The skies will be clear for the first time in the last few years as Louisville hosts another Kentucky Derby. The last couple years have been impacted by rain or the threat of rain, but everyone’s happy with the high 70s expected at Chuchill Downs on Saturday. The fans will be dry and drunk. The handicappers can plan in advance. The greatest horse racing day of the year has all the makings to be one of the best in years.
The beauty of the Derby is that it’s not like any other race. There are no races with this many horses (normally 20, but one was scratched yesterday and his only possible replacement’s owners declined to run this morning), which means anything can happen. Everyone always talks about how a clean and safe trip is necessary because horses aren’t accustomed to the humongous crowd, battling this many horses after they’re released from the gate, or the track’s surface, which is a little different than anything else out there. That’s why betting the Derby is generally a complete crapshoot. You take your shots, usually against the favorite, and then you hope for the best. It’ll be a chaotic couple minutes, but hopefully you can enjoy it as much as I do.
With three of the better three-year-old horses not even making it to the race due to injury and one really good one dropping out yesterday, this year’s Derby field probably isn’t as strong as it’s been in years past. That makes it California Chrome’s race to lose. Chrome is the clear favorite on the board and deservingly so after the way he absolutely demolished the competition in the Santa Anita Derby. But most Derbies have favorites who get bet heavily and don’t come through. There’s just so much potential for something to go wrong. Favorites have only won three of the last 10 Derbies, so usually it pays to look outside that group for the winner
Since the track will be dry, we should expect a few horses to get to the front and burn up the pace a little bit. That could cause California Chrome to start a little faster than he wants. Generally a warm-weather Derby favors a horse that can stay off the lead and close well. There are a few of those here, so that’s probably who I’ll be looking at.
Rather than dive through the field horse by horse, here are a few horses I’m focusing on for Saturday:
4 – Danza – 8-1
It’s great that he’s coming off a win at the Arkansas Derby, but it was the race of his career. He was 41-1 to win that race because he wasn’t exactly blowing through the competition beforehand. He shot his load in the last race and will regress to the mean in this one.
5 – California Chrome – 5-2
This horse is a beast. If you watch the Santa Anita Derby, you’ll see him pull away from the field with ease. Jockey Victor Espinoza didn’t even use the whip on him down the stretch because the race was won so easily. Still it’s worrisome that Chrome didn’t get any training work on the Churchill Downs surface before the race. Some horses don’t take to the surface well at first and it would’ve been better had Chrome gotten adjusted to the surface instead of shipping from California late. So much has to go right for you to win a Kentucky.
6 – Samraat – 15-1
This is your horse if you’re looking for consistency. Samraat has run the same 99 speed number in his last four races. He might not be the biggest horse, but he’s tough and has faced competition while running down the stretch in every race he’s run. You have to like a horse who’s a little battle tested in a race that will turn into an absolute shit show at times.
8 – General A Rod – 15-1
Hold the steroid jokes for now. The General has come close in his last two races against good competition, but has come up short. There’s no reason to think the same won’t happen here.
9 – Vinceremos – 30-1
Throw out the Blue Grass Stakes. It’s on a synthetic track and Vinceremos is back to the dirt on this one, where he came in second in the Tampa Derby and won his two races prior to that. Todd Pletcher is the trainer. There’s definitely some value here.
10 – Wildcat Red – 15-1
Has beaten General A Rod in their last two races together, so that should tell you something. He’ll be near the front, which means he’ll likely get caught up in a speed duel. You’ll have to hope he can hold on for a piece of the superfecta.
12 – Dance With Fate – 20-1
I never like a Blue Grass Stakes winner because the Kentucky Derby isn’t run on the same synthetic surface.
13 – Chitu – 20-1
The Sunland Derby has produced Kentucky Derby winners before, but it looks like Chitu just ran the race of his life to win that and should bounce back in this oine.
14 – Medal Count – 20-1
Those in Louisville have said Medal Count is taking to the track really well in training this week. You gotta like that he’s generally a closer and should be able to pick off horses in the stretch. He hasn’t run that well on dirt in his history, however, so it makes you wonder if he’ll shine in this one.
16 – Intense Holiday – 8-1
The combo of Todd Pletcher and John Velazquez makes Holiday an interesting choice. He’s shown improvement in his last two races, so there’s no reason to think he can’t make another jump forward. The added distance should be a plus for him and he is a closer.
18 – Candy Boy – 15-1
I’m not sure I can take a horse seriously that finished almost nine lengths behind California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby. He wasn’t even closing on him in the stretch.
19 – Ride On Curlin – 15-1
We have a live one here. This horse is definitely seasoned having running nine races in his life when most other horses don’t have that experience. Even the casual fan knows of Calvin Borrel, who won the Derby three times in four years between 2007 and 2010. The trainer doesn’t want his horse pushed outside like he has been in past races and there’s no better jockey to keep this one inside than a jockey nicknamed Calvin “Bo-Rail.” Ride On Curlin’s dad (you may remember Curlin) was also one of the best horses of his generation.
20 – Wicked Strong – 6-1
The post position may scare you since few ever win from that far outside. Big Brown did so back in 2008, but he was a monster. Wicked Strong, named two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, came on late to win the Wood Memorial. With a hot pace, he’ll look to clean things up once they get to the stretch, but the odds are against him from Post 20.
1st – Ride On Curlin
2nd – Wicked Strong
3rd – California Chrome
4th – Samraat
[Image via Jamie Rhodes/USA Today Sports]