Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Investing in the Kentucky Derby

Even the stoutest gamblers among us will sometimes spot a race that seems "unbetable". This is probably never more true than at the annual running of the Kentucky Derby, when hundreds of thousands spend millions trying to pick the winner out of a cavalry charge of up to twenty relatively unseasoned three year-olds. On the face of it, this doesn't seem like such a good idea.

As a handicapping challenge, this year's Derby is especially frustrating. The speed handicappers have a bunch of front-end wonders to choose from, but normally a stiff, contested pace tends to deliver victory to a closer. If you like one to come from out of it, on the other hand, the problem is that huge field (no fewer than 17 starters this year), which tends to create all sorts of traffic hazards for a horse that comes from the back of the pack. Class handicapping? Well how do you do that when the field is peppered with one-time claimers and some well-bred but lightly raced horses whose best races clearly lie in front of them? Could Derby Day be the day for one of those?

I imagine most of us will place a little wager anyway, focusing on in the monster payoffs that all these uncertainties often create. Only last year, the win by 50-to-1 Giacomo triggered a cash landslide for the astute and/or lucky bettors who held winning tickets in the exacta, the trifecta, and all the other gimmicks.

My most memorable wager in the Derby, exactly ten years ago, didn't go so well. I liked a couple of horses, Louis Quatorze and Skip Away, so I used them in the exacta and some trifectas. The 1996 Derby was also a cavalry charge, and both of my selections were mired well back, while Grindstone and Cavonnier ran their races, with Grindstone nailing the other horse at the wire for the big money. Unable to get unstuck from the crowd, my selections finished 12th and 16th.

A few weeks later a smaller field went to the post in the Preakness, and my horses were unencumbered. Louis Quatorze broke free, running at a blistering pace. Skip Away ran at him the entire trip and couldn't catch him, but was clearly best of the rest. I still fondly remember that neat little stack of exacta tickets, each paying a respectable $104.60.

The moral of the story? Take your best shot in the Derby. If it doesn't work out, there's always next time.


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