Thursday, April 30, 2009

Kentucky Derby Preview Part IV: The Contenders

Having dispensed with horses that were entered for kicks, shipped from Dubai, and appear to have no interest in doing anything productive on dirt, it's time for a look at the top tier of horses in this year's Derby. Let's kick things off with three horses that have done well in prep races and will get some support on Saturday, but fail to exude the qualities, speed, or talent that we'd like to see in a Derby winner.

Logical Yet Unexciting

8. Musket Man. The owner of the best winning percentage in the race (5 wins in 6 starts), he's had a nice year winning two stakes races....the Tampa Bay and Illinois Derbies. The only other horses from those two races in the Derby are no-hopers Join in the Dance and Nowhere to Hide and General Quarters, whom he beat handily on dirt and we quickly dismissed yesterday. And while winning the Illinois Derby doesn't mean you're necessarily a second-tier horse, this guy's slow speed figures suggest that he is, to say nothing of being bred by Yonaguska, who couldn't run beyond 6 furlongs.

7. Friesan Fire. The trainer of '07 and '08 runner-ups Hard Spun and Eight Belles is back with this colt, who swept the Louisiana prep races, the last being in a romp in the slop in the Louisiana Derby. Curiously, Larry Jones chose put him in mothballs for 7 weeks, preferring to train him up to the race than give him a normal final prep and get him a 1 1/8 mile prep. Mistake? Probably. Circular Quay tried this in 2006 and failed miserably. Read the Footnotes also tried this in 2004 (with the Florida Derby, when it was earlier in the schedule) and also flopped. The lack of a recent race, not to mention a race at 9 furlongs, is damning in a tough field, and makes you want to look elsewhere.

6. Papa Clem. The indications are that he enjoyed the switch from synthetics to dirt, what with a win in the Arkansas Derby and a nice jump in his GSF. Still, as we noted yesterday with Summer Bird, let's take that Arkansas Derby figure with a grain of salt. It's hard to believe that Summer Bird improved 20+ points. If you downgrade Papa Clem's last race by 4-8 ticks, suddenly, he's not that interesting. Also, his workouts have been panned across the board, with the exception of Steve Haskin, who could find optimism in a three legged zebra competing in the Derby. We're siding against as a result, but note that he may rate a second look as a play in exotics if he's 20-1 or so on the board.

The Potential Monster

5. Dunkirk. Full disclosure: this horse could win by 10 lengths on Saturday, and we wouldn't be surprised. He's nicely bred, runs majestically, is fast and talented, comes from stellar connections, and is very reminiscent of Big Brown. The difference is that unlike last year's duel-classic winner, he's caught a fairly tough crop to compete with, as there are a lot of nice horses that aren't far behind him or are already ahead of him. The other problem is the absence of the start as a two year old, which has been the kiss of death since 1882. Why is a start as a juvenile important? Let's turn to noted plagarist and racing's resident curmudgeon, Andy Beyer, who asked Carl Nafzger the same question when Curlin tried to pull this off in 2007:
Why should a horse's performance on the first Saturday in May be affected by what he did a year earlier? I once put this question to Carl Nafzger (who trains Curlin's main rival, Street Sense), and he replied: "When a horse runs even one race as a 2-year-old, he had to get fit to get there, and he gets a lot of experience." Behind a single inconsequential-looking race in the past performances, there are months of training that are a crucial part of the animal's overall preparation.
Reasoning that's tough to argue with, especially from a horseman like Nafzger. A Curlin-esque finish of him running a very good 3rd but just not beating more seasoned horses is very possible. But to win? We like someone else.

Longshots to Use in Exotics

4. Hold Me Back. To prove that we're not 100% anti-synthetics, we give you Hold Me Back, who has a shot to close and hit the board at a price. Yes, his one effort on dirt was abysmal, but he's had two useful starts this year (he closed like a shot in the Blue Grass, albeit on polytrack), is bred to run okay on the dirt, and his trainer, Bill Mott, probably would be pitching a fit about running him here if he didn't think he belonged. And despite the fact that he's somehow 15-1 on the morning line (huh?), we think he'll be a longer price on Derby day.

