Zerillo’s Kentucky Derby Day Card: Betting Breakdown For All 6 Undercard Stakes Races, Plus Derby Picks (Sept. 5)
Al Bello/Getty Images. Pictured: Tiz the Law
- Sean Zerillo breaks down all seven stakes races on the 2020 Kentucky Derby Day card.
- Saturday features some excellent racing, including the Run for the Roses just after 7 p.m. ET on NBC.
Welcome to Kentucky Derby Day.
The 146th Run for the Roses will go to post at approximately 7:01 p.m. ET on Saturday evening, and Belmont Stakes winner Tiz the Law (3/5) is a heavy morning line favorite to win the second leg of the 2020 Triple Crown.
Before the Derby goes to post, we have a full day of racing on tap at Churchill Downs, including seven graded stakes races, beginning with Race 8 — the American Turf Classic — at 2:55 p.m. ET.
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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.
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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 just to 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, 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.
2:20 p.m. ET
Before we get to the stakes races, I want to begin in Race 7, which starts the middle Pick 5 sequence.
I prefer the No. 9 Aurelius Maximus (7/2) if you are looking for a single to begin a cheap Pick 5 or want to plunk down a small win/place/show wager before the real action starts.
This four-year-old colt switched to the Steve Asmussen barn late in 2019 and fired a career-best 99 Beyer speed figure off a two-month layoff in January.
He has been working extremely fast (1st of 33 runners on 8/20, 2nd of 26 on 8/25) — which is uncommon for this barn — and he looks ready to fire in his first start off the bench (17% win rate for Asmussen horses off of layoffs more significant than 180 days) with Ricardo Santana Jr. aboard.
I expect him to track the pace set by the No. 10 Bodexpress (4-1), who is lined up to his outside before trying to drive past in the stretch. My only concern is that the layoff might leave our gladiator a little short for a 1 1/16 mile race.
- Win/Place/Show: 9
- Double: 9/4,5,8
- Pick 3: 9/4,5,8/2,4,5,6,9
- Pick 5: 9/4,5/2,4,5,6,9/8,10/4
Race 8 (American Turf Classic – G2)
2:55 p.m. ET
The stakes racing for the day begins going 1 1/16 miles on the grass for three-year-olds.
The No. 5 Smooth Like Strait (8-5) is a deserving morning-line favorite, with the highest last-out speed figure in the field (94) from a Grade 3 win on Aug. 9 at Del Mar, and the highest career figure in the field (96) in a score two back at Churchill Downs.
Like a lot of other horses in this field, he prefers to be close to the pace, however, potentially creating a perfect trip for the late-running No. 4 Field Pass (2-1), a multiple graded stakes winner. His stablemate, the No. 8 Fancy Liquour (9-2), should be a part of that pace scenario and is also game enough to stick around to hit the board.
The No. 2 American Butterly (12-1) is trying grass for the first time, but this colt is by American Pharoah, whose progeny have had more success on the turf than on the dirt. His trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, is just three for 28 (11%) when attempting the dirt to turf switch, however.
- Pick 4: 4,5,8/2,4,5,6,9/8,10/4
Race 9 (Pat Day Mile – G2)
2:35 p.m. ET
One mile dirt races are typically difficult to handicap — you have sprinters stretching out, and distance runners cutting back — and this edition of the Pat Day Mile is no different.
We’ll begin with the morning line favorite No. 1 Cezanne (3-1) for Bob Baffert — whose Oaks Day entrants (McKinzie, Gamine) both lost as the chalk.
Cezanne, a $3.65 million purchase, had huge expectations before he ever took the starting gate. He owns the highest speed figure in the field (101) from his fourth-place effort (in a four-horse field), behind Derby entrants Thousand Words and Honor AP, in the Shared Belief Stakes on Aug. 1.
The No. 7 No Parole (6-1) is a threat to run away with an easy lead — he beat the No. 2 Echo Town (7-2), who has never missed the board, two starts back while recording a 100 Beyer speed figure, running wire to wire.
