Superfecta Score Heals Old Derby Wounds

11 May

By Lucky Kalanges

It was the 2015 Kentucky Derby and the unthinkable had happened.

The Road to the Kentucky Derby Showdown, a TwinSpires contest with a $1 Million Bonus Prize that I was responsible for running had more than a dozen contestants still alive heading into the Derby. And all they had to do was cash a winning $20 Show bet on the Derby to claim a share of the million-dollar prize.

To get here, they had to cash a winning $20 Show bet in 19 Kentucky Derby prep races without losing. Nobody had ever gone more than 9 races without losing in the four years we had held the contest. Now, an incredibly chalky prep season had led to 13 players hitting 19 Show bets in a row, and advancing to the Kentucky Derby.

With 13 players in the hunt, it was a mortal lock that we would be giving away a million bucks. Of course, we had insured the prize, or it would have been extremely unlikely that I would have attended the next three Kentucky Derbies as a Churchill Downs employee.

With the pressure off, all I had to do was make sure each contestant got their $20 Show bet down in the final round. A handful accepted our invitation to attend the Derby and I had the pleasure of showing them around Churchill Downs. One of the players who couldn’t make it was Matthew Ball, who hails from Burbank, California and paints movie sets for a living.

He was probably thankful for not having made the trip after being one of three players to choose a horse other than the post-time favorite, American Pharoah, or “the other Baffert,” second choice, Dortmund. He stuck to his original Derby pick, Blue Grass Stakes winner, Carpe Diem.

When his pick finished up the track in 10th place, he was one of the unenviable three who failed to claim a share of the million-dollar prize. Those who picked American Pharoah, Firing Line or Dortmund decided to split the $500,000 lump sum payout and bagged about $50,000 each, before taxes, from a $20 Show bet.

I took a photo with the winners who attended the Derby, but all I could find was this old Facebook picture of me donning a discarded Ladies’ hat with the million-dollar check.

Derby Photo

I can say from experience, if you want to be the most popular guy at the Kentucky Derby, just walk around with a giant ceremonial check made out for One Million Dollars. Everyone wants a picture with it.

As luck would have it, Matt’s story didn’t end here. After this year’s Kentucky Derby, I received a Twitter Direct Message from Matt’s father, John Ball, whose ties to the Bay Area can be traced back to the days when the Navy flew the P-3 Orion sub hunters out of Moffett Field in Sunnyvale. John said he very much enjoyed attending the Alameda County Fair and the Pleasanton horse races while he was stationed in the Bay Area.

His message came with an attachment that revealed Matt had taken another contrarian approach to betting the Kentucky Derby. After reading it, I had to reach out to Matt to see how the heck he had landed on Country House as a viable win contender.

“My dad had been touting Bill Mott all year saying he was going to win the Derby with whoever he got there with,” Matt wrote. 

My interest peaked in Country House when Flavien Prat was named to ride. I love that dude and think he’s a terrific jock, so it was a great sign to me.

I always give an extra look at the chestnuts, especially ones with a white blaze, as they remind me of our dog, Z. He passed away in December, and the name Country House also had some deep emotions tied to a friend of 12 years, who we lost last December.

Still, heading into Derby Week, Country House was only one of five horses Matt was considering as his prime win contenders.

“At this point, I’m still on Tax, Long Range Toddy, Honor Code, and Vekoma as my other win candidates,” Matt said. 

Like many handicappers, he began to pare down his list after the draw.

Country House draws the 20, which is a bummer, but he’s a closer, so it’s not the end of the world. Toddy draws the 18 and the weather looks sloppy, so I’m losing interest. Vekoma draws terrific in the 6, but Honor Code gets my lucky number 13. Tax gets the Carpe Diem post 2, so he is mostly out, but I’m also left wondering if it’s a sign.

Two days out.

Omaha Beach is scratched. This moves Honor Code (technically) out of post 13, putting a wrinkle in my lucky number angle. It also brings Country House in one spot to 19. It sounds insane, but it started to seem more plausible to me that he could have a good trip.

It’s Around this time is when I came up with “the bet”. My derby wagering strategy is always the same. Key one winner on top of as many Superfecta combos as I can afford, which is usually about $60. Thankfully, an $8 bet on Owendale a few weeks prior had given me a little more wiggle room. Thinking about the horses to use underneath my winner, at some point, it just popped in.

