Before getting into this article, I have a confession to make. I have gone to Churchill Downs to watch the Kentucky Derby every year since Nyquist won in 2016. Since that first in-person derby, I have yet to pick the correct derby winner. Sadly, the derby winner has not been hard to pick in recent years. 3 out of the 5 winners were favorites and a near favorite crossed the wire first in Maximum Security. Even last year, Authentic was not that hard of a horse to get to. Now that my confession is out of the way, I will mention that I’ve won money on the undercard in 4 out of the 5 years. That is because I’m typically looking to beat the favorite and for some reason there have been much better payouts in the undercard recently than in the derby itself.
This year is no different, I am trying to beat the favorite. Don’t get me wrong. Essential Quality is awesome! He is an undefeated 2-year-old champion that deserves to be the favorite. He could easily win this race in the 2-1 range for trainer Brad Cox… But where is the fun in picking that horse? I want to make a case for another undefeated runner that is projected to be in the 50-1 range. That horse is of course HELIUM! To start with he is trained by Mark Casse and owned by D. J. Stable. Helium has won all 3 starts in impressive fashion. Let’s look at each race individually:
Race 1: Woodbine 2yr MSW 7f AW
Helium broke from the 2 post and immediately came head to head with Maximus Momentus (finished 4th/8) for the first half of the race. The fractions were solid for a 7F race; 22:77, 46.16, 1:10.96. After he put M. Momentus away he was challenged by the eventual place horse Excellorator but put him away easily by 3 ¼ lengths. Just for grins, Excellorator was the odds-on favorite in the race and has come back to win 3 races since this maiden. So, what can we take out of this effort? Helium was able to break his maiden going a tough distance on his 1st try. Second, he has the ability to go to the lead, duel, and still have enough to put away a good horse. Great first effort now let’s review race 2.
Race 2: Woodbine 2yr Display Stakes Listed 7f AW
First, you’ve got to love this confident placement by Casse in Helium’s second start. Casse is typically a conservative trainer who places his horses realistically. What you should love more though is how he won. This time Helium doesn’t go to the lead and duel right away. Instead, he settled mid pack and let 3 horses duel up front. He started to make his move on the far turn where he went 3 wide and swept the leaders and widened his lead to over 4 lengths under a drive. Despite different tactics in Helium’s first start against winners, he put them away no problem. I loved his turn of foot in the stretch too. This is clearly a horse with a powerful burst at 7 furlongs. Whether he has that same burst at a 1 ¼ miles remains to be seen.
Race 3: Tampa Bay Downs 3yr Tampa Bay Derby G2 8.5f Dirt
Helium had a lot going against him in this race. He was coming off a 5-month layoff. He had never run-on dirt. He had never run past a mile. It was his 3-year-old debut. To top all that off, he breaks 11th out of 12 horses. The chart says Helium was 5 wide around the first turn and in the backstretch. After watching the head-on, I think he may have been wider. The point is, Helium traveled at least 5 wide for nearly the entire race. When he made his move on the final turn, he spurted away by a few lengths… This is where things got interesting. The chart reads “ [Helium] gained the advantage while angling to the inside racing into upper stretch and held safe the challenge of Hidden Stash” If you actually watch the replay, at no point did a Helium bettor feel “safe” in that stretch. Hidden Stash had all the momentum and I certainly thought he was going to blow right on by. But what did we learn from Helium’s maiden race?! The horse has guts and loves a fight! As soon as Hidden Stash eyed Helium, our boy found another gear. That same turn of foot we saw at 7f Woodbine suddenly re-appeared.
Helium’s Tampa Bay Derby victory is much more impressive than it looks on paper. Yea he only won by ¾ of a length. But the next closest horse was 4 lengths back. Yea Hidden Stash got buried by Essential Quality in the Blue Grass. But you can project so much improvement for Helium. Helium’s pedigree is nothing to sneeze at either. His sire Ironicus was an excellent turf horse. But Ironicus started his career on the dirt. In fact, he broke his maiden going 1 1/6 miles at the Gulfstream championship meet. The grand-sire is Distorted Humor which never hurts either. The dam side was sired by none other than 1995 Kentucky Derby Winner Thunder Gulch. Helium will have no problem getting the distance. In closing, Helium has proved himself to be a much better horse than a projected 50-1 morning line would suggest. Layoffs don’t bother him. Different surfaces don’t bother him. Different race tactics don’t bother him. I’ll wager that the longshot odds don’t bother him either! They certainly don’t bother me one bit. Don’t get me wrong, Helium could easily bounce. But for my money he’s the pick over the short prices with question marks. Listen, I haven’t been this confident since I bet Mendelssohn to kick Justify’s behind!
Michael Vale @Michael_Vale 25 co host of Past the Wire’s Gate to Wire podcast
Photo: Helium training at Churchill Downs, Coady Photography