LAS VEGAS, NV — If this were a normal year, it would be early April. Blossoms would be everywhere, the tax deadline would be looming, and the field would be pretty well set for the May running of the Kentucky Derby.
But with that ghost pepper called the Coronavirus tossed into the gumbo, this year’s Derby recipe bears no resemblance in midsummer to what it would look like in the spring. Instead of being almost fully boiled, the Sept. 5 mix that may or may not include 20 horses is cooked only halfway.
Presuming they stay fit, no more than 10 horses are mathematically assured of places in the gate. Another 20 are either on the proverbial bubble or are in position to earn their way in via Saturday’s Travers Stakes (G1) in New York or Sunday’s Ellis Park Derby in Kentucky.
As if that were not enough, this weekend brings the seventh and final pool of the pari-mutuel Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which will actually close before the start of the Ellis Park Derby.
Is that gumbo getting too hot to taste? For every horseplayer who might be turned off by a betting window that closes before the last relevant race, there may be another that welcomes the opportunity to pounce on the value enhanced by the unknown.
Conversation about Derby qualifying starts with Belmont Stakes winner Tiz The Law (9-5). He is not only the morning-line favorite for the KDFW, but he is also the favorite to win at Saratoga in the Travers. He is also among the 12 futures betting choices that are racing for Derby qualifying points this weekend.
True, Tiz The Law does not need any more points; he has qualified five times over. Lead owner Jack Knowlton and trainer Barclay Tagg are aiming for bigger things, like the unprecedented Belmont-Travers-Derby-Preakness-Breeders’ Cup Grade 1 quintuple. But bettors wanting to see what Tiz The Law has done for them lately get to assess what he does Saturday before deciding whether to make a short-priced futures bet on him for the Derby.
Peter Pan (G3) winner Country Grammer (20-1) is also in the Travers. Regardless of how he does at Saratoga, he is also safely into the Derby, although his performance this weekend will sway his futures odds a great deal.
Also carrying all the points he needs, Kentucky home-towner Art Collector (6-1) is one of three co-second choices on the KDFW morning line. He will be the clear first choice in the Ellis Park Derby.
Waiting and training up to the Kentucky Derby, Honor A. P. (6-1), Authentic (8-1), Dr Post (20-1), Ny Traffic (20-1), Thousand Words (20-1) and King Guillermo (30-1) have also clinched their places. The math also appears to put Enforceable (30-1) in the field, although circumstances involving horses that are seemingly off the trail could change and, therefore, put him on the bubble.
Among the potential party crashers, Uncle Chuck (6-1) looms as the biggest threat. Trainer Bob Baffert’s latest lightly raced phenom needs a top-two finish in the Travers to be assured of getting into the Derby. A third-place finish might also give him enough points. The same scenario applies to Peter Pan runner-up Caracaro (50-1).
Depending on how everything falls into place this weekend, Withers winner Max Player (20-1) and Florida Derby runner-up Shivaree (50-1) might already have enough points to their Derby invitations. But a top-four finish in the Travers would make that a certainty for either of them. South Bend (50-1) needs to finish first or second at Saratoga to get to Louisville.
Even though it is worth half as many points as the Travers, the Ellis Park Derby is nevertheless expected to have five other horses fighting for maybe just one more invitation to Louisville.
Anneau d’Or (50-1) and Finnick The Fierce (50-1) should advance if either finishes at least second. Dean Martini (50-1) and Shared Sense (50-1) need a second-place finish Sunday and possibly some help elsewhere. That also applies to Winning Impression, although he is not among the individual KDFW choices. He is among “all other 3-year-olds” (30-1).
As much of a gamble as the mutuel field would be, the Ellis Park Derby participants are even more so. Whether it is Art Collector or his supporting cast, a futures bet on any of those horses is as much a show of faith in what he does Sunday as it is next month.
There are other factors that could rock this boat, namely from horses that already have enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby – presuming they get back on the trail. Été Indien has been on the shelf after a training setback in June. Modernist was derailed after losing his last two races by a combined 32 lengths. On the bubble, Swiss Skydiver is targeting the Kentucky Oaks, Rushie still has yet to get a decision on whether he will be supplemented, and last year’s juvenile champion Storm The Court could become a grass specialist, depending on how he does this weekend on the Del Mar turf.
Those last five horses would also be part of the “all other 3-year-olds” entry. Faith in any of them in this weekend’s futures could yield an overlay compared to their price on Derby day.
This KDFW pool certainly looks more interesting than the typical finale every April. Whether it lures more money is a whole nuther matter. If nothing else, anyone playing it will be challenged by a wide range of factors.
Put it this way. A winning ticket from this weekend’s pool may be well-earned.