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The Kentucky Derby has always been a confounding race.
Especially in recent times when 20 are sent to the post in a gate area that can probably only handle 16 or 18 effectively. The ensuing 10-furlong stampede can take the wind out of the sails of the best horses, opening it up for some lucky stiff. Emphasis on stiff.
But Saturday's 137th running, scheduled to go off at 5:24 Central time (NBC), is the most inscrutable version I have ever seen in the relatively short number of years I have been handicapping the race. I'm heading out tonight to buy a new set of darts, the better to place the sharpest bets.
A race like this, you look for momentum and improvement as these young three-year-olds try to make their way to the Run for the Roses. They're still maturing and have every reason to get better and better through this campaign. And although horses traditionally drop out along the way, the high profiles and sheer number of runners out of this race is amazing.
Not only are some fine animals on the wrong side of the velvet rope, their defections have made it possible for some questionable horses to run. It's based on the top 20 in graded stakes earnings. Merit often takes a back seat.
We're talking about Boys At Tosconova, Rogue Romance and Premier Pegasus out early. To Honor and Serve won't be there. They were fooling themselves with Jaycito. Wood Memorial winner Toby's Corner was out soon after that race. Followed quickly by Wood tryer Arthur's Tale. And perhaps the horse with the biggest buzz who isn't Uncle Mo was The Factor, who needed minor throat surgery after finishing a disappointing seventh in the Arkansas Derby.
In the Derby preps, most of the logic went out the window in upset after upset. My kingdom for some form.
Rest assured, there will be some nice prices and the only thing we agree on is that the payouts will be anywhere from nice to huge. More than ever, keep price in mind this year.
The roll call, by post positon:
1. Archarcharch. He's got everything you want for this race and one thing you don't: post position one.
Purchased for a song by Jinks Fires, Archarcharch vaulted to the top of most Derby lists after an impressive whisker of a win in the Arkansas Derby. His Beyer Speed Figures have improved nicely (98 in Arkansas), matching his increases in distance. While some say he was lucky the wire found him at Oaklawn, it just might be the gut-wrenching workout he'll need for this race. The one post? Watch Saturday and you'll see that if you draw a straight line out of that post, it runs right into the rail. Nice. I'll try to find out if they move the horses out in the event of a late scratch. As recently as 2009, when I Want Revenge was a race-morning scratch, they didn't. Archarcharch is most capable and might be a very good price. It was the same last year with Lookin At Lucky.
2. Brilliant Speed. This Dynaformer colt comes out of the Bluegrass Stakes, a once prestigious prep that has lost its luster since the installation of a synthetic surface at Keeneland.
His Beyer in that race was a career-best but usually-not-enough 93. And he's been a turf/synthetic runner for most of his career. In his only two dirt races, the first of his life, he finished a combined 40.25 lengths behind and regressed in the second race. I don't believe he should be in this race; this is about the breeding later, not the true spirit of the Derby.
3. Twice the Appeal. Here's an example of how over-inflated casino purses can catapult a horse into the Derby. That would be the Sunland Derby, a Grade III at Sunland Park.
Sure, he is on the improve, but his best/last Beyer is only 89. Although in this field, that's not necessarily horrible. He's got 10 races under his saddle, decent Beyer points progression and he can rate behind the leaders and then close. At 35-1 or better, that's a flyer.
4. Stay Thirsty. My friends, this horse presents a true dilemma.
You can see Bernardini, A. P. Indy and Seattle Slew on his sire side and his dam, Marozia, brings Storm Bird and Northern Dancer to the family reunion. He seems to flinch in Grade I company, but he has beaten Toby's Corner, in the March 11 Gotham Stakes. But then he bombed to finish nearly 17 lengths back last out in the Florida Derby. Was it the blinkers? They're coming off Saturday. If you can toss out his last race, he looks just like Twice the Appeal. With Ramon Dominguez aboard, take another flyer.
5. Decisive Moment. The first thing you see is the back class.
He's faced four others in this race, but beat none of them. With a bunch of seconds and thirds, he earned enough money, with his claim to fame being a win in the January 11 Jean Lafitt, a $250,000 Delta Downs ungraded stakes race. I don't like the fact that his last, the Spiral at Turfway, was on the synthetic, but he might just think "wheee, back on dirt!" Or he could be confused. He's been at Churchill for a few weeks and has worked well. Still, no class and too many are better.
6. Comma to the Top. With 13 races already run, the most in the field, is this hard knocker supposed to remind us of Seabiscuit?
He was eliminated from the Kentucky Derby Futures Wager pool after his own connections voiced doubts about his ability to get the Derby distance. He won six of eight as a two-year-old but has raced exclusively on synthetic or turf. His connections relapsed into their Derby fever after he took a very tough loss to Midnight Interlude in the April 11 Santa Anita Derby. If he had run straight, he might have won that race. But asking him to go 1-1/4 miles against these, and he'll probably be weaving again down the stretch.
