Friday, May 6, 2011

Kentucky Derby Preview Part III: The Upper Echelon

Maybe it's an odd year/even year thing like Bret Saberhagen performances.

This is the fifth year we're previewing the Derby and posting our picks. Though we've made 4 picks to date and liked every horse we've picked, we were really brimming with confidence in 2 of them. We loved Street Sense in 2007, he won won easily. We loved I Want Revenge in 2009, who we maintain would have won had he not been injured and scratched that morning. By contrast, in 2008 we knew it was a crapshoot after Big Brown, and the early scratch of Eskendereya left us with Awesome Act in 2010.

This year, while everyone's saying the race is wide-open and to look for chaos, we think a horse looks primed to run big on Saturday and establish himself as the leader of the crop. Let's count down those remaining.

Why Should I Like You?

8. Stay Thirsty. A horse with a great name--we suspect that the name alone will make him 12-1, regardless of merits--good breeding and the Pletcher connection should grab your undivided attention. But his past performances suggest otherwise. His only win of note was in the Gotham, where he tepidly beat a horse that was 47-1 and nowhere to be found in the Wood. He followed that up with a complete no-show in the Florida Derby. Pletcher and Mike Repole have always treated this horse as Plan B. You should too, and ignore him.

7. Midnight Interlude. It sounds good to be the winner of the Santa Anita Derby, but is that really that big a deal? Let's take a look at the prep races for the 33 horses that finished in the money in the last 11 Kentucky Derbies (2000 forward):
  • Blue Grass: 7 (Invisible Ink, Peace Rules, Lion Heart, Closing Argument, Bluegrass Cat, Street Sense, Paddy O'Prado)
  • Arkansas Derby: 6 (Impeachment, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Steppenwolfer, Curlin, Super Saver)
  • Wood Memorial: 6 (Fusaichi Pegasus, Aptitude, Monarchos, Conagree, Funny Cide, Empire Maker)
  • Florida Derby: 3 (Barbaro, Big Brown, Ice Box)
  • Santa Anita Derby: 3 (Imperialism, Giacomo, Pioneerofthenile)
  • Illinois Derby: 3 (War Emblem, Denis of Cork, Musket Man)
  • Ashland: 1 (Eight Belles)
  • Spiral: 1 (Perfect Drift)
  • Sunland Derby: 1 (Mine That Bird)
  • Louisiana Derby: 1 (Hard Spun)
  • Lexington: 1 (Proud Citizen)
So yes, while the Santa Anita Derby has not become a completely irrelevant race, it's no longer assumed that the winner is a key player in the Kentucky Derby. And when your winner is a horse that has started 4 times, never ran as a 2-year old and had to use the entire stretch to beat the distance-challenged Comma at the Top...we're not that interested.

6. Uncle Mo. Before we get to this guy's merits, let's also note that while the Wood Memorial looks like a productive prep, there hasn't been a horse that finished in the money from the Wood since 2003. Which is fairly amazing. Now we acknowledge there's been some bad luck involved--the last two winners, I Want Revenge and Eskendereya, were injured right before the Derby and would have been favorites in both races--but it can't be coincidence that the Wood has decreased in its prolific nature as the producer of Derby contenders when the Florida Derby became an actual Derby prep.

On to last year's 2 year old champion. It's a little hard to get a read on a horse that was one of the most dominant two year olds we've seen in a while, then comes back to look like he still has the latent talent but bomb in the prep race with an illness. Then a decent (but not perfect) parallel came to mind: Unbridled's Song.

Unbridled's Song won the BC Juvenile in his 3rd start--the only horse besides Uncle Mo to pull off the feat. He went to Florida for his 3yo winter, where he lost to the horrible Built for Pleasure in the Fountain of Youth, before winning the Florida Derby (impressively and over some pretty good horses) and then shipped up to NY for the Wood. He beat all comers that day--which constituted 6 bad horses--but in the process split his hoof open and had a quartercrack. Now we had a horse that people were questioning his distance ability, health, and was temperamental to boot. He was made a tepid Derby favorite, ran strongly for 8 1/2 furlongs, then faded in the stretch to finish 5th.

