We now move to the better half of the field for this year's Derby. As you're going to read time and time again, this is the Most Open Kentucky Derby in Years. Maybe. I'll concede that any number of horses has a shot to hit the board. But to win? The only plausible winners from yesterday's list under most conceivable circumstances are Cowboy Cal and Big Brown, and only 4 or 5 from today's list have the attributes of a winner. While a lot of the smart-alecks in the field are saying it's either a romp by faves Big Brown or Colonel John or a Giacomo-style bomb, the truth is there are a few horses in the middle with nice credentials who will be a square price on the big day. Instead of just playing numbers, stay with the facts, the history, and you'll find a few horses that actually makes sense.
The other thing to tune out are the thousands of comments and opinions emanating from Churchill Downs about who looks "great", "on the muscle", "professional" and "chiseled". Ignoring that the media seems to try to describe horses as if they were judging a male stripping competition, remember that these are among the best 3 year olds in the nation. They had better look good. Disregard anyone that says their horse looks good. Do not, however, disregard any trainer saying he's less than satisfied with his horse or signs that a horse is sick or not looking sharp. Those clues are often signs for a horse that's over the top or just not ready to win the big one.
Enough with the introductions, let's start by looking at the name horses that make sense and will get bet, but just aren't good enough for various reasons:
Reputation Exceeds Talent
11. Court Vision. Also owned by IEAH Stables, the same connections as Big Brown, he's been touted for about six months as the Next Best Thing since his win in the Remsen in November. He's followed that up with a pair of tremendously mediocre third-place finishes, including his last in the Wood Memorial, where he wasn't able to close into suicidal fractions. He won't get as good a setup here as he got in that race. Also, the normally savvy Bill Mott is outfitting him with blinkers for the first time in this race with the hope it'll move him closer to the pace. This is akin to Willie Randolph tinkering with Carlos Beltran's swing right before Game 6 of the World Series.
10. Gayego. To answer the obvious question, no, I don't believe he's named after Mike Gallego by a spelling-challenged owner. He is proof that shipping off a synthetic surface to a dirt surface can work, as he left California to win the Arkansas Derby in front-running fashion. Given that Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin all used Arkansas Derby wins to propel them to great 3yo seasons, shouldn't he be ranked higher. Well....no. His breeding screams sprinter, and his front-running style coupled with the 19 post is going to ensure he's on the front end, and it's hard to see him lasting the tenth furlong after expending so much energy early.
9. Tale of Ekati. He won the aforementioned Wood Memorial in a slooooooow time. He's intriguing in that he's nicely bred, comes from the barn of Barclay Tagg (trainer of 2003 Derby winner Funny Cide) and has nice experience; however, he was gasping for air at the end of the Wood, and now has to run an extra furlong. Tough to place him ahead of some of the others on this list.
The Problem Horses
8. Cool Coal Man. Conventional wisdom says to toss any horse from consideration that ran horribly in his last race, as no horse since Iron Liege in 1957 has won the Derby off a finish in his prep race worse than 4th. That's all fine and good, but this year we have the issue of horses who prepped for the Derby on a synthetic surface, which may not be where they do their best. Exhibit A on this list, the Fountain of Youth winner Cool Coal Man. He exited a solid-if-unspectacular win at Gulfstream with a horrendous 10th in the Blue Grass, with trainer Nick Zito using the Polytrack as an excuse. Prior to the post draw, there was every reason to think that he'd be an intriguing longshot at a price to hit the board, given his breeding is perfect for the race. However, he drew the 1-hole, meaning he'll have to be sent out of the gate and caught in a speed duel. Huge downgrade. So let's instead turn to....
7. Pyro. ...the badly beaten favorite in the Blue Grass. He was at the top of everyone's Derby list based on his two stakes wins this year and his powerful and fast 2nds to War Pass last year. He promptly threw all of that into question with a back-of-the-pack finish in the Blue Grass, that his trainer wants to dismiss as a Polytrack fluke. Well, maybe. It's disturbing though that he didn't pick up his feet at all. If he had run a little and just not fired his best shot like Street Sense last year, then it'd be easy to ignore. But can you ignore a race he got absolutely nothing out of? To top it off, he'll be the 3rd choice at around 6-1, which is tough to accept when he hasn't run a fast race this year. He should be closing late, but you have to wonder if he'll be fit and ready enough to win.
