It seems as though it was light years ago that names like Vineyard Haven, Midshipman, Charitable Man, Old Fashioned and Square Eddie were at the top of many of our watch lists. More recently, Quality Road, who was perhaps the probable post time favorite, was at the center of everyone's attention. With none of those colts even making it to the starting gate, it just goes to show you how hard it is to win this race.
And so here we are here, finally, left with 20 horses standing (and probably 8-10 that don't belong) for a chance at Kentucky Derby 135. You could say nearly every year that "the Derby is wide open," but that phrase is especially true in 2009. From talking to people at Churchill all week, it seems that almost everyone has a different opinion.
For what it's worth, here is my analysis on the Derby, including a few sentences about the chances of each, and a final selection.
First off, from a pace scenario, I believe that Join in the Dance, Regal Ransom, Nowhere to Hide and even Mine That Bird will be the quickest out of the gate and take the field into the first turn. I don't expect a pedestrian pace, but something in the range of :23 and change and :47 and change. By six furlongs I expect Chocolate Candy, Desert Party, Friesan Fire, Pioneerof the Nile, I Want Revenge, Musket Man and perhaps General Quarters to get involved.
Weather could play a significant role. It is raining as I write this on Thursday morning, and there is a 60% chance of rain on both Oaks and Derby days, which means there is a decent possibility the track will come up wet. For horses like Pioneerof the Nile and Chocolate Candy who have raced exclusively on synthetics, how will they handle an off track?
And now the horses. First, the ones I give little chance of hitting the board and even a smaller chance at winning. Some of you will disagree with these, but the Derby is all about elimination. You can't back everyone.
Advice: One of three WinStar starters, Lexington winner was off-the-board in only start on natural dirt and doesn't look like he's fast enough to be any kind of factor. Enters off two-week layoff.
Atomic Rain: A late entry into the dance, his Wood run was decent enough, but the bottom line is, he hasn't won since breaking his maiden last summer and hasn't hit the board in either stakes effort this season.
Flying Private: Has posted just a single victory from 10 lifetime starts, that coming last August in maiden company. Didn't show much of anything in the Arkansas Derby or in his lone effort on a muddy track last year.
Mine That Bird: Highest Beyer speed figure (81) isn't even close to making him a contender. Has shown some speed in the past, but it probably won't last for long. Best races have come on the Woodbine Polytrack.
Mr. Hot Stuff: Yes, he's improving and comes from hot, winning connections, but the fact is he has only a maiden win in seven starts and no dirt experience. He's a good-looking, smallish colt and there is always the possibility he could come flying late off a hot pace, but he's difficult to back.
Summer Bird: Oaklawn shipper's lone win came in a maiden claimer, in mid-March. There are some people who feel he is an exotics possibility based on his Arkansas Derby where he was closing on the leaders late. I say he's in over his head.
West Side Bernie: The second of two starters for Kelly Breen, has plenty of two-turn experience and likes to hang around, but rarely wins. Will probably be too far back turning for home to make any noise.
*The following are horses I feel have the best shot to win or hit the board:
Chocolate Candy: The son of Candy Ride seems to be the longshot pick of many. You can't disregard his recent form, in which he has won three times and hit the board in his last five. And if you like Pioneerof the Nile, how can you leave him out? He lost to him by only a length in the Santa Anita Derby after a five-wide trip and he'll be a much better price than his rival. Has good foundation and is versatile. Don't forget, he showed decent speed in the El Camino Real, so he's not the dead closer that many think. Negatives are that he has no dirt experience and low speed numbers. But Hollendorfer is one of the best out there, so he has to be respected. He will be on the bottom of my exotics.
Desert Party: The more the week has gone on, the more I like this colt. In my opinion, he has taken to the track as well any anyone in the field and looks dead fit. Saeed bin Suroor has been quietly confident in his comments. He hinted at the fact that he wasn't completely geared up for the UAE Derby, when unable to catch stablemate Regal Ransom in the stretch. Many have tossed him after he drew the 19 post. Not me. If you like Pioneerof the Nile and Dunkirk, is there really that much difference between the 15 or 16 post and the 19 post? I don't think it's an issue; he should have enough speed to clear some of the other horses on the first turn and put himself in nice position. The son of Street Cry gives Godolphin its best Derby chance. He will be all over my tickets, including on top in my main trifecta play.
Dunkirk: There are plenty of things to like and dislike about him. If you're a backer, you have to like his tremendous progression in all three starts, including his Florida Derby run when making the big move around the turn. In that last effort, he closed on a speed-biased track and finished up in a terrific time while earning a 108 Beyer. His bullet works since then suggests that he is ready for another big effort. He's obviously a well-bred colt as his $3.7 million price tag backs up. If you're taking a stand against, you can point to the fact that he had no 2-year-old foundation, is making just his fourth start and isn't even a stakes winner. All of this while probably going off as the second choice. Based on talent alone, I feel that he must be included in exotics. Unless he gets stopped, he should make that big middle-move at some point and be a factor turning for home. I have decided not to use him on top because I'm not overly-impressed by his stretch kick, but certainly wouldn't be surprised if he won.
