At Preakness, Don't Bet on the Derby Winner

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In Laura Hillenbrand's bestseller, Seabiscuit, there's a haunting scene about a jockey who hangs himself with a belt. When his coworkers find out, she writes, no one's surprised: "A jockey's life was nothing short of appalling. No athletes suffered more for their sport. The jockey lived hard and lean and tended to die young, trampled under the hooves of horses or imploding from the pressure of his vocation."

That was in 1938, but the lot of many jockeys today is only marginally better—they tend to live in dispiriting barracks on the backside of race tracks, many times plagued by drugs, booze, and gambling. But occasionally, a gifted jockey attains a measure of acclaim commensurate to his sacrifice. So it is with Calvin Borel, who won this year's Kentucky Derby aboard Super Saver, and hopes to repeat this weekend at the Preakness.

Borel has captured the public imagination in a way that few jockeys ever have, and it's not hard to see why: he's now won three of the last four Derbies (a total exceeded by only three jockeys in history). He's an affable Louisianan with a sweet Cajun accent. He left school at 12 to pursue his dream of racing. He applies an appealingly daring technique on the track. And in a sport of haves and have-nots, Borel by all accounts has retained a humble bearing despite his outsized success: he shows up for work before dawn, unabashedly cleans stalls, and avoids the media's spotlight. When I met Borel briefly before the 2007 Kentucky Derby, Ken Boehm, the chaplain at Churchill Downs, introduced him as "a fine Christian," and a regular at jockey-room prayer sessions. Everybody loves him.

All of which is to say: you probably shouldn't bet on him winning this weekend. For one thing, though he won last year at Preakness he's at his best at Churchill. "Betting on Borel at any other track shows substantial losses," writes ESPN's Bill Finley; his supernatural ability to steer his horse to the inside rail dissipates outside of Kentucky.

But more important (for you, the potential jackpot-winner) is that you're unlikely to see much return on an investment in Super Saver this weekend. In a pari-mutuel system, remember, you're wagering against the betting public. And at major races, the betting public tends to do irrational things—like put big money on a favorite jockey without considering the other angles of a race.

So save your precious gambling dollars for a more promising proposition. "The jockey should never be the crucial factor in the decision to bet a horse," advises the master, Andrew Beyer, in his book The Winning Horseplayer. "The jockey, however, may be a major factor in the decision not to bet...Ideally, I like to bet on a horse ridden by a solid, competent jockey who doesn't attract money from the crowd."

In that case, Borel's not your man. At the Derby, odds on Super Saver started at 15-1 before Borel's star power ultimately drove them down to 8-1. As of now, Super Saver's a 5-2 favorite for the Preakness, in what most racing analysts think is a pretty evenly matched field. And those odds may keep dropping. It's possible that this horse is that much better than his competition. And who wouldn't want to see Borel win a Triple Crown? But if there's one gambling adage that generally bears remembering, it's this: bet with your mind, not your heart.

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Timothy Lavin is an Atlantic senior editor.

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