Commentary

The Wise-Guy Horse

There's a big difference between the favorite and the horse you should bet on

Updated: May 1, 2009, 5:38 PM ET
By Chad Millman | ESPN The Magazine

Getty ImagesAt 15-1, Chocolate Candy could be a good bet not to melt in the Derby sun.
On the Wednesday before the Kentucky Derby, shortly after post positions are drawn, a buzz races around Churchill Downs. It's a low rumble at first, nothing that the squares in the mint julep crowd pick up right away. But by the time the sun sets over the twin spires, the chatter is impossible to ignore. Everyone -- sharps, trainers, owners -- is talking about one thing: the wise-guy horse, the predraw long shot us mopes won't have on our radar until it's too late. "You think you're hearing the scoop that day," says handicapper Lane Gold. "Then you get to the window, the odds are short, and you missed it."

Recognizing a wise-guy horse early is as hard as picking a Derby bonnet. Handicappers don't like hype (see ya, I Want Revenge). They want thoroughbreds who look good losing prep races like the Santa Anita Derby. They eye horses who ate up the field after starting wide or made an easy transition from synthetic tracks to dirt. They look for ponies who showed muscle gain race to race and those who ran hard after several weeks' rest. "A wise guy," says John Avello, a bookmaker at Wynn Las Vegas, "looks for a horse who can improve."

The Derby field won't be settled until the post-position draw, but if you want a jump on the sharp bettors, here are three candidates, along with Avello's odds on each. Bet 'em now: Come race day (May 2), they could pay half these numbers.

CHOCOLATE CANDY (15-1)
His second-place finish at Santa Anita, following a seven-week layoff, proves two things: He can run after resting, and -- by losing a high-profile prep race -- he won't be overhyped.

DESERT PARTY (15-1)
He was upset in the UAE Derby by a horse he had beaten twice. The public will remember his loss, but the wise guys will remember his wins.

PIONEEROF THE NILE (8-1)
The big favorite at Santa Anita struggled to win, so he gets less hype than Quality Road and I Want Revenge. But he has a trainer wise guys love: three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert.