So you have a proclivity for big, stupid hats, or suits that make you look like you’re doing small-town Southern lawyer cosplay. But you don’t get to spend nearly enough time ripping up losing betting tickets.
Thank whatever degenerate gambling god you worship, then, as the first Saturday in May is near. Your personal julep-soaked Coachella of playtime high society is back for one more glorious two-minute romp in Kentucky, followed by several hours of vomiting up mint sprigs. Even better, this year’s Kentucky Derby falls on the same day as a big fight, meaning this is the closest you can come to the ’40s without actually bothering to visit your grandfather.
A typical gripe, going back to, oh, Alydar and Affirmed in Nineteen Seventy Goddamn Eight, is that “this year’s crop of 3-year-olds isn’t any good.” That there’s somehow a taint on the hallowed Derby because the ghost of Seabiscuit isn’t running against zombie War Admiral. (We would buy that pay-per-view, by the way.)
This time, there’s zero validity to that complaint, because we’ve got the most stacked field in years. In theory, that makes it a devastatingly difficult race to handicap. On the other hand, let’s be honest: Given our track record, it’s not going to matter. Pick a live horse, get a pretty good price. Because there won’t be one overwhelming favorite, the odds should flatten out among the field, making straight win bets a viable route and exactas juicier than a post-Diane Sawyer, pre-Rob-in-rehab Kardashian family reunion.
Really, you can make a solid case for nine of the 20 Derby entrants (and if you’re not running yet to get down on one of the other 11, then you’re not paying attention), but there are two standouts that top this very talented field: American Pharoah and Dortmund.
Pharoah is the bully of every 1980s teen comedy: talented, anointed, handsome, effortlessly excellent. His wins in the Arkansas Derby and Rebel Stakes were like watching Clayton Kershaw pick apart the 51s. (Would also buy that pay-per-view.) Dortmund, meanwhile, is like the bully’s main henchman—also at the top of the heap, but secretly sympathetic to the nerds/geeks/Judd Nelson. He cruised in the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby, but he had to work just a little harder for it. One of these horses will go off as the favorite—likely Pharoah, with Dortmund close behind.
Then there’s the second tier: Carpe Diem, Mubtaahij, International Star and Materiality. The latter didn’t race as a 2-year-old, which is essentially the kiss of death—a horse that was dormant as a 2-year-old hasn’t won the Derby since 1882.
Mubtaahij is a talented cipher that seems impossibly hearty, and was tested with the distance more than his contemporaries, but he’s had all his success overseas. He’s Racer X, without the mask and goggles. John Velazquez—the Hall of Fame jockey who’s only the all-time money earner in North America—had the choice between stablemates, and picked Carpe Diem over Materiality (which should tell you something). Meanwhile, International Star closes as well as any horse, a valuable trait in the cavalry charge of the Derby.
The third tier (Frosted, El Kabier and Upstart) are all capable, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see any hit the board. But you didn’t come here for capable. You came here to make money. (Sucker!)
Bottom line: American Pharoah looks phenomenal, which is exactly why I’d stay away. If any horse is likely to be overbet, it’s this one—and deservedly so. But Pharoah loves to be out front, and it’s really, really tough to wire the field in the Derby. It’s only happened once in 27 years (War Emblem in 2002). Depending on the post draw—which occurred after press time—if Pharoah ends up wide or well inside, it’s not hard to envision him struggling to get that early lead, and thus struggling to run his race.
You don’t feel good about tossing out a horse this talented, but there’s too much value everywhere else. Dortmund has more grit, and has come off the pace before. It’s a 50/50 shot: Him … or one of the other 19 horses. (Incidentally, by choosing to fade Pharoah, I’ve essentially guaranteed a Triple Crown. You’re welcome, America.)