Mario Gutierrez on I’ll Have Another (UpInClass.com)

We’ve spent eight months gorging on football and basketball. It’s high time for a new menu in these parts.

No more meat and potatoes. It’s time for Hot Browns and mint juleps.

For fancy hats, seersucker suits, endless parties and equally endless hangovers. For Bloody Marys, boxed lunches and breakfast at Wagner’s.

It’s Derby time.

Which means it’s time to make some money. Real money. Folding money.

Benjamins.

It’s time to pick the winner of the 139th Kentucky Derby. Or try to anyway.

Starting today, we’ll spend the next two weeks writing about the hugest spectacle – and biggest jackpot – in American racing. A record $133 million was wagered on the race last year. There’s no good reason why a chunk of that dough can’t come home with you on May 4.

The key to the mint comes in all shapes and sizes. Pretty colors, favorite names, kids’ birthdays, etc. If that’s how you bet, you are henceforth excused. I plan to explore a rational approach. It works.

Sometimes.

There are, unfortunately, no bulletproof formulas or foolproof plans. But anyone who says making money off the Derby is nothing but luck is nothing but dumb.

Notable exceptions aside – take a bow, Mine That Bird – the Derby winner is a logical contender whose virtues escaped the crowd’s detection. Favorites win about 35 percent of all horse races, but since 1979, that number is just 12 percent in the Run for the Roses.

Only four favorites have won in the past 33 years.

Why is the crowd so uncommonly wrong on the First Saturday in May? Because the Derby boasts an uncommonly large field (up to 20 horses) running an uncommonly long distance (1 ¼ miles). It’s a prescription for unpredictable results.

Some favorites run well and simply get beaten by a rival that ran a bit better. But most favorites are overrated, which astute insiders knew all along.

Three-year-old horses are complicated critters and the Kentucky Derby is a complex race.  To consistently pick the winner – let alone sniff out the runners-up who pop the locks on trifectas and such – you have to do more than read the Daily Racing Form.

Bruno DeJulio

Everybody can read the Form,” workout analyst and handicapper Bruno DeJulio says. “Reading horses, that’s the key.”

My job for the next fortnight is to interview experts who know how to read horses – and horse races. There is art and science to both. Most folks, yours truly included, know little about either.

So I’ll be talking to three kinds of people:

  • The kind who have spent decades around horses and understand their subtle but eloquent mannerisms.
  • The kind who routinely cash sizable bets, on the Derby most of all.
  • And the kind who are more often wrong than right. Betting horses is a humbling endeavor. There are no guarantees.

DeJulio has clocked morning workouts across America for 25 years. Serious bettors pay $15.95 a day for his shrewd reports.

It’s been worth every penny for the Derby. DeJulio picked four of eight winners from 2004-11, including Animal Kingdom at 21-1. A $2 bet on each pick produced a 454 percent return.

But last year’s pick, Gemologist, finished 16th. Ugh.

“My worst Derby pick ever,” DeJulio said.

How did a guy who knows so much go so wrong?

“Stupidity,” DeJulio said with a chuckle. “To tell you the truth, I really didn’t have a Derby horse last year. Nothing stood out to me. I had to manufacture one.”

Even Mercedes-Benz cranks out a lemon from time to time. But therein lies a lesson for us all. If you lack conviction, the surest way to double your money is to fold it over and put it back in your wallet.

Few are disciplined enough to do that on the Derby, so we’ll try to provide enough decent information that you can at least make an educated guess.

The process starts tomorrow by debriefing DeJulio on his specialty, which will dominate the conversation coming from Churchill Downs until the big day arrives. Morning workouts are critical – and poorly understood by casual bettors and expert handicappers alike.

“Here’s the thing people don’t understand: It’s not just about the horse working well,” DeJulio said. “It’s about how they come out of the work. I mean, what if the horse can’t walk the next day?”

More tomorrow.

Mark Coomes covered sports and a dilettantish mix of other topics great and small in 20 years at The Courier-Journal, The (Monroe, La.) News-Star, USA Today, Florida Today and The Cats' Pause.


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