Hold your horses, it's Derby time

When the first Saturday in May rolls around, it doesn't matter whether folks know the difference between a furlong and a foot-long, they still want a piece of the Kentucky Derby action.

Like the Super Bowl and March Madness, the Derby brings out the gambler in even casual sports fans, and given the wide-open complexion of Saturday's Run for the Roses, an amateur guess is just as likely to be on the money as an expert opinion.

Lookin at Lucky, with Dana Barnes up, is the short-money favorite in the Derby at 3-1.

With Derby Prep-season favorite Eskendereya scratched with a leg injury, the short-money mantle falls on the withers of the 2-year-old champ, Lookin at Lucky (3-1). Right behind in the morning line odds is West Coast contender Sidney's Candy (5-1). But Lucky just wasn't when he got the No. 1 hole in the post position draw on Wednesday and Candy drew the not-so-sweet No. 20. In the 20-horse stampede from the gate at Churchill Downs, either of those bookend post positions is considered problematic.

The handicapping picture for the 136th Kentucky Derby has been murky from the outset. Churchill Downs operates three Derby Futures pools in which bettors have 23 horses from which to chose a winner and a 24th pick - all other 3-year-olds. The pools were open for wagering over three weekends this year, once in February and twice in March.

Typically, in the first pool, the favorite winds up being "all others" because a clear favorite hasn't yet emerged. But this year, the field bet turned out to be the favorite in all three pools.

With the benefit of hindsight, the best pool bets this year would have been to take "all others" in the March 26-28 third pool (at 9-2) along with Lookin at Lucky, who finished as the individual chalk at just over 9-2. (As an aside, the third-pool field includes star filly Devil May Care, who is listed at 10-1.) With that combination wager, a bettor would have nine out of the 20 Derby starters covered - including the likely post-time favorite - with a return on investment of at least $11 on $4.

OK, that's what a savvy handicapper might have done a month ago. So, what about Saturday?

For starters, most horse wagering specialists advise avoiding the favorite in the Derby. The money is short, and the odds are long; favorites frequently falter at Churchill. Other general rules of thumb: Don't bet a horse that hasn't run as a 2-year-old or hasn't won a stakes race or finished worse than fourth in its final prep test.

"You need a horse that has the ability to make two moves," said Charlie Ludlow, the horse-racing expert at the Las Vegas Hilton race and sports book. "First, one move in the backstretch to get position and then the horse needs to have something left in the tank for the finish."

Ludlow is skeptical of horses that run exclusively on synthetic surfaces, such as Santa Anita Park. Churchill Downs is traditional dirt.

That would give bettors pause about Sidney's Candy, who won the Santa Anita Derby and had two other notable victories there.

"I give higher priority [to good performances] at Arkansas, Gulfstream [in Florida] and the Fair Grounds [in Louisiana], where it's dirt," Ludlow said.

Ice Box, leaving the No. 2 hole at 10-1, won the Florida Derby on Gulfstream's dirt, and he may be the best closer in the field. But Ice Box has had a six-week layoff - a red flag, according to Ludlow.

And, finally, there's a good chance of rain Saturday, and most Derby-bound horses have been kept off sloppy tracks.

"If that is the case, then you have to look at any horse that's being ridden by Calvin Borel," Ludlow said, referring to the jockey who took longshot Mine That Bird to the Derby winner's circle last year. Borel navigates Churchill as well as anyone, and on Saturday he's aboard Super Saver (15-1), who finished second at the Arkansas Derby and won as a 2-year-old at Churchill. One more thing, Super Saver won on a muddy track at Belmont last year.

After putting a sharp pencil to the field, Ludlow's conclusion was inconclusive.

"What I end up with," he said, "is a crapshoot."

In the pink. On Mother's Day weekend, the Trump Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City is holding a charity blackjack tournament, calling it Pinkjack to benefit the Shirley Mae Breast Cancer Assistance Fund.

The tournament is being held May 6-8 (4-10 p.m. Thursday and Friday and 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday) in the Ego Bar and Lounge. Participants are given a bankroll of tournament chips and have 10 hands to build their stack. Top finishers will win a 40-inch LCD TV for first place, a laptop computer for second, and a 19-inch TV for third. Plus, there'll be other prizes. The tournament is open to all and free, although a $10 donation is suggested. For more information, call 609-449-6070. On the boardwalk outside the casino, there will be a 5K run, a walk, and a survivors' parade. For information on those events, visit www.shirleymaefund.org.


Odds Are, You're Covered

Here are the odds for the first three future wager pools, plus the morning line for Saturday's Kentucky Derby, in post position order.


No. Horse             Pool 1      2          3          ML

1. Lookin at Lucky       8-1       9-1       9-2          3-1

2. Ice Box                3-2*       3-1*       19-1          10-1

3. Noble's Promise       36-1       26-1       19-1          12-1

4. Super Saver          20-1       24-1       35-1          5-1

5. Line of David          3-2*       3-1*       9-2*          30-1

6. Stately Victor         3-2*       3-1*       9-2*          30-1

7. American Lion          41-1       38-1       9-2*          30-1

8. Dean's Kitten          3-2*       3-1*       9-2*          50-1

9. Make Music for Me    99-1       3-1*       40-1          50-1

10. Paddy O'Prado       3-2*       3-1*       9-2*          20-1

11. Devil May Care       3-2*       3-1*       9-2*          10-1

12. Conveyance          33-1      28-1       19-1          12-1

13. Jackson Bend       27-1      47-1      46-1          15-1

14. Mission Impazible   3-2*       3-1*       9-2*          20-1

15. Discreetly Mine      3-2*       37-1       44-1          30-1

16. Awesome Act          3-2*       3-1*       13-1          10-1

17. Dublin                20-1       10-1       18-1          12-1

18. Backtalk             3-2*       3-1*       9-2*          50-1

19. Homeboykris          3-2*       3-1*       72-1          50-1

20. Sidney's Candy       3-2*      33-1       22-1          5-1

*Odds were for all other 3-year-olds as part of a mutuel field.

Contact Bill Ordine

at 215-854-2939 or at wordine@phillynews.com.