Derby Tips To Separate Contenders From Pretenders

KENTUCKY DERBY PREVIEW 2014 - TIPS TO SEPARATE PRETENDERS FROM CONTENDERS

By Noel Michaels - OTB Learning Labs

The 140th Run for the Roses is here, and has become ritual in recent years, we'll have a full field of 20 three-year-olds going to post on the first Saturday in May in the Kentucky Derby.

All of the major Kentucky Derby prep races are now in the books, and the final piece of the handicapping puzzle in now in place after post positions were drawn Wednesday afternoon and the morning line odds were announced. The 20-horse Derby field contains one standout – 5-2 favorite California Chrome – and 19 challengers all hoping that Saturday, May 3 will be their prime time to shine.

It's always difficult to compare horses from different prep races in different locales, and this year's field is no exception. Nevertheless, some of this year's Kentucky Derby hopefuls have managed to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack just enough to stand out as the true contenders, and as always, there are a few live longshots in the field that will try to emerge as this year's dark horses and live longshots.

The weather forecast calls for dry conditions all throughout the rest of the week in Louisville, meaning fast and firm conditions will prevail at Churchill Downs up through post time at approximately 6:35 p.m. eastern time Saturday.

Here is my breakout of the top contenders and pretenders in the 2014 Kentucky Derby. Good luck to you, whoever you choose.

KENTUCKY DERBY RATINGS AND COMMENTS

POST              HORSE          TRAINER                 JOCKEY                   ODDS
1) Vicar's in Trouble             Mike Maker               Rosie Napravnik       30-1
The aptly-named Vicar's in Trouble truly is in trouble after drawing the Kentucky Derby death rail. No horse has won from this post – perhaps the worst post in all of Thoroughbred racing – since Ferdinand in 1986, and folks, Vicar's In Trouble is no Ferdinand. This horse's claim to fame is a lone speed victory in the Louisiana Derby when he got away with murder up front after the only other speed horse in the race missed the break.  He'll be in trouble trying to go wire-to-wire in this spot with the bad post and other speeds in the race who will be better drawn to his outside.

2) Harry's Holiday                Mike Maker               Corey Lanerie           50-1
A true longshot who took the Polytrack route to the Derby with outings in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway followed by a poor, also-ran effort in the Blue Grass. Highly doubtful he'll improve on the dirt, especially from this dreadfully bad inside post.

3) Uncle Sigh                          Gary Contessa           Irad Ortiz Jr.             30-1
Uncle Sigh has been a fringe player at the top level this year, and now has the misfortune of drawing a terrible inside post. Less publicized than the one post, post 3 has been even worse with a god-awful 0-for-35 record in the last 35 Kentucky Derbies.  He had an excuse when he faltered in his final Derby prep when he broke poorly and lost all chance at the start in the Wood Memorial, so he wouldn't have been the worst longshot in with a chance in the exotics if it weren't for his bad post draw. At his best, he was right there with Samraat in the Gotham, however, it's unlikely he'll be able to produce his best effort at the Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles, which is probably too far for him.

4) Danza                                 Todd Pletcher            Joe Bravo                   10-1
He's one of the great sleepers in this year's Kentucky Derby field, and a definite value at 10-1 on the morning ling odds for the best trainer in the business, Todd Pletcher.  His upset victory in the Arkansas Derby was a tour-de-force that in my opinion was the best effort by any horse this spring in any of the premier prep races.  He was highly thought of as a young 2-year-old before sidelined for the latter portion of 2013 with an injury. However, since then he has had his prep and then completely exploded with an effort at Oaklawn that points him out as the real deal, and a horse progressing strongly at exactly the right time. Sharpies on the ground at Churchill Downs this week have been raving about this horse's training and appearance. Not crazy about Joe Bravo aboard from this trick inside draw, but if he can work out a trip, this horse is extremely dangerous.

5) California Chrome           Art Shurman             Victor Espinosa         5-2
The deserving Kentucky Derby favorite comes into the race on a four-race winning streak. Each time you think you've seen the best of this horse, he shows up again with yet another dynamic effort, as evidenced by his wins in the California Cup Derby, the San Felipe, and the Santa Anita Derby.  Has high speed, but his connections claim he can lay off and press the pace, which will be a handy versatility is he can do it because Kentucky Derby paces are always too fast and the trend has taken its toll (to win) on all horses with front-end speed of the last nine years (since 2005, five stalkers and four deep closers have won the Derby w/no winning speedsters or pressers). His speed figures are top in this field and if he loses, it will definitely be an upset.  The only questions remain, can he duplicate his California form outside of Santa Anita, and will he be cooked by racing too close up to too fast a pace?  The test will come on Saturday at morning line odds on 5-2.

