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The 2013 Kentucky Derby Darkhorse


There are opportunities to back contenders of unknown quality, horses for which you have some hope of using your skills to find a positive edge.

Java's War was 3 wins, 2 losses, and 1 tie; Palace Malice was 5-4-2; Frac Daddy was 4-4-0; Mylute was 4-4-3; Oxbow was 2-5-4; Super Ninety Nine was 2-3-0; Falling Sky was 0-4-1; Code West was 5-2-2; Tiz a Minister was 1-2-0; and Golden Soul was 0-5-5. Handicappers have observed all of these horses extensively against the Derby favorites and each other. The records are not necessarily predictive of Derby performance; Normandy Invasion at 1-4-0 is considered about fifteen times as likely to win as Code West at 5-2-2. Generally speaking, the favorites have done better in the qualifying races than the longshots, but experts look at far more than the raw win/loss totals. They also consider the importance of the race, quality of the running, quality of the other horses, nature of the race, track type and conditions, breeding, training, jockey, and other factors.

We are left with six possible Derby entrants that are not favorites, but have never lost to one. They are all considered longshots at odds from 22-1 to 70-1, but there is considerably more uncertainty about their quality than with the horses mentioned above. Among this group, there is some reasonable hope that you can uncover an underpriced horse.

The favorite among the darkhorses is Will Take Charge at 22-1. This horse qualified for the Derby by winning the Rebel Stakes over lightly-regarded Derby runners Super Ninety Nine and Oxbow, and the Smarty Jones Stakes with no other Derby contenders in the race. He was an also-ran in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes and Southwest Stakes, finishing behind Frac Daddy and Super Ninety Nine, and in the same crowd as Java's War. This adds up to a 2-2-1 record, but none of these are exactly the horses to beat if you want to win the Kentucky Derby. Will the smell of the roses bring out the champion in this not-yet-challenged three-year-old? It's happened before.

Next is Lines of Battle at 30-1 -- in my opinion, the most intriguing darkhorse in 2013. This Irish-trained horse was unimpressive in one previous trip to the US and qualified for the Derby by running in only one qualifying race, the United Arab Emirates Derby in Dubai. He won that race, but none of the other runners will enter the Kentucky Derby. The pace was slow, and the artificial track is nothing like the dirt at Churchill Downs (although the 1,900 meter distance is closer to the Derby length than any of the other qualifying races). There's not much for the experts to chew over with Lines of Battle, so they are reduced to speculating based on breeding and workouts, and neither are reliable predictors of success.

Govenor [sic] Charlie has also not raced against other Derby contenders in qualifying races, and is currently listed at 35-1. He did not race at all as a two-year-old (not since Apollo in 1882 has such a horse won the Derby), and qualified for the Derby by winning his third start ever. That was the Sunland Derby in New Mexico, and he won in style by five lengths, setting the track record in the process. No other Derby contenders were in the race. Is he a one-race-wonder with one minor league win? Or is he the fastest three-year-old in the country? Probably the former, but no one will know until May 4.

At 50-1, you have your pick of two untested horses: Black Onyx and Winning Cause. These horses qualified by winning the Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Racing Spiral Stakes and Lexington Stakes, respectively. Neither horse entered another Derby qualifying race, and no other Derby contenders were in either race. Finally, you can bet on Charming Kitten at 70-1. This horse finished third in the Bluegrass stakes, behind Java's War and Palace Malice, for an 0-2-0 record versus Derby contenders, but 0-0-0 versus likely Derby winners.

These darkhorses are not the longest of the longshots; that distinction belongs to horses that have given ample evidence they cannot beat top Derby runners. Unless you are an expert or an insider, betting on them is like buying a lottery ticket, and you pay about the same expected 50% loss. Betting on favorites is more like a 5% expected loss. If you can find a second-favorite at short odds (which can't happen this year unless there is a seismic shift in sentiment without significant data) or a short odds horse getting significantly shorter immediately before the race, you might even get a zero expectation bet, without actually doing any work.

I have no reason to believe that betting on a random darkhorse gives better than random expectation. As far as I know, no systematic study has been done on the topic. But I do believe with darkhorses you have little disadvantage compared to experts. There is not enough information to determine the probability beyond some general statistical analysis available to anyone. Betting on a darkhorse can be a true exercise of judgment, a game you could win, something an intelligent person can take pleasure in doing (unlike, in my opinion, playing casino games or lotteries at known unfavorable odds). It's not really betting on a horse; it's betting on yourself, something I think should be a regular habit for everyone, at least in some arena.

So place your bets, take your seat (hopefully at the track, but failing that, at a television screen), pour your drink of choice (just no sugar and whiskey abominations), and let the best horse win, to the profit of the best bettor.

Also see: Dark Horses, Long Shots, and Kentucky Derby Betting
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