The 2016 Kentucky Derby is fast approaching, and is one of the best moments on the sports calendar. Over 170,000 fans packed Churchill Downs to set an attendance record last year while $194.3 million in wagering was bet on the race. If you didn’t care about the Fastest Two Minutes In Sports before, then it’s time that you did.
Betting on horses and thoroughbred racing go hand in hand. They’re a paired institution with a loaded and deep history. And there’s tons of money in it for both bettors and horse men. Bob Baffert, who trained American Pharoah to a Triple Crown win last year, has grossed over $300 million in his long standing career. Jockey Victor Espinoza saddled American Pharoah for all of three races, and in his own career he has taken home over $186 million. This is a big money sport.
Winning the Triple Crown makes you an instant legend in the sport. No horse had completed the three-race sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes since Affirmed had done so in 1978. Everybody involved in thoroughbred racing wants the immortal title of being a Triple Crown winner.
In recent years, it’s simply become a much more difficult goal to achieve. Training is getting better across the board, and breeding is as fine tuned as it ever has been. The competition is much denser than it used to be. So winning the Triple Crown isn’t just hard – it’s damn near impossible.
That’s why American Pharoah resonated so vibrantly with the American public. In fact, he was voted as the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year. I’m not even remotely making this up. The magazine’s editors would ultimately award Serena Williams with the distinction despite overwhelming poll numbers for American Pharoah. He won the online vote with 47% of the turnout, trouncing the Kansas City Royals (29%), Lionel Messi (6%) and Steph Curry (4%).
The impact of American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown was clear: people give a shit about horse racing even if it’s not generally considered mainstream. And that’s why you should care about the 142 renewal of the race on Saturday, May 7th.
Not a keen horse racing buff like myself? Well here’s what you need to know.
THE STORY SO FAR…
The story of the Kentucky Derby began back in October at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Almost all of you know that the Triple Crown serves as the most well-known collection of horse races in the United States. What you might not know is that Breeders’ Cup is actually a bigger deal within the sport.
The total purse for the three Triple Crown races is a whopping $5 million, with nearly $3 million of that going to the winners of each contest. The Breeders’ Cup is made up of 13 races run over one weekend with $23.5 million up for grabs. In this sport, money talks, and there is no other event in American thoroughbred racing which ponies up that much coin for its competitors.
The marquee event of the weekend is the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. This 1 ¼ mile race is one of the most prestigious challenges in the world, and is available for any horse 3 years old or more. The winner of last year’s Classic was none other than American Pharoah who became the first horse in history to complete the Grand Slam – the Triple Crown plus the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
However, on that same day, horse men around the world were keenly eying the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. This race features the best two-year old colts in the world, and can offer a preview for the following Triple Crown season. The horse that won that race is named Nyquist.
Where this gets interesting is in how the contenders have emerged over the course of the season. There are three main regions for thoroughbred racing: California, Florida/Kentucky and Louisiana/Arkansas. Within each territory, incredible rivalries have emerged. There’s a favorite to win at Churchill Downs, but there are no less than at least five legitimate threats. That’s more than double what we usually see.
All of these regions host big races that essentially serve as the major lead ups to the Kentucky Derby. These include the Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, Louisiana Derby and Santa Anita Derby. Winners of these races have routinely won the marquee challenge at Churchill Downs.
To put all this in to perspective, American Pharoah was a 3/2 favorite well ahead of the Kentucky Derby. Oddsmakers actually release futures odds for the race from November through April. In short, nobody expected him to lose.
This year, the picture isn’t as clear. This is everything you need to know about the contenders for this year’s 2016 Kentucky Derby and the fascinating stories behind each, territorial rivalry.
NYQUIST VS. MOHAYMEN – The Two Best Kentucky Derby Horses
Nyquist would win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in convincing fashion and suddenly become the favorite to win the 2016 Kentucky Derby early on. Oddsmakers pegged him as an early 9/1 favorite to win the derby back in November.
Training for the Kentucky Derby is no easy task. Horses must venture down something called the “Kentucky Derby trail”, which is a series of prep races. Each race gives the top-four finishers a certain amount of points. Win two or three of those and you’re pretty much book your ticket to Churchill Downs in May.
Knowing how talented Nyquist is, his handlers’ (a collective term for the trainers, owners and jockey) pointed the two-year old champion down an interesting pathway.
Nyquist chose to compete first at the San Vicente Stakes, a throw away race on the winter schedule that doesn’t actually qualify as an official Kentucky Derby prep race. It seemed like an odd choice, and though he won the race decisively, it didn’t do much to invigorate the horse betting crowd that had seemingly forgotten about his talent.
Horse racing is all about “what have you done lately”, and Nyquist essentially taking five months off with one meaningless race tucked in there sort-of sent off red flags. Nyquist’s absence on the derby trail allowed other horses to steal the spotlight.
Nobody did that better than a horse named Mohaymen who began competing in stakes races right after the conclusion of the Breeders’ Cup. From November through February, Mohaymen would barnstorm the circuit with four impressive wins. Everyone loved his pedigree and his trainer is the world renowned Kiaran McLaughlin. He suddenly became the 7/2 odds on favorite to win the Kentucky Derby according to the oddsmakers.
