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The Churchill Down Low

Tim Dougherty | Thursday, May 11, 2006

It’s that time of year again, the time when all inside columns begin with that same trite truism, as we all prepare to have our critical capacities tested.By the end of this week, after tirelessly studying for every possible angle, we invariably ask ourselves, is all the money we spend worth it. Tuition? Hell no. Gambling.The 132nd Kentucky Derby is Saturday and the only book these eyes are going to see is my bookie. So whether you’re racing down to Louisville or placing off-track bets, I humbly offer to you some words of advice from a perennial Derby dilettante. (NOT a connoisseur – that’s just another word for an addict.)First things first, ignore the animal – neigh, athlete – who’s picked first. The favorite never wins – that is unless he’s the underdog. Since 1979, only two race-day favorites have won, Smarty Jones (2004) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2001); one almost died as a foal and the other was Japanese. Instead focus on horses two through four and get yourself a racing book that contains all the horses’ past performances – place, distance, track condition, and speed rating. Pay attention to speed ratings (it is the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports), which give a good indication of the horse’s top ability as it faces the toughest competition in the world (e.g. Kentucky, where they take greater effort to breed their horses than they do their people.). Once you’ve narrowed it down to a few contenders, here comes the most important part (you girls will like it, well that and the hats): pick the one with the best name. Seriously. Some find that a bit unscientific, but think about it, when a breeder thinks he has a great horse, he’s going to honor it with a damn-fine name – one that rolls off the front of the tongue like a mint julep down the back of it.Since 1990, the champion at tradition-steep(l)ed Churchill Downs has had a name like Unbridled, Silver Charm, Charismatic, War Emblem. Throw in earlier Triple Crown victors like Secretariat and Citation and c’mon, pick the most awe-inspiring name – it behooves you.Now comes the most essential part, betting. Don’t bet to win, place or show; it’s safe, spineless, and stupid if you want to make money. The combo bets are exacta-lly what you want. Pick the exacta (top two in order). Or try the trifecta (top three in order) and if you’re watching the race on TV with your ticket in one hand and a sandwich in the other, you’re only a filly away from trifection. Or, ironically, you can box your horses to open up your chances, so that with an exacta-box (quinella) or a tri-box your horses can finish in those positions in any order. The secret of boxes is the key. A tri-key, which I strongly recommend, makes you pick the winner and then choose three other horses to finish second and third in any order. So you get one extra pick and it pays off between the value of a trifecta and a tri-box. I don’t want to brag or anything (that’s a bald-faced lie), but I made $550 on a $6 bet this way in the 2004 Derby taking Smarty Jones on top (that means to win) with Lion Heart (finished second), Imperialism (finished third) and Limehouse (did not finish in the money). (Note that Lion Heart and Imperialism aren’t exactly summer camp horseback riding names.)If all else fails, get buddies to throw in five grand each (like 2003 champ Funny Cide’s owners) and buy a Derby winner yourself. Anything to horse around before finals.