6) Samraat                             Rick Violette              Jose Ortiz                   15-1
Win machine finally met his match in the Wood Memorial when beaten for the first time by Wicked Strong, and although he was second, it wasn't even close.  Many horses through the recent years have been able to rebound from a loss in their final prep race to come back and win the Kentucky Derby, so it is definitely too early to count him out on the basis of that loss. He will, however, need to improve in order to win or place, because his best speed figures to date still seem a little bit on the light side when compared to some of his top rivals.  He's as game as they come, but will that be enough to keep him from getting swallowed-up at the quarter pole?

7) We Miss Artie                    Todd Pletcher            Javier Castellano       50-1
It's strange to see the likes of Todd Pletcher and Javier Castellano teaming up on a 50-1 longshot like this, but perhaps therein lies this horse's value and appeal as he gets overlooked in favor of other horses in the starting gate. In reality, however, this horse appears to be strictly a synthetic and/or turf horse that has little showing to indicate he is any good whatsoever on the dirt. According to clockers, he's made a poor showing of himself training on the Churchill dirt track during Derby week, and even this horse's owner alluded to the fact that he wouldn't be surprised if the horse ended up finishing last.

8) General A Rod                  Mike Maker               Joel Rosario               15-1
Not far behind Constitution, and Wildcat Red in the Florida Derby, and Constitution probably would have been one of the favorites in this field if he had made it to the Kentucky Derby, and Wildcat Red is a strong contender since the Florida Derby is regarded as one of the top Derby preps of this spring. This horse is the best of Mike Maker's three entrants in the field, and Maker's go-to guy, Joel Rosario, gets the mount. He never really runs a bad race, and seems capable of stepping it up a notch or two at this stage of his career, which will be necessary for him in order to win.

9) Vinceremos                        Todd Pletcher            Joe Rocco                   30-1
Difficult to dismiss the chances of a Todd Pletcher trainee, but as mentioned earlier in this article in the case of We Miss Artie, however, this horse seems to be entered in over his head in this spot as does his barn-mate. Unlike in the case of We Miss Artie, this horse figures to improve with the switch to dirt. Last time out he flopped in the Blue Grass Stakes when not handling the Polytrack, but before that race, he at least had run better on dirt down at Tampa Bay Downs. The question with this horse, therefore, is not the surface (of the trainer), but rather whether or not this horse fits in against this competition based on talent and ability? One thing is for certain: He will need to run by far his best race to date in order to win or threaten in the superfectas.

10) Wildcat Red                     Jose Garaffalo           Luis Saez                    15-1
This horse is certainly talented enough to win based on his winter and spring at Gulfstream Park, when he danced every dance and was never worse than second in races like the Fountain of Youth, which he won, and the Florida Derby, where he settled for a close second behind a tough rival, Constitution, who would have been one of the favorites in the Derby had he made the race. Clearly he's a top-caliber horse, but the question will be the expected fast pace of the Kentucky Derby since he is a front-runner who is likely to be involved in a taxing pace on fast 1 ¼-mile fractions. Will he be good enough to hold on to win or finish in the money?  He will need Derby Day to be his best day in order to hold on, so get a feel for the track on Derby Day before proceeding, and bump-up his chances if the track is favoring speed.

11) Hoppertunity                   Bob Baffert                Mike Smith                6-1
Has top connections in his favor and has received the proper prep regimen for Derby success with strong preps on two circuits including a strong effort in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn and a second behind California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby, which clearly looked like a prep for this horse who kept something in reserve at Santa Anita so he'd be ready to roll on Derby Day. He lacks 2-year-old experience and has California Chrome to beat after falling short against that rival last time, but they've pointed all efforts for a big effort on the first Saturday in May and this horse will be ready for an excellent big-race jockey/trainer combination.

12) Dance With Fate             Peter Eurton              Corey Nakatani         20-1
Before you write-off this horse as a synthetic track one-trick pony, beware.  This horse has run well on every surface they've ever tried him on, and my feeling is he'll handle dirt or even concrete, if necessary. Unleashed a powerful effort to win the Blue Grass Stakes to convince his connections to send him to Louisville for the Derby.  I don't think the trip will be in vain. This horse is a runner and means business with a good draw in the outside half of the field at value morning line odds of 20-1.

