Is Justify Worthy of Hype? Kentucky Derby Q&A With Papadopoulos

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(Bloomberg) -- 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. Below is a full log of the TOPLive Q&A blog on May 4, in which Papadopoulos answered client questions on the Kentucky Derby.

1. Is betting on horses the same as betting on stocks? How do you approach it?

Yeah, handicapping really is a lot like stock-picking or investing in any asset class, for that matter. Not only are you trying to assess which horse is the most likely winner in a race, but you’re trying to assess whether the market -- the gambling public -- is properly pricing that horse’s chances.

A value bettor -- and all serious gamblers are value bettors -- will only bet on horses that he or she believes are being undervalued. If I feel that the true odds on a horse are 5-1 and the market has him priced at 7-1, I’ll bet him. If the market has him priced at 5-1, I won’t.

I’m going to seek out value in the 8-1 to 20-1 part of the betting curve. I think the top three favorites in the race -- including the California superstar Justify -- will be overbet, creating gambling value as a result on other horses in the field.

2. Tell us about your picks for tomorrow.

In particular I like the #9 Hofburg and the #18 Vino Rosso. I think they could surprise at nice prices. I’m also intrigued a bit by the #6 Good Magic.

3. Why’s Justify the favorite?

He’s big, he’s powerful, he’s fast, he’s undefeated and he’s trained by a four-time winner of the Derby. So he should be the favorite. But I’m just not interested in betting on him at odds of about 3-1. I just see too many scenarios in which the race goes against him to find value in that price.

For context, remember that American Pharoah went off at odds of about 3-1 a few years ago. I don’t think this horse is American Pharoah.

4. What do you think of Mendelssohn and horseman Aidan O’Brien?

I like the confidence. Mendelssohn is indeed a very nice horse and Aidan O’Brien is indeed a brilliant horseman. If he were to run a big race, I wouldn’t be surprised at all. He’s made a favorable impression in Louisville since arriving a couple days ago.

5. Where would you rate Mendelssohn in the field, and do you believe his UAE Derby romp deserves to be discounted to some degree due to a leader’s bias?

One of the reasons I’m a bit negative on Mendelssohn is that he figures to be one of many horses vying early on for leadership. Maybe he doesn’t need to be right on the lead but he will want to be close to it.

I see a scenario in which he and Justify and Magnum Moon and Promises Fulfilled and Noble Indy all get caught up in a speed duel. It’s a risk.

I don’t think they’ll want to take a hold of him and park him in behind other horses. He’s never done that before on dirt and I’m not sure he’ll react well to it.

As for the Dubai track, yes, there were many who thought that track was speed-favoring. So take his big win with a bit of grain of salt.
6. Can you handicap the pace scenario for us coming down the stretch? Are there any pace setters dropping back, and which pace stalkers have gas in the tank?

I think the weakest of the early speed will drop out early -- Promises Fulfilled and Flameaway and Noble Indy -- leaving potentially Justify and Mendelssohn and Magnum Moon to fend off the likes of Audible and Vino Rosso and Hofburg and Good Magic.

But it’s hard to know who exactly will be where because the start of the race will determine so much. If Justify, for instance, breaks poorly, he may never be in contention. But if he breaks cleanly and gets a good early spot, I admit he’ll be tough to catch late.

7. Will Mendelssohn be able to handle traffic and dirt if he isn’t out front through the first turn? His past performances hint at some temperamental races.

I think with Mendelssohn they absolutely want him out in the clear and not behind horses. He’s got post position #14 so that should help him stay in the clear, but the problem that he has is that he has speed horses to his inside and speed horses to his outside.

So, like Justify, he too needs to break cleanly or he’ll potentially find himself in a bad spot early.

8. How much emphasis do you put into workouts leading up to the Kentucky Derby? Justify has looked good in his, but do those show any value given the tight race space in the Derby?

I’m a big big believer in workouts and how a horse is doing in the days and weeks up to a race. It’s crucial information. I spend a lot of time watching workouts and reading clocker reports about workouts and gallops.

And yes, Justify has been wowing all onlookers in his morning workouts. So no knocks there whatsoever.

Some other horses that have been working well in the morning: Hofburg, Good Magic, Vino Rosso. That played a key part in my picking them. You want to bet on horses peaking at the right time.

9. There’s rain in the forecast for Saturday. If the track comes up wet, how would that affect the race? A client wants to know if you have a mudder picked out in the event of rain.

