04/28/2013 11:03AM

The Derby Favorite


I had an interesting conversation the other day with my Derby Watch colleague Jay Privman about something he tweeted last week. Privman wondered aloud in cyberspace whether Verrazano, who has been future book favorite for the Kentucky Derby everywhere for virtually the entire prep season, would actually be the betting favorite in real Derby wagering, which begins on Friday.

Privman’s position was based on the observation that few, if any, public handicappers have come out and said they are picking Verrazano on top, or are even leaning in that direction. This is a good point that would apply to just about every race. Every race, that is, except the one named Kentucky Derby.

Whether it’s a good thing or not, public handicappers often produce opinions that are reflective of what the general betting public will come to conclude. But the Derby is a different betting animal. The general public has an impact on Derby odds the likes of which are not seen in any other race. The only proof you need of that is how every year, a handful of horses who should be 100-1 or higher (and would be in any other race), go off at prices that are a tiny fraction of what they should be. Perhaps because they have come to know the players during the months of preps, the public does what it wants in the Derby. Public handicappers just do not have the influence on betting in the Kentucky Derby that they might have on other races.

That’s the main reason why I told Jay that I thought Verrazano would indeed be the Derby favorite. Verrazano is undefeated, which resonates with the public. He’s trained by a man in Todd Pletcher who is familiar to even the most infrequent racegoer. He’s been the favorite all along, and he hasn’t done one thing wrong thing to jeopardize his position. In addition, the three or four horses who would seem to be in a position to overtake Verrazano as the favorite of the Derby have not yet galvanized their constituencies to the point where they might actually become the favorite.

But that was last week, and now I’m not so sure. I was at Belmont Park on Saturday and there were several folks who came up to talk to me, which I like because, hey, I’m a horseplayer, too. Of course, all these folks wanted to talk about was the Kentucky Derby, and I was struck how every single one of them was against Verrazano.

Now, it goes without saying that this was the farthest thing from a scientific sample. But these folks were rank-and-file horseplayers. And since they are very much like the larger group of people who will determine the odds in the Kentucky Derby, I can see now how it could be possible that Verrazano won’t be the favorite Saturday.

That said, I believe at this moment that there is still a greater likelihood that Verrazano will be the favorite, and as of right now I plan to keep him in that role on my line. I don’t yet see current Derby “buzz” horses Normandy Invasion, Revolutionary, and to a lesser extent, Orb, are building a big enough following to overtake Verrazano in the betting. But there is still time for one of these horses to “snowball.”

So, I thought I would pose a question to drf.com readers that I thought was a fait accompli less than two weeks ago: Do you think Verrazano will be the actual betting favorite in the Derby? Remember, this is not about whether you like him or think he will or won’t win. It’s about whether Verrazano’s support in a wider sense has remained strong, or has eroded.

UPDATE, Tuesday, 1:23 pm - After careful consideration which ranged from listening to the opinions of colleagues I respect, seeing the lay of the land in the Las Vegas race books I pay attention to, up to thinking about whether to put in a call to Miss Cleo, I have decided to flip-flop Verrazano and Orb on my DRF Kentucky Derby line and make Orb the 5-1 favorite, and Verrazano the 6-1 second choice. Of course, this is over 27 hours before Wednesday's Derby draw, and things could change if a prominent horse draws very badly, which means the one hole.