for a favorite to get a lucky trip, and without a lucky trip you aren’t going to win the race.
Increased media attention - The number of media outlets have grown almost exponentially the last couple of decades. More outlets mean more people covering the Derby. The coverage among the more mainstream media tends to focus on the compelling storylines and feel-good stories more than the fundamentals of the race. That can direct the public money towards horses that shouldn’t necessarily be favored, and more than any other race run all year the public money has a massive impact on which horse is favored.
Training attitudes - We used to commonly see horses that were very experienced heading into the Derby. They had typically run a strong schedule as a two year old and had run four or five times — or even more — as a three year old. That has all changed. We’re seeing more and more horses that were lightly-raced at two and which only race two or three times as a three year old. It used to be that almost all horses were coming off a three-week break heading into the Derby. Now breaks of five weeks or more don’t even turn heads. The less experienced a horse is the less we have to accurately judge them on. They aren’t experienced, so we have to guess how they will handle the distance, the field size, or the massive crowds at the Derby. The more you have to guess, the harder it is to accurately pick a favorite.
Breeding differences - American race fans and owners like speed. The focus of racing in the U.S., then, has become more and more on speed in the pedigree. That focus comes at the expense of stamina. The Derby is run at a mile and a quarter. That’s further than any of the horses has run and further than many of them are bred to run effectively. With stamina lacking in so many pedigrees, we are forced not only to judge which horse is best but also to guess whether the horse can handle the challenge of the distance. That’s an added level of difficulty, so it’s no wonder that the public is struggling to pick a worthy favorite.
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