Top-Heavy Field For Derby

A TOP-HEAVY FIELD SHAPES UP FOR DERBY

The field for the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby is finally taking shape, and the most obvious conclusion so far is that it is going to be a rich bunch. Spots in the starting gate are determined by graded stakes earnings, and right now, Homeboy Kris holds the 20th spot with $250,500 in eligible purse money — the highest total ever for the last spot in the field.

Last year, it took only $55,500 for Nowhere to Hide to be the last horse in the Derby field.

The more important question is whether this is an accomplished bunch of 3-year-olds. Among the top five earners, there are three standouts: Eskendereya, Sidney’s Candy and Lookin at Lucky.

Eskendereya, with $600,000 in graded stakes earnings, has crushed his peers by a combined 18 ¼ lengths in the Wood Memorial and the Fountain of Youth. Mike Battaglia, the oddsmaker at Churchill Downs, has said that Eskendereya will be his morning-line favorite at odds around 2-1. The Santa Anita Derby winner Sidney’s Candy ($630,000) has won three straight and is in fine form, while Lookin at Lucky, last year’s Juvenile champion who tops the list at $1,480,000, has a victory and a troubled third-place finish on his 3-year-old résumé.

Look at the two colts that round out top five in earnings, and you start to see the drop-off in quality. Rule is coming off a third-place finish in a weak Florida Derby, and Noble’s Promise has not won since last October.

In his two previous races, Noble’s Promise finished second behind Lookin at Lucky, which was enough for the crowd to make him the 8-5 favorite Saturday in the Arkansas Derby. He clunked up in fifth place.

“He got roughed up and suffered cuts on both his front legs, and it looks like he has a lung infection,” his trainer, Ken McPeek, said. “We’ll have to wait and see.”

Two upsets over the weekend further show that this is a crop that, after the three, is interchangeable. In the Blue Grass Stakes, Stately Victor scored at odds of 40-1. He had won once previously in seven starts, and that was last September on turf at Saratoga.

In the Arkansas Derby, Line of David won at odds of 17-1 to give the trainer John Sadler another Derby horse to go with Sidney’s Candy. The colt had won his last two on grass, and had never tried dirt before Saturday.

“We did three things different,” Sadler said. “We added blinkers, we changed his running style and we changed surface.”

Stately Victor and Line of David needed those victories to make the Derby field. There is a saying among horseplayers that sums up the chances of long-shot winners in their next races, “Don’t go to the funeral when you skipped the wedding,” and neither colt looks like a real Derby contender.

If anything, Line of David could pose a problem for his stablemate. Like Sidney’s Candy, Line of David is a front-runner who led every step of the way in the Arkansas Derby. So are Sadler’s two horses going to compromise each other?

The bigger question perhaps is, are there any horses out there that may be getting good at just the right time?

It happens. In 1999, Charismatic was a former claiming horse that used a victory in the Lexington Stakes (which will be run Saturday) to vault to a near Triple Crown sweep. In 2003, Funny Cide finished fifth in the Holy Bull, and second in the Louisiana Derby and the Wood Memorial, but then roared to victories in the Derby and the Preakness.

Super Saver was a game second, losing by a neck to Line of David in Arkansas. He is bred for the Derby’s mile and a quarter, and won at Churchill Downs in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club last fall. American Lion looked like a different horse running on dirt for the first time to capture the Illinois Derby on April 3. It was his third victory in six starts.

With 19 days until the first Saturday in May, it is hard to make a compelling case for anyone other than Eskendereya, Sidney’s Candy or Lookin at Lucky. Still, we can keep trying — that’s what those who landed on Mine That Bird at 50-1 did last year

by Joe Drape
from nytimes.com

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