The crazy part was that Mohaymen and Nyquist’s handlers had already determined that the Florida Derby would be their final prep race, so the two were inadvertently booked for a mega race well before the derby. That race was run this weekend, with Mohaymen booked as the 4/5 favorite over Nyquist’s 3/2 odds.
The ending was phenomenal as Nyquist dusted Mohaymen and the field down the stretch, showing of the talent and ability that we all saw back in October. Suddenly, Nyquist re-emerged as the favorite at the Kentucky Derby. His odds are back down to around 3/1 while backers remain faithful to Mohyamen, who holds 8/1 odds currently.
The derby rarely has two favorites, but this year it does and that’s what makes it so endlessly fascinating. Nyquist won the first face-off between the two. Can he hold off the rest of the field? Because that field deeper than it’s been in decades.
MOR SPIRIT VS. DANZING CANDY – The War Out West
Mohaymen and Nyquist were making their presences known on the east coast in well known tracks like Gulfstream (Florida), Aqueduct (New York) and Keeneland (Kentucky). But two other horses were stationed out west, and one of those was considered a real threat to beat either of them.
That horse is named Mor Spirit. Trained by the absolutely legendary Bob Baffert, Mor Spirit was considered the best race horse on the west coast and as he began to peak in to his three-year season, he seemed untouchable. A lot of bettors were logging money in on Mor Spirit, who has had floating odds that have hovered around 12/1 to win the Kentucky Derby in the futures market.
The problem was that there was yet another challenger training on the west coast who had yet to compete in a stakes race. That horse is named Danzing Candy, and he was routinely posting ridiculous training times though everyone remained unsure of what he was capable of in an actual race. Like in any sport, some horses just lack that competitive fire.
Danzing Candy would make his stakes debut as a 5/1 longshot against the heavily favored Mor Spirit at the San Felipe Stakes on March 12th. To call this race an upset would be a massive understatement. Danzing Candy led wire to wire (i.e. from start to finish) and showed blazing speed down the homestretch to shock Mor Spirit and the horse racing world.
How good is Danzing Candy? He’s now a 12/1 favorite to win the Kentucky Derby, slotting in as the third best horse according to the odds. The awesome part is that Mor Spirit and Danzing Candy will have a rematch at the highly coveted Santa Anita Derby this coming weekend. Is Mor Spirit ready for his west coast competition? We’ll find out this weekend.
MO TOM VS. GUN RUNNER – The Louisiana Showdown
Another rivalry brewed in the middle of the south at Fair Grounds Racetrack. Mo Tom was the horse to beat in this region, but he routinely ran in to an upstart named Gun Runner who bested him at the Risen Star Stakes in February and then again at the Louisiana Derby just two weeks ago. Those are your current fourth and fifth best horses in the Kentucky Derby.
The Louisiana Derby was supposed to be the showdown, but because of how the race was won, people are still adamant that Mo Tom can compete at the derby. The horse is seriously gifted and has blinding, closing speed. The two races where he lost to Gun Runner, he was actually cut off by other straying horses and forced to check (i.e. stop or slow down) his speed instead of accelerate to the finish line. It was bad luck for him, and his handlers have made a jockey switch as they prepare their horse for the Kentucky Derby.
Gun Runner is the proven winner, but Mo Tom remains the more talented suitor by almost all other measurements.
THE REST OF THE FIELD
The seldom run Destin set a record at the Tampa Bay Derby in early March and was so fast at that race that he has become a reasonable play at +2000.
A lot of folks are enamored with a horse named Cupid, who won the Rebel Stakes and will compete at the highly regarded Arkansas Derby in two weeks. These are the same two Kentucky Derby prep races that American Pharoah won on route to his historic Triple Crown title.
Lani, Exaggerator, Zulu and Suddenbreakingnews are also getting consideration but have yet to post convincing wins over strong competition.
ODDS TO WIN THE KENTUCKY DERBY
|Cocked and Loaded||+3300|
*odds courtesy of Oddshark.com (updated April 6th)
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE ABOUT THE 2016 KENTUCKY DERBY
Now that you know the immense backstory, the players and the contenders for the 2016 Kentucky Derby, the intrigue should be organically there. But the main reason you should care is that you can win boat loads of money.
The beauty about betting on horses is that you can also make money off of the second place finisher and the third place finisher. In fact, you can parlay the top-two or top-three horses for massive payouts. I’ll be back in a week or two to explain how these bets work, and who should be getting your favorable consideration.
The 2016 Kentucky Derby is staging as one of the biggest talent draws in years. Whomever wins has a chance to repeat the triumph of American Pharoah and win the Triple Crown. It would be the first time we’ve had back-to-back Triple Crown winners since 1977-78.
More than anything, witnessing and betting on the Kentucky Derby is an invitation to take part in history. If you missed last year, you won’t want to miss this season. It’s going to be one of the best of all time.