If it is the first weekend in May, that means that the bluegrass of Kentucky is calling and the Twin Spires of Churchill Downs are drawing the attention of the horse racing world. This year is the 150th “Run for the Roses,” the Kentucky Derby, and there are some clear-cut favorites for this year’s race. But it’s no fun betting on the favorites, is it? There are also some choices down the card that might be worth putting a couple of bucks on while you sip your mint julep in preparation for this afternoon’s race.

The Favorites

Earlier this week, one of the huge favorites for this year’s Derby was scratched from the race. Encino, trained by Louisville native Brad Cox, had to be removed from the race Tuesday although no official reason for the withdrawal was named. Churchill Downs has been very attentive to the health of its horses after last year’s disturbing slate of races, which saw twelve horses euthanized during the racing leading up to Derby Day, including two in preliminary races for the Derby.

The withdrawal of Encino, who won the Lexington Stakes to earn entry to the Derby, allowed Epic Ride to step into his slot in the twenty-horse field. Epic Ride does not have much of a shot at winning in 2024, but there are two distinct contenders to mark on your racing form. One of them is a vastly overwhelming favorite, while the other might be a “fly in the ointment.”

Leading the twenty-horse field to the post will be Fierceness, trained by Todd Pletcher and with John Velazquez on the mount. Fierceness has won three of his five starts in his career and is the favorite of the Churchill Downs touts, with his morning line at 5/2. What might work against Fierceness is that he will be going from Post #17, close to the outer rail, and making him work to reduce the distance he must cover.

The second favorite is a bit closer to the rail, the preferred line around the mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs. Sierra Leone, with Tyler Gaffalione in the stirrups and Chad Brown overseeing the training, turned in an effortless five-furlong workout on April 27 which was timed at just over a minute. This is important because the last nine Kentucky Derby winners made a five-furlong training run the week before the race (Fierceness turned in a slow, four-furlong run at 48 seconds).

The Long Shots

Track conditions at Churchill Downs are muddy, due to rains that have been plaguing the track since Thursday and mucked up conditions for Friday’s Kentucky Oaks. Additionally, nobody likes betting on the chalk when they head to the track. With this in mind, who are the “long shots” who might have a chance at taking the first leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown?

A trio of horses starting beside each other could bear watching. Coming out of Post #6 is Just Steel, with legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas and veteran rider Keith Asmussen holding the reins. Beside Just Steel in the #7 stall will be Honor Marie, the progeny of former Eclipse Award champion sire Honor Code; both of these thoroughbreds will go off at 20/1. They will be joined with the #8 starting position, Just a Touch, with two extremely “hot” commodities in trainer Cox and jockey Florent Geroux, with Just a Touch sitting at 10/1 on the morning line.

Two more long-shot choices might be worth a look at. Mystik Dan in Post #3 has the advantage of being close to the rail to start with AND an excellent show in the Arkansas Derby. What might make Mystik Dan an excellent choice is that, on similar mucky conditions at the Southwest Stakes in February, the horse cruised to an eight-length victory; he’s got the skills to navigate a tough track.

If you REALLY want to stretch out your betting legs, there is Catalytic, who is staked as a 30/1 long shot. Why? Catalytic only has three starts in his career, but those three starts have been impressive in that he has never finished lower than second. One of those starts was in the Florida Derby, where Fierceness took the win.

Coverage of the 2024 Kentucky Derby festivities will be aired on Peacock and the USA Network beginning at noon (EDT), with the main race being aired early this evening on NBC.

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