Horses gallop on the track during a race. (Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg)

A Gambler’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby: David Papadopoulos

(Bloomberg) -- On a crisp, clear February morning, Bob Baffert gazed out over Santa Anita Park and beamed about his crop of three-year-old colts. There was Game Winner, last year’s two-year-old champion, who was galloping spiritedly in front of us, and an imposing chestnut called Improbable and a gray speedball by the name of Roadster.

Baffert was as relaxed as could be, spinning stories of Derbies past, opining on politics and erupting in his trademark laugh as he watched his blue-blooded charges go through their morning paces in the southern California sun. A year had passed since he molded a late-blooming type named Justify into his fifth Kentucky Derby winner (and second Triple Crown winner), and he knew, you could tell, that he was once again holding a strong Derby hand.

On Saturday, when a field of 19 horses enters the starting gate in Louisville, those three colts of his will be the favorite, the second-favorite and the third-favorite. It’s quite a thing. Sure, trainers have brought multiple horses into the Derby before, but to have the market cornered on the top three betting choices? I’m not sure it’s ever happened -- or at least not in modern times.

Which one of them, if any, to bet, though? Are they worth such short odds?

Game Winner is a grand-looking thing -- a powerfully-built, chiseled colt that, with a bit of racing luck, could be coming into the Derby undefeated. Ditto for Improbable. If Game Winner is Hercules, then this one is Goliath. And then there’s Roadster, a colt that Baffert once described to me as so “lean” that he doesn’t have “an ounce of fat on him.” Other horsemen have used a less-flattering term: reedy. Or, in plain English, skinny.

Pay no attention to such talk. Undersized or not, Roadster is a natural-born runner with a brilliant turn of foot. That acceleration was on full display last month in the Santa Anita Derby when he unleashed a ferocious rally in the final quarter mile of the race to blow past Game Winner and the rest of the field. There’s just a wow factor to him that I don’t see in the other two Baffert horses or, for that matter, in any other Derby contender.

Now if it rains on race day, like the meteorologists are predicting, will Roadster handle a wet track? I have no idea. He’s never raced on anything but a dry surface before, but at odds of 5-1, I’m taking the plunge, rain or shine, and betting him to win.

Here’s a full breakdown of the field. Horses are listed by post position. Odds are a forecast of how gamblers will bet. (Note that No. 11, Haikal, and No. 12, Omaha Beach, were pulled out of the race.)

1. War of Will (15-1) -- Mixed signals on this one. Good-looking, high-energy colt who’s romped to facile victories in a couple of big races. He’s trained sharply of late, too, and has shown an affinity for a wet track in the past. His last race was a total flop, though, and the No. 1 post position is a brutal one in the Derby. I’m just not sure what to expect from him. 

2. Tax (20-1) -- First of all, who can possibly bet on a horse with a name like that? Second, while he’s not without some ability, his last race -- when he ran a close second to #8 Tacitus -- wasn’t as good as it looks on paper. He got a terrific set-up that day.

3. By My Standards (15-1) — From the moment he crossed the finish line first in the Louisiana Derby at odds of 22-1 back in March, the chattering classes knocked the race as sub-par. His victory looked pretty professional to me, though. Moreover, by all accounts, he is training like a monster right now. Intriguing.

4. Gray Magician (50-1) -- He probably has zero chance on Saturday, but I will say that I liked the way he was traveling -- just cruising comfortably while the jock sat real quiet -- when hung out impossibly wide on the turn in his last race in Dubai. He had the look of a serious horse that day. Maybe throw him into your exotic wagers at an enormous price. Just for kicks.

5. Improbable (5-1) -- As talented as this one is, I wasn’t crazy about the way he was misbehaving right before the start of the Arkansas Derby last month. Makes me wonder how he’ll handle the huge crowd in Louisville.

6. Vekoma (15-1) — Nice enough horse, but he runs awfully funny -- his left front leg has a mind of its own; it’s pretty weird -- and ultimately is a cut below the best in here.

7. Maximum Security (8-1) — Crazy story behind this one. His owners had such low expectations for him that they put him in a dirt-cheap race his first time out. Any owner at the racetrack in southern Florida that day could have bought him for a mere $16,000. On Saturday, as he enters the starting gate undefeated and essentially untested by any of his rivals, he is worth somewhere in the millions. I’m betting against him, though. In his lone win against top competition, he cruised out to a leisurely early lead and everything went his way. I need to see him do it again. 

A Gambler’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby: David Papadopoulos

8. Tacitus (8-1) -- A spectacularly bred, powerful colt that’s clearly come into his own this spring. He has a real shot on Saturday. But after I -- and presumably all of you reading this -- missed our chance to lock in odds of 96-1 on him in the Kentucky Derby futures pool back in February, how the heck can we take 8-1 on him now? Too depressing.

9. Plus Que Parfait (30-1) -- Plus que what? What the hell does that mean? I went to francaisfacile.com for some help. It told me this: “marque une action passée ayant eu lieu avant une autre également passée quand celle-ci s’exprime à l’imparfait.” Clear now? Good. What’s that, you ask -- what do I think of the horse? He’s mediocre. (That’s French for mediocre.)

10. Cutting Humor (30-1) -- This one’s not for me, but I’m not going to knock anyone who wants to take a shot on him at this kind of price.

11. Haikal -- SCRATCHED FROM RACE

12. Omaha Beach -- SCRATCHED FROM RACE

13. Code of Honor (12-1) -- He’s talented and looks sharp in his morning workouts, but he runs greenly at times and is an inconsistent type.

14. Win Win Win (12-1) -- Will lose... OK, maybe that’s a touch harsh. A more nuanced take would be that he has some ability and is training well but has developed a nasty habit of breaking poorly and then running into traffic in races.

15. Master Fencer (50-1) -- Uh, no.

16. Game Winner (9-2) — After going a perfect 4-for-4 in 2018, he’s suffered two narrow losses this year. He had excuses in each defeat -- including being stuck horribly wide on the turns in his loss to Roadster -- but it feels like the others in the class just might have caught up to him. And besides, he’s too much of a one-paced grinder for my taste. There’s no explosive burst to him. 

17. Roadster (5-1) — Now the clockers, you should know, don’t think too highly of my top pick. They’re thrown off by his slight physique and underwhelmed by his morning workouts. I get it. He hasn’t exactly been the most energetic horse at Churchill Downs this week. But that’s kind of just him. California Cool, baby. When I asked Baffert about the criticism earlier this week, he shrugged it off: “They never like his works.”

18. Long Range Toddy (30-1) — Lousy name. Nice horse, though. His narrow win over Improbable back in March was terrific. The problem is that he then proceeded to run the worst race of his career over a wet track in the Arkansas Derby a few weeks later. Only consider if track is dry.

19. Spinoff (30-1) -- Intriguing colt. Has shown promise since reappearing in March after spending seven months away from the races. Probably in over his head in this spot but could be play-able at a big price.

20. Country House (30-1) -- There will likely be some big race trophy with his name on it one day. Just don’t think he’s developed enough for it to be this particular trophy on this particular day.

21. Bodexpress (30-1) -- Has never won a race in his life. Enough said.

(David Papadopoulos, a senior editor at Bloomberg News, is a voter in the thoroughbred industry’s annual Eclipse Awards. He has been publishing his Triple Crown picks since 2012.)

A Gambler’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby: David Papadopoulos

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