Commentary

Kentucky Derby team spirit

Betting the Kentucky Derby has become a regional event

Updated: April 1, 2014, 10:09 PM ET
By Jay Cronley | Special to ESPN.com

One Kentucky Derby bet goes without saying: It's the one placed on the home team.

It's tradition.

The best horse at your track is your horse. Your track is usually the closest to home. Being there to watch the horse run at your track usually ups the amount of the wager that local or regional pride pushes to the windows. The owner, trainer and jockey comprise your team.

Once a year, horse racing becomes something of a team game: Our racing is better than your racing.

The horse racing equivalent to March Madness (which has evolved into April Angst) is the Kentucky Derby. May Mania. Once a year, horse racing becomes something of a team game: Our racing is better than your racing.

There's even a one-and-done similarity shared by Derby horses and Kentucky basketball. Win the Derby and you're on to the breeding suite; with the basketball freshmen, it's on to the NBA.

The Kentucky Derby chase is also a little like the NBA. Players who had never so much as driven through your city before the draft, and leave 10 minutes after the last game of the season, comprise your beloved team. And horses that are flown or vanned in and take off after the race, perhaps never to return, are your horses.

Backing a home horse used to be expensive. Before all bets were comingled, local or regional wagering sites formed their own pools for the Kentucky Derby, with vastly different odds. A hot Arkansas horse might be 3-1 at Oaklawn and 5-1 at Churchill.

These are the chief Kentucky Derby areas of regional support: East, west, the heartland, the sticks, and Kentucky.

East: Eastern Derby support follows horses from races in New York and Florida, mostly Gulfstream. Whereas there's something to be said for running for Derby points versus four, five and six others in New York, sometimes the weather gets in the way. Florida fields are fuller and more competitive. Florida Derby winners are usually prime Kentucky Derby contenders. The Gulfstream winner this spring, Constitution, won with stealth on the rail, not outside power. The winner of the Wood in New York always gets more love that it probably deserves from the writers who clearly recall the way it used to be.

West: It's fascinating how sports mirror lifestyles of an area. Horse racing is important in L.A. on race day. Otherwise, there's a lot to do out there, like gossip and drive and dodge earthquakes. At Santa Anita, once a race begins, many people turn to face the stands, as being seen is important. The best in the west this spring could be the California-bred California Chrome, the favorite single horse in the last futures pool. His trainer also runs stuff at Los Alamitos. "Chrome" is apt to get the quarter horse money.

The heartland: This region usually has two chief contenders: derby winners from Arkansas and Louisiana. A climate similar to Louisville's, full fields, and a schedule that makes sense, has made the Arkansas Derby winner a major player in the Triple Crown series. The odds on somebody winning the Triple Crown this year are not known but could be around the number Warren Buffett put on the perfect bracket prize. Strong support for the heartland's best extends throughout tornado alley.

The sticks: This category often raises the question, "Where exactly is Sunland?" It's in New Mexico. The Sunland Derby winner conjures an image of a horse making the ride to Churchill in a remodeled school bus, hay in the back, owners up front, trainer driving. That the Sunland victor, this time Chitu, has a win-and-you're-in-the-Kentucky Derby experience, is extremely generous.

Kentucky: That the chief Derby horse from Keeneland comes from a synthetic track makes the Blue Grass Stakes seem as far away as Dubai. As for the rest, any Kentucky-bred is considered all Louisville's.

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