by Mike Hayes - 05/02/2006
I've long considered it to be a good day at the track if I have enough money left at the end of the last race to fill up my gas tank and maybe buy a decent dinner. Not so, however on the first Saturday in May. That's when I'll be chasing the real money.
They run the Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May in what has long been known as the most exciting two minutes in sports. The Derby is quickly becoming the most profitable two minutes for gamblers that are able to come up with the right combination of racing luck and handicapping savvy.
This differs dramatically from the usual course of business for the typical horse player who hopes to grind out a profit playing logical favorites or hitting an occasional longshot exotic bet, but even here the payouts only infrequently eclipse several thousand dollars.
Come Derby Day, however, all this changes, as huge fields of the finest horses racing has to offer, coupled with huge wagering pools, has made wagering on the Derby a must for anybody who likes the idea of hitting a big score with minimal risk.
Look no further than last year's Run for the Roses when Giacomo shocked the field at odds of 50-1, to cap an exacta payout of nearly $10,000; a trifecta of more than $130,000; and an eye-popping superfecta of $864,000 for $1. That's right, a lousy BUCK!
The only other place a gambler has the potential to get payouts of this magnitude with such minimal risk is the lottery, with the obvious difference is that unlike the lottery there is actually a chance of cashing a big ticket on Derby Day.
What has made the Derby such an attractive wagering proposition in recent years is a full-field of 20 starters that pushes the price of all participants well beyond what they would be if the field were cut in half.
In 2002 for example, favored Harlans Holiday ran out of the money at 6-1, while 13-1 Funny Cide became the first New York bred horse to capture the roses. Proud Citizen ran second at 23-1 for a $1,300 exacta while 8-1 Perfect Drift brought home an $18,000 triple. Fourth place finisher Medaglia D'Oro went off at 7-1 and produced a superfecta that returned $91,000 for that same lousy buck.
More important than the likelihood of inflated odds, though, is the fact that 20 entrants means the deciding factor in the outcome of the race is less likely to be the skill of the horse alone, but the skill of the horse coupled with an inordinate amount of racing luck. Simply put, the best horse is much likely to get the trip needed to win in a field of eight or 10, but double that to 20 and it becomes almost anybody's race.
The astronomical payouts last year are certainly not the norm, but history does show that the favorite seldom wins. Spectacular Bid won the 1979 Derby as the betting favorite but it wasn't until 2000 -- when Fusaichi Pegasus ended a 21-year drought of winning favorites by rewarding backers at a bit better than 2-1.
Even when the favorite does win the payouts figure to be healthy.
The 2004 Derby shows this to be the case. Favored Smarty Jones won at odds of 4-1 with second-choice Lion Heart placing at 5-1. Imperialism, fifth among betting interests at a shade under 11-1, ran third. Under normal racing circumstances a successful exacta wager using similar combinations might yield $40 or $50, but here the payout was $65 for a deuce. Even more impressive was the trifecta, which came back at just under $1,000 for two bucks.
While hindsight in racing is even better than 20-20 you didn't even need to handicap this race to make a quick score. By using the public's first choice over the second choice and all in the third spot the reward would have been a $1,000 for a $36 investment.
The fourth-place finisher in this race, Limehouse, went off at 41-1 and rounded out a $41,000 superfecta. While hitting this was no easy chore it is worth noting that in his final prep before the Derby, the Bluegrass Stakes, Limehouse ran third at 6-1, six lengths behind second place finisher Lion Heart, the favorite that day at 4-5.
In running fourth on Derby Day, Limehouse was the same six lengths behind second-choice and second place finisher Lion Heart.
This year's Derby has the same potential for tremendous payouts due to the lack of a clear betting favorite. Brother Derek, Barbaro and Lawyer Ron will likely be among the most heavily bet, but right behind them will be A.P. Warrior, Point Determined and Sweet Northern Saint.
A third tier of horses includes several that might find themselves among the likes of Giacomo and Limehouse - overlooked but capable of getting a piece of the money. Steppenwolfer, Jazil are among this group.
Of course it is entirely possible to go broke chasing one of these boxcar payouts, so it is still important to find a key horse to use in your exotics.
Last year Afleet Alex at 9-2 proved to be just the horse. At the top of the stretch Alex looked like a winner, but was run down by hard charging Giacomo and Closing Argument, 70-1, to gain third money.
Had a bettor who liked Alex been fortunate enough to use the right combination of horses around him the result was a life-changing payoff - definitely better than a steak dinner and tank of gas.
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