The Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks always offer interesting and, often, valuable betting options. A field of 14 fillies will run for $1.25 million in Friday’s Longines Kentucky Oaks and 20 horses will run for $3 million in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. But bettors have the opportunity to win their own jackpot if they can pick the right horses.
Bellafina was named the 2-1 morning-line favorite in Friday’s Kentucky Oaks. She is no doubt the filly to beat. Trained by Simon Callaghan for owner Kaleem Shah, Bellafina has amassed quite the resume in her short career. She has won six races in eight career starts, all but one a graded stakes race. She broke her maiden in the Sorrento Stakes at Del Mar last August and has earned three grade-one wins including the Santa Anita Oaks, where she beat Bob Baffert’s Flor de La Mar by 5-¼ lengths.
But this is the Oaks and it can’t be that easy. Jockey Flavien Prat and Bellafina will face 13 others, most with graded stakes victories under their belt.
Fair Grounds Oaks winner Champagne Anyone, trained by Ian Wilkes for Six Column Stables and Randall Bloch, has almost as many races in her background as Bellafina. She’s won three and finished third three times in seven starts and she appears to be improving with each race. She was made second-choice on the morning-line at odds of 6-1.
Kenny McPeek’s Restless Rider was made co-second choice on the morning line at odds of 6-1. The Alcibiades winner has yet to return to the winner’s circle since that Oct. 5 win, but she has been knocking on the door with second place finishes in her last three starts, including the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. Taking to the Churchill Downs dirt in the mornings this week she has looked rather full of herself and may be sitting on a big one.
The head-scratcher in this race is the Tom Amoss-trained filly Serengeti Empress. She won the Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs last fall by a whopping 19 lengths and then floundered in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, finishing seventh and beaten 17 lengths. Next out, she returned to the winner’s circle in the Rachel Alexandra, winning by 4-½ lengths. In her last race, the Fair Grounds Oaks, she looked good on the lead, but began to fade as the field was turning for home. It was discovered later that she bled, despite the use of Lasix, which caused her last-place finish. She has worked a few times since without an episode. If she is on her game and feeling good, she may pose the greatest threat to Bellafina.
As much as the Oaks seems to be one horse’s race to lose, the Derby is rather wide-open. A case could be made for nearly half the field and there is no one overarching standout.
Bob Baffert enters three for the Kentucky Derby — Improbable, Game Winner and Roadster. With the announcement late Wednesday of the defection of Derby favorite Omaha Beach due to a entrapped epiglottis, that means the also eligible Bodexpress will move into the Derby field. It also means that the Baffert runners will likely move up in popularity among bettors.
Of the trio, only Roadster won his last race; Improbable and Game Winner both finished second. In their last starts, Roadster won the Santa Anita Derby over Game Winner and Improbable finished second to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby.
Roadster, who underwent throat surgery to remove an obstruction after his second race early last fall, has raw talent. In his Santa Anita Derby win, only his second start after the surgery, he made up a ton of ground late and moved through the stretch like the sporty car his name evokes.
Roadster may have untapped talent that could be dangerous in the Derby, but stablemate Game Winner, Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and 2-year-old Eclipse champion, may be running back to his prior form. Since the Nov. 2 Juvenile, Game Winner has just missed being the first to hit the wire in his two starts. He may be ready to get back to the winner’s circle.
Trainer Bill Mott has the Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial winner Tacitus. In a four-race career, Tacitus has won three times. He earned a Brisnet speed figure of 103 in the Wood, an eight-point increase over his Tampa Bay Derby. That could show that he’s improving or it could show that he peaked in the Wood and may bounce in the Derby.
Maximum Security, the Florida Derby winner trained by Jason Servis, has gotten little attention despite being the only undefeated horse in the race. He’s done nothing wrong, but has only raced four times and only ran in one stakes race. He may be the horse that has the bettors asking after the race why they didn’t bet him.
And there’s still another 14 horses to consider! If the track is wet, Omaha Beach, Tacitus and Maximum Security have all won on off tracks. Others to consider include War of Will, Haikal, Master Fencer and Spinoff.
If you’re planning to play the races, in addition to the standard wagering on the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby individually, there is the Oaks-Derby Double wager that allows you to pick the winners in both the Oaks and Derby.
Wherever you land, the Oaks and Derby always offer great betting opportunities.
Jessie Oswald covers horse racing for the News and Tribune in Jeffersonville, Indiana.