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Betting On The Kentucky Derby

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Churchill Downs, inside betting secrets, and smoking pot in the infield, all part of the Kentucky Derby, America’s last pure sporting event.

By Steve Bisheff
Bodog Nation Contributing Writer

My Old Kentucky Home: Bet on the Derby

It is the last pure sporting event in America.

The Kentucky Derby is a big-time show in a small-town venue, a wonderful, old-school sporting competition unsullied by salary caps or corporate takeovers. It is as striking as the legendary twin spires at Churchill Downs and as refreshing as a 40-to-1 shot. There are no greasy agents lurking outside the Louisville track’s 133-year-old gates, no seedings from some crazy brackets necessary to determine the competitors, and no spoiled superstars asking to have their contracts renegotiated afterwards.

Some 36,000 rickety-legged horses are foaled every year and all of them are immediately eligible for this, the world’s most famous horse race. But three years later, only a sturdy 17 to 20 ever make it to the first Saturday in May.

Unlike the Super Bowl or World Series, anybody can walk up and buy a ticket on Derby Day. Once inside, along with 140,000 fellow fans, you are free to view the whole social strata of America: From the college kids smoking pot and ogling the wet T-shirt contests in the crowded infield, to the $10 and $20-betting middleclass in the grandstands, to the suave guests along Millionaire’s Row, where the men coolly sit in their Armani suits, while the women proudly parade by in expensive dresses topped off by large, frilly hats that take you back to another era in the South.

“Every other event seems so commercial; this doesn’t,” said D. Wayne Lukas, the trainer who has four Derby victories on his resume. “There is more a feeling of romance and pageantry here. It’s not a big-city, big-media event. It is something the community embraces.”

If the Derby is about romance, it is also about rivalries. It is Lukas vs. Baffert and Pletcher vs. O’Neill. It is Shoemaker vs. Arcaro and Bailey vs. Prado. It is Affirmed vs. Alydar and Real Quiet vs. Victory Gallop. It’s about classic favorites like Spectacular Bid, heartwarming winners like Smarty Jones and stunning longshots like Giacomo.

Bill Corum, the late New York columnist and one-time president of Churchill Downs might have put it best: “To some of us, the echoes of the old starting drums still linger over the ancient Downs,” he wrote. “The rustle of taffeta, the sense of a world apart, the gentle laughter, the rebel scarlet silk of the Lost Cause and the reverence for the thoroughbreds are there like an unseen mist, an unforgettable aura when you’re a part of it for the first time.”

Eat Your Eggs and Pick a Derby Longshot

Churchill Downs isn’t an isolated facility located off in a plush suburb somewhere, only a furlong away from a busy freeway. It is in the middle of an old-fashioned American neighborhood, full of little white clapboard houses, not unlike the kind Woody Guthrie used to sing about.

On the corners are a variety of mom and pop stores that usually only do mild business. Then Derby Week arrives and they are suddenly jammed. The most famous is located on Fourth Street, with an awning that reads “Wagner’s Pharmacy, Since 1922.”

When you open the door and stroll inside, the front part of the building doesn’t look like a pharmacy. It looks like a classic diner, with a long counter, a single green sheet for a menu, food served on paper plates and waitresses who wear T-shirts that read “I Luv The Derby.”

Wagner’s is always busy, full of trainers, exercise riders, grooms and anybody else who’s been up and working since 4 a.m. at the race track, hungry for a simple, hot breakfast. But during Derby Week, it really gets crazy, with tourists streaming into the place the way they stream to the pari-mutuel machines on race day.

Out-of-towners don’t come for the food. They come for the ambience. At the counter, customers place their orders, then pull out a Daily Racing Form and unfold it, preparing to study past performance charts the way scientists study tiny objects under a microscope.

It’s become one of the more popular rituals in Louisville. It’s what you are supposed to do when dining at Wagner’s on Derby Week mornings; You eat your eggs and you pick your longshots.

Kentucky Derby Favorites

The Derby itself has become something of a crapshoot, with crowded fields producing wild, traffic-strewn races featuring horses all going 1 and 1/4-mile for the first time in their lives. You don’t necessarily have to be the best 3 year old to win on this day, just the luckiest.

Not surprisingly, favorites generally run poorly in the Derby. Only two of the public’s betting choices have won the race in the past 27 years.