13) Chitu                                Bob Baffert                Martin Garcia           20-1
Made a believer out of me when he won the Sunland Derby over Midnight Hawk and others, raising his career record to 3 wins in 4 starts.  Nevertheless, the enthusiasm has since tempered substantially for this horse, who comes into the Kentucky Derby with hoof problems to overcome and has required a special shoe during training.  Everything has to break just right in order to win or run well in the Derby, and foot problems for a fringe contender is never what you want to see coming into the race. Beyond that, he's a pace factor that may be questionable at 1 ¼ miles. Overall, he looks like an early pace factor at best.

14) Medal Count                   Dale Romans             Robbie Albarado       20-1
This is a turf horse through and through who gets into the field because he was able to transfer his turf form to the Polytrack – as many horses do – when finishing a solid second versus a big field in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Transferring his turf/synthetic form to dirt will be an entirely different thing altogether, however, and therefore others are more intriguing in spite of this horse's excellent post draw and solid connections.

15) Tapiture                           Steve Asmussen         Ricardo Santana       15-1
This horse has been the lone bright spot this winter/spring for embattled trainer Steve Asmussen, whose horses have run poorly on the heels of drug allegations against this stable.  Things even took a negative turn for Tapiture when he flopped badly as the favorite in the Arkansas Derby. Certainly has a chance to rebound based on his best form, but Asmussen horses just haven't been making that positive immediate turnaround the way that they used to.  On the plus side, if you like him, his odds will be solid on Derby Day, and his post 15 – the first post in the auxiliary gate – is perhaps the standout best post position in the Kentucky Derby the last 15 years.

16) Intense Holiday               Todd Pletcher            John Velazquez         12-1
Slipping under the radar a bit for Todd Pletcher, but is clearly the superior horse to other Pletcher entrants We Miss Artie and Vinceremos. Will be ridden by Pletcher's first-call rider John Velazquez, and ticks a lot of boxes when searching for a Derby winner including having the right stalking running style, and an ideal post, since post 16 has been perhaps the best gate to break from in the recent history of the Kentucky Derby. Intense Holiday was an unlucky loser of the Louisiana Derby in a race dominated by a loose lone speed wire-to-wire winner on a pace that was not conducive to closers. Needs to improve a little bit, but has everything in his favor as the horse with the best chance to step forward and show the big improvement necessary to win the Kentucky Derby.

17) Commanding Curve       Dallas Stewart           Shaun Bridgmohan   50-1
Had a bad trip excuse when losing the Louisiana Derby, so there's certainly hope that he can turn things around and improve at Churchill Downs. On the down side, he has not worked well on the track during Derby week, and at his best has still been far too slow in order to be considered one of the major threats against this field.

18) Candy Boy                       John Sadler                Gary Stevens             20-1
Ran well against the top competition in California all winter and spring, including a win over next-out Sunland Derby first- and second-place finishers Chitu and Midnight Hawk. Took a little time off and then prepped in the Santa Anita Derby, giving him a bit of an excuse for the third-place finish and some amount of hope as he tries to turn the tables on both Hoppertunity and California Chrome.  The main things he appears to have going for him in that regard are a good outside draw and a good off-the-pace running style, not to mention a Hall of Fame and Derby-winning jockey in Gary Stevens.

19) Ride on Curlin                William Gowan         Calvin Borel               15-1
Gets multiple Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel aboard, but drew the wrong kind of post for Calvin Bo-Rail to be able to work his rail-skimming magic once again this year. Didn't run bad in the Arkansas Derby, but was soundly beaten by Danza and strictly picked up the pieces en route to that second-place finish (someone had to be second). Picked up a lot of points with seconds and thirds taking the Oaklawn route to the Derby, and it's difficult to see him start winning now after losing to the good horses he's faced along the way.

20) Wicked Strong                James Jerkens           Rajiv Maragh            8-1
The bandwagon was growing bigger and bigger by the day on this horse until he drew post 20, but when others get off the bandwagon, that's the best time to get on. Beat a strong field and did so easily in the Wood Memorial, and earned one of the best speed figures earned by any of these 3-year-olds in the process. Has the correct off-the-pace running style, and before you toss him out from post 20, remember that recently Big Brown won the Derby from post 20 and two years ago I'll Have Another Won from post 19. He'll get a good pace to run at and is definitely a live closer in a race that favors his running style, and the 1 ¼-mile distance of this race should be no problem whatsoever.

The Kentucky Derby is the "fastest two minutes in sports,"but remember, it is only one part of what will be one of the best race cards of the year in Thoroughbred racing with a tremendous day of racing scheduled at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 3.  I hope you not only enjoy a great running of the Kentucky Derby, but also a great day of racing in the one of the best spectacles in all of sports – Derby Day.  Have fun, and good luck!

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