Friday, May 4, 2012

2012 Kentucky Derby Picks

For the first Saturday in May, “The Baseball Enthusiast” will feature my picks for this year’s Kentucky Derby. Last year’s picks are here.

I am not a professional handicapper, nor even an amateur handicapper. I only knew of 2 past Derby winners when I moved to Louisville 14 years ago, and I only knew that the Kentucky Derby happened once per year, and it happened in Louisville, and it happened every year for a long time, and it was over in 2 minutes.

It doesn’t take very long after moving here to find yourself assimilated into the Kentucky Derby phenomena wave that occurs locally. 1 or 2 years of fighting it, and to no avail…you find yourself collecting glasses, engaging in trivia matches in the grocery store with complete strangers, counting down the days until Thunder Over Louisville and the launch of Pegasus Pins, setting aside fives and ones for pools and betting windows, deciding which Derby party to go to, waking up at 8 in the morning on Derby Day to buy booze, making arrangements because the city shuts down (literally, school and offices are CLOSED on Oaks Day; the Friday before Derby)…you may or may not get the picture but it’s real. And it happens to the best of us.

My first personal Derby assimilation experience was reading the nether regions of the sports pages during the weeks prior to Derby and considering the Derby hopefuls, watching their rise (and fall), and finally predicting the Derby winner and a few long-shots to place a bet on if I felt the need to. I don’t call it handicapping, I call it “fantasy derby” because it’s the same thing. You have only luck and enough information from statistics, past behavior, and personal rules (gut feelings, really) and not enough time to select your player(s), and if they win…bring on the “yoo hoo” shower. If they lose, well…maybe next year. Handicappers claim to have a system, in fact handicappers claim quite a bit and never seem to have to defend themselves and/or justify what they do. And they shouldn’t have to! They come out of the woodwork here once a year, then they are (literally) gone.

Regular perusal of local pre-Derby horce racing odds and ends is very helpful, along with some historical research…as much or as little as you like. For example, I care less about Dosage, names, trainers or bloodlines as I do gate position, jockey, past 6 races, what kind of track, recent workouts, etc. I do review some handicappers’ comments, of whom the one I enjoy the most is Jennie Rees, you can read her blog
and understand why.

As I stated, I don’t have a system. This is just another fantasy draft, and it’s over immediately. I keep thinking how much advanced statistics could help plot a few things, but really…they wouldn’t help in picking Derby winners any more than they would help in Fantasy Baseball…don’t forget how much of an impact luck has. It does help a great deal to have some basic knowledge of some basic ‘stuff going on,’ and you also need to know when to get in on a streak…and when the streak may be getting stale. Just like Fantasy Baseball.

At any rate…early on, I started sharing my notes with friends and family, my format is usually:

1. I share some personal stuff about visits to Churchill Downs, if any, I’ve made during the Spring Meet leading up to Derby
2. I write about “the favorite(s)”
3. I write about “my favorite”
4. I offer a few long shot picks worth spending a few bucks on for bets with high payoff

When I predicted Fusaichi Pegasus would win in 2000, that was pretty much an even-odds favorite and I have to tell you the truth, my strongest advocation for that horse was his “Japanese Heritage.” But, it was my first prediction and my first win…even if it was only a base hit.

In 2001 I was more careful in my selection and drafted Monarchos as my favorite. Monarchos ended up with one of the fastest finishes in Derby history and those who heeded my prediction were most appreciative; Monarchos paid 10-1/2 at post time!! A triple!

In 2002 my streak continued when my favorite War Emblem executed a pole-to-pole victory and paid 20-1/2…my $2 bet came home with me in a much greater quantity and again, if you listened to my advice, it would have been just as good for you as well. This was a home run for me!!

After War Emblem, my streak ended. My 2003 favorite (Sir Cherokee) scratched just before the race. For the next 5 years, my favorites and long shots became definitively lost in the dust of each race. In 2009, my favorite led the pack until Mine That Bird made an astonishing come from behind victory at 50-1 odds to win by 6-3/4 lengths…with my favorite coming in second.

Happily, in 2010 (my 11th year of preparing my personal Derby report on Oaks Day) my favorite won, Super Saver crossed the line and I became officially 4-for-11 in picking winners (a .363 BA isn’t really that bad). He didn’t pay that great, but a base hit is better than a strike out.

In 2011, I wasn’t quite as lucky…I enter the 2012 sweepstakes with 4 hits in 12 plate appearances; .333 still is nothing to sneeze at. One thing’s for sure, I will never scratch grass horses off of my card, EVER again (Animal Kingdom, last year’s winner, was one of 5 grass/turf only entries I dismissed in favor of horses with dirt track experience).

