Well, we are finally here. Time to make Derby selections. Considering the inconsistency of many of the top 3-year-olds, inexperience of some of the contenders (mainly Big Brown), and trying to decipher how these synthetic track horses will run on the Churchill dirt, this year's handicapping challenge has been daunting.
But after being around the horses and trainers in Louisville, and doing my best to break down this race from a handicapping standpoint, here is what I have come up with:
Adriano (15): I know a lot of people like him because of Prado taking the mount over Monba, but I can't see it. He's coming off a six-week layoff, hasn't proven he likes dirt, has five sub-80 Beyers and I stood in the winner's circle after Lane's End and had the connections tell me he wasn't a Derby horse. If Adriano comes in the top three, I will be ripping up every one of my tickets.
Anak Nakal (3): Bottom of exotics at very best.
Big Truck (7): No thanks.
Bob Black Jack (13): He's a sprinter.
Cowboy Cal (17): Too much early pace for him to be a factor.
Gayego (19): Rare that you can toss the Arkansas Derby winner, but I have no problem doing it here, especially from post 19.
Recapturetheglory (18): I think he finishes last.
Z Humor (11): Hasn't been close this year.
Won't Win, But Will be in my Exotics
Cool Coal Man (1): Has a win at Churchill and will probably be pretty close to the pace. I like his experience and pedigree, so wouldn't be surprised to see him finish in the money.
Denis of Cork (16): It's pretty clear that he should have run in Rebel and needed an extra race, but has looked good all week. Borel will have to work his magic.
Eight Belles (5): She's the wild card in here. Talent is undeniable, but will 10 furlongs be too much? Probably.
Monba (14): Pletcher is flying under the radar for once, so maybe this is his year. Like that this one has a win at Churchill and is bred to go the distance. Could be in contention, but not sure he is fast enough to put him on top.
Smooth Air (12): Always seems to be in the mix and closing style could be perfect for the projected early speed. Not sure about getting the 1 ¼ miles, but it I wouldn't be surprised to see him get third or fourth.
Tale of Ekati (2): Not crazy about him, but respect his ability to win Wood and is bred for this race.
Visionaire (8): Another closer who always seems to be right there. Matz factor too.
Z Fortune (6): This is one that might be sitting on a big race. Will likely move forward from Arkansas Derby and may be peaking at the right time. Asmussen is quietly confident about him. He'll be in a lot of my tickets.
Best of the Best
As you can see, this leaves Pyro, Big Brown, Court Vision and Colonel John as my top picks.
Pyro (9) has been training very well at Churchill. I know I wrote he would be unable to recover after the Blue Grass disaster, but I have changed my mind, somewhat. He has proven himself as one of only two horses with two prep wins this year, has two plus 100 Beyers and the early speed should set up well for him. Asmussen has him ready to fire again. Not my top pick, but he will be in a lot of exotics.
Big Brown (20): This is how I play him: Key him on top in a trifecta and leave him out of every other ticket. He either gets over from the 20-hole, puts himself in good position at the half-mile pole and wins by three or he gets jostled early, makes a late bid, tires in the stretch and runs out of the money. It's one or the other. My instincts tell me it's the latter. All the arrogance and cockiness from Dutrow will come back to haunt him. Remember, it's been since 1915 that a horse has won the Derby off three starts. And at 3-1, he's not worth a big play. But because of his talent he is worth a few bucks in exotics.
Court Vision (4): In my Derby analysis for the Blood-Horse magazine I picked this one to win it. I wrote that article last Saturday before being at Churchill and seeing post position draw. I am still very high on him and haven't changed my mind. Here's why I like him: Has a win over Churchill surface, has never done worse than third in six starts, always closes strong, has Churchill's all-time leading trainer in Bill Mott, has best jockey in the nation (Gomez) and is crying out for the extra distance. Love his pedigree. Plus, the added blinkers will likely get him more involved early on, which was the problem in Fountain of Youth and Wood.
Look, his speed numbers aren't great and that is a legitimate concern. But I think he likes the track and will be flying at the end. He will be in every one of my trifecta tickets. But...
After seeing Colonel John (10) all week and taking everything else into consideration, if you put a gun to my head, he is my top choice. To me, the fact that he has never run over natural dirt is no longer a question mark, based on how he has looked this week. His bullet work on April 27 proved that. Eoin Harty is one of the most underrated trainers around, this horse has never done worse than second in six starts, and does everything right. Love Tiznow as sire, and being the big Point Given fan that I am, like his Turkoman line even more.
All signs point toward this horse is sitting on a big race. He'll be right there at the end, and should have enough closing kick to get it done.
All that being said, here is how my $100 will be spent. As you know, I am an exotic fan. The pools will be huge. This is where I'll take my stabs:
$1 trifecta - 4,10/4,9,10/1,2,5,6,8,9,10,12,14,16,20 - ($34)
$1 trifecta - 20/4,9,10/1,2,4,5,6,8,9,10,12,14,16 - ($30)
$2 exacta - 4,10/1,2,5,6,8,9,12,14,16 - ($36)
Good Luck to everyone!!