Winning Derby Favorites: It’s an On-and-Off Cycle

by Greg Melikov

posted on April 21, 2010 in General Discussion, Handicapping, Kentucky Derby | No Comments >>

The Kentucky Derby isn’t the easiest race to handicap. The trend of winning favorites has been an off-and-on phenomenon dating back to the 1880s, when only two scored. Six won during the following decade.

You get the idea. Four favorites scored in the ’30s and ’40s, including one of the two lowest odds-on choices in modern times: ’48 Triple Crown champ Citation, my favorite thoroughbred, that I saw whip 20 older horses in the Stars and Stripes Handicap at Arlington Park at age 13. The other: Count Fleet five years earlier.

In the ’50s, only two top choices triumphed. One of the biggest upsets came in ’57, when likely Derby favorite Gen. Duke was scratched because of a foot injury in the Derby Trial.

The filed included Iron Liege, who ran third behind stablemate Gen. Duke in Gulfstream’s Florida Derby, and was coming off a fifth place finish in the Derby Trial 11 days earlier.

The favorite was Bold Ruler, who chased Federal Hill into the stretch, with Iron Liege poised to take the lead. Gallant Man caught both rivals and put his head in front. But jockey Bill Shoemaker stood up in the irons, misjudging the finish line, and Iron Liege won by a nose to give Bill Hartack one of his five Derby victories.

Iron Liege is the only winner in more than a half-century to smell the roses after running fifth in the final prep. The payoff: $18.80.

During the next two decades, 10 of 20 favorites won, including a half-dozen in the ’70s – the most in history.

Remember these winning thoroughbreds that were top choices: Riva Ridge, ’72; Secretariat, ’73; Cannonade, ’74; Foolish Pleasure, ’75; Seattle Slew, ’77; and Spectacular Bid, ’79. Surprisingly, Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner in ’78, wasn’t favored at Louisville.

Over the past three decades, only four favorites have triumphed, all in the 21st Century: Big Brown, ’08; Street Sense, ’07; Smarty Jones, ’04; and Fusaichi Pegasus, ’00.

Here’s something to keep in mind if you like longshots: From ’80 to ’99 there were 15 double-digit winners, with the average return exceeding $27.

And from ’01 to last year, three returned double-digit payoffs, including Giacomo in ’05, paying a whopping $102.60. That was the second largest payoff in the 132 years. In ’13, Donerail returned $184.90 for $2.

So let me offer a bit of advice that might help you cash a ticket or two on May 1:

  • Don’t wait until Derby Day to decide how much you will wager and the kind of bets you’ll make.
  • Avoid trying to assimilate so much information that you become confused. It’s better to stick with the handicapping formula that works best for you.
  • Stay away from horses with a pedigree that doesn’t display both stamina and speed.
  • While the horse-for-the-course angle doesn’t hold at Churchill Downs, 15 Derby winners during the past three decades posted a bullet workout at the track.
  • Be wary of horses that haven’t won some sort of stakes during their career: Only two in the last half-century that didn’t score visited the winner’s circle: Proud Clarion, ’67, and Giacomo, ’05.