The Kentucky Derby trail has reached the point that is like those scenes in the climactic episodes of “Survivor,” when the finalists take that last walk past the images of all the losers they backstabbed off the show.
Maybe the path to Churchill Downs is not as cutthroat. Oh, yeah. Try telling that to The Great One, after he got the shepherd treatment out of the gate from Medina Spirit in the San Felipe Stakes. Be that as it may, the Derby field is mostly set. So there is good reason to look back up the path that Life Is Good and Greatest Honour could not complete. Retracing our steps all the way to September reminds us that Jackie’s Warrior actually opened as the futures favorite for the Derby.
A more meaningful and cruelly frustrating exercise is to weigh the current odds against the best prices each horse carried since being posted in Nevada. Or to put it another way: How about looking at what we missed and keep rubbing it in? Here are the current best odds for the top 10 horses posted at Circa Sports or William Hill Nevada (longest odds and last date they were available are in parentheses):
7-2 Essential Quality (20-1, Oct. 27)
5-1 Known Agenda (300-1, Feb. 1)
7-1 Rock Your World (75-1, March 19)
12-1 Concert Tour (25-1, Jan. 16)
12-1 Hot Rod Charlie (140-1, Oct. 31)
14-1 Medina Spirit (100-1, Jan. 1)
14-1 Highly Motivated (125-1, Oct. 31)
27-1 Mandaloun (125-1, Nov. 17)
30-1 Midnight Bourbon (100-1, Nov. 8)
32-1 Soup And Sandwich (100-1, March 23)
Now that frustrated bettors have finally peeled their eyes away from that “300-1, Feb. 1” next to Known Agenda, how long will the current odds last? As long as undefeated Blue Grass Stakes winner Essential Quality has nothing more than a hiccup between now and May 1 — even an actual hiccup — he will be the clear favorite. Not as clear as Tiz The Law was last year, when he closed at 4-5 (actually -142) on the tote board at post time.
The last time there was an obvious top choice for a May running of the Derby was 2018, when Justify went off at 5-2 (+290). At draw time, Justify was 3-1 in the Las Vegas futures. If a parallel can be drawn between Justify and Essential Quality, perhaps the same barometer can be used to gauge the race-day odds for the rest of the 2021 Derby field.
Compare the current second through seventh choices against the entry-time futures in 2018 and then the odds at post time:
Current: 5-1, 7-1, 12-1, 12-1, 14-1, 14-1
2018 futures: 6-1, 7-1, 8-1, 10-1, 12-1, 15-1
2018 post time: 6-1, 6-1, 7-1, 8-1, 9-1, 13-1
It is not unreasonable to presume the race-day numbers will look similar to that bottom line next month. It is more certain that anyone who puts money on a short-priced futures bet now will be chided, complete with the usual hectoring about how it is not worth the risk of a late withdrawal or scratch just to get a point or two more (I can hear myself saying that now).
The problem is the horses that were the second through seventh choices in the 2018 fixed odds were not the same horses that followed that order when the gates flew open a couple of minutes before Justify’s triumph.
Yes, No. 2 futures choice Mendelssohn carried his 6-1 odds from Las Vegas into Louisville, where he finished an eased last. But he was actually the third choice on race day. Because the track was sloppy, reputed mudder My Boy Jack went from 30-1 in Nevada to a steamy 6-1 parimutuel underlay who finished fifth.
It works the other way, too. Magnum Moon was a 7-1 futures play who drifted to 13-1 at the windows before he finished next to last.
The biggest factor that does not carry over from the Strip to Churchill Downs is exposure. As Joe Asher of William Hill put it, “Concert Tour is the one we really need to beat.”
While he was still an undefeated colt and seemingly the best chance for Bob Baffert to get his seventh Derby victory, Concert Tour was 4-1 in Las Vegas. After his third-place disappointment Saturday in the Arkansas Derby, he drifted to 12-1. How much of that is on merit and how much reflects the risk Nevada sportsbooks still would incur if Concert Tour were to win?
Bettors who draw a line through last weekend and believe Concert Tour will return to the form he showed winning twice in California and last month in the Rebel Stakes must ask themselves an important question: Is it worth waiting until Derby day to try to get him at double-digit odds, or will the Baffert factor drive his price lower, making now the time to jump on him at 12-1?
Questions like those will provide the drumbeat these next 2 ¹/₂ weeks. Answers might be harder to come by.