Friday, May 4, 2007

Kentucky Derby Preview Part III: The Contenders, The Exotic Fodder, and The Winner

As I'm publishing this on Friday morning/afternoon, there's little to no chance that unlike my first posting, Andy Beyer will try to plagarize the insightful and pithy comments I have to offer here. Well, presumably. Maybe I should write a race recap now, and see if that gets picked up by the Washington Post as well. Then again, in years past that would have meant seeing results charts in the Derby with the likes of Point Determined, Bandini, Borrego, Ten Most Wanted, Private Emblem and Vicar on top. So maybe that's not the best idea.

But to address the one question I've gotten repeatedly this week first---what's it like to be at the Kentucky Derby? Well, it's a combination of Mardi Gras and a formal outdoor garden party. Sitting in the same row, you'll have yuppies in golf shirts, crazies in beer-soaked t-shirts, and sophisticates in their best dresses. And the hats are wild. And there's the random celebrity sightings that just add a bit to it: not only will the racing afficianado love seeing Mr. & Mrs. Baffert randomly strolling about with binoculars (though not this year since they have no runners), you'll also random see Kirsten Dunst sneaking in a smoke sans makeup or Michael Imperioli trying to compute a trifecta ticket. It's truly one of the great experiences of Americana, and must be attended by all. WITH a mint julep, a drink that unfairly gets a bad rap. (If you like slurpees & bourbon, you're all set.)

We now come to the top half of the Derby field, horses that certainly have a shot to win on Saturday, though obviously, that's not gonna be the case for 9 of them. Let's start with those horses that have a shot, but really aren't all that interesting when analyzed.

Unexcititing & Ultimately Harmless

#10: Scat Daddy. The fantastically named son of Johannesburg exits a gutty win in the Florida Derby to come as Todd Pletcher's main charge. Say what you will about this guy (and I will), but he fights with the best of them in races. The problem? Well, outside of the fact his breeding doesn't scream for that 10th furlong, it's that he's plateaued in speed figures. He was already looking strong last July, and you somehow feel like you've already seen his best. He's reminiscent of horses we see every year that have nice resumes, but are just wholly unexciting and somehow indicate to you they're not gonna do it on the big day (examples being Brother Derek in '06, High Fly '05, Peace Rules '03). Looks to me like a middle of the pack finish is going to be capped off by a long rest and a bid at the Haskell.

#9: Nobiz Like Shobiz. He and Scat Daddy are pretty inseparable at the end of the day. There's not really a ton to criticize here either, outside of his utter failure to improve at all from a Beyer, er, Gowanus Speed Figure standpoint. It's amazing, if the general public wasn't armed with speed figures, these two guys would probably be the favorites from their outstanding records and nice wins in prep races. Instead? The world, myself included, is focused a bit more on others.

The Wildcard

#8: Dominican. Here's the horse that's the toughest to decipher in the field by far. He's undefeated on Polytrack, a faux-dirt surface that's almost more comparable to grass than dirt. He's winless on dirt, by contrast, though his efforts haven't been poor. And he's 2-for-2 this year, meaning he's up against it in terms of being shy a prep race, but he did win the Blue Grass. So what's happened? There's three possibilities: (1) He's a Polytrack freak; (2) He grew into himself; or (3) He's thriving because his owners cut off his undescended testicle. No, that's not a joke.

In his last start as a juvenile, Dominican, who is a son of El Corredor, ran third in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) behind Tiz Wonderful and Any Given Saturday for owners Bonnie and Tommy Hamilton's Silverton Hill. After the race he received a layoff and was gelded.

"It was a tough decision to make, but he was a ridgling and he was uncomfortable so we needed to do so," trainer Darrin Miller said. "It was a matter of physical comfort. He is a very aggressive horse and that hasn't changed."

Well then. Whatever works, right? As imitation of what's worked before is the norm in horse racing, I weep for the fate of male horse genitalia should Dominican win.

For Exotic Purposes Only

#7: Circular Quay. He's up against it on a lot of fronts. He's a dead closer who hasn't run in 8 weeks by design, has only had 2 races, and has yet to go 9 furlongs, let alone 10. On the positive side, he's pretty quick, he's talented, he's got The Pletcher Factor on his side, his breeding and running style suggest he'll like the distance, and . Split the difference--I see him flying late but ultimately falling short. Tough to leave out of your triples and superfectas.

#6: Zanjero. Often a bridesmaid, never the bride. He's a well-bred closer that has a propensity for running evenly and finishing in the money, with minimal threat to the winners. Hell, he's now done this four times in a row, and it's quite possible that he'll do it once again on Saturday. So why this ranking? Well, he's gaining something of "wise-guy" status amongst the horse racing cognoscenti (whoever the hell that encompasses), and I'm of the impression that he's going to be a lot closer to 20-1 than 40-1, despite him having minimal actual chance at winning. A must use "underneath", but not the price play you'd think he should be for a horse that's only broken his maiden. No, the price play to hit the board is...

