By J. Keeler Johnson (“Keelerman”)
It is with a degree of confusion and uncertainty that I sit down to write my analysis of the Kentucky Derby. As of yesterday—actually, make that early this morning—the 2014 Derby seemed to be one of the most clear-cut in recent memory. My confidence in the combined chances of California Chrome and Hoppertunity was supreme. I felt almost certain that one or the other would win the Run for the Roses, and thought there was an excellent chance that the pair would sweep the Derby exacta.
Then came the saddening news that Hoppertunity had scratched from the Derby with a foot issue. Needless to say, I was very disappointed by the news. It’s a sad day, not only for the colt’s connections—to whom I offer my sympathies—but for the readers of this blog as well, for I know many of you were as confident as I in the chances of Hoppertunity.
But as they say, the show must go on, and the Derby is the Derby. So I’m going to put the injury of Hoppertunity aside and concentrate on trying to hit the Derby superfecta—the holy grail of handicapping!
For the top spot in my superfecta, I have decided to single California Chrome. I am fully aware of the risk involved, especially now that California Chrome will start from post position six. (He originally drew post five, but following the scratches of Hoppertunity and Pablo Del Monte, the horses in gates 1-10 have shifted outward one slot each, leaving the rail position open.) Should he break slowly, as he did in the Santa Anita Derby, his race could potentially end right there. But at the same time, he towers over his rivals on paper, and I honestly believe that if this Derby were run ten times, he would win at least five of them. Assuming he breaks cleanly, I envision him working out a stalking trip just off of a moderately quick early pace, then accelerating around the turn and putting the race away at the top of the homestretch.
For the second place, things get a bit tricky. After giving it some thought, the horses I’ve settled on using—much to my own surprise!—are Medal Count and Candy Boy, both of which I discussed as potential live longshots in my last blog post. According to reports, Medal Count has made a very positive impression while training at Churchill Downs, and seems to be handling the track very, very well—which is important, given that his record on dirt is only so-so. Some may be concerned by the fact that the Derby will be his third race in four weeks, but he seems to be thriving on his busy schedule, and is bred to run all day. Candy Boy has also trained strongly at Churchill, and as I mentioned in my last post, he should get a much better pace setup this Saturday than he did in the Santa Anita Derby. I wasn’t thrilled by his post position assignment (he will break from gate eighteen), but hopefully, jockey Gary Stevens will be able to guide Candy Boy into a ground-saving position about eight or ten lengths off the early lead. From there, I think Candy Boy has a great shot to finish up strongly and secure a top-three finish.
For the third position in my superfecta, I will be adding Intense Holiday, Wicked Strong, and Danza. I debated back and forth whether to use one or two of these colts for second place as well, but in the end, I had enough doubts about each colt to relegate them to the third spot. Intense Holiday has trained very well at Churchill, but his runner-up effort in the Louisiana Derby—in which he started cross-firing at the top of the stretch and subsequently ran into the inner rail—has me a bit worried, because if he does that on Saturday, his chances are pretty much over. Furthermore, the final three furlongs of the Louisiana Derby were run in a slow :38.63 seconds, during which Intense Holiday actually lost ground on the winner. His inclusion in the third spot on my ticket is due to his good training, excellent post position (16), and the memory of his strong victory in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) two starts back.
It’s hard to ignore the abilities of Wicked Strong, who ran the final three furlongs of the Wood Memorial in around :37 2/5 to win going away by 3 ½ lengths. But as impressive as his performances looks on paper, I wasn’t stunned from a visual perspective. Wicked Strong appeared to be in deep trouble rounding the far turn, as did eventual runner-up Samraat, and the fact that they both rallied to sweep the exacta suggests to me that Wood Memorial was a race that fell apart late, regardless of what the clock says. Throw in the fact that Wicked Strong will be breaking from post twenty, along with my belief that the Derby pace will not be nearly as fast as it was last year, and I think Wicked Strong has his work cut out for him.
Danza was very impressive winning the Arkansas Derby by nearly five lengths in a sharp time, clocking the final furlong in a strong :12.30 seconds. A repeat of that performance would make him dangerous in the Derby, but he’ll need racing luck while breaking from post five, and he’s unlikely to get the same dream trip that he did in Arkansas. The talent is there, but this is a tough task for a horse making just his second start around two turns.
So this brings us to the final spot in my superfecta ticket, where after much deliberation, I have decided to include four additional horses: Ride On Curlin, Tapiture, General a Rod, and Chitu. I had planned on using Ride On Curlin higher up in my ticket, but that was back when there was a strong possibility of a wet track on Derby Day. In addition, jockey Calvin Borel will most likely do everything possible to guide Ride On Curlin to the rail—even from post nineteen—and when the track is fast at Churchill, the rail can become a bit dull. As a result, I have downgraded Ride On Curlin to fourth place, although I could potentially change my mind if the rail looks all right on Friday and early Saturday.
I outlined my thoughts on Tapiture in my "Live Longshots” blog post, so I won’t rehash them here. General a Rod failed to finish as strongly as I would have hoped in the Florida Derby, but the pace scenario conspired against him that day. He could be better coming from further off-the-pace, which is the plan for the Derby. Lastly, I view Chitu as the best of the speed horses in this year’s Derby, and if the early pace isn’t too quick, I can envision him hanging around for a piece of the purse.
One horse I had intended to use but decided to drop is Commanding Curve. I like the similarities between this colt and Golden Soul, who finished second in last year’s Derby at odds of 34-1, but one important similarity seems to be missing: Golden Soul ran a decent fourth in a strongly-run renewal of the Louisiana Derby, finishing very well into the teeth of a quickly run final three-furlongs. In contrast, Commanding Curve ran a decent third in a slowly-run renewal of the Louisiana Derby, closing only mildly into slow final fractions. I won’t be shocked if Commanding Curve finishes in the Derby superfecta, but if he does, I’m afraid I won’t be on the bandwagon.
So in conclusion, here is my superfecta ticket:
Good luck to all!