6. Denis of Cork. In contrast to the last two horses, this guy flopped in his last race mostly because his owner pulled a mid-80's Steinbrenner and audibled out of a more apt prep race into the Illinois Derby, where he promptly finished out of the money. So why is he ranked so high? Simply based on the fact that while everyone's talking about how much potential Big Brown has shown (rightly so), and the stretch drive runs of Pyro, this guy's been the other visually impressive beast on the track, and has a nice win at Churchill. If you buy the theory that the track at the Illinois Derby was speed-favoring (disputable but possible), he suddenly looks a lot more interesting and his last race is a bit more excusable. The problem besides his clunker last out is that this will only be his 5th race, and history shows that's not enough to win. Tough to like to win the race, but definitely playable in exotic wagers.
The Synthetic Wonders
5. Adriano. This supremely well-bred has had a nice career on the grass until trying synthetics in the Lanes End and winning handily. He merits good consideration because he comes from an underrated trainer (Graham Motion), should like Churchill's dirt, and oozes upside. (Jay Bilas would be all over this horse.) What's wrong then? Three major concerns. First, it wasn't until about a week or two ago that they decided they were going to try the Derby at all, as Motion thought he was a pure grass horse and didn't fit in the Derby. It's tough to like that eleventh-hour switch, and query whether the trainer's really calling the shots here. Second, he hasn't prepped for the race since the Lanes End six weeks out, a big no-no. And finally, his prior dirt race in Florida, to be frank, sucked. He may just be a Polytrack freak, but there's also good reason to think he may be for real.
4. Colonel John. The California champion comes East after 6 wonderful races out West...all on synthetic. We delved into this on the first post in the series, but it's next to impossible to know how this guy's going to run. Will he love dirt? Hate it? Accept it? His workout over the Churchill strip this week was good, but there are plenty of workout wonders that never show up on the track. I like his connections and his breeding screams Derby Winner but can't accept him as the pick at 3-1 odds.
3. Monba. Super trainer Todd Pletcher was the apple of everyone's eye the last two years at the Derby and then promptly laid goose eggs with only Bluegrass Cat showing up in 2006. After a pretty poor 7 months starting in late August, his stable has turned it around, and here's his best shot for this season. A wise-guy pick by a lot of people at the beginning of the year off his tough-trip 4th in the Cash Call Futurity, he destroyed everyone's hopes with a dead-last finish in the Fountain of Youth in his first start this year, beaten almost 40 lengths. He rebounded with a nice win in the Blue Grass....you guessed it, over Polytrack. What separates him from the other two horses is that he has a pair of wins over dirt surfaces already, and his Florida loss is somewhat excusable as he gashed his leg open at the beginning of the race. His breeding not only screams dirt, he's out of Maria's Mon, who already produced a Derby winner (Monarchos) and his damsire Easy Goer could run all day. Still, he's only got 2 starts this year (and 5 total--not quite the foundation you'd like for a brief 2008 prep schedule) and hasn't run that fast, which has to relegate him just a hair behind two others.
2. Visionaire. He's got the same issues that Pyro and Cool Coal Man do in that he ran 5th in his final prep, the Blue Grass. The huge difference? He actually ran hard and made a strong move in the race, only to be wide on both turns and finishing fairly well over a surface he probably didn't like. He's trained by Michael Matz, the hero of the Barbaro tale, who took the Polytrack route to keep his horse in sound shape, but unlike Pyro and Cool Coal Man, it's clear he wasn't trying to win the race but was trying to get a good solid race in him so the horse could peak in the Derby. He's got the requisite stakes win, albeit over a weak field in the Gotham, and his breeding, while unconventional for the distance, isn't god-awful. And he'll be one of the longer shots on the board. If you're going to excuse Pyro's last by taking him at 6-1, you have to upgrade this guy, who ran eons better than Pyro, and will be five times the price.
1. Z Fortune. Let's go over the list of qualifications that you need to be a Derby winner once again. You need to have raced at age 2, 3 or more races at age 3, 5+ starts lifetime, stakes experience, distance experience, a sharp prep, a relatively quick race, breeding that suggests you can get the distance, and the recency of running in one of the final preps. This guy qualifies on all counts. To top it off, he's trained by Steve Asmussen of Curlin fame, actually ran better than his number in his last race suggests because of a wide trip, and gets the services of a fine jockey in Robby Albarado. Plus, he'll be a minimum of 15-1, as he's being ignored by everyone. I'm not saying you should go bet him with both fists, but he's the most likely winner in my mind and my pick for the 2008 Derby.
Good luck to everyone!