So far, my Derby favorites have done better than my Fantasy Baseball teams. So far…

Fantasy Baseball folks, take note…it seems so far my tendency is to be streaky. I still sit at the precipice of statistical foolery, you can say I’m 1 for my last 2, which sounds GREAT…OR you can say I’m 1 for my last 8, which does NOT sound so great…

Well, that’s my story, there’s my record, so without further ado…my 13th annual edition of Stevo’s Derby Picks:

The weather on Oaks Day is looking as if significant unseasonal heat (high of 88°F plus high-80s humidity) will be the order of the day. Derby day forecast is a little more of the same, mid-80s with a 40% chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon, could this be another muddy track year?

We’re looking at another nearly overcrowded field that is fairly wide open, but with a couple of strong contenders in poor gate positions.

Once again, Churchill Downs linemaker Mike Battaglia is currently drinking the kool-aid on continuing to favor speed horses in poor starting positions, but that’s his bread and butter and this is not mine. My favorite was an early ‘spot,’ and given the impending weather conditions, he could be a ringer. For your perusal, here’s the rundown on the favorite(s), my strong pick, a real maybe, and a couple of fair long-shot picks for your betting budget. Starting this year, I will add a “Borel Bet” in the mix…as I mentioned last year, Calvin Borel is the Albert Pujols of horse racing and I intend to celebrate this, from a statistical tendency standpoint…but like Pujols, Borel isn’t showing much to celebrate thus far.

The favorite:
Bodemeister (4-1) In a field where there are three definitive speed horses, Bodemeister is the strongest speed horse of the lot. Bob Baffert is back quickly after suffering a heart attack last month, and a trainer of his caliber offering a horse of this constitution will always become a strong contender for near-even odds by post time. The problem here is two-fold, all this talk of “speed” in this race discounts the fact that the abundance of “speed” tends to create issues on the track. Bodemeister won the Arkansas Derby by 9-1/2 lengths, but was clearly the fastest horse in that field. Coming out of an almost dreadful number 6 gate, I can see him vanishing just as fast as he can run.

The other favorite:
Union Rags (9-2) See above, but eliminate the “speed” and insert “unlucky”…with the very solid Julien Leparoux in the saddle, that may be the only factor behind Union Rags’ 4-1-1- record in 6 starts. The punishing statement is this horse’s disappointing 3rd place finish in the Florida Derby…3rd place is nothing to sneeze at, but he was completely stuck in traffic, something which will not bode well for this horse. If you aren’t convinced, consider his start from a field of 20 from gate #4 (which is worse than #6) and 1 + 1 = 2 in my eyes.

My favorite:
El Padrino (20-1) A few days after I circled this one on my card, the buzz on one of Todd Pletcher’s two entries in this year’s derby is perpetually mounting, and he may be another close odds favorite by post time. Maybe it’s the name, maybe it’s the gate (#16 – MONARCHOS!), maybe it’s his age…he’s the senior horse in this race, and I could have been swayed by the Jamie Moyer milestone…but El Padrino’s bloodlines scream speed and built for distance, and both of these make me smile. His recent performance (3-1-1 in 6 starts, first two races this year he was a MONSTER) and workout reports back this up. El Padrino is the kind of horse that will start the race in the back of the field and make a strong run late. One more thing…on a muddy track, El Padrino is a “plus plus” racer. Place your bet and pray for rain!!!

You may want to consider:
Hansen (10-1) Every year, there’s a horse with a “story,” and Hansen is this year’s horse, with strong local ties in ownership. Jennie Rees cites Hansen’s recent victories over many of his Derby competition in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race at Churchill Downs (Street Sense, in 2007, was the last horse to win the Juvenile and the Derby). Gate 14 isn’t a bad place to start, but with all the “speed” in this year’s field, Hansen will have to set an aggressive pace early…which is quite possible.

The “Borel” bet:
Take Charge Indy (15-1) Calvin Borel has won 3 of his last 5 Derbys (2007, 2009, 2010), yet came in 10th last year with Twice the Appeal. Borel has won 19 of 172 starts this year (.110), by comparison Sheldon Russell (making his Derby debut with Done Talking) has won 71 of his 334 starts (.213) this year. If Borel is the Pujols of graded-stakes racing, then like Pujols he is in a slump to start the season. Will he break out of it for the Derby? Chances are no, and gate #3 is a crushing place to give it a shot, but in your Fantasy Baseball league, you don’t just drop a homerless Pujols in may…don’t turn your back on Borel for the same reason!

Long Shots:
Done Talking (50-1) See the Borel bet above…if Borel is Pujols, then Russell must be Jorge Cantu or someone similar, a .213 win percentage in 4 months is pretty damn good for a jockey. Will his inexperience in the Derby be his Achilles heel? I can’t find much to support it; Done Talking is a distance horse, coming out of gate 17 his best chance is for the speed horses to get locked up so he can rough it out on the stretch.

Liaison (50-1) I’m drinking the Bob Baffert kool-aid on this pick…gate 20 is too far outside to give a decent horse a fighting chance to win, and his dismal performance in his last two starts is certainly a contributor to his line. However, I always like to pick a horse who seems like they may be ready for a sudden victory (remember Giacomo?) against the odds…

Odds listed are from today’s morning line. Good luck, hope your horsey comes in!!

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