Robb Report Vices

A Bettor’s Guide to the Derby

If you plan to watch the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, you may also be one of the many who have some money in on the action. Last year, gamblers around the world bet $130.5 million on the Derby, only $3 million short of the all-time record for the famous Churchill Downs race, which was set the year before. While it’s true that horse racing may never return to the levels of popularity that it enjoyed during the first half of the 20th century, plenty of money still changes hands because of it.

If you’re planning to ante up for the Derby—either at Churchill Downs or online through TwinSpires or TVG—you no doubt want some assurance that your picks are destined for greatness. Unfortunately, as any longstanding horse-racing fan knows, the Derby is full of surprises. In the last decade, the favorite has claimed victory only twice (Street Sense and Big Brown, in 2007 and 2008, respectively). Conversely, a horse with the worst odds has won twice (Giacomo and Mine That Bird, in 2005 and 2009, respectively).

Looking at this year’s field, the favorite is California Chrome. The chestnut colt’s pedigree may not be too impressive off the top, but his great grandsire is A. P. Indy, the 1992 Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, who was sired by Seattle Slew (the 1977 Triple Crown winner). His dam’s sire was Secretariat, also a Triple Crown winner. Based on California Chrome’s two victories earlier this year (both at Santa Anita Park in California), it’s safe to say that the colt, like Secretariat, finishes strong.

Speaking of strong, Wicked Strong could also contend on Saturday. The bay colt was sired by Hard Spun, who finished second in the Kentucky Derby in 2007, while his great grandsire, Northern Dancer, won both the Preakness Stakes and the Kentucky Derby in 1964. Wicked Strong’s win on April 5 saw the colt beat out the favorites Social Inclusion and Samraat (also entered in the Derby) by three and a half lengths.

Other horses with impressive pedigrees include Tapiture, who was sired by Tapit—a sought-after stallion with connections to A. P. Indy. Ride On Curlin is another intriguing option. The bay colt is not-so-subtly named after his sire, Curlin, the 2007 and 2008 Horse of the Year. On his dam’s side, the colt is connected to Northern Dancer and Storm Cat, a stallion whose progeny have earned more than $128 million.

In the end, pedigree is appealing and past racing history shows potential, but the Derby represents a new level of competition for all the horses involved. A Thoroughbred that dominates early in the year may not duplicate that success against stiffer competition, while a horse with unassuming genetics and no victories to its name could sprint to worldwide fame, à la Giacomo in 2005. It’s up to you to decide what’s important in a Derby contender. Just remember: Anything can happen.