When the bell rings Saturday at Churchill Downs for the 138th Kentucky Derby, your pick will be locked in. But it's a mistake to focus solely on the horse you bet on. Here are five things to watch during the "fastest two minutes in sports." Keeping a close eye this year just might help when it comes time to handicap next year.
The post parade
Between the cliched shots of fans singing "My Old Kentucky Home" are the last few moments to glean information before making a bet. Thoroughbreds are high-strung animals, and some simply go to pieces when they get a look at 150,000-plus people surrounding them. If a horse is "washing out" — working up a foamy sweat — or bucking and fighting his jockey, that could be a bad sign for his interest in running on Saturday. One caveat: Know the horse's character. When Shackleford acted up before the Preakness last year (pictured), TV analysts downgraded him. His trainer, however, said that was his normal pre-race temperament and saw it as a sign he was keyed up for the race. Shackleford won.
No five seconds of the race are more important than the start and the first few steps out of the gate. Will a contender get bumped hard? Will a "rabbit" gun out of the gate and compromise other front-runners? In 2002, Medaglia d'Oro appeared to be the controlling speed, with only War Emblem sharing his preference for running on the lead. But Medaglia d'Oro was bumped hard and stumbled coming out of the gate, leaving him to play catch-up. War Emblem was left alone on the lead and conserved energy with moderate fractional times to produce a $43 upset.
More often than not, the Kentucky Derby produces early fractional times more in line with a sprint race than a marathon of 1-1/4 miles. Some jockeys get over-anxious on the big stage. Some figure they need to find open space quickly to avoid getting shuffled back in the 20-horse field. Sometimes, it's a result of horses with sprint breeding being entered because the owner or trainer has "Derby fever." When this happens, it can produce long-shot winners who rally late, such as Monarchos, Mine That Bird and Animal Kingdom. The sprinter Trinniberg (pictured) virtually ensures a hot pace this year. If the first four furlongs go in less than 46 seconds, no horse contesting the early lead will be in the picture at the finish.
They call him Calvin Bo-rail at Churchill Downs for his fondness for staying tight on the inside path, saving ground so his horses have a little extra oomph in the stretch. Borel gets overbet on Derby day, wise guys say, but his three wins in the four years from 2007-10 produced $133 in payoffs for $2 win bets. You're way ahead of the game if you bet him blindly. Borel is fearless about threading through the narrowest of holes. He will be aboard No. 3 Take Charge Indy this year. Starting only two spots from the rail? Sounds right up Borel's alley.
The 'other' horses
Long-shot bettors have enjoyed this angle for years: When a top-notch trainer enters two horses in the same race, one at low odds and one long shot, the long shot comes in far more often than expected, producing a good opportunity for a big betting score. The three trainers to watch with this angle this year are Bob Baffert, Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen. They just happen to be the nation's top three trainers in earnings this year, too. Baffert has 4-1 morning-line favorite Bodemeister and 50-1 long shot Liaison. Pletcher has 6-1 Gemologist and 20-1 El Padrino (pictured). Asmussen has 15-1 Daddy Nose Best and 30-1 Sabercat.