The No. 9 Rushie (4-1) will cut back in distance after the Blue Grass (G-2) where he finished second behind the original second choice for the Derby Art Collector, and second-place Oaks finisher Swiss Skydiver.
The distance should fit the No. 6 Tap It to Win (4-1) perfectly, I’m worried about him passing out in the fifth start of his three-year-old form cycle.
The No. 4 Vertical Threat (8-1) has a lot of upside, but this is his first time against graded stakes company. And the No. 5 Digital (12-1) is an interesting late runner for trainer Bret Calhoun, who owns a 30% win rate in graded stakes races.
This is a fairly loaded field, and a race worth spreading your money around for horizontal tickets. So long as our Middle Pick 5 or Middle Pick 4 is alive, I think you can avoid adding an additional play here.
Race 10 (Iroquois – G3)
4:07 p.m. ET
This is a one-mile dirt race for two-year-old horses, and it begins the key late Pick 5 sequence leading into the Kentucky Derby.
My top two selections are the No. 8 Midnight Bourbon (6-1) and No. 10 Therideofalifetime (7-5).
The No. 10 should be able to make the lead, but I’m concerned about his ability to see out the distance and the 6% win rate in graded stakes races for trainer Ignacio Correas IV.
Midnight Bourbon is trained by Steve Asmussen, who has a 21% win rate over 554 starts for two-year-old horses, and a 23% win rate with last-out winners. This son of Tiznow won by open lengths in a maiden special weight on Aug. 22, and will run back here just two weeks later.
Asmussen’s other runner, the No. 3 Super Stock (6-1), drew his top rider Ricardo Santana Jr.
Amongst the price horses, I like the form and works for the No. 7 Pico d’Oro (5-1), a son of Curlin, and second time-starter No. 9 Crazy Shot (15-1).
- Double: 8,10/4
- Pick 3: 3,7,8,9,10/4/8,10
- Pick 5: 3,7,8,9,10/4/8,10/ALL/17
Race 11 (Distaff Turf Mile – G2)
4:39 p.m. ET
The only concern for the No. 4 Newspaperofrecord (4-5) is the lack of her regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr., but the four-year-old filly looks to have rebounded after a down three-year-old season, recording speed figures of 105 and 103 in her last two starts; winning a pair of graded stakes races by a combined seven lengths.
Trainer Chad Brown has a 24% win rate in graded stakes races and a 30% win rate with last-out winners — she should be ready to roll, especially after a bullet work on August 23 up in Saratoga.
There isn’t a lot of early speed to contend up front with Newspaperofrecord in this race, and the favorite could have her way with this field.
My backup options would include the improving No. 1 She’sonthewarpath (15-1), and No. 3 Juliet Foxtrot (5-1), the latter of whom is the only horse in the field beside the favorite who has run triple-digit speed figures as of late.
The No. 6 Beau Recall (5-1) won this race last year, but her speed figures have faded in her age six campaign, while the No. 7 La Signare (10-1), who I expect to get some play, would need to run the best race of her life to take this field down.
- Double: 4/8,10
- Pick 3: 4/8,10/ALL
- Pick 4: 4/8,10/ALL/17
Race 12 (Derby City Distaff – G1)
5:17 p.m. ET
It’s hard not to love the No. 8 Serengeti Empress, the 2019 Kentucky Oaks winner, as the favorite in this seven-furlong dirt sprint, following her impressive effort in the Ballerina (G-1) on Aug. 8 at Saratoga.
Once she gets to the front, it’s difficult to pass her, no matter how fast the fractions are. But I think the No. 10 CeCe (3-1) has a strong chance to do it from a midpack trip. She has posted a trio of dominant works since her last start on Aug. 2, and the multiple graded stakes winner has been a buzz horse at Churchill downs this week.
I’m not a fan of the No. 9 Bellafina (3-1) even though she finished a length behind Serengeti Empress in the Ballerina. She has been flat in past trips to Churchill Downs, and her two works since that last race were a step slow.
