Who Will Win the Derby Trial?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")

This Saturday, racing returns to Churchill Downs with a ten-race program that is highlighted by the $150,000 Derby Trial Stakes (gr. III). In recent years, the Derby Trial has been little more than an enjoyable opening-day feature race, with little to no effect on the Derby itself. But thanks to the presence of a last-minute entry, this year’s Derby Trial will offer a great deal of intrigue during the next few days—even if the last-minute entry ends up scratching.

Derby Trial Stakes

Handicapping the Derby Trial Stakes this far in advance is made complicated by the last-minute entry of Bayern, a Bob Baffert-trained colt that may or may not run in the race. The story behind his entry is as follows: Baffert would like to run Bayern in the Derby, but fears that the colt will not make the field (he currently sits twenty-third on the points list.) If on Saturday it appears that Bayern won’t make the Derby, he will go ahead and run in the Derby Trial and use it as a prep for the Preakness Stakes. However, if it appears possible that Bayern could make the Derby, he will scratch from the Derby Trial. (Baffert has also entered Chitu in the Derby Trial, but it has been confirmed that Chitu will scratch and run in the Derby.)

Suffice to say, if Bayern actually starts in the Derby Trial, he will be heavily favored to defeat his mostly unproven rivals. But I believe that Myositis Dan is capable of pulling off an upset. The son of Istan caught my eye back in February, when he unleashed an eye-catching late rally to finish second in a six-furlong allowance race at Gulfstream Park. One month later, he stepped up to seven furlongs and flashed more tactical speed while finishing second in another allowance race, with subsequent Arkansas Derby (gr. I) winner Danza six lengths behind him. Most recently, Myositis Dan scored by 2 ½ lengths in an "about seven-furlong" Keeneland allowance race on April 5th, and tuned up for the Derby Trial with a solid five-furlong breeze at Churchill Downs. He seems to be flying under the radar coming into this race, but I think he has a really solid shot to win at a fair price.

Other colts to consider include Spot, winner of the Swale Stakes (gr. II) two starts back; Big Sugar Soda, who unleashed a strong finish when second in Oaklawn’s Gazebo Stakes on March 22nd; Laddie Boy, beaten double-digit lengths in his two starts this year, but runner-up behind Tapiture in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) here at Churchill last fall; and Embellishing Bob, an impressive four-length winner of a six-furlong maiden special weight at Fair Grounds on March 29th.

Selection: Myositis Dan

Since I have a bit of extra space this week, I thought I would share my "Top Five" list of Kentucky Derby contenders, along with a few thoughts on each:

1. California Chrome

His spectacular victories in the Santa Anita Derby and San Felipe Stakes have made him the heaviest Derby favorite since Big Brown in 2008, and as long as everything goes well during the next ten days, the Derby must be considered his to lose. Since he has broken a bit slowly from the starting gate in the past, I would like to see him draw an outside post position, where he is less likely to find trouble if he does get away a step slowly. Also, an outside post should enable him to work out an in-the-clear stalking trip a few lengths behind the front-runners, similar to the trip Big Brown received in 2008.

2. Hoppertunity

If you like California Chrome, you have to like Hoppertunity, who finished a strong second behind ‘Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby. In that race, Hoppertunity made an eye-catching run coming off the far turn, blowing past the well-regarded Candy Boy to seize command of second place. While he was never a threat to California Chrome, it must be noted that Hoppertunity was never really urged down the homestretch, making the Santa Anita Derby a "prep" race in the truest sense. In winning the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn, he also demonstrated that he can handle bumping and jostling, which he may very well encounter in the Derby.

3. Ride On Curlin

If the track is wet on Derby day, Ride On Curlin’s chances should improve immensely. Not only is he bred to relish a sloppy track, he will have three-time Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel in the saddle, which almost guarantees him a ground-saving run along the rail. And when the track is wet at Churchill, the rail is often the best part of the track. We saw this last year when Golden Soul and Revolutionary rallied up the rail to finish second and third in the Derby, and we saw it in 2010 when Super Saver rode the fence to victory. If the track is wet, I think Ride On Curlin will crack the exacta. If it’s fast…then I’m not sure what to think of him.

4. Wicked Strong

Although he seemed to be running out of steam on the far turn of the Wood Memorial, Wicked Strong nevertheless found another gear in the homestretch to win going away by 3 ½ lengths. It’s a little concerning that his best performances by far have come at Aqueduct, but this late-running colt should be coming strongly late if the Derby pace is fast.

5. Danza

Granted, his dominating victory in the Arkansas Derby came completely out-of-the-blue, and it’s reasonable to question whether he can repeat it on Derby day. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that he ran nearly as fast as the good older horse Will Take Charge did one race earlier, and that Danza ran his final three-eighths in a strong :37.09 seconds. As long as he trains well during the next ten days, I think he could be a very live overlay in the Derby.

If you have a top five list of your own, please share it in the comments section!

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