05/03/2012 3:34PM

Gisser: Harness guy takes on the Kentucky Derby


It is Kentucky Derby week. The one week each year that I actually look for a legitimate Thoroughbred play. Okay, maybe Breeders Cup week, too. But as a harness guy, what can I do to get a crash course in t-bred handicapping (other than the obvious, which is to devour everything written in and posted by the Daily Racing Form during the course of the week).

The Derby provides several unique handicapping aspects that make it a challenge, but also make it attractive. First is the huge field. With 20 in the race most years, post position and at least some “handiness,” are critical. But even then, traffic jams occur. The second aspect is distance. None of these horses have gone the 1¼ mile distance yet, so how will they respond in that long stretch drive? And I am stuck on that one mile thing as a harness guy.

Add the fact that a lot of money is wagered by novice players and there is a lot value to be found if you can structure the proper play and figure out your horses without going crazy.

Column Aside: As an avowed bourbon snob, the one bad thing about the Derby is this concoction known as the mint julep. Even worse is that a quality, albeit overpriced, bourbon like Woodford Reserve would embrace such a travesty. Good bourbon is quaffed straight, on the rocks or with a splash of branch water. Cheap bourbon needs to be cut with sugar and mint to be drinkable. And that comes from someone who grows enough mint to cover everyone in Louisville, and most of Frankfort and Lexington!

Now that I have calmed down with a nice glass of Elijah Craig, I can get back to work on the Derby and on structuring my play. I always try to find a key horse, but I like to spread out a bit. A five horse exacta box will yield presentable numbers and that is usually my key play. We are investing $20 and the exacta nearly always pays over $100. Then a win wager on my top pick, since even if he is the favorite, we are likely to get a decent price. If it is the rare year where there is a standout and he is around even money, I will make a smaller win wager on my second or third pick just to preserve some value. And, while not in Mega Millions territory, the trifectas always pay well, so we will invest another $12-20 there. My total play is typically in the $50-60 range.

Many people use Beyer numbers, or Dosage Index (the breeding of a horse to “go long,”) to pick their Derby horses. I look simply look for consistent, competitive horses in this year’s early Grade 1 and Grade 2 Stakes who have raced on real dirt. Yes, I will throw in a green horse as a crazy longshot now and then, but not on top.

And that brings us to this year’s race. Dullahan is my horse, even though his post draw, PP5, will hurt his price a bit.  He impressed me with his maturity in the Bluegrass, even though it was not on dirt, and he appears very professional on the track (unlike Hansen, for instance). He seems to have the versatility to get the job done. He is also much improved form his freshman form and may still have upside. Lastly, he will be a good number on the board, quite possibly a double-digit horse.

Bodemiester breaks right alongside Dullahan, from PP6. He was very impressive in the Arkansas Derby, but there was no horse that contested the pace. And the other speed has drawn outside of him. You know it will be a cavalry charge into the first turn and I am not sure Bodemiester will be permitted to relax enough to get the distance. He will be challenged by PP14 Hansen, who is a great athlete, but somewhat one dimensional, and at least a couple others, including sprinter #9, Trinniberg, who has never been more than seven furlongs. Union Rags is well rested and is a serious player as well, although his connections would have preferred to draw farther outside than PP4. He is a big factor.

For longshots, Optimizer, last horse in, is a Wayne Lukas trainee and although his recent form is poor, I have a hunch he may make the most of this opportunity. Daddy Long Legs failed miserably in his Breeders Cup race last year at Churchill and the Euro invader also needs to be forward early, which I don’t see happening. The other horse to consider, off his recent work, is Sabercat. He is also one of the ”Wise Guy” horses, along with Daddy Nose Best. He can close well, but does not always fire. I picked him at Oaklawn, but the race did not set up for him. It might here, especially since he will have clear sailing from PP18.

Creative Cause and Gemologist create problems for me. Gemologist is on a great roll, but is another one who needs to be forward, or at least stalking early and I really believe the front end is going to collapse in the long stretch. I look at Creative Cause as a “use” horse, especially with PP8, just outside of several key players. His late running style bodes well, but he does not seem to win quite enough for me.

So, with a few extra bucks in my pocket since I started writing this, we will start with $20 across the board on Dullahan. The place and show wagers will pay well, even if he does not win.Our five-horse exacta box includes Dullahan, Union Rags, Bodemiester, Creative Cause and Gemologist. With our last $20, we will play a trifecta with Dullahan and Union Rags on top of the ticket, with Gemologist, and Bodemiester added in the second position. Those four go on the ticket third, along with Sabercat and Creative Cause. So the 2x4x6 ticket costs us $24 and we have invested $104 in the race.

Have a great weekend. Enjoy (ugh) your mint juleps and go cash. Back to the sulkies next month.