The field for the 2018 Kentucky Derby is one of the strongest and most competitive in years, most horse-racing experts concede. But it may be a horse that was born in 1879 and won the Derby in 1882 that has the most to say about the outcome this Saturday.
That horse is Apollo. He is the last horse to win the Derby that did not race as a 2-year-old. The so-called Curse of Apollo has become a key handicapping strategy for America’s most famous horse race and this year holds extra significance because neither the early 7-2 Derby betting favorite Justify nor morning-line third choice Magnum Moon started at age 2.
The third choice in early Churchill Downs wagering Saturday is also trying to outrun a curse of sorts. Mendelssohn, who is 6-1, will attempt to become the first winner of the UAE Derby in Dubai to go on to win the Kentucky Derby. No horse from that race has ever run better than fifth in Louisville on the first Saturday in May.
Those handicapping angles leave betters with a chance at some big payoffs should the curses hold. Legitimate contenders that are good price plays include Good Magic, last year’s juvenile champion, who is 9-1 in early Saturday wagering; Vino Rosso, the winner of the Wood Memorial in New York, at 16-1; Audible, the Florida Derby winner, at 6-1 in early betting; and Bolt d’Oro, who chased Justify home in the Santa Anita Derby, at 8-1.
But for a variety of reasons that make the Derby unique — these are 3-year-old horses, many lightly raced, being asked to go 1¼ miles, a distance longer than most will ever run again, in a 20-horse field, the largest any of them will ever see — you can still win big by using a favorite over longer shots. With 20 horses, bets get spread around, with exactas routinely paying over $100 for a $2 bet and trifectas often running into the four-digit realm. It’s why the Derby is so attractive to casual fans.
So do you or don’t you let Apollo influence your bets?
“The Apollo curse is legitimate because it’s gone on so long. But it’s going to go down soon,” said Jay Privman, Daily Racing Form’s Triple Crown correspondent, on a webcast handicapping seminar this week. “Justify has more raw talent than any horse in the field. He’s either going to win … or finish 14th.”
Privman, who still has Justify as his top pick, will be using the colt in exacta, trifecta and superfecta bets with Hofburg, Good Magic and Bolt d’Oro, along with a longshot or two who might just motor home late for a piece of the pie; Flameaway and Enticed might fit that bill, he said.
As far as Magnum Moon goes, he may be in even deeper with the curse.
“I think he’s going to be overbet, even more so than Mendelssohn, and he hasn’t been in any tough races at all,” said Craig Milkowski, the head speed-figure maker for TimeForm US. “The Arkansas Derby (which Magnum Moon won in his last start) was a slow pace. I just don’t have him very fast. He’s going to have to run a lot faster early than he ever has.”
And early money was not showing up: Magnum Moon dropped to 13-1 in early wagering Saturday from his morning line of 6-1.
Milkowski likes Bolt d’Oro on top with Audible and Justify running second and third. Hofburg, My Boy Jack and Solomini look like good candidates to fill out the bottom of trifecta and superfecta tickets, he said. My Boy Jack was taking plenty of early money Saturday, with his odds falling to 5-1 from a morning line of 30-1.
Mendelssohn may be the wild card in the betting equation. Both Privman and Milkowski are skeptical of his 18-length romp in the UAE Derby in Dubai in late March. But both admit the colt’s victories in Europe and his world-class connections in trainer Aidan O’Brien and jockey Ryan Moore merit respect.
I like Audible to win this year’s Derby. His Florida Derby win was impressive and he made the kind of big run around the turn in that race that is often the winning move at Churchill Downs.
“He’s got a good chance, it seems to me. The Florida Derby might have been faster then it appeared,” Privman said. “He’ll be the biggest price of his career so he is, to me, a horse who can win and if he does you’re going to go back and say, ‘how did he pay $22?’”
“He’s probably got some more in the tank. He’s not just winning these races but winning easily,” Milkowski added. “The horse is really going to have to be dealt with here; he’s versatile and probably has more than he’s shown so far and that is what you want to see in the Derby.”
I’ll leave out Justify, Magnum Moon and Mendelssohn and key Audible top and bottom over Good Magic, Bolt d’Oro and Vino Rosso in exactas. I’ll throw in Hofburg and Enticed in the third and fourth spots with the others for trifectas and superfectas.
I’ll also be making an Oaks-Derby double bet (the Oaks, the filly version of the Derby, is run Friday afternoon) using the two favorites in the Oaks, Midnight Bisou and Monomoy Girl, with Derby horses Audible, Good Magic, Bolt d’Oro and Vino Rosso — a $16 ticket for a $2 double.
If the Curse of Apollo is broken this year, it will break me (and change handicapping strategies for future Derbys). Either way, a stiff julep will be order by the end of the day.
Post time for the Kentucky Derby is set for 6:50 p.m. Eastern. It will be televised on Comcast Corp.’s CMCSA, +3.06% NBC.