Favorites in Vogue After Long Derby Drought

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Justify | Horsephotos

By T. D. Thornton

It’s getting tougher to be a contrarian in the GI Kentucky Derby.

Prior to Justify (Scat Daddy)’s real-deal smackdown score, I was firmly of the “too much, too soon, at too short a price” mindset. I respected the horse and what he might be able to do over the course of the coming year, but not his irrationally exuberant 2.9-1 price in the betting on the first Saturday in May.

But when this ‘TDN Rising Star’ flashed under the finish wire 2 1/2 lengths the best without looking the least bit fazed from his emphatic Classic accomplishment, it marked the sixth consecutive year that the favorite had won the Derby.

That’s an amazing–and unprecedented–historical feat.

In recent decades, so-called sharpies have advocated that betting against the favorite in the Derby represents tremendous value because of the large field, the traditional chaotic charge into the first turn, the unknowns surrounding 10-furlong stamina ability, the 150,000+ screaming fans, and all the “casual” money in the pools fueled by mainstream media story lines. Over the past several seasons, we’ve also seen a marked increase in the number of lightly raced horses attempting the Derby, which adds another layer of volatility to an already challenging task.

If anything, it should be getting more difficult to pick the Derby winner.

Yet John Q. Public has now nailed the Derby every year since 2013, starting with Orb (Malibu Moon) and followed in succession by California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit), American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile), Nyquist (Uncle Mo), Always Dreaming (Bodemeister) and now Justify.

Only twice before in Derby history there has been a run of at least four straight winning favorites. In the era before pari-mutuels, Lookout, Chant, Halma and Ben Brush did it between 1893 and 1896 (when the field sizes were six, five, four and eight, respectively). More recently, the imposing quartet of Riva Ridge, Secretariat, Cannonade and Foolish Pleasure swept Derbies between 1972 and 1975 (field sizes 16, 13, 23, 15).

The 1970s “glory decade” also gave us chalky Derby winners Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid. But the well ran dry between 1980 and 1999, representing the longest winless gulf for Derby faves in the history of the race.

Partners? Spoilers? Both?

Now, with Justify on his way to Baltimore for the second leg of the Triple Crown and few confirmed challengers at this early date, the question turns to whether he’ll be one of the shortest-priced favorites in the history of the GI Preakness S.

And although trainer Bob Baffert claimed on Sunday morning that he’s “not [yet] thinking about [a Triple Crown sweep] at all” with Justify, that doesn’t preclude the rest of us from chiming in with opinions.

One down-the-road scenario to ponder (and not just this year, but in subsequent seasons) involves the increased role that multi-owner partnerships will play in the Triple Crown series.

In recent years when a Triple Crown was on the line, a tactical subplot has always been the “fresh face” angle in the GI Belmont S. In some years there have even been insinuations that horses who did not race in the Derby and/or Preakness were being entered to gang up on the would-be Triple Crown winner.

In this year’s Derby, four of the top five finishers were owned in partnership by multiple entities. Justify, in fact, shares common ties with third-place finisher Audible (Into Mischief), with both colts owned by China Horse Club International, Head of Plains Partners LLC, Starlight Racing, and WinStar Farm.

So what would be the call for those connections if Justify is on the brink of entering the Belmont S. undefeated with a Triple Crown on the line and Audible looms as one of the top threats? Would Audible, if deemed fit and ready to race, be entered to play spoiler?

WinStar and China Horse Club might have to make this sort of decision even sooner, for the Preakness. They are two of the owners in a three-way partnership on ‘TDN Rising Star’ Quip (Distorted Humor), who had been withdrawn from Derby consideration several weeks ago with the intent of instead aiming for the second leg of the Triple Crown.

Asked on Sunday by Daily Racing Form if Justify’s win precludes Quip from forging ahead in the Preakness, Elliott Walden, the president and chief executive of WinStar, said “I hesitate to say right now. I think we’ll see how the week plays out. My first inclination is to go ahead and run him, but I need to talk to our partners and see. We had set the horse up to run in the Preakness, and he worked very well on Thursday. If Justify is supposed to win the Triple Crown, he’ll beat Quip. I just think you try to manage your horses the best you can. I think [the Preakness] is the right thing for Quip. Not making a final decision today, but the horse is doing really well.”

Record rain—and betting

For the second consecutive year, wet weather was a factor on Derby day. The reported 2.98 inches of rain leading up to post time caused Churchill Downs Inc. (CDI) to dub the 144th Run for the Roses the “wettest Kentucky Derby ever” in a post-race press release.

Two weeks ago I interviewed new CDI chairman R. Alex Rankin, who has a background as an insurance executive, and asked him as an aside to our published Q&A if Churchill Downs ever hedged against Mother Nature by purchasing Derby day weather insurance to guard against a severe downturn in business. Rankin replied that the corporation did not, although this type of insurance has become common in other industries where the elements play an outsized role. Ski resorts, for example, are increasingly buying insurance in case there’s no snow over peak holiday periods, and farmers have long insured against bad weather wiping out an entire seasonal crop.

Despite the sloppy conditions, Churchill’s announced crowd of 157,813 was the eighth-highest attendance figure in track history, and wagering from all sources was the highest all-time on both the Kentucky Derby entire program ($225.7 million) and on the Derby itself ($149.9 million). Both handles represent 8% bumps in business.

Online and mobile betting for the Derby itself was up 18% through the TwinSpires wagering system, which is noteworthy because the platform seized up for about 15 minutes in the hour before the Derby went off. Social media was flooded with complaints from irate fans who had trouble getting bets in. Some posters reported receiving “tote is down” messages during this crucial pre-race window while others reported repeated system slowdowns throughout the day.

While it’s commendable that TwinSpires did post several status updates on Twitter while the issues were being worked on, it’s inexcusable from a risk management standpoint that problems with the betting infrastructure even occurred at all on the biggest betting day of the year.

And yes, other account wagering providers have also had embarrassing betting glitches on big days in the past. But we’re no longer in an era when online wagering is in its infancy, and the sport’s bet-processing systems should be robust and redundant enough to handle high-volume days without bogging down.

Beyond irritating and exasperating good customers who are looking to bet serious money on racing’s most highly anticipated horse race, the industry’s advance-deposit wagering providers are also trying to position themselves as viable candidates for licenses if and when the Supreme Court of the United States rules favorable on sports betting.

But that won’t happen without an industry-wide upgrade in bet-taking infrastructure, because Saturday’s TwinSpires difficulties were akin to a major online sports book crashing in the hour prior to kickoff for the Super Bowl.

 

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