Uncle Mo has a shorter profile than Unbridled's Song, and there's a little less of a circus around him this year than there was with U's Song, who was owned by the irascible Ernie Paragallo. But here again, you have a phenom that may or may not have taken a step forward as a 3 year old, has some health issues, isn't really bred for the distance, and is a committed front runner. If he's the next Seattle Slew or Spectacular Bid, maybe he can pull it off. Chances are, he's the next Pulpit, and he'll fade at the top of the stretch.

[UPDATE: Uncle Mo is scratched, which is not great from those looking to make a buck off the race, but confirms our skepticism.]

Everyone's Favorites

5. Dialed In. The favorite by default, Nick Zito's charge is a dead closer in a race with a fair amount of speed and good distance breeding who just won the Florida Derby. Doesn't this sound familiar? Well...yes. That was Ice Box's pedigree last year, and he ran a tough-luck second in the Derby. Still, we're bit more bearish on this guy than we were on Ice Box (who, you'll note, we didn't love either). Ice Box had a good foundation for the race (7 starts), this guy doesn't (4 starts). Ice Box ran a nice GSF around 2 turns, this guy hasn't. And this guy labored to get past a middling horse (Shackleford) in a Florida Derby that completely fell apart. Why should we take 4-1 on that?

4. Nehro. Pointless prediction: this guy is going to be the second choice in the race. Not juvenile champ Uncle Mo. Not the horse that beat him last out and has the highest speed figure in the race. No, it's going to be a horse that's won one race in his career, has never raced outside of Louisiana and Arkansas, and lost his first start of the season by 24 lengths.

Why all the love? Because he's finished like a shot in his last two races and is trained by Steve Asmussen of Curlin/Rachel Alexandra fame. After running a fairly uninspired 4th in his debut, this guy was 5-2 in his next try in a maiden race and ran next to last, losing by a football field to uninteresting horses. Apparently though a light switch flicked on in that race, because he then won his maiden going away, was a fast-closing second to Pants on Fire in the Louisiana Derby (at 36-1) and then ran a game second in the Arkansas Derby, again falling short by a neck. He's clearly on the improve, has the right type of tactical/closing speed that we like to see, and is impeccably bred for the distance.

But still...we can't get past the fact that this guy has only one win in his career. The only horse that we can think of that won the Derby with only 1 victory was Giacomo, and at least on him, you were being compensated to the tune of 50-1. This guy is going to be 6-1.

Yeah, he has excuses in his last two races. Is it now going to get any easier when there are 19 other horses in the field? We think not. We like him to run fairly well and maybe complete a triple/superfecta, but not get his picture taken in the winner's circle.

Contenders (Maybe at a Price)

3. Santiva. I feel like we say this every year, but it's because it's an angle that hits every once in a while: if you're looking for a price in the Derby, especially in exactas, triples and supers, look for horses that were highly regarded before their final prep, ran poorly with an obvious excuse, and now look like they have a shot to do damage. These horses rarely win--Thunder Gulch in 1995 was the only recent example of a winner. But every few years, they do hit the board. Recent examples are Denis of Cork (3rd at 27-1 in 2008), Bluegrass Cat (2nd at 30-1 in 2006), and Invisible Ink (2nd at 55-1 in 2001).

This year, the example is Santiva, who should be at least 25-1 on Saturday. Impeccably bred--by Giant's Causeway out of a mare by Smarten--this guy was a highly thought of two year old when he won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile, the same race won by Super Saver in 2009. Freshened a little over the winter by not-bad trainer Eddie Kennally, he ran a strong second in the Risen Star off a layoff where he was wide on both turns and may have needed a race. He utterly flopped in his last race, on synthetics in the Blue Grass, where he had a horrible trip and probably didn't love the surface. Now he's working up a storm and may be primed third off a layoff to run big. It's a little tough to put him on top--there's a reason that a sharp prep race is a must for the Derby--but as a bomb to complete your exotics? We like him a lot.

2. Mucho Macho Man. If you're going the sympathy route, this is the answer, as he's trained by Kathy Ritvo, who survived a heart transplant three years ago and is now training a Derby starter. We're not often moved by human interest stories, but this one is pretty good.

As to the horse's merits, he's a hard-knocker who's only been out of the money once in his 8-race career, and that was when he was slammed leaving the gate in the Holy Bull. Since then, he won the Risen Star pretty handily and ran a decent third in the Louisiana Derby, especially considering he ran the entire race after throwing a horseshoe out of the gate.

