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Owning the future

1/27/2014

Here are two questions appropriate to the season.

1. What’s the best approach to a winning Kentucky Derby future bet?
2. How do you win a handicapping tournament?

The answer is the same to both inquiries: I have no idea.

The second of four Kentucky Derby future pools will be available for win and exacta wagering the weekend of Feb. 6-8. The first Derby pool slipped past in late November. That one was like throwing darts at an aspirin. Given the difficulty in picking a winner six hours before the race, imagine handing over fifty bucks worth of wagers six months before the post.

Playing a future pool goes to the appeal of wagering: the possibility of betting a little and getting back a lot.

It stands to reason that hitting the Kentucky Derby winner in a future pool is going to pay considerably more than, say, a team sport winner like the Super Bowl future champ. The final four NFL playoff teams were the top four pre-season future pool picks. With Derby horse pools, 75-1 shots are all over the place.

The Derby future pool rules are simple enough. Pick a winner or pick an exacta. Early pool odds, particularly concerning the favorites, have to be considerably higher than what will show on the Churchill tote. Here’s the chief problem there. Early pool favorites seldom win the Derby.

Early pool odds, particularly concerning the favorites, have to be considerably higher than what will show on the Churchill tote.


Wading into a Derby pool can be like shopping the bargain table at the pawn shop. All sales are final. You get your horse as is, or more to the point, as it will be the first Saturday in May. If your February choice to win the Derby at 30-1 winds in a meadow nursing an injury, that’s still your horse. Whereas future book teams always show up to play the games, the same is not true for horses. To have a chance to get from the February future pool and into the Derby gate, you will need to be lucky every day for three months. Beyond racing luck, you will need walking around luck. All future ticket sales are final. Some sales will be more final than others. Some horses might not race another race.

The Derby future pools have 24 betting interests, 23 individual horses plus a field wager. A field is where many of these horses should have stayed. A field wager is sort of an all-but bet, all but perhaps the best 23. Given the erratic behavior patterns of youth, having a bet on all the horses in the world, besides 23, still has great appeal. So in the November pool, the Field, or all others, carried with it the absurdly short odds of 4-5. You might figure that somebody coming out of nowhere would go to the post in Churchill at higher than odds-on numbers. But here’s what I know about collecting a future ticket winner: zero. Of my last five future pool wagers, one went to post at higher odds than I got in the pool, which defeats the purpose of the wager doesn’t it; three didn’t make it to the race; one trotted.

The horse with the shortest odds from the first pool was Honor Code at 10-1. This one has been terrific in New York, running absently-mindedly in one, breaking just before the tractor moved the gate and closing hard to lose by next to nothing, then winning after coming back on the rail. The Breeder’s Cup Juvenile winner, New Year’s Day, was the second opening pool choice at 15-1. Breeder’s Cup Juvenile winners don’t translate well to the Derby.

Future pool winners I have known played regional favorites, maybe that’s a carryover from the college bowl season.

As for tournaments, this kind of play requires the right personality.

No matter the entrance fee, a horse race handicapping tournament is like playing Monopoly for a big cash prize at the end. Losing contest money has never bothered me enough. I am much more attentive betting $50 in cash than $5,000 in play money. Most contest players choose the strategy of hanging around until the last couple of races and then wagering all of their contest money on a 40-1 horse. The one thing that all tournament winners have in common is a direct hit on a long shot. Pick the two big odds horses you like the most and bet half your contest money on each. The last contest I entered, I tapped out in the first race and didn’t mind it much at all.