Commentary

Roses are always in bloom

Is it ever too early to place a Kentucky Derby futures wager?

Updated: September 13, 2013, 4:46 PM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

It's never too early to think about the Kentucky Derby. In fact, most fans find it impossible not to think about the Kentucky Derby or at least allow a roseate thought to intrude from time to time, no matter what the month or season, on even the most practical mind, like a pampered child who's banned from the office but can always find easy access.

Whenever a young good-looking colt such as Honor Code finishes strongly to win impressively, he immediately forces any thoughts of the future into a pirouette that leaves them looking in the general direction of Kentucky. It's as if a giant cartoonish thought bubble suddenly appears and hovers over the grandstand: "He could be a Derby horse," or even, "I wonder what his odds are in the futures."

The first futures pool opened this week at the Wynn in Las Vegas, and Honor Code was the early second choice for the 2014 Kentucky Derby.

Well, they're 45-1. Or at least they were, for a moment. The first futures pool opened this week at the Wynn in Las Vegas, and Honor Code, arguably the most promising youngster to arrive on the scene yet this year, was the early second choice for the 2014 Kentucky Derby. Strong Mandate, the winner of the Hopeful Stakes who's arguably the most accomplished youngster, opened as the favorite, at 40-1.

Yes, yes, agreed: From a bettor's point of view, it's silly even to think about slapping down an investment on a race that won't be run for 7 ½ months. At this point, the odds on any youngster just being in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on May 3, 2014, should be 40-1. But betting the Derby futures isn't about making a wise or sound investment; it's not really about betting, not in any conventional sense. It's simply about being right and seeing it first and having the ticket to prove it. (Having the winner never counts unless you have the ticket.) It's also about having sufficient confidence in a personal opinion to turn it into a bold expression of loyalty.

That said, betting on the Kentucky Derby in September still can seem foolish, or at least extravagant. But, then again, it can also be the foolish indulgence that proves a wise man's wisdom. (Dorian Gray, for example, was "far too wise not to do foolish things now and then.") Betting Derby futures provides the crazy, self-indulgent context that clarifies all the carefully calculated investments you make. The Derby not only invites but also inspires caprice, whimsy and folly, and not just in owners and trainers, but among bettors, too. And so as an explanation for veering into the pie-in-the-sky futures without so much as a hookah-smoking caterpillar to blame, it suffices just to point out that, well, it's the Derby. Saying that is tantamount to an insanity plea: "I know it was imprudent, your honor, and as a horseplayer who takes pride in his logical approach to the game and on his relentless insistence on weighing risk against return, I can only explain it by humbly pointing out, lest your honor wasn't aware, that it was the Derby I bet on 7 ½ months in advance, the Kentucky Derby." And that explains everything.

Strong Mandate became the opening futures favorite on the strength of his Hopeful. A son of Tiznow from the stable of trainer D. Wayne Lukas, Strong Mandate romped on closing day at Saratoga, splashing through the mud to win by nearly 10 lengths, his second victory in three starts. But when the Wynn Kentucky Derby Futures opened Friday morning, the first bets landed on Honor Code, Diamond Bachelor, Mosler, Grand Arrival and Havana, according to Johnny Avello, the executive director of the race and sports books.

For the first time, some unraced youngsters are among the 172 horses on the board for the first futures pool.

Within hours, in fact, Honor Code's odds dropped to 35-1, making him the hot, new favorite and suggesting Moby Dick's in Vegas. But the sudden shift isn't surprising, for no maiden victory could have been more visually impressive than Honor Code's debut at Saratoga. Last after a half-mile, he charged through the slop and the final three furlongs in 33.15 seconds to win by more than four lengths. And, as if that weren't enough to inspire Kentucky dreams, Honor Code is a son of A.P. Indy from the stable of Shug McGaughey.

Grand Arrival, who already has dropped from 50-1 to 45-1, and Havana, who has fallen from 100-1 to 75-1, also sparkled in their maiden victories at Saratoga. Diamond Bachelor, who opened at 125-1 and quickly fell to 100-1, is the unbeaten winner of a recent turf stakes at Del Mar, and Mosler, who also dropped to 100-1, won Sunday at Belmont Park.

Some other notables: Cleburne, the unbeaten winner of the recent Iroquois opened at 75-1; Tamarando, the Del Mar Futurity winner, at 85-1; Dunkin Bend, the Sapling winner, at 100-1; and Commissioner, a maiden winner at 1 ⅛ miles, at 60-1.

For the first time, some unraced youngsters are among the 172 horses on the board for the first futures pool, including Pacific, a $1.8 million purchase, at 150-1, and Pennmarydel, a full-brother to the great Barbaro, at 300-1.

And from here, no matter how irrational or impetuous or self-indulgent a plunge might be, there's always something quite comforting and reassuring in just knowing there's a futures.

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