Kentucky Derby betting preview: How to find value around heavy favorite Tiz The Law

This Saturday marks the running of the 146th Kentucky Derby. Like everything else in the COVID-19 era, schedules have been rearranged; sacrifices, concessions, and adjustments have been made; and new traditions have been born. Normally, the "Run for the Roses" occurs on the first weekend in May; now it is the first weekend in September. Normally, the race is the first in the Triple Crown series; now it is the second. However, one aspect that remains intact from 146 years of tradition is the depth and competitiveness of the field, accompanied by the potential to cash some juicy tickets ... just not at the window this year.

Unfortunately, there’s more news on the Derby attrition front. Things started earlier this week with Art Collector pulling out over a foot injury. Late Thursday night, it was announced that King Guillermo will also be missing the Derby because of a fever. Before pulling out, King Guillermo had started gaining momentum as a popular upset pick.

Nevertheless, the 16-horse field is still stacked with long shots offering the potential for a great payday. Of the 16 runners, only three are under double-figure odds to win. Conveniently, all three of these runners have been placed alongside each other on outside posts. The group is led by overwhelming favorite No. 17 Tiz The Law (1-1). Tiz The Law is coming off a string of both statistically and aesthetically impressive victories, most recently capped by a dominating performance in the Aug. 8 Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course. This Barclay Tagg-trained colt also took down the first leg of the Triple Crown Series on June 20 with his Belmont Stakes win.

In a race like the Kentucky Derby where the field of runners is so massive and talented, the margin for error is razor-thin. Subsequently, the threat of poor placement puts the onus on runners and jockeys to get in the mix and be forwardly placed early. That’s what makes natural speed talent so valuable in these instances. Take the top favorites Tiz The Law and No. 16 Honor A.P., for example. Both these runners would be considered stalkers (horses that intentionally maintain a position slightly behind the leaders, then push for the lead down the stretch). However, their exceptional speed makes them arguably the two fastest in the field. As a result, with clean trips, the two will likely get to the front early with little exertion and still have a lot left in the tank for their respective stretch runs, thus forcing the rest of the field to play catch-up the whole trip.

Kentucky Derby entry Tiz the Law runs during a workout at Churchill Downs, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in Louisville, Ky. The Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 5th. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Kentucky Derby entry Tiz The Law runs during a workout at Churchill Downs on Friday morning in Louisville, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The favorites

No. 17 Tiz the Law (1-1): The only law Tiz The Law lives by is that he wins. He’s won six of his last seven races, going 4-for-4 in 2020 with each performance more impressive than the last. In the Travers Stakes, Tiz The Law showed another level of dominance with his eye-popping 109 speed figure, by far his best to this point. Jockey Manny Franco executed a perfectly time stalking trip, very much on-brand for Tiz The Law. As the prohibitive favorite here, Tiz The Law is now eyeing immortality in becoming the 14th horse to win the Triple Crown, and given his prowess and sharp form heading into Saturday, you'll be hard-pressed to find a legitimate cause to doubt the possibility.

The only knock against TIz The Law, through no fault of his own, is the considerable step up in competition he will be facing Saturday. He hasn’t faced speed that is comparable to his own, let alone from multiple foes in the same race. The potential adversity that can present itself in a field of this size is also a wild-card factor to consider.

Sandwiching Tiz The Law are the second and third favorites, No. 16 Honor A.P. (8-1) directly to his inside, and No. 18 Authentic (9-1) to the outside. Both runners are more than game and given that all three runners have exceptional natural speed, they will likely look to push Tiz The Law from the onset.

No. 16 Honor A.P. (8-1): Honor A.P. has a pretty tough draw in terms of post position. Historically, this is a horse that tends to be content working from the middle of the pack. He doesn't have the blazing, out-of-the-gate running speed you see with Authentic (9-1) or even Ny Traffic (18-1), but at the same time is not a closer either. With a far-out No. 16 post, lined up directly next to the speed horses of the race in Tiz The Law and Authentic, if Honor A.P. comes out and “plays his game,” he will be vulnerable to having a wide trip if he cannot make a significant move early to join the fray. In a large field like the Kentucky Derby, a wide trip often leads to a disappointing afternoon. To combat this concern, expect to see jockey Mike Smith push Honor A.P. harder, faster and earlier than he is accustomed to. While he certainly has the overall speed to hang with any foe, it’s the way that speed is managed and placed that will be key for Honor A.P.

No. 18 Authentic (9-1): Authentic basically has one speed … floor it. Provided he has a clean break, look for Authentic to shoot for the lead early. He has won four of his five career starts, the lone loss (second place) coming in a decisive defeat by Honor A.P. back in the June 6 Santa Anita Derby. Coming down the stretch, Authentic appeared spent, and while he was the best of the rest, he was not on par with Honor A.P.

The question: Was it the 1 ⅛-mile distance of the Santa Anita Derby that did Authentic in? That was the furthest he’d run to that point, but that possibility didn’t discourage the horse's handlers from attempting that distance again in the July 18 Haskell. Authentic took the Haskell field gate-to-wire, but again showed signs that the distance may be a problem. Down the stretch, Authentic appeared to run out of gas and just narrowly missed being caught by a late-charging Ny Traffic (No. 15). Needless to say, stretching out even further Saturday to 1 ¼ mile could prove problematic.

Given the outside post position of this group of favorites and the anticipated contentious duel to get to the lead early, it’ll be interesting to see their respective strategies to establish strong positioning entering the first turn, which will likely decide their fates.