#5: Liquidity. While picking the winner is obviously key to making money on Derby day, equally key is finding a well-priced horse to come in the money underneath. A good way to do it? Find a horse that was well-backed last out, flopped (preferably with an excuse) and back him if there's a fair reason to do so. Horses fitting this mold include Bluegrass Cat in '06 (2nd at 33-1); Atswhatimtalkinabout in '03 (4th at ~20-1); and Invisible Ink in '01 (2nd at 55-1). Because there are so many horses of quality in the race, the Derby is a great shot to find a talented horse at a square price. So what makes Liquidity the answer? As the beaten favorite in the Santa Anita Derby, he's shipped and run well, has tactical speed in a race that has less pace than you'd normally expect, and is nicely bred. Yeah, his last race stunk, but he'll be at least 40-1 on Saturday. A great fodder piece for your exotics.

#4: Tiago. Giacomo's baby brother who rallies well and is reminiscent of his sibling with his closing style and connections. And since I have nothing else to add about a relative of the worst Derby winner....let's here it for the Queen of England coming to Kentucky this year! She kicked off her trip to the US with a stop in Jamestown to celebrate its 400th birthday, presumably forgetting that we spent the first 180 years trying to get rid of the throne at all costs. And while the good Queen does admire the Sport of Kings, it's just too bad the Queen Mum isn't around anymore, because she was the true racing fan in the family.

Top Challengers

#3: Hard Spun. Dammit. If this guy were trained by someone I trusted and ridden by a jockey I actually thought was any good, he'd probably be my top pick at a fair price. He's extremely well bred for the distance, fast enough, has only one blemish in a weird race in Arkansas, and had a strong prep last out. His form negatives are really only the fact he hasn't run in 6 weeks....which brings me to Larry Jones. Originally the plan was to have him skip the Derby and point for the Preakness becaues they thought he may not like the track at Churchill, which is utterly bizzare. Then they gave him a workout on the track about 3 weeks ago, where he did well, and thus course was changed, and into the Derby we an unplanned 6-week layoff. To top it off, his jockey, Mario Pino, is best known for winning the Federico Tesio stakes in three consecutive years. Yeah, exactly. And lastly, Jones decided to run him insanely fast in a work out last week that probably knocked the crap out of him. I want to like him. Really, I do. But I think he's been mismanaged to the point where he may not have it on Saturday. Too bad, because he's a good one.

#2: Any Given Saturday. We now come to Todd Pletcher's 5th and final horse. Has to be a record right? Nobody's started five horses in the Derby before, have they?'s actually happened twice. Pletcher's mentor D. Wayne Lukas started 5 in 1996, and one of his least heralded, Grindstone, nosed out Cavonnier for the win. Then, in 2005, Principal McVicker sound-alike Nick Zito brought a quintet to Churchill, but couldn't muster a finish better than 7th. I'll split the difference here and give the runner up spot to a horse that seems to hang and not be able to close the deal for the win repatedly. He's plenty fast, and should be cycling to a big effort off a "regression" in the Wood last out after a nose loss in the Tampa Bay Derby. Pletcher's been pointing for this with this horse since he lost to Tiz Wonderful last November, and I gotta think he's gonna have him cranked and ready to go. Small downside---EVERYONE likes this horse as their "sleeper". We'll be lucky to get 10-1 on him.

The Champion

#1: Street Sense. This guy has two historical negatives against him, the first one being the Juvenile Jinx, which I find silly, as we're looking at a sample size too small to be meaningful. It's the fact he's only run twice this year that's disturbing. But taking a step back, let's look at the horse's record for a minute. He's won his last three races on dirt tracks not covered in water. His two Polytrack efforts were both solid if unspectacular. He has a great turn of foot, and while he won't be on the pace, he won't be 30 lengths back either. His traine is tremendous. And most importantly, he's just the fastest horse in the face. His speed figures are only approached by Curlin, who I think is too green for this, and Any Given Saturday, who's also a sensible choice. But while the 2 starts this year is a small problem, I think it's more than offset by his good foundation as a 2-year old (5 races) and his repeated efforts at route distances. I think the curse ends on Saturday, and we're all complaining that we overthought this at about 7 pm.

The Play

If you're betting under $10 in the race, I suggest you stick to win bets---the favorite's either going to be Curlin or Street Sense, and neither will be below 5-2. There's nothing wrong with tripling your money if you're right. My play? I'm "keying" Street Sense & Any Given Saturday over the 5 horses below them on this vaunted list. And to make the picks official:

1. Street Sense
2. Any Given Saturday
3. Tiago
4. Dominican

Enjoy the race!

[Hey, anyone know who won the race? Wait, what? Street Sense won? Who guessed that? Oh, wait, Ang did. Point GRBG.--Teddy]


Brien said...

Another great preview. I agree with you on Street Sense, and on the bottom 5 or so horses in the field, but we disagree about most of the middle. I like Street Sense or Nobiz to win, but my (very amateur) analysis is here

El Angelo said...

Honestly, Nobiz can win this race, and it wouldn't shock me at all. I'm a bit leery of the fact that he hasn't really improved figure wise, and am a bit frightened by the fact he may be on or near the lead, which generally isn't the place to be in this race. An in the money finish would NOT be a strange result though. And thanks for the positive comments, they're much appreciated--I would hardly call you analysis amateur. I just have too much time on my hands.