Wednesday, April 30, 2008

2008 Kentucky Derby Preview Part II: The Also-Rans

The details have been parsed, the pretenders have been culled, and the post positions have been drawn. Ladies and gentlemen, we have our potential field of twenty for the 2008 Kentucky Derby!

When we say 'potential', we mean that in every sense of the word. As the entries are drawn a good 72 hours before the race starts, there's an excellent chance that a horse may 'scratch' beforehand and be withdrawn from the race. Normally, this happens as a precautionary measure, when a horse isn't eating right, spikes a fever, is walking gingerly in the morning, or something else to indicate that he isn't 100%. While you want to see your horse in the Derby, and it's tough to come within 3 days of the start only to back out, you certainly do not want to go into the race with anything shy of a horse at his peak.

But this year we may face another type of scratch: the strategic scratch. Last employed in 2002 when Danthebluegrassman was entered to keep out the immortal Sunday Break (a horse I liked and who won absolutely nothing of consequence), this year we have Eight Belles who's entered both the Derby and its female counterpart, the Kentucky Oaks. The Oaks is run on Friday, and as of right now, with Eight Belles having drawn the 6 post in the Derby, it's likely she'll run in the Derby, as her owner and trainer have said all along they'd only scratch her from the Derby if her post sucked.

Over the last few weeks, this has drawn a fair amount of ire and consternation from owners and the racing media, who'd like to institute an "also eligible" list. On most racedays, if a race is oversubscribed, the racing secretary will make an AE list with the horses that weren't good enough or lucky enough to draw into the field, but that will be eligible to run in the event of a scratch. Plenty are calling for the same in the Derby, so the connections of Halo Najib don't get the short end of the stick because Eight Belles drew a bad post.

Yet, you have to ask what the upside is here, besides giving gamblers another horse to throw into the mix. There are already over 93,000 superfecta combinations possible in a 19-horse field; to expand it to 116,000, while a seemingly huge difference, isn't that big a deal when you realize the 20th horse to be entered will more likely than not be the longest shot in the field. (Halo Najib would probably be 50-1 this year.) Furthermore, the Derby is already the largest race in America in terms of field size, and every year, half the field emerges from the race traumatized, beaten up and never quite the same. Reducing the field size for this race isn't a bad thing, and reducing it by one horse that was already on the margins of qualifying certainly isn't a negative. If you're good enough to be in the race, prove it by performing well in the six months before the Derby, and you won't have to worry about whether a horse like Eight Belles is scratching.

On that note, let's turn to the annual countdown of Derby horses from least to most likely to win the race. If you're looking for a treatment of what types of qualities a horse needs to win the Derby, check out last year's essay on the subject. For today, we examine those horses that I believe to be the outsiders in this year's field.

Don't Get Hurt Out There!

20. Anak Nakal. In his favor, he's got a win over the track. Sadly, that's also true for half the field, and there's the small matter that he's the slowest horse in the field. I think that trumps any local success.

19. Z Humor. Don't confuse him with Z Fortune, who's also running in the Derby, and has twice as much talent. I would guess about $75,000 will be bet on him by drunken pinheads confusing the two steeds. This one stinks, despite being trained by Bill Mott, one of the best in the business.

18. Big Truck. His only win of note was when 2 year old champion War Pass stopped running about 3 furlongs into the Tampa Bay Derby and he beat a bunch of slowpokes. Prior to that, he lost the New York-bred championship race, which is considerably easier than this.

17. Eight Belles. Fillies can win the Derby. Just not fillies that haven't had any experience against the boys, haven't prepped at a mile and an eighth and haven't shown they're anything special to begin with. Frankly, I'd pick her to lose the Kentucky Oaks, and those horses aren't as fast as these. For all those that want to compare her to either last year's Belmont winner Rags to Riches or 1988 Derby champ Winning Colors, the correct comparison is Three Ring, who had a similar profile, took on the boys in 1999 (also a poor crop), and ran dead last.

