Oxbow won the 2013 LeComte Stakes (G3) by 11 1/2 lengths in his season debut. Photo courtesy Lou Hodges.
This past weekend I made my Kentucky Derby future bets. I got down on two horses: Oxbow and Will Take Charge. Yes, those are the two D. Wayne Lukas-trained horses in the pool. Yes, I know that’s ridiculous. This isn’t about how good I am at picking winners in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. I’ve never cashed a Kentucky Derby future ticket. I had Curlin at 36-1, that’s the closest I’ve ever come. The main reason I can’t win this bet is I refuse to bet anything under 20-1.
This far out from the Derby, with so many things that can happen that would keep a horse out of the race (I Want Revenge, anyone?), and with even the favorites in the Derby often offering decent prices, I just can’t see the excitement in getting 15-1 on a horse that will likely go off at 6-1 assuming he even makes it to the race.
I played the two Lukas horses because I have a soft spot for the man and because Will Take Charge is stabled at Oaklawn Park and is going to run in the Arkansas “triple crown” (Southwest Stakes, Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby) this spring. Oaklawn being my home turf, I want to have a rooting interest in his success. Plus both of his horses offered long odds, as they should, which makes a live ticket on them - should either of them make it to Kentucky as contenders - that much more exciting.
What irritates me is that I could have had even longer odds on them had I bet them in Nevada through a proper future book. I got Oxbow at 26-1 and Will Take Charge at 61-1. Had I made the same bets at the Wynn in Vegas on the same day I’d have Oxbow at 45-1 and Will Take Charge at 75-1. Not only that, I could have also bet on Dirty Swagg, a horse I know literally nothing about other than his name is terrific, at 400-1!
The Kentucky Derby future bet has been available to horseplayers since Churchill Downs first introduced it in 1999. Vegas, however, has been booking action on Derby prospects for more than 30 years. And the Vegas books succeed where the Churchill Downs pools fail: they open up lines on literally hundreds of horses. And some books will even take your action on a horse they haven’t posted a line for if you ask. This means that you see lots of horses with enormous prices. It also means that even some horses offered in the Churchill Downs pool will have slightly better prices.
Many commentators and racing authorities have called for a more expansive future book for several years since the Churchill Downs future pools were introduced. It doesn’t appear to be on the horizon any time soon. Meanwhile, those horseplayers with passionate belief in their contender continue to drive across state lines to get a better price for putting their money where their mouth is.
Last year Doug O’Neill, trainer of the eventual Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another, drove from California to Primm, Nev., on the state line so he could bet on his promising horse the day before he ran in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita. He bet $100 at 200-1, a $20,000 payday.
D. Wayne Lukas had a lot more confidence (or maybe just a lot more money) than O’Neill when in 1988 he had the filly Winning Colors. He sent a groom down to Tijuana to put $2,000 on her at 100-1. He split the money with the stable staff after the win saying, “I’m very concerned about how much of my work force will show up tomorrow morning.”
In fact, most of the action in the future books on the longer-priced horses tends to come from the horse’s trainers, owners, and other connections. Most of the entries that have lines published on them never get even a single $2 bet on them. But every entry must have a future bet on it somewhere in Nevada. It’s hard to imagine a trainer or owner of a Triple Crown-nominated horse not putting some money down on them at big odds early in the year. How could anyone forget the lesson of Donerail, the 1913 Kentucky Derby champion? The longest shot to ever win the Kentucky Derby at 91-1, his trainer and owner, T.P. Hayes, didn’t believe in his colt enough to place a bet on him.
You can believe that if I’m holding a winning ticket after the race, D. Wayne Lukas is going to be holding one, too. And I’ll bet you he got a much fatter price than I did.