Longshots, Big Bets and steering clear of ‘Mattress Mack’ on Kentucky Derby Day

Mint juleps, southern belles in extravagant hats, men in flamboyant suits, and the familiar refrain of 'My Old Kentucky Home.' These are all part of the pageantry that I love about the Kentucky Derby. I’ve never had the pleasure of attending the Derby in person, although I was lucky enough to win tickets to the 2010 Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, so I appreciate the history and traditions of this historic racetrack.
 
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Of course, what Derby day is really all about is the horses, the racing, and the betting. As I was handicapping this year’s edition of the Run for the Roses, one nagging question remained throughout the day: Which horse would Houston furniture store owner Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale place his whopping $1.5 million bet on, and how much would that bet affect up my odds?

I liked the horse Epicenter throughout the Kentucky Derby prep season and had cashed a win bet on him in the Louisiana Derby. He had beaten the Chad Brown-trained horse Zandon in the Risen Star and had been training well for the Kentucky Derby. Epicenter certainly felt like a logical winner for the Kentucky Derby. However, logic and horse racing often don’t mix well.
 
For much of Derby day, Epicenter was the 5-1 co-favorite, along with Taiba. I knew that Mattress Mack planned to wait until just before post time to place his bet on the favorite to minimize his risk on a furniture promotion that offered refunds if the favorite won, but I couldn’t wait that long because my wife and I were headed to a Derby party at a local bar and grill.  Pro tip: when your wife wants to show off her favorite Derby hat, don’t stand in the way. So I placed my bet knowing that Epicenter’s odds likely would drop, but by how much? According to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, those odds dropped from 5-1 to 9-2 after Mattress Mack plunked down his hefty wager. Epicenter’s odds closed at 4-1 at post time, but I wasn’t complaining because they were still better than his 7-2 morning line odds.
 
Now all that was left to do was watch the race and root for Epicenter to have his picture taken in the winner’s circle. The crowd at the bar reached a fever pitch as Colorado Avalanche fans were rooting their team on to victory in Game 3 of the first round of the NHL playoffs while horse handicappers awaited the starting bell. The gates opened, and the field of 20 horses started the “Fastest Two Minutes in Sports.” While Epicenter made a determined stretch run to fend off Zandon, longshot Rich Strike zipped up the rail to nail Epicenter just before hitting the wire.
Rich Strike’s 80-1 odds made him the second-longest shot to win the Derby, behind only Donerail, who won the 1913 Derby at 91-1 odds. To put that in perspective, a $2 win bet on Rich Strike paid $163.60, while a $1 superfecta doled out a staggering $321,500.09. What may be even more remarkable is that Rich Strike wasn’t even in the Derby field until the day before the race, when Ethereal Road scratched and allowed Rich Strike to draw into the field from the also-eligible list. Prior to winning the Kentucky Derby, Rich Strike’s lone victory in seven races was a $30,000 maiden claiming race.
 
At the end of the day, my $25 loss on Epicenter paled in comparison to the $2.6 million that Mattress Mack says he lost on the Kentucky Derby, which includes exotics wagers alongside his $1.5 million bet. I had three winners on the Derby undercard, so I ended with a small profit for the day. Several people complimented my wife for her stylish hat, I enjoyed a mint julep or two, and for an afternoon, all seemed right with the world.
 
Dimers columnist David Miles is a longtime journalist and English teacher living in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
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