By Ryan Dickey
There’s something magical about the month of March in the world of college basketball — maybe you’ve heard of the phenomenon called “March Madness?”
But March also means the Kentucky Derby prep season is in full swing — with races such as the Gotham, the San Felipe, the Rebel, and the Louisiana Derby dotting the calendar.
Although today’s piece will focus on a regular-season college basketball game, and some horses who are not on the Kentucky Derby trail, the flipping of the calendar to the month of March signifies that spring is just around the corner… and excitement is in the air.
Kentucky Wildcats at Florida Gators, Tuesday, March 1
Tonight, the Kentucky Wildcats head to Gainesville to take on the Florida Gators (7:00 ET, ESPN) with UK tabbed as a four-point favorite.
Let’s not kid ourselves: the Wildcats (21-8, 11-5 SEC) have been very shaky to say the least on the road. They have won every contest at home this year, but are 3-7 straight-up in true road games and 2-1 on neutral courts.
The Gators (17-12, 8-8 SEC), on the other hand, are in free-fall mode, as their season has slipped away from them quickly, thanks to five losses in their last seven games, including dropping three consecutive contests.
Neither team posts a winning record against the spread this year. Florida is 13-13-1 ATS overall with a 6-6-1 ATS record at home. They are the definition of an average team, as far as point-spreads are concerned.
However, the Gators are 1-7 in their last eight SEC games, whereas the Wildcats are 5-3 straight-up, but 4-4 ATS in their last eight SEC tilts.
Yes, the ‘Cats have lost four of their last five road games, but the only game they were favored by more than two points was the dud at Tennessee, in which they let a 21-point lead go by the wayside.
Other than that game, they have lost to Kansas and good SEC teams on the road.
Kentucky dismantled Florida in their earlier meeting this season, scoring 50 points in the first half en route to an 80-61 victory.
And, although it’s senior night, the final Gator home game of the season and stealing a win against the #22 team in the country could help land Florida into the NCAA tournament, the odds are stacked against it.
In their last five games, the Gators are shooting 39.3 percent from the floor, and 26.7 percent from three-point range.
Over the same span, Florida’s porous defense is allowing teams to shoot 44.6 percent from the floor and 42.2 percent from beyond the arc.
The Wildcats have a 45.6 percent field-goal shooting percentage over the last five games, and have hit 39.6 percent of their three-pointers.
Averaging eight more points per game offensively (77.2 to 69.2) over the last five, while giving up 6.4 points-per-game less, as well as having a season scoring average of nearly five points more per game than the Gators shows why the Wildcats are favored in this game.
Kentucky coach John Calipari will not allow his Wildcats to be a “rollover” team on the road, because they don’t have the luxury of playing the SEC or NCAA tournaments at Rupp Arena.
The ‘Cats will be ready. Lay the four points and expect a 10-point victory.
Gulfstream Park, Thursday, March 3 (race 10)
If you want to bet a horse that is training well, is firing second-off a layoff and will be overlooked at the betting window due to facing not one, but two, Todd Pletcher horses in a $62,500 allowance optional claiming race, look no further than 5-TARPY’S SURPRISE (Dale Romans trained, Jose Lezcano riding, 5-1 morning line).
Yes, he hasn’t won in nine starts, but he’ll be an overlay (think 7-1, 8-1) and he has hit the board in every start on the Gulftstream Park main track (5 starts, one win, one place, three shows) while showing he can rate (follow the leader).
His Beyer speed figures are comparable to the two Pletcher charges (3-SAVOY STOMP, who is 3-1 on the morning line, and 4-TENNESSEE, the 2-1 favorite) and, as stated, he’s due to improve in his second start of the year.
A decent-sized win bet, with a larger place bet, should prove to be profitable.
Fair Grounds, Saturday, March 5 (race 10)
8-VIRTUAL MACHINE is looking to break his maiden in his fourth try in a $40,000 maiden special weight affair at a mile and seventy yards on Saturday at Fair Grounds.
Conditioned by Joe Sharp (who’s been on a roll of late) and ridden by Robby Albarado, Virtual Machine is the 7-2 morning line favorite in a race of twelve starters, with only two of the other eleven posing a chance to beat this horse to the wire.
I suspect that 1-COLONEL DAN will be the post-time favorite, as the rail has been more than favorable of late (trainers actually complained about the rail bias on Risen Star day) and the Wesley Hawley-trained gelding ridden by Miguel Mena sports the field’s highest lifetime Beyer figure.
However, that figure came in his debut race on February 12. Whether or not the three-year old is ready to return or not in 22 days is anyone’s guess.
Look for both Colonel Dan and Virtual Machine to vie for the early lead.
My money is on Virtual Machine to build on his foundation and break his maiden at a fair price.
Play him to win and box him in the exacta with Colonel Dan. I’d also use Virtual Machine on top in trifectas and as a single in multi-race bets.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Ryan Dickey is a full-time firefighter in Dearborn, MI, and a life-long horse racing fan. He is a handicapper and contributor to prominent horse racing Websites as well as a freelance sportswriter/photojournalist. He covers local high school sports and community events for multiple outlets, including bi-weekly newspapers and has over 200 works published to date.
Once again the owner of a race horse, Ryan is president (and currently sole member!) of Firehouse Racing Stables, LLC. This year @FirehouseRacing plans to send its first thoroughbred, That Is So Right (a 4 year old chestnut gelding), to run at tracks in Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia and, possibly, Indiana.
Having lived in Las Vegas for six years and working in the sports gaming industry, Ryan knows sports handicapping from “both sides of the counter.” Feel free to contact him on Twitter (@rdickey249) for questions, comments, criticisms, or critiques.