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April 27, 2011

Against all odds

Betting against the Kentucky Derby favorite

The stats are on your side if you bet against the favorite in Derby 137.

Only four favorites — Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, Smarty Jones in 2004, Street Sense in 2007, and Big Brown in 2008 — have won the Derby in the past 31 years. That’s a percentage of less than 13.

What’s more, anti-tote bets on the Derby have been spectacularly rewarding in recent years. Mine That Bird paid a royal price of $103.20 in 2009, setting up a $2,074.80 exacta, a $41500.60 trifecta, and a $557,006.40 superfecta. Just four years earlier, Giacomo rang up an equally sensational win price of $102.60, triggering a $9,814.80 exacta, a $133,134.80 trifecta, and an $864,253.50 superfecta.

Between 2001 and 2010, Derby exactas averaged a robust $1,557. During the same decade, trifectas averaged a sizzling $22,454 and superfectas a phenomenal $212,794.

The key to winning such whopper exotic payoffs is identifying a vulnerable favorite and betting against it. Because Derby fields are large and entrants are untested at the Derby distance of 1 1/4 mile, nearly all entrants are something of a question mark. Put another way, the Derby field is made fairly level by its very size and the variety of traffic problems or opportunities that may develop in such a long race. In 2009, for example, Calvin Borel came from last to guide Mine That Bird through a tight hole on the rail to win the roses.

So, why not go for a price? Or, if you really like the favorite, include it in your exotics. There’s no rule saying you can play only one horse in the Derby. In fact, it’s downright stupid to do so.

Try multiple keys. For example, say you’ve narrowed the Derby field to five. Use all five in an exacta or trifecta box. Or, key all five in the win slot and add your other four in place and show, plus any other attractive overlays that have a chance and could rocket your payoff into the clouds. Many times, because the leaders tire in the long Churchill stretch, carefully rated horses with fat odds inch into the exotics.

Another high-value bet are the Derby Pick Threes. If the Derby favorite fails, the three Pick Threes that include the 10th race will have succulent pools. So, use five or six Derby horses in your Pick Threes or Pick Four. Big money gobbles up little money.

Spotting overlays isn’t all that hard, either. One of the earmarks of Derby Day betting is that three or four horses — usually Derby prep winners — attract most of the cash and create overlays on other entrants. Not infrequently, the place or show horse in a key Derby prep goes to post at inflated odds and has an excellent shot to peak on Derby Day.

Some pointers in winnowing the Derby field down to main contenders:

• Carefully consider each winner or close finisher in the key Derby preps contested on dirt tracks: the Florida Derby, Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, Arkansas Derby, and Illinois Derby.

• Look for contenders with a final-furlong finish in the 12-second range in a 1 1/8-mile race, and anything under 38 seconds for the final three-eighths, with final clockings in the 1:48 and change to 1:49 range.

• Pay particular attention to any entrant with a win at Churchill Downs.

• Take another look at any entrant breaking from posts one, four, five, eight and 10. About 49.5 percent of the 111 Derbies for which post-position stats are documented have been won by horses breaking from these five posts.

• Be aware that horses with strong Churchill workouts, especially bullets at five panels, may steal the roses.

Good luck!

Mike “Lucky” English set a world record when picking 12 consecutive winners at Churchill Downs on May 23 and 24, 1991. On his tip sheet, “Lucky’s Best Bets,” he picked nine straight winners on May 23, the entire card, and three the next day. The feat was acknowledged in American Turf Monthly, Racing Action and the Encyclopedia of Louisville.