American Culture

Derby Day: for most, guessing a winner is a crapshoot

by Chip Ainsworth

A standing-room perch at the finish line of tomorrow’s Kentucky Derby costs $1,400. Upstairs seating in Millionaires Row and the Turf Club is $6,000 a person, and nosebleed seats in the third-floor grandstand are $650. Trackside parking is $215 and custom-made mint juleps are $1,000.

Such is the allure of being at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. The turnstiles open Saturday morning at 8 a.m., and the first race of the 10-race undercard should be off at 10:30. By mid-afternoon the crowd will have grown to about 165,000, most of whom will be studying their programs and counting down to the 6:24 p.m. post time when 20 horses will enter the starting gate. By then, railbirds will be raising their binoculars, and bettors from around the world will have wagered more than $110 million on the fastest two minutes in sports.

John Dobrydnio won’t be in Louisville or Foxwoods or any of the OTB parlors. He’ll be with his wife, Paula, inside their New England home on Derby Day, a box of Kleenex at the ready for when the horses make their way from the paddock onto the track and the Louisville marching band plays “My Old Kentucky Home.”

“They play that song and I get melancholy,” said Dobrydnio, who’s as attached to horses as Tommy was to Lassie. “I’ve been around them since I was 20. I’ve owned them and raced them and bet them.”

And he’s fed them, either personally or through the betting window, and now he wants some return on investment for his hours of researching the Derby entrants.

“I’ve watched as many of the reruns as I could, checked to see who’s overworked their horses, what horses can change leads. I don’t do Beyers (speed figures), but I like speed. I’m a big first quarter and first half guy.”

Despite the headache-inducing analysis, Dobrydnio knows that finding the Derby winner is a crapshoot. “I preach to everybody it’s the worst race in the world to bet. I always say it’s a sucker bet, but I’ll bet a dime here and a couple of $60 exacta boxes and if they hit, the payoffs are very generous.”

For many, watching the Kentucky Derby is like going to church on Easter. It’s a once-a-year occasion. Consequently most put as much thought into picking the winner as they would a lottery ticket at the supermarket. Like a name? Go with Daddy Long Legs. Like a color? Hansen is pure white. Playing a number? The 10-post has accounted for seven wins since 1970. Today a 15-1 shot named Daddy Nose Best has that gate position.

Want a more sophisticated system? The Dosage Index uses bloodlines to determine what horse is best bred to go 10 furlongs. This year’s pick is Creative Cause, a California invader that’s hit the board in all seven of its career starts.

Like a feel good story? Bodemeister is named for trainer Bob Baffert’s youngest son, Bode. Last month in Hot Springs, jockey Mike Smith rode the bay colt to a 9½-length win in the Arkansas Derby, good enough to make him the 4-to-1 morning line favorite. The bugaboo is that Bodemeister was unraced as a 2-year-old and nary a steed since 1882 has won without at least one start as a sophomore. Forty-seven have tried, and 47 have failed.

“One guy that’s a professional clocker claimed right off the bat Bosemeister is just unbelievable,” said Dobrydnio, “but they say that every year and it doesn’t work out.”

The 9-to-2 second choice is a powerfully built colt named Union Rags. Favored by many in the futures pools, the East Coast colt won the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream by four lengths but finished third in the Florida Derby after jockey Julien Leparoux got his colt tangled in on the rail. The winner was Take Charge Indy, ridden by three-time Derby champ Calvin Borel.

The proverbial fly in the ointment is a speedball named Trinniberg. A 50-1 long shot, the horse could involve front-runners like Bodemeister, Hansen, Union Rags, Take Charge Indy and Gemologist in an early speed duel that would burn them out and set the stage for a late closer like I’ll Have Another to pick up the pieces.

Trinniberg has never run past seven furlongs, but owner Shivananda Parbhoo said he’s betting $5,000 on his horse. “I’m here to win,” he said.

The NBC Sports Network will provide live stakes coverage beginning at 11 a.m. The undercard will be televised, and time between races will be filled with trainer profiles and jockey stories like Robbie Albarado racing against a horse that had a live, wing-flapping chicken tied to the saddle, or how Calvin Borel’s nickname “Boo,” is short for “Boo Boo,” which his older siblings named him after their mother’s unexpected pregnancy.

Dobrydnio said that Wednesday’s post-position draw added much-needed clarity to the foggy equation. He whipped the hanky off his crystal ball and declared: “I’m using Dullahan and Take Charge Indy. And I’m putting Bodemesiter in with the whole play. (My wife) Paula likes Gemologist. She does numbers, her own numbers. She’s a Racing Form girl and she loves his post (15). He won’t be involved in any of that mess down on the inside (with Trinniberg). She doesn’t understand why he’s not the favorite.”

Dobrydnio favors Dullahan because “he can make a move that’s unbelievable. He’s a bull. He’ll crash right through these horses. He’s got all the strength in the world.”

As for the two horses he’ll use in exactas, “The only reason I’m throwing Bodemeister in is I’m not sure what this horse is. He’s run some monster races but he hasn’t beaten monsters. Take Charge Indy should be in a garden spot on the rail and Calvin Borel can certainly ride that rail.”

“I’m not using Union Rags,” said Dobrydnio. “The more I watch him, the more I think he’s going to cause problems in this race. He’s a little fainthearted when he gets banged around. He’s breaking from the four hole, and he’s gonna get knocked around.”

Dobrydnio’s seen enough races and torn up enough tickets to know his bets could go south in a hurry. “All it takes is a little bump.”

And that’s why he’ll be saving a few tissues from the Kleenex box.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning New England sports columnist.

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1 reply »

  1. Sorry to disappoint anyone who reads this, but despite who wins the Derby, there won’t be a Triple Crown winner this year: I haven’t been to the Derby yet.

    It’s on my bucket list–has been since before I knew what a “bucket list” was. I saw Secretariat win on TV, then Seattle Slew and Affirmed, the last when I was 16. At that point, I wanted to GO. And I still haven’t been.

    Thanks for the prices–I now know it won’t be cheap (I’ll have to add in a few pretty pennies for an appropriate hat).