NBC Ky Derby telecast needs pro horse betting insights

Andrew Beyer, Mike Watchmaker, Steve Haskin and other lesser know pundits across the country spent this week trying to make sense of Mine That Bird’s mind-blowing win in the May 2 Kentucky Derby.

They cite jockey Calvin Borel, the rail bias, the sloppy track and Mine That Bird’s new running style where he drops far back early and makes one big run. Haskin even surmises that the gelding had a competitive advantage because he trained in the high altitude at Sunland Park in New Mexico.

But of all the theories out there, the most logical one is that the rail at Churchill Downs was much faster than the rest of the racetrack.

One reason Mine That Bird’s win was such a shock, is that almost all of the horse selectors in the Daily Racing Form and on NBC television pick their horses the same way. Predominately, they look at Beyer Speed Figures, class and connections — and Mine The Bird scored absurdly low in all three.

Newspaper and television analysts influence the public, especially on Derby Day. I have often wondered if any of these analyst make serious money betting horses over the long term. In the past, I assumed that they did, but now I think they are simply authors and personalities who talk about racing.

It was widely reported that track maintenance sealed the track and it was causing the inside part to play quicker than other parts of the running surface.

Alexandra Pitts, a Virginia breeder and owner who I talked with on Twitter, told me that she attended the Derby and walked on the backstretch of the Churchill Downs track during the week, and the only part her feet didn’t sink into was near the rail.

Overall, most handicappers put little weight into new information, like the changing conditions that the rain caused on Derby Day. But I am sure that successful horseplayers are out there that took the sealed track into serious consideration and made huge profits.

I am not one of them.

In the future, it will be helpful to Kentucky Derby viewers if NBC Sports broadens its Kentucky Derby telecasting crew to include proven successful horse bettors who are more qualified to analyze late-breaking information from a wagering perspective.

In the same way CNBC talks to stock traders throughout the day, NBC Sports could challenge these winning bettors to point out important wagering information  — preferably not pulled from the pages of the Daily Racing Form — that viewers might be overlooking. 

On NBC’s telecast, Hank Goldberg, Randy Moss and Gary Stevens provided horse racing commentary. Goldberg is OK, but nobody can convince me that he makes money betting horses. His strength is that he’s an experienced on-air personality. And Gary Stevens is an ex-jockey who is an informative, insightful host, but again, not a winning horseplayer.

Finally, Randy Moss is a former newspaper reporter and ESPN host who is now making Moss Pace Figures for the Daily Racing Form. Maybe he wins money on horses and maybe he doesn’t.

What the Kentucky Derby pre-race telecast needs is some fresh blood and new ideas, so that a racing result like Mine That Bird’s does not come as such a shock. Maybe cut to professional bettors like Jimmy “The Hat” Allard of Los Angeles, Ca. or Mike Maloney of  Lexington, Ky. for five minutes. These guys bet millions of dollars a year on horses and I’m sure they’d provide insights based on sound logic that others ignored.

For instance, the Kentucky Derby telecast could have gone more like this:  Goldberg runs down the race and gives out his usual low-priced runner. Then the telecast cuts to three different professional horse bettors on a split screen who are challenged to come up with logically-based opinions.

About 20 minutes before the Derby, a handicapper might have said something like this.

“Folks, the track maintenance crew has had the track sealed up all week, which is common practice to allow the water to drain off quicker. Sometimes, this causes the inside portion of the running surface to become much firmer, while the outside lanes remain soft.

“If this is the case today, horses on the inside will run without their feet sinking in the mud while the others on the outside could be bogged down in the slower going. This would be like running a race for human milers with the inside portion of the track being made of concrete, while the rest is a sandy beach.

“Today, if the rail is the place to be. We should ask ourselves which horses and jockeys are most likely to take advantage of it, and what odds do we need to compensate for the risk of being wrong?”

Of course, any speed horse breaking from the inside would have been one possibility, and another would have been any jockey who seemed to notice the bias and steered his mounts toward the rail during earlier races on the Churchill card.

But one obvious horse would have been whoever jockey Calvin Borel was riding. He, of course, has made his living on the rail. He feeds his family by riding the rail, makes his car payment that way, and pays his mortgage on only one part of the track — the rail. He always has. And whether there is a bias or not Borel looks to come up the fence first, and goes outside second.

If Mine That Bird winning the Kentucky Derby teaches us anything about betting the horses, it should be this: that past performances are simply a blueprint and to cash big tickets bettors need to open their minds  to see the race differently than almost everyone else sees it.

© Maiden King, 2009.

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