We feel like we say this more often than not, but we think this is a pretty good crop of three year olds. Most of the horses we're going to discuss today have been decent to good so far; there aren't a lot of stiffs in the top half of the pack. Perhaps this is because this crop has been relatively injury-free this year so far - we can't think of too many of the chief contenders that fell to injury during the winter. Of course, that happened last year as well and the class turned into a MASH unit by early August.
Let's get back at the countdown, starting with some of the horses that have accomplished a bit to date but we don't like on Saturday.
Prep Winners We're Against
10. Java's War. The winner of the Blue Grass Derby; his resume is a lot less impressive once it's scrutinized. As we've said time and time again, the Blue Grass has become a fairly meaningless prep race because it's on polytrack, and the best finish we've seen out of a recent winner was Dullahan's non-threatening third last year. Usually the winners do nothing of note on the dirt again - in fact, we're not sure that any of Dominican, Monba, General Quarters, Stately Victor or Brilliant Speed won another dirt race after the Blue Grass. Even worse for this horse is his propensity to completely miss the break at the start of the race and spot the field several lengths. That didn't hurt him in Keeneland where the field was smaller and the race played to a closer. Neither is the case in the Derby. He could clunk up for a piece of the superfecta but we think he's a great bet-against.
9. Goldencents. The only route for victory for this horse is to steal the race on the front end or just off of it, and he's shown no ability to rate more than a couple of lengths off the pace and his breeding (Into Mischief, a fairly obscure sprint-based sire we noted yesterday with Vyjack) suggests speed. Sometimes that works - in his last race, the Santa Anita Derby, he sat just off little-hoper Super Ninety Nine and took over when he faded and nobody else could close. Sometimes it doesn't - two races back, he dueled with Flashback and faded miserably in the stretch. Now we get that people are speculating that this Derby has no speed and could be stolen on or near the front end, but we don't believe that, and Goldencents isn't a speed freak like Bodemeister who can try to make everyone catch him for 10 furlongs. He's more of a conventional speed horse that shows no real desire to go beyond 9 furlongs under ideal circumstances, and is more likely to finish 18th than 1st.
8. Overanalyze. In theory there's a ton to like here: solid breeding, Todd Pletcher, and a win in the Arkansas Derby. But once you get past that initial blast of positive information, it's a lot less interesting. He's run exactly one race with over a 90 Gowanus Speed Figure (last year's Remsen), where he was hanging on for dear life at the end. His return to racing in the Gotham earlier this year was horrendous, which he followed up with his Arkansas Derby victory that looked good visually but yielded a paltry 88 speed figure, which looks worse when you consider that his main competition (War Academy) didn't finish the race. He's going to need to take a huge step forward to compete on Saturday, let alone win.
The Price Doesn't Match His Chances
7. Revolutionary. The one guarantee we can give you is that this horse will be overbet in relation to his chances on Saturday solely because 3-time Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel will be in the irons. After guiding to victory a favorite (Street Sense), logical horse (Super Saver) and utter bomb (Mine That Bird) in the last six years, the public is convinced that Borel's touch is golden and bets him accordingly. Two years ago Borel rode the horrendous Twice the Appeal to a 10th place finish at 12-1. Had any other jockey been on him, he would have been at least 40-1. Last year, Take Charge Indy was 12-1 when he should have been about twice that price. The only horse he beat was Daddy Long Legs, who pulled up.
This isn't to say that Revolutionary has no chance in this race, but he's likely to be around 8-1 and his chances of winning are a lot longer than that. After three races Revolutionary was considered a titanic disappointment, having failed to break his maiden and losing at 1-5 in an Aqueduct maiden race. Clearly some switch finally flipped after that race, as he's torn off three straight victories in closing style, but it's really difficult to be impressed by those wins. The first was over maidens at Aqueduct in the dead of winter; hardly a vintage crop of horses. Next up was the Withers Stakes, a prep for a prep for the Wood Memorial, which he won by a hard fought neck over a horse that has done nothing since. He followed that up with a grinding victory by a neck in the Louisiana Derby over Mylute, who was 19-1 that day and figures to be even longer on Saturday. (We'll concede that a couple of other nice horses finished behind him that race, including Illinois Derby winner Departing and someone further up on this list.) Add to these middling victories breeding that's schizophrenic on getting 10 furlongs - his sire, War Pass, screams sprinter, while his dam, Runup the Colors, was an excellent router - and we're reluctant to put him in the top tier of horses.
6. Verrazano. Sabermetric studies have shown that generally speaking, baseball position players develop along a predictable curve where they show talent early, peak at ages 26-29, then have a noticeable decline into their mid-30s followed by a collapse. Starting pitchers, by contrast, by and large do not follow an aging curve. Some starters take years to develop into good pitchers and reach their peak when they're in their late 20s (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, to name two). Some start off fabulous and keep up a level of excellence for years (Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Felix Hernandez). Some take forever to reach their apex (R.A. Dickey, Jamie Moyer). And tons more start off like a house on fire and flame out for any number of reasons - fans of Mark Mulder, Dwight Gooden, Barry Zito and Mark Prior are nodding right now, while Chris Sale and Matt Harvey acolytes are covering their eyes.
