04/05/2012 3:08PM

King: Taking a stand against the Derby prep favorites

Tom Keyser
My Adonis will be making his third start off a layoff in Saturday's Grade 1 Wood Memorial.

Chances are likely that either Gemologist or Alpha will win Saturday’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Similarly, Creative Cause is the most logical winner of the Santa Anita Derby.

However, that doesn’t make them great wagers. Because their virtues are so apparent in the past performances, they are almost assured of going off at odds below their true chances of winning.

Three-year-olds make such more sudden improvement at this time of year, resulting in surprising stakes upsets (see last week’s Florida and Louisiana derbies), that taking 8-5 on Gemologist or 5-2 on Alpha in the Wood – or 6-5 on Creative Cause in the Santa Anita Derby – just isn’t worth the risk.

So this Saturday, my rule to betting the major Kentucky Derby preps is simple: no favorites.

I’m looking for undervalued horses, those without the flash and hype. I’ll instead look to back a horse that already has some flaws in his past performances, enough to scare off some bettors.

In the Wood, that horse is My Adonis, sitting at 8-1 on the line. Although yet to win a graded stakes race, this is a horse with distance experience and who is making the third race off a layoff, often the peak race of a horse’s form cycle.

[WOOD MEMORIAL: News updates, contender replays, watch the race live]

He also is in good form, having run third in the Grade 3 Holy Bull after a troubled start and then finishing second to juvenile champion Hansen in the Gotham.

While never a win threat in either start, he did well to earn minor awards by even getting back in the race in the Holy Bull and then by finishing six lengths clear of third-place finisher Finnegans Wake in the Gotham when the runner-up.

At equal odds, I wouldn’t think of betting him over Gemologist or Alpha, but the odds will be anything but equal. The latter two horses are sure to get pounded, particularly Gemologist, and my suspicion is that My Adonis will stick to his 8-1 price, if not drift higher.

That’s acceptable on a horse that has a better-than-average chance of winning the eight-horse Wood.

Santa Anita Derby: I’ll Have Another may offer value

Out west in the Santa Anita Derby, Creative Cause is a deserving headliner and favorite. But facing nine rivals, some of whom are talented, he would need to start at 9-5 or higher to be a palatable price. And that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

[SANTA ANITA DERBY: Early look video, news updates, watch the race live]

Alternatively, I’ll try I’ll Have Another – the 5-2 second favorite in the race on Jon White’s morning line. With the exception of a poor effort over a sloppy track in the Hopeful last year, this is a horse who has done little wrong and who won the Robert Lewis emphatically to begin his year.

The Robert Lewis win does leap out of the past performances, which will attract some support, but the hope here is that with Mario Gutierrez in the saddle – an accomplished rider in British Columbia but a jockey rarely seen in Grade 1 races like the Santa Anita Derby – that I’ll Have Another could be overlooked a smidge. Presumably, he’ll start a tick higher on the board than if he had one of Southern California’s leading jockeys aboard.

Expect I’ll Have Another to get a favorable trip, having won on the lead or from just off the pace – and that kind of tactical speed is what you want at speed-favoring Santa Anita.

Illinois Derby: Z Rockstar brings top last-race Beyer

Last up among the major Derby preps Saturday is the Illinois Derby, a $500,000 race that drew an overflow field and lacks a clear-cut favorite.

A horseplayer could go any number of ways in this race and find square odds on a horse. I know I went back and forth a couple times between whom I liked most.

[ILLINOIS DERBY: Early look video, news updates, watch the race live]

In the end, I settled for Z Rockstar, who owns far and away the top last-race Beyer Speed Figure, a 96, earned in winning a first-level allowance at Oaklawn last month.

That race, which represented a 20-point jump in figures off his prior top, puts him at risk of regression. But at 10-1 odds on the morning line, that’s a forgivable fault. Because if he pairs that race, or even backs up just a little, he should prove the winner of the Illinois Derby.

Last-race number aside, he has other virtues, having raced five times around two turns (counting both turf and dirt). He also has the quickness to be situated near the pace, allowing for jockey Quincy Hamilton to work out a good trip.

He warrants a win wager if he starts at 8-1 or higher and should be backed up underneath in the exactas and trifectas as a horse that has regularly been second or third over his career.