7. Pants On Fire. Your angle here, ladies, is Anna "Rosie" Napravnik, who will try to become the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Derby.
Cute, huh? Doubt her ability and she'll cut you down like a Honey West karate chop. Ms. Napravnik has brought home winners from a tremendous 21 percent of her mounts this year, absolutely dominating the Fair Grounds winter meet. She's already 18 percent in this young Churchill Downs meet. She capped her Fair Grounds riding crown campaign with a win on Pants' in the March 11 Louisiana Derby. She can ride.
Pants On Fire? After plateauing at 81-82 Beyers earlier in the year, the Jump Start colt improved 13 Beyer points to 94 in his most important race to date, and that's what you want to see in this race. He's an on-the-lead type. With an ambitious 2011 campaign and getting a short freshening since his last and a good post position, he needs to listen to Rosie, who has a nice inner clock, and control a sensible pace to be in position to win. It's a very tough assignment, but at morning line odds of 20-1 or maybe more, I'll accept it.
8. Dialed In. He's your morning line favorite at 4-1.
Grizzled veteran Nick Zito has apparently taken a page out of the thoroughly modern training manual and raced this one lightly. But in only four races, he's won three, including the Grade III Holy Bull and the Florida Derby a head over Derby rival Shackleford. He's a closer and he'll need at least some speed silliness up front to be able to run down this field. But with 20 horses and everyone taking it easy, it's tough to have this race fall truly apart on the front end. He ran a 97 Beyer in the Holy Bull and then regressed to 90 and 93 subsequently. He'll have to improve upon his last, but could this be down on the old up-and-down Beyer cycle? He has a win over this track. Just hope for a price and you might have to reluctantly include him. Some are tossing him based just on his anticipated low price.
9. Derby Kitten. The career-top 92 Beyer in the Lexington Stakes jumps out at you, but look left and you see it was on Keeneland's synthetic.
In fact, in the only dirt race of the nine races he's run, he finished nearly 28 lengths back at Belmont last fall. This is a prime example of a horse making it in because of defections. He's beaten nobody. Toss.
10. Twinspired. Here's another synthetic semi-wonder who got in based on the problems of others. And I can't like a horse who's name evokes the corporate symbol and logo of the losing-its-soul Churchill Downs Incorporated monolith.
Want dirt experience? How about 12 lengths back last December at the magical Remington Park? That was his only dirt race. I would be steamed, Alice, if this horse wins. So at 40- or 50-1, he may get $2 from me.
11. Master of Hounds. Here comes the Euro.
A study in contradictions. He's well-bred for this race, a Kingmambo colt with the late, very great Sadler's Wells on his dam side. He's traveled from Ireland to Great Britain to Dubai and even ran in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf here at Churchill in November. However, popping in here and winning the Derby is a huge order. He's got the world renowned Aidan O'Brian training and one of America's best, Garrett Gomez in the saddle. The bad news? He's run only once this year and has won only once, last summer at Tipperary. And he's never run at dirt. I dunno. They're taking a shot with him here and if he's 18-1 or better, you probably should too.
12. Santiva. If ever there was a horse with a right to improve, it's this one.
With only two 2011 races, he came on strong with a nice second in the Risen Star in February after winning the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill last November. He lept 13 points to a 91 Beyer with a less-than-perfect trip in the Risen Star, only to be bottled up and shut down in the Blue Grass on, you guessed it, the synthetic. So that last one is an easy toss and you can make the case for improving dirt form. 40-1 morning line? Count me in.
Trainer Kathy Ritvo gets a new lease on life with a heart transplant and then Mucho Macho Man, apparently foaled dead, springs to life and runs straight to the Kentucky Derby. Boffo.
Be quiet, cross your fingers, don't get greedy and pray his morning line of 15-1 holds up. He's been knocked around in eight races, but his last two were his best, including losing less than a length to Pants On Fire and Nehro in the Louisiana Derby while running with only three shoes. He's got two-year-old back class, his Beyers stack up here and he's good on the mud if necessary (50 percent chance of rain). For this field, this one's no pretender. He's earned it. His pappy Macho Uno burned me once. It won't happen again.
14. Shackleford. Who knows? Nobody knows, and that's why the wiseguys are looking at this one.
He was on the Derby bubble at one point, but got in. He has a chance, but you'll have to rely on an 89 Beyer in a small February allowance race, a bombout in the Fountain of Youth, and a tough beat (93 Beyer) to Dialed In in a very slow-finishing Florida Derby. He does best when he's on or near the lead, but he might flame out if he chases the leaders from the 13 post. From there, playing catch-up will be dictated and he just hasn't shown he can do it. Get a very solid price on him, he's a longshot.
