Horse Racing Picks (Thursday, May 21): Exotics & Best Bets to Win at Churchill Downs
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Thursday’s 10-race card at Churchill Downs goes to post at 1 p.m. ET and features several pools for multi-race wagering.
The two $0.50 Pick 5 sequences begin with Race 1 (1:00 p.m. ET post) and Race 6 (3:36 p.m. ET post) while the $0.50 Pick 4 wagers occur before Race 2 (1:30 p.m. ET post) and Race 7 (4:06 p.m. ET post).
The card is primarily split in half by these two pairs of horizontal pools, but Thursday’s weather forecast includes a chance of afternoon thunderstorms. So it’s possible that the two featured turf allowance races (Race 7 and Race 9) might need to move over to the main track.
New to Horse Racing?
For those of you that might be new to horse racing, the wagering pools are pari-mutuel, which means that, unlike in sports betting, you aren’t trying to beat the house but rather the public at large. The key to long-term success in betting the ponies is being disciplined in identifying value in the pools.
Speed Ratings and Beyer Speed Figures
Speed ratings are relative performance indicators that allow us to compare performances across tracks where not all factors are even. Some tracks might be naturally faster like Gulfstream or Santa Anita, where the surfaces are harder, compared to a track like Belmont or Aqueduct, where the surfaces are generally a bit deeper.
They also account for the condition of the track as most horses will travel slower over softer ground. This means that simply comparing times is ineffective as they need some kind of leveling factor.
That’s what is built into speed ratings and they give a nice, although imperfect indicator of relative performance and ability.
A relative strength index for the field of a specific race. This gives you an idea of the level of the competition the horse was facing, as it can vary wildly from track to track even with the same win conditions.
How often do favorites win in horse racing?
Generally speaking, the favorite in horse racing wins at about a 35% rate but that number varies depending on the number of horses in the field. Armed with that knowledge you might want to just pick the favorites, frequently known as the chalk, but a closer look at the implied odds shows that you’d need average odds of 2-1 or better to break even on “win” bets.
So, in order to profit horseplayers must pick and choose the horses that they feel have a better chance to win than their implied odds, which is known as positive expected value (+EV). Expected value is not unique to horse racing and something that all bettors should get familiar with if they want to succeed.
Churchill Downs Picks for Thursday, May 21
- Time: 1 p.m. ET
We begin the day with a 4.5-furlong maiden special weight, which typically are difficult races to handicap, and only further complicated when you include a loaded group of two-year-olds from sires such as American Pharoah, Runhappy, Orb, and Tonalist.
I’ll key on the two Pharoah colts, the No. 2 Mad Maddy (3-1) and No. 4 Tequila Queen (2-1) as my two win contenders – as they go out for high-percentage trainers Steve Asmussen (22% in maiden special weights) and Wesley Ward (25%).
But I do like the No. 3 Hopeful Princess (6-1) and No. 7 Cool Enough (6-1) a bit too, and I’ll try to slip those horses underneath in single-race exotics.
- Exacta: [2,4] / [2,3,4,7]
- Trifecta: [2,4] / [2,3,4,7] / [2,3,4,7]
- Pick 5: [2,4] / [5,7] / [2,4,11,12] /  / [4,5,6,9,13]
- Time: 1:30 p.m. ET
I also like one of the two favorites to prevail in this six-furlong sprint, as the No. 5 T Loves a Fight (2-1) and No. 7 Ruler of the Nile (3-1) each have an average speed score about 15 points higher than the remainder of this field.
The No. 9 I’m Corfu (5-1) has a speed score from two back that puts him into the mix, and the No. 2 Sharp Art (20-1) figures to take a lot of money from that opening line, but I’ll stick with the chalk on my horizontal tickets.
- Pick 4: [5,7] / [2,4,11,12] / [8,9] / [4,5,6,9,13]
- Time: 2:00 p.m. ET
This one-mile, $20K maiden-claimer looks like a bit more of a spread race than the first two races on Thursday, and I expect the No. 12 Drop Dead Gorgeous (3-1) to be on most tickets – as the only horse in this field to crack a 60 Beyer figure on dirt.
But this is a relatively weak group, and the No. 2 Stylish Ash (5-1), a daughter of Malibu Moon, should thrive on the dirt and improve in her second-lifetime start after running a 59 Beyer last January on the Turf.
The No. 4 Revealing Quality (4-1) should also improve off of a 59 dirt Beyer in the third start of her four-year-old season, and after finishing second by a neck at Oaklawn on April 26.
And I have seen a lot of support for the No. 11 Beauty Day (8-1) in her second start, whose trainer Thomas Drury wins at a 20% clip in maiden claimers.
- No new wagers
- Time: 2:32 p.m. ET
Unless the No. 16 Yes I See (5-2) draws into the field for this one-mile $8K claimer, I’m only interested in the uncoupled entry for trainer Robertino Diodoro – the No. 8 Ernie Banks (6-1) and No. 9 Summer Revolution (5-2).