Rain would be a shame because many of these horses have no experience over a wet track and the race becomes a bit of a random affair. None of my picks has experience over a wet track.

Which ones do? My Boy Jack won very impressively on a muddy track. Flameaway has good wet form too. So does Enticed. Even Justify won impressively over a muddy track.

Who would I move up in my picks of all of those if the track comes up wet? Probably My Boy Jack.

10. Do you have any thoughts on My Boy Jack as a value pick?

At 30-1, I will not knock anyone from taking a shot on My Boy Jack -- wet track or dry track. I actually flirted with including him in my picks for a while. Fun horse to watch run, comes with an explosive kick late. And I think his trainer, Keith Desormeaux (not to be confused with the jockey, his brother Kent) is a terrific horseman.

I’m just not sure he’s coming into the race in peak form. He’s had a tough winter campaign and has been underwhelming by all accounts in his morning gallops. I also think that his explosive late kick may be actually more potent in shorter distances than the 1 1/4-mile Derby.

11. Give us a trifecta ticket. And while you’re at it, throw in an exacta too.

So my basic exacta ticket is a box with Vino Rosso, Hofburg and Good Magic. I will likely expand it a bit and throw in either Audible or Bolt d’Oro, depending on which offers a better price.

For trifectas, I’ll likely just use those same horses if I were to go that route. (I’m generally not a huge tri player.) No Justify, you ask? You could certainly throw him into your combinations. I’m just going to see if we get a total pace collapse and he runs out of the money entirely.

12. Do you see value in betting Audible, and what distances did his sire Intro Mischief run his best over?

Right, so there’s been a lot of talk about his sire not being a class distance horse. I wouldn’t worry too much about the sire. If you like the horse, bet him. To me, once a horse shows the ability to relax early in a race and run a distance of ground, you worry a lot less about pedigree. And he relaxes very, very nicely early in races -- sometimes too much.

Do I like him at odds of 8-1? Feels like a reasonable price. If he were to drift toward 10-1, then he’d really start getting attractive from a value standpoint.

I’ve discussed Audible with his trainer Todd Pletcher. The horse is odd in some ways: 1) he’s a notoriously bad morning-workout horse (though he has been working OK in Louisville); 2) and he can really get run off his feet early in races. If you had bet him in a race in Aqueduct back in December, you would have ripped up your tickets a quarter mile into the race.

But once he gets rolling, he rolls. Has a nice, big stride to him. Don’t worry about his pedigree.

13. How disappointed are you that Gronkowski isn’t running, and how you would stack this horse up against the crowd racing tomorrow?

I was terribly disappointed to hear Gronkowski wouldn’t run. Just because with that name (and also partially owned by Gronk himself) he would have lured in so much silly, sucker money that he would have helped create betting value on other horses in the field.

I don’t exactly know how good he is cause he was pulled out of contention so early that I never really got around to studying him. But I suspect from a quick look at his form that he would have really struggled on a dirt surface against the best horses in America.

14. You seem to be really negative on all of the real longshots in the race -- the 50-1-and-up crowd; none of them warrant a small bet for a shot at a big payoff?

Good question. Normally I’m intrigued by one or two of them -- at least a little bit. Not this year, though.

Just not feeling it. Gun to my head, if I had to choose one of the 50-1 horses to surprise, I’d say Instilled Regard.

15. Do you think the noise on the track affects these horses --especially high strung horses?

It is an enormous issue. Many horses will not handle it well at all, and their race will be over before it begins. Keep a close eye -- or as good an eye as you can -- on your selections as they move toward the gate. If they look worked up or have broken out in a big sweat, it’s a bad sign. These horses aren’t used to running in front of 150,000 people. They’re more accustomed to crowds of 5,000 people.

16: The Kentucky Derby has a reputation for being an unpredictable and chaotic race. Is that true and if so why?

It has historically been a very chaotic race where longshots at big odds -- 50-1, 70-1, etc -- have run first or second. Recently the favorites have been winning but I would expect the longshots to start jumping up and winning soon enough.

There are too many random variables at play -- including the crazy crowd noise -- to make this a consistently formful race. The huge size of the field -- 20 horses -- also adds to the random effect as does the fact that none of these horses has ever run a race this far in his career. So we can’t know for sure if they’ll relish the distance.

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