I’ll likely use the No. 1 Mia Mischief (6-1) on some tickets, but I think six furlongs is her ideal distance.
If the pace goes supernova, the No. 4 Bell’s the One (10-1) will likely pick up the pieces.
- Pick 3: 8,10/ALL/17
Race 13 (Turf Classic – G1)
5:50 p.m. ET
This nine furlong (1 1/8 mile) turf race is the most wide-open stakes race of the entire weekend, and I’ll be playing many horizontal tickets with the ALL button.
Chad Brown — arguably the best turf trainer in the world (26% win rate on grass) — has three entrants in this field, including the No. 3 Rockemperor (7-2), No. 4 Digital Age (6-1), and No. 8 Sacred Life (6-1).
Michael J. Maker — a great trainer in his own right — sends out two viable win contenders in the No. 6 Mr. Dumas (12-1) and No. 9 Somelikeithotbrown (8-1).
If you made me trim my tickets, I would take those five — and probably the No. 1 Factor This (3-1) for Brad Cox (24% win rate in graded stakes), but I can make a viable case for all ten horses in this field, and I’ll attempt to spread as much as possible.
Race 14 (Kentucky Derby – G1)
7:01 p.m. ET
I’m not going to try to be a hero, or a contrarian for contrarian’s sake and go entirely against the No. 17 Tiz the Law (3-5).
I have been a fan of the No. 16 Honor AP (5-1) since the start of this Derby cycle, and I think that we have yet to see his best race. He would be my sole backup option in horizontal and vertical exotics.
But I could say the same for Tiz the Law, who coasted to an open lengths victory in the Travers on August 8, while posting a 109 Beyer speed figure — already the career-best number for any horse in this field:
I consume a lot of content leading up to big races, and I have never seen a collective group of racing analysts, racing experts, and horse trainers so confident that a horse is winning a major race — save for American Pharoah and Justify before their Triple Crown coronations at Belmont Park.
Matt Bernier — a strict value player who was one few to call Shedaresthedevil to upset the Kentucky Oaks on Friday — put Tiz the Law’s chances at roughly 70%, implied odds of -233.
Due to the four-month delay, we have so much more information on this group of horses than we would typically have on a Derby field. Tiz the Law has answered all of the questions — especially his ability to get the distance — and his works have been spectacular since that romp in the Travers.
However, he could still stumble or get caught up in traffic, etc. They run the race for a reason.
The No. 8 Authentic (8-1) figures to be the pacesetter. He does have some distance concerns, after fading in the final quarter-mile of the Haskell (G-1) on July 20 – but without the presence of Art Collector and King Guillermo, he could get an uncontested lead in this race — and early speed typically plays well on the main track at Churchill Downs.
I prefer his stablemate, the No. 10 Thousand Words (15-1) in exotics. The $1 million purchase defeated Honor AP in the Shared Belief on August 14, while posting a 104 Beyer speed figure — the second-best number in the field.
In single race exotics, I’ll also be using the No. 2 Max Player (30-1), an improving horse for new trainer Steve Asmussen; the No. 5 Major Fed (50-1), who should have no issue with the distance and is likely sitting on a big race after some fast works (two bullets); the No. 7 Money Moves (30-1), an upside horse for trainer Todd Pletcher; the No. 13 Attachment Rate (50-1) who has been working well for Dale Romans; and the No. 15 Ny Traffic (20-1) who has hit the board in every start this year and truly runs for your dollar.
Amongst the price horses, Ny Traffic would be my selection to key in exotics alongside Tiz the Law. He ran a 101-speed figure in a close loss to Authentic in the Haskell, has been working well since, and he should appreciate the additional furlong in the Derby.
Outside of Tiz the Law, he has been the most consistently impressive three-year-old horse that I have watched this year, fighting for almost every step of ground in the Risen Star (G-2), Louisiana Derby (G-2), Matt Winn (G-3), and Haskell (G-1), while improving in each outing (82, 89, 95, 101-speed scores).