3. Chocolate Candy. The other synthetic horse we like, even though our position to like him seems a bit contrary to hating Pioneerof the Nile. The difference? Price. This guy was gaining on POTN late in the Santa Anita Derby and should be 2-3 times the price. As a Candy Ride horse, he should like the distance and surface, and it wouldn't shock us to see him improve a lot, much like the other Cal-to-East shippers. May even be worth a saver play as a win bet. By contrast to Hold Me Back, though, we think this is going to be the "wise-guy" horse that everyone's all over, and that he'll get more play than General Quarters and Papa Clem, despite them winning major prep races.

2. West Side Bernie. Shades of Funny Cide in 2003 here. A pretty good campaign as a 2 year old, followed up by three losses this year, all of which are actually better than they appear. His first race, the Holy Bull, was a sneaky good race, where he was parked 6 wide into the first turn and lost any chance. His next race was a clear "I don't love polytrack" effort, and pretty meaningless. His last race, 2nd in the Wood, was actually pretty good, and was overlooked by everyone because of the (justified) hoopla surrounding winner's looping victory. In the Wood he ran a career best 103 GSF, was less than 2 lengths off the leader, and showed decent acceleration through the turn/stretch before being passed by I Want Revenge. Now he's getting no press and after a strong workout (which was necessary, given he had colic issues that cost him a week), he might be in shape to run a huge race at 30-1 or so.

The Pick

1. I Want Revenge. Yeah, yeah, yeah, let's hear it for the ballsy guys picking the probable favorite. Still, it's tough to argue against this guy. Here are the main arguments against him:
  • His breeding doesn't translate to 10 furlongs. Really? It's better for distance than Dunkirk and some other top competitors. Incorrect.
  • He's trained by Jeff Mullins, who once called horseplayers idiots, and has been suspended for cheating. That's true. But given we just survived Dick Dutrow last year; the circus around Mullins and his propensity to use illegal substances has no bearing on this horse's ability to win.
  • He left California to face easier horses. A preposterous theory that Joe Drape has been spewing. (The same man who had Mafaaz atop his Derby list for weeks.) There's zero indication that Pioneerof the Nile is any better than West Side Bernie, Mr. Fantasy (who just won the Withers) or Imperial Council. More likely, this horse just didn't like synthetic surfaces.
  • The name stinks. Lil E. Tee was better?
  • Joe Talamo is too young and will screw him in a big spot. So long as the jockey doesn't send him right to the lead, he'll be fine. I think his cool handling of this horse in the Wood should have dispelled all questions about Talamo's ability.
Bottom line is he's proven to be the best horse on dirt this year, and but for a bad trip in his last race, would have won both dirt starts by 5+ lengths. Barring huge steps forward from a few others discussed here, we're looking at the Derby winner right here folks.

Betting the race

If you're looking to bet $10 or less, look to win wagers; I Want Revenge should be at least 3-1, and there's nothing wrong with tripling your dough if you're right. If you're looking to do something a bit more interesting, we suggest exactas; our longshot selections should all be at least 15-1, and with IWR or Dunkirk, should produce a mutuel over $100. And to make the picks official:

1. I Want Revenge
2. West Side Bernie

3. Dunkirk

4. Chocolate Candy

Good luck and enjoy the race!!

(Ed. Note: 5/2/09, 11:12 am: I Want Revenge has been scratched with an ankle filling, making this two straight races our pick has been scratched the morning of. Boo. Let's rejigger the picks slightly: 1. Chocolate Candy, 2. Dunkirk, 3. West Side Bernie, 4. Friesan Fire. Without the two best 3 year olds in the race (Quality Road being the other), this becomes an interesting handicapping exercise, but far from the definitive test of the class.)


Anonymous said...

jones brought hard spun to the derby off a 6 week layoff two years ago, so maybe he likes having a lot of time to train his horses up to the derby? granted, i agree with you that it isn't ideal, but a lot of horses are coddled and get 6 weeks off between races a lot nowadays, so maybe he's onto something.

El Angelo said...

I dismissed Hard Spun from the win slot for that reason as well in '07. Even he had a leg up on Friesan Fire though: the Lanes End was 9 furlongs, and Hard Spun had shown that he was plenty fast on dirt. This horse hasn't.

Anonymous said...

Hey Man, Great Work, here's hoping you get it right.

Thanks for the complete breakdown.

Corey said...

I'm looking forward to what you have to say about your worst horse next year :)

El Angelo said...

It's impossible to exaggerate how big an upset this was. Wow.