16. Smooth Air. He ran second to phenom Big Brown in the Florida Derby and was half a dozen lengths clear of the third place horse, after pulling off a mild upset to with the Hutchinson Stakes, and is trained by a great old-timer in Bernie Stutts, who's kinda like your crotchety grandfather. Unfortunately, the best horse Smooth Air beat in the Florida Derby was the winner of the Peruvian Triple Crown, which isn't exactly a building block for the Derby. There are also reports that he hasn't been feeling well this week. While Michael Jordan could beat the Jazz with the flu, this would be the equivalent of Kyle Korver toppling the Lakers while sick with dysentery.

Pace Casualties

15. Bob Black Jack. The modestly-bred California shipper has been setting the pace in routes out West and getting run down by more stoutly-bred colts. Not only is he going from Polytrack to dirt, he's going about 3 furlongs beyond his optimal distance. Can't see him being anywhere near the front come the quarter pole, but I can see him ensuring a swift pace and ruining the chances of the other horses in this section. However, unlike the others in this field, he has a doppelganger in a Croatian Old English Sheepdog, which is much cooler than he is.

14. Cowboy Cal. Front-runner that did well on a synthetic surface, simply proving the truism that turf runners do well on artificial surfaces. He couldn't hold off his stablemate Monba at a shorter distance under absolutely no pace pressure. It's unlikely he'll move forward off his last, and you have to think we'll see him in the Virginia Derby next month, where he stands a better chance.

13. Recapturetheglory. From the connections that brought you Risen Star's meteoric rise in 1988, we have the Illinois Derby winner who wired the field after slowpoke fractions. I would rank him lower except for the War Emblem Factor: much like the 2002 Derby winner, he's being dismissed as an early speed toss-out by most (including me) based on pedigree and past results. (Let's just hope this guy doesn't have the same mating issues that War Emblem had.) But if there's a rail bias and he gets an easy lead, much like in 2002, there's a real chance he could wire the field, because he's not without talent. Unfortunately, between his poor post draw and the other contenders, that's not likely.

12. Big Brown. We've been here before: a horse that's freakishly fast, gorgeous and talented in a field that's uninspiring-to-okay with connections that have a checkered past. All the naysayers say he can't get it done because he's too lightly raced, bucking history, blah blah blah. All the rest say he's a cinch because he's the best horse and has the most talent.

Here's why I say we've been here before: we had this exact same scenario last year with Curlin. Curlin had run three times in the winter/spring of 2007, and came into the race with the best speed figures and upside in the race. Everyone, including me, screamed that he couldn't win because of Apollo's Curse, because he didn't have 5 starts, etc. And what happened? He ran a helluva finish third behind the more experienced Street Sense and Hard Spun. And while he ran well, he wasn't really close to the top two. The race served as a building block to the rest of his excellent campaign, which culminated in a Breeders Cup Classic win and the title of Horse of the Year.

The biggest difference this year (besides the fact that he ran once as a 2-year-old, which is offset a lot by the fact he only ran twice this year and thrice overall) is that there doesn't appear to be anyone as good or as fast as Street Sense or Hard Spun this year. Yet. Plenty of horses have jumped up on Derby Day to run a lot faster simply because 3-year-old horses are still growing and maturing. And even if this is a weak crop, that doesn't compensate for the fact that this horse is light on experience, has beaten only one horse in the field this year (Smooth Air), is going to have to contend with a fairly quick pace, isn't really bred to be a 10 furlong dirt horse, drew the outside post, has hoof issues, AND has proven absolutely nothing on dirt outside of Gulfstream Park, a track that's notorious for having horses either love it or hate it. I cannot, cannot, cannot see him overcoming all of that simply because his competition isn't as strong as you'd like and because the press is desperately looking for the next Secretariat.

Big Brown may be the best horse in this class. Big Brown may be the fastest horse in this class. Big Brown may win Horse of the Year. This does not mean he will win the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, and at 3-1, he will be a hideous wager. Bet against on Saturday, and look for him to come back stronger in his subsequent races.

Coming Tomorrow: the contenders!

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