LITTLE ROCK — Skeptical of the quality of the opposition when Kentucky Derby prospects win by six to 16 lengths, horseplayers took the easy way out.
During the weekend, Churchill Downs offered the first of three early opportunities to wager on the May 4 Derby and much of the money went for horses unknown. There are 23 horses in each pool and No. 24 is All Others, meaning the bet includes the other couple of hundred thoroughbreds eligible for the Derby.
When wagering ended Sunday evening, No. 24 was the 8-to-5 favorite — a $2 ticket will return $5.20.
The advance wager has been offered since 1999 and six times, the Derby winner could be found under “All Others” in the first pool. Never has the price on the winner been as low as it this year.
Smarty Jones, who had not yet won the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby when the first pool was offered in 2004, was among the “All Others” and returned $5.60 as the Derby winner. He was 10-1 in the third pool and 4-1 on race day.
Horseplayers have endorsed “All Others” since Charismatic returned $10.20 as part of the field in 1999.
This year, the shortest price on an individual horse is 11-1 on Verrazano, who would be the first Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 who was unraced at 2. Used to be, betting against a competitor who did not begin racing until he turned 3 was one of many cardinal rules for playing the Derby. More and more, trainers have prepared horses for the Triple Crown by racing them less and less, but the Apollo rule is one of the few that has not been broken.
Verrazano’s first race was Jan. 1 and he won by almost eight lengths. Can one day really make a difference in his Derby chances, supporters will argue.
The Verrazano bandwagon almost buckled in early February after the colt won “from Brooklyn to Staten Island,” said Gulfstream Park announcer Larry Collmus, cleverly working in the double-decked suspension bridge that connects the two boroughs in New York and is the source of the horse’s name.
Such a dominating performance comes with a caveat. First, he only beat four horses and all he had to do was stay close to the pace until the leader caved. Second, the race was a one-turn mile. Next time, he will have to do the NASCAR thing and keep turning left.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who had six other horses in the future wager, will run Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 9. I thought he might try the Rebel a week later because the Oaklawn surface is more consistent than the one at Tampa and Arkansas is a proven route to Churchill Downs.
Right behind Verrazano in the future wagering at 12-1 is the Bob Baffert-trained Flashback, who easily beat three horses in California in early February.
On that same weekend, the Pletcher-trainer Revolutionary was so visually impressive that a casual fan brought up the race the next day. Shut off in the turn, he retreated to last in a field of eight. Finally rolling, he split horses — not something that all thoroughbreds have a stomach for — and won, a performance that made him 13-1 in the future wager.
Before unbuckling at the windows on Revolutionary, know there is always a question about the quality of winter racing in New York.
Smarty Jones winner Will Take Charge is 61-1 in the future wager and stablemate Oxbow is 26-1 and both of the D. Wayne Lukas trainees have question marks. Will Take Charge prevailed in a three-horse photo and Oxbow had things his own way when he won in New Orleans.
The sorting out process will take a while. At Oaklawn, the next step is the Southwest on Monday.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is email@example.com.