Friesan Fire: If you would have asked me before this week, he wouldn't have been my pick. But with Quality Road out, he is my top choice, for several reasons. I like that he comes into the race fresh. The seven-week layoff isn't a concern. Think about it: How many times in our daily handicapping do we see horses who come off three, four or five-month layoffs to win? It happens all the time, so why is it such a big deal in the Derby? Jones has him ready, proved by his bullet work in :57 and change earlier in the week. He's won three straight and seems to be getting better with each start. I don't think we've seen the bottom of him yet. And you have to love his A.P. Indy pedigree that suggests he'll get the distance and like a wet track, the latter which he proved in the Louisiana Derby. He has the right running style for a Derby winner. I think he'll be closer to the pace than many think, and if he's good enough, will be in perfect position turning for home.
General Quarters: Has two major prep victories over different tracks, a win at Churchill, is more experienced than anyone in the field (11 starts), so many are taking a hard look. Hasn't been the best-looking mover this week, but for me, the addition of Leparoux, who broke Pat Day's single-season meet record at Churchill last year, makes him worth using on all exotics. Also, pedigree-wise, he should relish a wet track.
Hold Me Back: Not many horses have improved as much as this one since the start of the year. For me, his poor effort on dirt wasn't so much that he had trouble with the surface as it was his physical immaturity, so that's not a big concern. If he gets a solid pace to run at, he's a dangerous closer who will go off at an attractive price for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. That being written, this will be his third race in six weeks, which might be a bit much. My first instinct is to toss him because he'll likely be too far back turning for home, especially if he's caught too wide. He might be sprinkled in the bottom of exotics, however.
I Want Revenge: The Probable post time favorite has to be respected based on Gotham and Wood wins, which were done in completely different ways. He's the only horse in the field with two Beyers over 103 and has enough tactical speed to place himself where Talamo wants. Say what you will about Mullins' checkered past, but he's an outstanding trainer who takes a legitimate horse into his fifth Derby. There are no real weaknesses to speak of here, at least on paper. If you're playing against him winning, which I am, it's because you are looking for a bigger price and hoping his 19-year-old rider makes a mistake in his first Derby. Other than Mr. Fantasy, who looks like a miler, I also don't believe he beat all that much in New York and didn't wow me with his times. Will he be on all exotic tickets? Absolutely. But I am looking to beat the favorite in a wide-open field.
Musket Man: The fact that he won a pair of major Derby preps automatically makes him a legit contender. All he has done is win five of six starts, including a pair of graded stakes at two turns. There aren't many in here that have done that. His pedigree limitation is major concern, but he keeps proving us wrong by outrunning it. Will he do it again? I don't think it's likely, but he speed makes him worth using in exotics at a big price.
Papa Clem: Like Chocolate Candy, if you are backing Pioneerof the Nile this one has to be considered since he finished only a half-length back in Robert Lewis. He proved his versatility and tenacity in Arkansas Derby (101 Beyer) and now has two good starts over dirt, including one on a sloppy track. Running style, which should place him close to the pace, makes him a threat. I like the Thursday blowout by Stute, who obviously felt he needed to stretch the legs. Bejarano has been sensational for a long while too and won't hurt his cause. He'll be a big overlay and certainly deserves to be used on many tickets. Wouldn't be the most shocking upset winner either.
Regal Ransom: The second of two Dubai starters, he defeated Desert Party in the UAE Derby. That, along with his early speed, makes him one to consider. Without anything concrete to base my opinion on, other than reading between the lines in what Suroor is saying, I think he is the weaker of the Godolphin pair and I will not use him.
Pioneerof the Nile: With four consecutive graded stakes scores, all he does is win. And it can be argued that the California horses were the strongest group this prep season. If you ask most people on the backside who were here all week, many would say this colt looked the best, which alleviates many of the concerns about whether he will handle the dirt. It's not an issue. In fact, he could improve on it. Three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert and reigning two-time champion rider Garret Gomez makes him even more attractive, especially since Gomez chose him over Dunkirk. Gomez has won more grade ones than anyone the last two years and is due for a Derby. The main knock on POTN is the Beyers, but there is a good possibility the synthetic numbers are too low. Also, doesn't blow you away with his margin of victories. But he looks just too good not to have on the top end of tickets.
The Pick: If karma plays any role in Derby 135, Larry Jones will get his Derby. After what happened to Eight Belles last year and his upcoming retirement, it would be a storybook ending. That, based on what was written above, has me landing on Friesan Fire as the winner.
After a win bet on Friesan Fire and a smaller one on Desert Party, my biggest ticket will be a trifecta structured the following way:
$1 trifecta - Friesan Fire (6), Pioneerof the Nile (16) and Desert Party (19) with 2,6,7,12,13,15,16,19 with 2,5,6,7,11,12,13,15,16,19. The ticket costs $168.
As for the Oaks, Rachel Alexandra is a beast. I will certainly not try to beat her and she will be a single on my late Pick 4 ticket.
No matter who you settle on, best of luck to everyone. Enjoy the weekend!