The one thing we don't like is the 6-week layoff coming into the Derby--that hasn't helped horses like Read the Footnotes, Hard Spun, and Circular Quay in the past. And as consistent as he is, he seems to lack the "wow" factor that most Derby winners have. It's rare that a grinder/hard-knocker wins the Derby; the best recent examples that we can think of are Giacomo, who at least was 50-1, and maybe Funny Cide, who had at least shown in his prep that he could run really fast. We haven't gotten that feeling with this guy yet, and think he'll settle for a minor award.

The Pick

1. Archarcharch. Sometimes we overthink the Derby. Let's go through this horse's attributes as they relate to the Race.
  • Foundation. Ran twice as a two year old and 4 times this year. As a minor bonus, he even has a race over the track (his first start).
  • Starts this year. He had a bad start in January when he had to run through a pea soup fog. Since then, he had a solid win in the Southwest, a better-than-it-looked 3rd in the Rebel, and then an impressive come from behind victory in the Arkansas Derby. He's had a pretty solid prep campaign.
  • Speed. He has the highest last out GSF and ran the fastest prep race. Somehow, nobody is talking about this.
  • Running style. Closer, not a dead closer, and showed in the Arkansas Derby he can make a big move on the turn, which is what wins the Kentucky Derby. Absolutely perfect.
  • Breeding. His sire, Arch, is a blue-blood sire for the distance and his dam is out of Woodman, providing a nice balance on the other side. No issues here.
The biggest "issue" with this guy--besides drawing the rail, which we think is overrated given that he'll be closing anyway--is his connections: nobody is familiar with William Fires and Jon Court. Court is a hard-knocking jockey that had some air time in the TV show Jockeys who's never quite made it, but has never really had that good a horse. You know, like Stewart Elliott on Smarty Jones in 2004. And William Fires is an old-timer who's forgotten more about horses than we will ever know. (And for the NBC soft focus feature maker, he's Court's father-in-law.)

So it's not like these guys are novices. This is just the first "big" horse they've had. And he's probably the best horse they've ever had. We think he sits in the third tier of horses off a pretty solid pace, makes a big move on the turn for the lead and holds off a few closers who he had first run on, winning the Run for the Roses.

How to Play the Race

Don't get cute. The lowest price you're going to see on a horse is maybe 4-1 on Dialed In, and there's a chance he goes off at much higher odds than that. So if you like someone, bet him to win. If you think a few horses have a shot, we recommend a 3 or 4 horse exacta box ($6 or $12 for a buck), and if you're right on the top 2 finishers, you'll do quite, quite well.

Good luck to all and enjoy the race!


rk said...

great stuff as always Angelo. While this race seems to be "unique" (and this was before Mo scratched), that we have a group of lightly raced 3yo's, it may be something we are going to have to become accustomed to.

There are so many horses that you see have improved after each race, figuring out which one makes the jump in to superstardom is no small feat. Dialed In and Midnight Interlude both only have 4 races in their career, but Zito's horse raced in mid Nov compared to January for MI, all you hear is the no races as a 2yo angle. So you lay 4-1 opposed to 10-1. I can't say with any certainty that Dialed in is any better than Midnight Interlude, and both trainers are HOFers. Another horse I see who has improved quite a bit is Animal Kingdom, him learning to navigate traffic in that optional claimer parlayed in to an impressive Spiral (although he may be a poly horse, then again so was Lookin at Lucky).

I have absolutely nothing to argue about with Arch, especially at 10-1, I can't see a reason to take single digit odds on any horse in this field. what we learn will go a LONG way in to being able to properly cap this crop of 3yo's for the rest of the year.

Ejoy the races!!!

rk said...

Angelo, with Mo scratched, does this move Arch to post 2?

Anonymous said...

Superb write up on the Derby as usual. Twenty years of trying to handicap the Derby and I've rarely seen one similar to this field. It's anyone's race. My great grandmother once told me, that if your palm itched, money was coming your way. No shit story....after I laid down $50 to win on Watch Me Go, my palm started to itch. I hope she was right!

Kentucky Derby At Churchill Downs said...

The best way to attend the Kentucky Derby is to purchase a package that includes your tickets to the Derby and Oaks (upgrades available), Airport Transfers, Hotel Accommodations, Hospitality access, a free gift and much more.