15. Midnight Interlude. This one might be a giraffe horse. Meaning his 12-point Beyer improvement in a watered-down Santa Anita Derby was an anomaly and he's both not that good and won't improve. Or will he?
That 97 Beyer and Bob Baffert in his corner tells me he will take a decent amount of wagering. He didn't race at 2, but will that matter with this field? He did roar back to win the SA Derby, after all, and has been working very well at both Santa Anita and Churchill. I would really hate to see him at less than 10-1, but I may have to include him no matter what.
16. Animal Kingdom. Dirt is the question and H. Graham Motion is the answer.
You gotta have faith in the highly-regarded Motion, who said that if this first-time dirt runner takes to the surface in workouts, he's a go. He comes in after a convincing win in the Spiral Stakes where he registered a 10-point Beyer improvement. Veteran Robby Albarado rides. With absolutely no dirt experience, it's a risk to go with this guy. I'll take a flyer at no lower than 25-1.
UPDATE 6:17 A.M. SATURDAY: Johnny Valezquez Replaces Jockey Albarado For Animal Kingdom.
17. Soldat. Uh-oh. Here's another need-the-lead type from way out there in the 17-hole.
It's as simple as that. After running a 103 Beyer in the slop in a Gulfstream allowance race, he backed it up with a win in the Fountain of Youth. Fully prepared to become the next wiseguy, or even a Derby favorite, he bombed to fifth, 10 lengths back in the Florida Derby. Even on paper, it doesn't seem he's up to running on dirt unless he's got the front all to himself. He won't have that here, that's for sure. He's going to have too much to do. Pin your hopes on Alan Garcia and get 30-1.
18. Uncle Mo. Well now, what a tangled web we weave, Mr. Repole.
This is a very unpleasant soap opera that I wish would stop. Will he run? Or won't he? When last we left Repole Stable, the loudmouth fans' friend and self-described horsey sportsman was telling us that a team of experts would decide if the two-year-old champion was over his gastrointestinal infection enough to run in the race, all the while implying that he would make the decision. He even pulled out the old "the horse will tell us" routine. During the week, Repole went sensational by saying Uncle Mo might scratch Saturday morning! Or we might know as you're reading this.
Naturally, the conspiracy theories fissioned. The most common one is that Mo is okay and Repole is just trying to sow seeds of doubt in the horse in order to run up his odds. None other than the esteemed Bob Baffert, three-time winner of the roses, threw in.
"I think [owner Mike Repole] is just trying to build a price for himself because it sounds like he likes to gamble," Baffert said.
Here's what's not to like: He was sick; is he well? Is he even in shape? He hasn't improved from his two-year-old year. He got a late start in training and may very well have had some procedures done over the winter. He probably can't get the distance, especially from the 18 hole. He'll probably still be a short price. Even if he's okay, he has a ton to overcome as this race in no way sets up for him.
All I can do is toss him. It will keep me from using the barf bag when Repole comes on the telecast.
8:53 A.M. FRIDAY UPDATE: Uncle Mo has been scratched.
19. Nehro. The only thing that keeps this Mineshaft colt from favoritism is the 19 post.
Nevertheless, I think he can do it. He's a stone closer and only the wire saved Archarcharch in the Arkansas Derby. He won his first race only nine weeks ago but fine runs in Arkansas and in the Louisiana Derby - second in traffic to Pants On Fire - show he was on the improve in two very legit preps. His Beyers read 64-33-79-94-98 in succession. That's plenty in this race. Morning line 8-1 would be sweet for Nehro. I think the TV analysts will trash the field, pump up this one and his value may suffer. But you have to include him.
20. Watch Me Go. Oh, c'mon!
Maybe he found the track a little hinky in the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne, wouldn't be the first time. But he finished 17 lengths behind a horse who isn't even here. He'd have to run the race of his life from a Tampa Bay Derby win two back, where he registered only an 89 Beyer. Other than that, he's basically a 77-Beyer horse. Got two bucks you don't need? Fine, but get no less than 65-1.
I won't begin to predict who will win this race. I'll just be taking a couple of crazy guesses and then covering some big longshots.
Here's your T and V coverage:
* Saturday: ESPN(?) coverage of Kentucky Derby undercard, Churchill Downs, 10:00 a.m. - 3 p.m., Versus.
* Access at the Kentucky Derby/Kentucky Derby Red Carpet Special, 3 p.m. - 4 p.m., NBC. I think this is where Rico puts down The Big Derby Bet.
* Kentucky Derby (gr. I), Churchill Downs, 4 -6 p.m., NBC.
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