05/02/2014 10:57AM

Fornatale: A contest player's recipe for the Derby


The Kentucky Derby is the centerpiece of the sport of horse racing in America, as well as the highlight of the social calendar in Kentucky and everywhere else horses matter. This year, it’s also a great betting race. Today I’m going to take a quick look at this year’s Derby from a contest player’s perspective.

If you’re any kind of racing fan, you’ve been inundated these last few days with the same question: who’s the Derby pick? We’ll get to that in a minute.

The 140th running of the Kentucky Derby is a race I would love to see in a contest sequence – mainly because I think the favorite is extremely vulnerable. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be cheering for him if he proves me wrong, but I won’t be cashing any tickets. I don’t deny that California Chrome has done nothing wrong but I can’t accept a short price on a horse facing by far his toughest assignment at a distance he’s not bred to run with a questionable pace/trip scenario at a measly mutual. That assessment is based on cash play but it goes double for contests, where horses who are less than 6/1 can help you, but you really need to love them.

As always in contests, who you play depends a lot on what you need. If I were to just need to pick the winner of the Derby, I’d back #16 INTENSE HOLIDAY. I’m usually not one to back a horse coming out of a race where the horse who just beat him will be a multiple of the price (Vicar’s in Trouble), but this is an exception. I believe Intense Holiday was closer to the pace than he would have liked to have been ideally in the Louisiana Derby, and he will be better suited by the run of the race in the Derby. He’s bred for this test, and by all accounts he has really come into his own physically and mentally since that day. The only fear is that his bandwagon is getting a little crowded and that might mean he’s too short in price – but if you just have to pick the winner, that’s a lot less of a problem.

In a contest spot where I needed a cap horse, #14 MEDAL COUNT might be where I land. He’s a big, grinding Dynaformer, and that’s a style that could suit the way Derby 140 is run. The question marks are obvious, but Dale Romans has had plenty of success in the past getting horses to succeed on dirt whose breeding was more turf oriented (Dullahan, Paddy O’ Prado). On a more macro level, according to Formulator, in a five-year sample, he is 37 for 200 going from turf-to-dirt, with an impressive 44% in-the-money rate and an ROI of $2.00 even. For cash betting, I might focus my play on Medal Count more for underneath, but in the right contest spot I’d use him without hesitation.

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One last horse I’ll mention is #17 COMMANDING CURVE. Backing a cap horse isn’t always enough to win a contest. Sometimes you need to back a cap horse that maybe no one else has so you’re not blocked. Or perhaps you’re in a Vegas-style contest where there is only a partial odds-cap and you can get extra value out of a 40/1 shot than a 20/1 shot. Under those circumstances, I’d take a long look at this runner. He wasn’t all that far from my top pick in the Louisiana Derby, and he, too, was running against his ideal flow, chasing a wire-to-wire winner on a course that was favoring speed. Most important of all, he ought to be a massive number. And he doesn't have bad paper for a horse who might pay $100.