Making the right call again

California Chrome repays handicapper’s faith with Derby win

By Dan Liebman Published:

There is no reason for a handicapper to gloat when he picks a winner or has a good day because he knows — and remembers — how many losers and bad days he has had. And will have.

If you are going to put yourself out there publicly, especially when it comes to picking the Kentucky Derby, you have to take the grief, ribbing and good-natured kidding when you pick a loser.

You have to have a thick skin, even though it is the hardest race each year to handicap because of so many factors. It is almost always a full 20-horse field (this year was 19), the entrants are running a mile and a quarter for the first time (and many of them for the last time) and you know some horses are entered because of an illness that affects some owners this time of year (Derby fever).

I always get a kick out of people who handicap the Derby and think half the field, or more, can win. This year, like most years, I handicapped the Derby and thought only a few horses could win.

In fact, the past two years, I handicapped the field of horses and thought only one horse could win.

Last year I thought Orb was by far the best horse in the field — the horse that was coming into the race the best way and the horse whose running style would best fit with his competitors on that day.

This year, I had the exact same feeling about California Chrome.

Some questioned whether California Chrome could get the Derby distance, but there was nothing in his pedigree or in his recent races that suggested he couldn’t.

Some wondered whether California Chrome had to be on the lead, as he had in his last few starts. But as I watched those races, they simply seemed to set up that way. In my mind, there was no reason not to think he could sit off the pace and get the perfect trip in the Derby.

As a handicapper, I’m perhaps the happiest that I stuck to my guns and didn’t fall for any of the usual Derby-week hype. There are always horses that become the “wise guy” picks because of the way they work Derby week or due to the hype from handicappers, clockers and knowledgeable observers.

It is important as a handicapper to hear all that, but filter through it, letting the important facts sink in while allowing the bits and pieces you don’t perceive as critical to not become factors in your handicapping.

This year’s “wise guy” horses seemed to be Medal Count (I’m not taking a horse who hasn’t won on dirt), Intense Holiday (the only horse I liked out of the Louisiana Derby this year was Commanding Curve) and Candy Boy (one race since Feb. 8 gets me off a horse every time).

People have asked how I could use the horses trained by Dallas Stewart in my gimmicks two years in a row.

Having formerly been an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, Stewart understands if you have a race as a goal you don’t have to win the prep races — you just have to move forward toward the goal. Perhaps as importantly, his horses tend to be stretch runners, coming from off the pace.

You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that horses that come from off the pace often stay out of trouble because they are behind most of the other horses during the early part of the race. Then they swing out and make their run.

I did not think Golden Soul last year or Commanding Curve this year could win, but I sure thought they could be in the top four. They both ran second, triggering exactas that paid $981.60 (2013) and $340 (2014).

Knowing there are those who have different size bankrolls, each year I propose a $100 mythical wager. It is merely a suggestion, a way to emphasize what I am thinking. I know there are those who bet nothing, those who bet the mythical wager exactly as printed, and those who bet way more.

I also know there are those who read it and then make up their own minds.

Which is how it should be, because it is just one man’s opinion.

For the record, last year’s mythical wager returned a profit of $130.40. This year the profit was $890.

When it comes to picking the Derby, who knows, maybe it is OK to boast.

Want to leave your comments?

Sign in or Register to comment.