I do prefer the seven-year-old favorite Summer Revolution, as Diodoro wins 31% of the time first off of the claim, with a $3.02 ROI – and this horse has a powerful late kick.
Diodoro also wins 25% of the time at the claimer level, and while the five-year-old Ernie Banks didn’t fire first off of the claim, I’ll give him another shot; his 93 Beyer figure from mid-February tops any figure that any horse in this field has in recent memory.
The No. 2 Spikes Shirl (5-1) ran a 90 Beyer last November, but that was at six-furlongs, and this son of Speightstown, who has been fading, doesn’t want the additional two furlongs in this race.
- Win: 
- Pick 3:  / [4,5,6,9,13] / 
- Time: 3:04 p.m. ET
I don’t have a strong opinion on this six-furlong, $10K claimer, and I would go as many as four deep, including the favorite No. 6 His Giant (5-2) for Tom Amoss, who wins 22% of the time in claimers.
But I would also use the No. 4 Feeling It (9-2) for Hall-of-Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, the No.5 Jersey Agenda (8-1), and possibly the No. 9 Quest for Hire (6-1) who may be sitting on a career-best effort.
Additionally, the No. 13 Come on Venezuela (6-1) and No. 14 Firehorn (10-1) could contend if there are any scratches.
- No new wagers
- Time: 3:36 p.m. ET
The second half of the card begins with a 1 1/16 mile route, and I think it’s mostly a two-horse race between the No. 3 Frost or Frippery (5-2) and the No. 6 Overzealous (7-2).
I would play those horses in an exacta box, but Frost or Frippery is my favorite win bet of the day first off of the claim for Brad Cox, who wins 27% of the time in this spot, with a 26% win rate in route races.
However, trainer Chris Hartman is 13-for-43 (30%, $2.63 ROI) with jockey John Velasquez in the irons – so I would include both horses on horizontal tickets.
- Win: 
- Exacta Box: [3,6]
- Pick 5:  / [3,4,6,9,10] / [4,6] / [5,9] / [2,4,8,11]
- Time: 4:06 p.m. ET
This 5.5-furlong turf sprint is the first of two feature allowance races on Thursday and, weather permitting, will feature the four-year-old debut of the No. 3 Dalika (5-2) who will have a lot of support in both the win and multi-race pools.
This is her first start since December, so she has to deal with a layoff – a path her trainer Albert Stall has navigated correctly 12% of the time. Stall has a 20% win rate in all allowance races – and this looks like a fairly tough field replete with trainers who have better metrics than Stall’s barn.
Dalika is the only horse in the field with a 90 Beyer figure in her past six starts. Still, I may look to beat her by using the No. 4 Mentality (4-1) for Wesley Ward (25% in allowance races), the No. 6 Devant (4-1) for Graham Motion (21% in allowance races), No. 9 More (12-1) for Bret Calhoun (22% with last-out winners) or the consistent No. 10 Devil’s Dance (5-1); all of whom could go to post with payouts higher than their morning line odds.
- Pick 4: [3,4,6,9,10] / [4,6] / [5,9] / [2,4,8,11]
- Time: 4:40 p.m. ET
For horizontal tickets, I’ll take three horses from this one-mile, $30K claimer – the No. 4 Spun Eazy (7-2), No. 5 Moorac (8-1), and No. 6 Princess Phone (9-2).
- No new wagers
Time: 5:12 p.m. ET
The second feature race of the day is scheduled for one mile on the turf, but the No. 15 Lone Sailor (7-2), who loves to run in the mud, will be on all of my tickets if the race switches to the main track.
On the turf, the top choice is Chad Brown’s No. 5 Front Run the Fed (8-5), as Brown is arguably the top turf trainer in the world (26% win rate) and few are better are getting their horses ready off of a long layoff (28% win rate).
However, don’t ignore the No. 9 Mr. Dumas (9-2), who has already run a 92 and a 93 Beyer figure this year, followed by a bullet workout last week and drops down in class out of stakes races to start his four-year-old season.
And Bill Mott (21% win rate in allowance races) should have an improved No. 10 Casa Creed (9-2) ready to go in his first start of 2020.
- Exacta Box: [5,9]
- Time: 5:44 p.m. ET
If I could, I would hit the ALL button to end this card, but I typically only buy a race if I aggressively single twice within the same sequence, so we need to cut at least half of the field in this 1 1/16 mile, $50K maiden on the dirt.
My options to complete horizontal tickets are the No. 2 Joker Lady (10-1), No. 4 Soothing (4-1), No. 5 Sacred Union (12-1), No. 8 Flashing Red (9-2) and No. 11 Garden Affair (4-1).
- No new wagers
Bets for Churchill Downs, May 22
Favorite Win Bets
- Race 4: No. 9 Summer Revolution (5-2)
- Race 6: No. 3 Frost or Frippery (5-2)