Kentucky Derby entry NY Traffic runs during an early-morning workout at Churchill Downs, Friday, Sept. 4, 2020, in Louisville, Ky. The Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 5th. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Kentucky Derby entry Ny Traffic runs during an early-morning workout at Churchill Downs on Friday in Louisville, Kentucky. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Thinning the field

Now you may say, “That’s all well and good with the favorites, but I’m looking to get paid.” So you’re inclined to bet across the board on all runners 15-1 and above. As tempting as many of these long-shot options may be, an important detail to be mindful of that may temper your excitement a bit is that 27 of the last 29 Derby winners won with a triple-digit Beyer speed figure (a metric commonly used to quantify the speed of a horse for a particular race). If you’re willing to accept that as compelling enough information and basis to eliminate “contenders,” here’s the first round of cuts: No. 3 Enforceable (23-1), No. 4 Storm the Court (25-1), No. 5 Major Fed (28-1), No. 9 Mr. Big News (47-1), No. 11 Necker Island (43-1), and No. 14 Winning Impression (49-1). None of these runners has sniffed triple-digit figures, let alone consistently register in the 90s.

Accordingly, eliminating a significant portion of the field early on will make the scope of your handicapping a lot more manageable, and you’ll save a considerable amount of money on hopeless runners in the long run. The one caveat to this practice would be if you have no intention of being in it for the long run and are just concerned with the singular event that is Derby Day. While it would still be fiscally prudent to exercise some discretion on your investments, if you budgeted enough funds to bet and hope for chaos once a year, why not?

With that said, after those preliminary eliminations you’re left with a much more manageable pool of long shots to sift through, and still some large value opportunities. Underdog watch list

No. 15 Ny Traffic (18-1): Ny Traffic has made significant statistical improvements every race over the last year. His most recent effort was an impressive second in the July 18 G1 Haskell Stakes, where he came up just short after digging in down the stretch, to No. 18 Authentic.

The favorable post position for Ny Traffic puts him in the driver’s seat to dictate this race early. He’s outwardly placed, yet directly to the inside of the three favorites in the race, and given his frontrunning ability, jockey Paco Lopez will be in a great position to push the tempo early and be forwardly placed early, if not claim the lead.

While there is cause to be hopeful that Ny Traffic will be in the mix down the stretch, will he be able to ascend beyond just being in the mix? He has placed in four straight graded stakes races but has yet to actually win a stakes. But this horse is a live candidate for all exotic wagering.

No. 10 Thousand Words (10-1): Thousand Words is coming off an impressive gate-to-wire win in the Aug. 1 Shared Beliefs Stakes, where he posted his highest career speed figure of 104 (second-highest career figure in the field outside of Tiz The Law). Although facing a short field that day (four runners), he demonstrated the ability to secure an early lead, maintain it, and fend off a late charge from the Derby’s second favorite, Honor A.P. Normally a proficient stalker, Thousand Words proved that he’s a versatile runner that can win both as a stalker and frontrunner, an especially valuable skill to have with so many question marks on how the pace of the race will play out.

No. 7 Money Moves (15-1): Money Moves’ trainer Todd Pletcher has won the Derby twice before with Always Dreaming in 2017 and Super Saver in 2010, so he knows what it takes. This is the primary reason the seeming lack of experience for Money Moves should not be a deterrent. If anything, the fact that Pletcher has seen enough after three starts should be a sign of encouragement. His speed figures, already comparable to the tops in the field, have improved in each start, so his ceiling hasn’t been established yet. He finishes strong so the new distance likely won’t be an issue, and he’s a proven winner, having won two out of those three starts with one place.

Wager summary

It’s always challenging to give precise advice on how to wager on the races, because so much of it comes down to the allocated budget of the player and their respective risk tolerance. Are you looking to swing for the fences or just get on base? That could be the difference between a show bet (betting that your selection will come in at least third) or a win. Furthermore, that could be the difference between a win bet and a superfecta bet (picking the correct order of the first four finishers). It all depends on the risk willing to be taken.

In a race with such large odds, there’s the possibility for a major payoff even on basic win, place, or show bets if there’s an upset. But there most certainly will be large payoffs on all exotic wagers (bets that focus on selecting the exact order of finishers). Exotic wagering works best when you have a strong opinion about multiple horses.

Here are a few ways you can bet:

Win: No. 10 Thousand Words (15-1), No. 15 Ny Traffic (20-1), No. 7 Money Moves (30-1)

Although you might want to put a $2 win bet on Tiz the Law simply for the potential of always being able to say you bet on a Triple Crown winner.

Trifecta Box: Money Moves, Thousand Words, Honor A.P., Ny Traffic, Authentic, Tiz the Law

While one of the favorites of the race may very well win, unless you are willing to bet a significant amount, especially in the case of Tiz The Law, the risk may not outweigh the potential reward. So by betting the preferred long shots to pull off the upset you’ll be guaranteed a major payoff. But with Trifecta wagering, you can now bring in those favorites and put yourself in a position to get the most out of a shorter odds win, especially when successfully coupled with long shots.

Opportunities to witness true greatness at its peak are seldom. So when they present themselves, they should be appreciated and celebrated. That’s what Tiz The Law offers. And with a field ripe with so many long shots and compelling cases to be made for so many different runners, it merely adds to the intrigue and excitement. Sure, circumstances are not ideal in virtually every facet of life at the moment, but Saturday’s Kentucky Derby will give you something to root for, and hopefully you’ll walk away with your own stimulus package, courtesy of the track.

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