Kellie Reilly picks the Spiral & Florida Derby for Kentucky Derby Dream Bet

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April 1st, 2016

Now that we’re entering the Final Round of the $25,000 Kentucky Derby Dream Bet, the competition rules are a little different, and our strategy may be slightly tweaked in response.

The Qualifying Round was all about cashing a $15 win bet on a designated prep race, putting a premium on just picking the winner, any winner, no matter how short the price.

In the Final Round, however, you place a $15 win/place (combination) bet on a single horse in the designated contest races. The seven-race Final Round begins with Saturday’s Spiral (G3) and Florida Derby (G1) and wraps up April 16, with the Lexington (G3) and Arkansas Derby (G1).

At the conclusion of the contest, the player with the “highest gross winnings from all qualifying contest wagers” in the Final Round is the winner – so getting a longshot play home (or even second) could end up being very valuable. That’s not to minimize picking winners; after all, in the event of a tie, the first tiebreaker is “most winning horses selected.” (Here’s your reminder to read the rules carefully.) But to stand out from the pack, you’ll probably have to go value hunting more often than in the Qualifying Round.

This added dimension makes the Florida Derby play a little more interesting: do you go the obvious route of picking Nyquist or Mohaymen? Or if you’re bold enough to think that Fellowship is going to clunk up for second, overtaking whichever one of the “big two” is the exhausted loser, would you sidestep the whole Nyquist vs. Mohaymen war and roll the dice on a handsome place payout?

Not being the brazen type to step that far outside the box myself, I’ve got to make a tough choice between the big two unbeatens. If it were a head-to-head match-up in the Kentucky Derby (G1), I’d prefer Mohaymen. But the Florida Derby shapes up differently. Not only is it a furlong shorter at 1 1/8 miles, but Gulfstream Park is also more conducive to carrying high-quality speed.

That’s part of my rationale for giving the slight edge to Nyquist (#4, 6-5). Two other factors come into play as well.

First, there’s the obvious fact that Nyquist stands to rake in a $1 million bonus, as an alumnus of last year’s Fasig-Tipton Florida Sale. The Florida Derby, financially speaking, means a lot more to Nyquist than to Mohaymen, who has no bonus to chase. If you’ve got a scruple about whether Nyquist will be as effective over the Kentucky Derby distance of 1 1/4 miles, surely you’d concentrate on getting the windfall while you can – and the bragging rights of toppling Mohaymen on his home court. Nyquist’s connections might not think so, or can’t say as much even if they did. But if I were Paul Reddam and Doug O’Neill, that would be my only reason for being here. Otherwise, why ship across the country now to take on a bear, if your primary goal is all about Churchill?

Second, Nyquist knows how to win a dogfight, which Mohaymen hasn’t had to do since his maiden score. That’s not saying Mohaymen can’t, but he is still developing as a May 2 foal who hasn’t peaked yet. Nyquist, on the other hand, has been ahead of Mohaymen on the developmental curve all along. We’ll find out Saturday if Mohaymen has caught up. While added ground should benefit Mohaymen, Nyquist ought to be just fine at this trip on this day. Nor is his single seven-furlong prep in the San Vicente (G2) a concern, since he should be plenty fit off O’Neill’s steady regimen of stamina-building.

The Spiral presents the opposite sort of conundrum, of trying to land on the right horse from a wide array of legitimate choices. I don’t have a really firm opinion, pro or con. That could mean I’m hopelessly lost, or on the plus side, maybe my semblance of objectivity can lead me in the right direction.

I really liked Kasseopia in the El Camino Real Derby (G3), so it would be great to see him break better and bounce back here. A Jensen win would also be welcome, with the easy-to-root-for Larry Jones/Hard Spun storyline. Airoforce is entitled to turn the page on a forgettable Risen Star (G2), especially since he represents an exceptionally strong renewal of the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). Azar has done little wrong in his life. And Surgical Strike can’t be ignored as an upwardly mobile local.

But somehow I keep getting drawn back to Oscar Nominated (#5, 10-1), who strikes me as potentially good value. The well-bred son of Kitten’s Joy and the stakes-winning Theatrical mare Devine Actress is consistent, improving, and likely to carve out a good trip just behind the leaders.

Fourth in a couple of smart turf maidens at Belmont and Saratoga, he was dropped in for a $75,000 tag and promptly bolted up. The Ramseys and Mike Maker had already filled out the claim slip. Oscar Nominated took an abrupt class hike for his new connections and was just outdueled in a second-level turf allowance at Churchill, leaving an eight-length gap back to third. At his winter home at Fair Grounds, he rallied up the fence to miss by a neck in the Keith Gee Memorial before setting the record straight convincingly in the Black Gold. The form isn’t worth much, but I’m taken with the way Oscar Nominated travels through his races and kicks on late, especially over shorter than ideal trips.

You’d expect a horse with his pedigree to transition seamlessly to Polytrack, and he should be even happier stepping up in trip. Oscar Nominated appears the best of the quartet for Maker, who boasts a 24% win strike at this meet. Maker’s percentages are slightly higher for “third start off a layoff” (27%) and “winner last race” (25%), and over the last 60 days, he’s successfully combined with jockey Robby Albarado 33% of the time.

Good luck, especially grappling with the Spiral!