Friday, March 5, 2010

Betting the Field?

The second Kentucky Derby Future Wager is currently ongoing, which once again, features 23 individual entrants and the "field" for all other 3 year olds. The field has come in 5 times in the past 11 years, making it seemingly a good bet. But is it? Steve Klein of the Daily Racing Form seems to think so, saying:

A bet on the field is essentially a bet that change and chaos will reign, an acknowledgment of the reality that perceptions regarding which horses are and are not serious threats to win the Kentucky Derby can and usually do change significantly during the last couple of months prior to the first Saturday in May.

This is true, but sort of misses the point. When you're taking the "field", you're making one of two bets:
  • The current favorites are all vulnerable and a longshot will win on Derby Day. Therefore, the field ensures you have a bunch of horses in a race where the short priced horses are vulnerable.
It's easy to see the problem here: if you actually like longshots come Derby them! Taking 5-1 on the field when you can get 50-1 on this year's Mine That Bird is just crazy. Hell, betting $2 on every field horse the day of the Derby is a better play financially speaking.
  • The best horse has yet to reveal himself, and will be a shorter price than the field on Derby Day.
Now this is a much better reason to take the field. But is that what you're getting? We took a look at the results of the last 7 Kentucky Derbies, and the chart below shows how many horses in each Derby were Pool 2 "field" horses:

2009: 11
2008: 8
2007: 6
2006: 8
2005: 7
2004: 7
2003: 8

There are a couple of interesting things here. First, every year (except last year, for some reason), 10-13 horses enter the starting gate that were individual entries in Pool 2. This means if you're taking an individual entry, you've got better than a 50% chance of him making the starting gate--not too shabby for a bet made 9 weeks before a race.

Second, you're guaranteed to get a pool of at least 6 entrants by betting the field, and possibly more. But how good are the horses you're getting? Here's how many horses were in the field each year and were under 12-1:

2009: 0
2008: 1 (Big Brown, 2.40-1, won)
2007: 0
2006: 1 (Sinister Minister, 9.70-1, 16th)
2005: 1 (Bellamy Road, 2.70-1, 7th)
2004: 1 (Smarty Jones, 4.10-1, won)
2003: 3 (Buddy Gil, 7.20-1, 6th; Ten Most Wanted, 6.60-1, 9th; Indian Express, 10.80-1, 14th)

Ignore how well these horses actually did in the Derby. What this basically shows is that when you take the "field", you're taking 6-1 on a bet where, on average, you'll get one horse that's below 12-1 on the day of the Derby plus a bevy of longshots. And what kind of horses are you getting that are good "value"? Three types:
  1. Horses who bowled everyone over in an allowance race and stakes race in March and April (Bellamy Road, Big Brown).
  2. Upset winners of Derby preps (Sinister Minister, Buddy Gil, Indian Express, Ten Most Wanted).
  3. A horse that was inexplicably not in Pool 2 (Smarty Jones).
In other words, unless you get a horse that's going to deliver a blockbuster allowance performance--that is, one that hasn't run yet this year--you're getting horses that are short prices in the Derby with big question marks. So there's value...but are these horses you actually want in the Derby?

The conclusion seems pretty clear: pass on the field bet. If you like an individual entry and he's a square price, go for it. Otherwise, wait until May 1st.

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