The original plan was for me to write this column from Churchill Downs in late April, where a person would normally be able to place a bet on a race run under the famed Twin Spires, and attend the Kentucky Derby on May 2.
But then the coronavirus hit in March and that put everything I had intended to do on hold, including vacation.
I usually spend my summers visiting the track. I try to do an East Coast-West Coast doubleheader with Saratoga and maybe Monmouth Park or Delaware Park, then a drive to Del Mar from Las Vegas for a few days to get out of the oppressive summer heat. I try to mix in a little baseball, catch up with family on both coasts, meet up with longtime friends and get away from it all.
This year, I was a bit more ambitious. I was going to make an Oaklawn Park-Keeneland twinbill at the end of March, then head to Canada to catch the Golden Knights. And as Labor Day weekend approached, the plan was to visit Kentucky Downs and its famous rolling European-style turf course and its huge fields. It’s a place I’ve always wanted to visit.
In between, I was going to do my Saratoga-Del Mar trip.
Well, we all know what happened. No racing. No fans. No out-of-town media. No trip.
I was trying to remember the last time I left Nevada and I think it was in December. The last time I flew was March 7 for my great-nephew’s first birthday party in Reno. To be honest, I have no burning desire to get on an airplane right now.
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So I’m going to remain here in Vegas and watch and wager on the Derby from the comfort of my living room. It’s going to be weird not going to a Derby party at a casino or not being able to bet the entire Derby Day card. But I will be able to make one of my favorite wagers — the Oaks-Derby Daily Double.
I guess if I was desperate enough I could drive to California or Arizona and bet the Oaks card Friday and the Derby card Saturday at a simulcast location. But I’m not that ambitious these days and traveling isn’t something I need to be doing at the moment.
So the plan is to watch and see if Tiz the Law is the real deal. His wins in the Belmont Stakes and the Travers along with an impressive five-furlong workout at Churchill last week seems to indicate longtime trainer Barclay Tagg has a true champion on his hands.
But horse racing is a fickle game. Anyone who has ever spent a day at the track or inside a race book knows that. What you see or what you think you see isn’t necessarily what you ultimately get.
Secretariat, the greatest racehorse of my lifetime, lost. Cigar, who was an unbelievable horse, got beat. Same for Zenyatta. If you race long enough, someone will likely get the best of you.
A little food for thought as we watch Tiz the Law’s attempt to become the 14th Triple Crown winner. He has a loss already, and at Churchill Downs no less. Tiz finished third in last November’s Kentucky Jockey Club, which was run on an off-track.
But the interesting thing about this year’s Derby is that the horses which will run Saturday are far different from the ones who would’ve run in May. They’re more mature, both physically and mentally. They’ve figured out the game, so to speak, and their performance can be indicative of that.
Certainly we’ve seen that with Tiz the Law. The trick in trying to figure out how to beat him is to find a horse that is peaking right now. Which of the others is growing up and finding his groove, so to speak?
We’ll study the workouts. We’ll look at history and lineage. We’ll analyze the recent races and try to read between the lines. After all, that’s what handicapping is supposed to be all about, right?
Maybe it will all be in vain. Maybe it’s a matter of conceding the Derby to Tiz and trying to build a winning vertical ticket around him or try and catch an exacta or trifecta to make something out of nothing.
The last odds-on favorite to win the Kentucky Derby was Spectacular Bid who was 3-5 in 1979. Perhaps we’ll see a similar scenario on Saturday. However, I’m willing to tempt fate. I’m going to take a shot that Honor A.P. will run back to his Santa Anita Derby win in June and be able to overtake Tiz the Law. John Shirreffs knows how to get a horse ready. He won’t be a long shot, but whatever odds he goes off at, it won’t be 3-5.
Hey, it’s 2020. Haven’t we learned by now to expect the unexpected? As for getting to Churchill Downs, I guess it’s wait until next year.