3 Bafferts and 2 Motts.

I didn’t know which Baffert horse to use but obviously one of them would be up there, and both of Mott’s looked like ideal derby horses. Yes, this was the correct bet. Stop thinking about it, now just find the winner. 

Oaks Day arrives.

I am working but my mind is solely on the Derby field. Vekoma is irritating me in that I keep picturing him winning. But the breeding is off and the numbers are way too slow.

But it should be noted that he’s a chestnut, and I always take an extra look at the ones with a white blaze, since they remind me of my dog, Z.

Country House also fits this criteria, and his name recalls some deep emotions, tied to my friend of 12 years, that we lost last December.

I had also read (NYRA Handicapper) David Aragona’s analysis of the Arkansas Derby, and Country House was his pick, just one race ago, to beat Omaha Beach. And Country House had run a respectable third in that race.

Then I read an interview with Laffit Pincay, and he mentioned how Country House was very agile for a big horse, and seemed to bounce across the track. That seemed good to me for a closer trying to come over from post 19.

Not to mention, my dad has been touting Bill Mott all year, saying he would win the derby with “whoever he gets there with”.

It was suddenly painfully obvious. Country House was the pick. He was my “no regrets, all in pick” to win the Derby. And it felt very right.

Still, as I can attest, having used Justify on top of my tickets last year, having the winner does not guarantee success in the Superfecta. Matt still needed to round out the bottom of his ticket on the morning of the Kentucky Derby.

It’s the best morning of the year, as always. I won’t be watching any of undercard as we are attending a kid’s outdoor party. But that’s fine, I don’t want to lose my Derby bankroll anyhow. I am left with a problem, in that I now need to replace Country House as one of the Mott horses I was using underneath. As I stood, watching my 3-year-old devour a sno-cone, I looked at my wife sitting next to him, and remembered her pick, Code of Honor.

My family and friends play a handicapping game throughout the prep races, and we were all fresh off a shellacking from her, so there was no chance I was leaving her pick off my ticket. I logged in at that moment and placed 3 bets.

In the Trifecta (a $20 total bet) and Superfecta (a $60 total bet), he played #20 Country House over five horses:

#5 Improbable (Baffert),  #8 Tacitus (the other Mott), #13 Code of Honor (Wife’s pick), #16 Game Winner (Baffert), and #17 Roadster (Baffert).

He also placed a $5 Win bet on Country House and, as a saver, $5 Win on Long Range Toddy, whose rider would play an important role in the ultimate outcome.

When Maximum Security crossed the finish line a 1 3/4 lengths winner, he was resigned to his fate, but wasn’t overly disappointed.

I was so proud of Country House and really wasn’t disappointed, because he ran so well to get 2nd. I thought for a split second, as Maximum Security crossed the finish line, maybe there will be an inquiry. But then I knew that was impossible…

Then it was announced that Flavien Prat, the rider of Country House, had lodged an objection against the winner. As the drama unfolded over 22 minutes, Matt recalls the moment he knew everything had changed.

The stewards room is empty, and something feels right. They cut to an agent talking to Prat. In a split second, as the smile came over his face, before his arms were even fully raised, I knew what had happened.

I covered my mouth and jumped back from the screen like Joaquin Phoenix seeing an alien (in the movie Signs). The gravity of the situation was instantly felt, not only for my financial stake, but also for the racing world.

Total shock and disbelief.

Standing in the same 10×10 room that buried me alive in 2015 (with Carpe Diem), was it really possible?

Did I have my bets right?

I know I did, but got to log in to make sure. Good lord, 65-1?! What will it pay?!

This is what he saw:

Derby Super

Not a bad return for a $90 investment.

From his Dad to his wife to his old dog Z, and from a good friend he’d lost in December, Matt had taken all the input that had mattered most, and used it to exorcise the Carpe Diem demon that had owned him for the past four years.

And while we only exchanged e-mails, the feeling of relief and exultation came through loud and clear.

“I’m not a very public person (no Facebook, Twitter, etc),” Matt wrote. “But it’s hard not to just enjoy the ride with this one.”

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