Edition 133 is shaping up as wide open as any. Curlin, the likely choice, will be bucking almost as many curses as Churchill Downs has mint juleps. Not since Apollo in 1882 has a horse won the Derby without owning a start as a 2 year old. Curlin, making only the fourth start of his career, all at age 3, will try to bust that jinx. He also will not have raced in five weeks leading up to May 5, a feat that seemed insurmountable until the late Barbaro pulled it off a year ago. Add that to the fact Curlin's yet to defeat any of the other top 3 year olds in the race, and this colt certainly has his work cut out for him.

2007 Kentucky Derby Field Odds

  • Any Given Saturday (15/1)
  • Circular Quay (7/1)
  • Cobalt Blue (50/1)
  • Cowtown Cat (15/1)
  • Curlin (3/1)
  • Dominican (20/1)
  • Great Hunter (20/1)
  • Hard Spun (17/1)
  • Liquidity (30/1)
  • Nobiz Like Shobiz (8/1)
  • Reporting for Duty (100/1)
  • Sam P. (60/1)
  • Scat Daddy (8/1)
  • Storm in May (80/1)
  • Stormello (25/1)
  • Street Sense (6/1)
  • Teuflesberg (50/1)
  • Tiago (14/1)
  • Zanjero (30/1)
  • Field (any other horse 20/1)

He won’t lack for competition, either. Between them, Todd Pletcher and Doug O’Neill, two of the nation’s top money-winning trainers, could stock almost half the field. Pletcher, the three-time Eclipse Award winner, especially, seems to be in good position to capture his first Derby, with such strong contenders as Scat Daddy, Any Given Saturday, Circular Quay, Sam P. and Cowtown Cat. O’Neill will counter with Great Hunter, Liquidity and Cobalt Blue.

Street Sense, trained by Carl Nafzger, will attempt to become the first Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner to finish first in the Derby, while Nobiz Like Shobiz, will try to give Barclay Tagg, Funny Cide’s trainer, his second Derby victory in five years.

Insider Information

Betting the Derby is always an adventure.

For those of us attending regularly, trying to win money on this race is as difficult as it is frustrating. Especially after spending a week along the track’s fabled backside, where rumors are as rampant as the list of cranky, Derby-Week trainers.

Here’s how crazy it can get: After many years of not cashing a winning ticket, I thought the trend might change in 1998. That year, I closely followed Bob Baffert’s fine-looking contender, Indian Charlie, who’d cruised to impressive victories at Santa Anita all winter. ‘Charlie, with Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens aboard, looked like a great Derby bet to me, even though Baffert kept hinting that his other horse, Real Quiet, had been working like a bomb all week at Churchill Downs.

Well, on race day I put a sizeable chunk on Indian Charlie to win. Then, just to protect myself, I bet a three-horse $5 exacta box, using ‘Charlie, a longshot I liked named Victory Gallop, and Real Quiet, although I never really bought into Baffert’s hints.

Well, you can guess what happened. Indian Charlie ran a disappointing third to Real Quiet, who rolled to an impressive victory at 8-to-1, with Victory Gallop at 14-1 finishing second.

That little protection exacta of mine? It paid $722.

The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports

If the atmosphere on Derby Day is party-like, the race itself is always pregnant with drama.

It is an event that slowly builds with the sweetest suspense imaginable, through a wild, rumor-filled week to a bright, color-splashed race day, to the heart-tugging moment when the horses and their jockeys, with bright silks glistening in the usual late-afternoon sunlight make their way out onto the track while the band plays “My Old Kentucky Home” and the giddy crowd nostalgically sings along.

Even some of the oldtime Kentucky hard boots have trouble fighting off the tears at that point.

Finally, it all comes down to the last few, precious, nerve-jangling minutes, with the 140,000 people cheering and howling as the field is led into the starting gate. By that point even the skeptics in the press box have to admit they’re feeling some butterflies in their stomachs.

“The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports,” they call it, and emotion-wise, it would be difficult to argue. When you’re there, right before the start, you can pause from looking into your binoculars for a moment to glance around and you can sense the enthusiasm. You can feel the anticipation. You can hear the loud, growing rumble of a roar.

It is the Kentucky Derby and it should be appreciated now more than ever for what it has become; the last pure sporting event in America.

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