Horses, we believe, develop a lot more like pitchers than hitters. Some will take years to get good and peak at ages 5 or 6. Others peak when they're 3 or 4. And some are prodigious right out of the gate and actually have their best starts in one of their first three races, which is akin to a pitcher having his best season his rookie or sophomore year. You can't assume a pitcher will get better just because he's young, and you can't assume a horse will simply get better because he did well when he was running in allowance company.
We mention this because Verrazano has all the looks of a talented horse that may have already peaked in his 4-race career. (He has other issues as well that we won't focus on: the lack of a start as a 2 year old and being sired by a pure sprinter.) His maiden race was great - he won by over 16 lengths - and his second start was absolutely electric, as he sat a length off a contested pace and pulled away under a hand ride. That yielded a 105 speed figure. Stretched out to two turns, he won his next two starts (Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial) in a more professional manner, looking solid while never really dominating. More importantly though, his speed figures have declined as the distances have gotten longer and he's faced more seasoned competition.
There's a good chance that the last two races were just consolidation races and he's ready to make a leap forward into greatness after getting the two-turn and stakes experience under the belt. That's happened before. But what we think is more likely is that he ran his best race in his second start and is on the decline. We think he fades in the final furlongs and either retires or takes a break to return in shorter races.
Contenders for a Piece
5. Black Onyx. We freely admit this is a little bit of a stab but there's a lot to like here on a horse that will be at least 30-1 (he's 50-1 on the morning line). While his greatest success has come on synthetic surfaces, his breeding (Grade 1 winner Rock Hard Ten out of a Cape Town mare) is very dirt-oriented. He isn't a dead closer and has enough tactical speed to be in the second or third flight of horses. His speed figures, while slow, are on a definite path up. And we love Kelly Breen with longshots - he did pull off Ruler on Ice in the 2011 Belmont. We would be a bit surprised to see him on top, but not in triples or superfectas.
4. Palice Malice. It's odd enough that a Todd Pletcher entry has already made 4 starts this year but this guy takes it to the next level by making the Derby his third start in 5 weeks. At some level we want him to win the Derby because it means Pletcher would have to run him 4 times in 7 weeks, which would be often of in harness racing, let alone Grade 1 thoroughbreds.
The reason this superbly bred colt is running so often is that he needed the points to qualify for the race. Pletcher set up his schedule that the Louisiana Derby would be his big prep race but Palice Malice had a trip from hell where he was boxed in the stretch the entire time and never able to really run. His connections - and in no small part, his owner, Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stables - decided to wheel him back two weeks later in the Blue Grass, where he wrested control at the top of the stretch but ultimately lost to the late-charging Java's War. But that was a synthetic surface which we suspect wasn't his best surface and think he'll move forward off that race. We also like the fact that he's going against the grain by running so often and think this may inure to his benefit. That said, this guy has only won once to date, so be careful about taking him in the win slot.
3. Normandy Invasion. We really like his form cycle coming into this race: an excellent second to close out his 2yo campaign, followed by a start off a layoff that was pretty meaningless and an excellent second to Verrazano in the Wood where he was closing late. While we think his trainer Chad Brown is poised to make The Leap into fame and like his breeding for the distance, we have two major concerns. First is the fact that this guy is a world beater at Aqueduct and squarely pedestrian elsewhere. That could be coincidence but he could also be a horse for the course. The second is the fact that he's only won one race lifetime. Every year we get horses that are good closers but light on the victory tab that are heavily bet during the Triple Crown. They're fair bets to finish in the money but never win - think of Nehro in the 2011 Derby. He may be another one of those who menaces but can't close the deal and ultimately finishes a good third.
2. Itsmyluckyday. The Forgotten Horse. After a decent but pretty uninteresting 2 year old campaign (which had 7 starts!), the light switch turned on when he returned to the Gulfstream dirt, as he won an ungraded stakes on January 1 by open lengths. He then went to the Holy Bull where he beat BC Juvenile champ Shanghai Bobby handily by showing good tactical speed and drawing away in the stretch. These two races were good for speed figures of 102 and 104, respectively. He then went off as the favorite in the Florida Derby where he ran a second that's better than it looks - there was no pace in the race, the track had a fluky bias, and he was collared in the final furlongs. But it was also his first race off a by-design two month layoff, as his trainer decided to give him a breather before the Triple Crown and the prep race. We think that was a good move and he jumps back into triple GSF territory again, which puts him near the top of this group. Even better - he's 15-1 on the morning line, and we think he'll drift up to even a higher price as people focus on his last race and relatively unknown trainer and jockey. That would be a mistake - this is a good horse in good hands.
1. Orb. We know, a complete shock given Wednesday's post. But putting aside our infatuation with Shug McGaughey, we simply think he's the best horse in the group. His move in the Fountain of Youth to propel him from the back of the pack to second at the top of the stretch reminded us of Monarchos' huge move in the 2001 Florida Derby, which he replicated in winning the Kentucky Derby. Orb's Florida Derby showed a new level of versatility as he sat close to the non-existent pace and pounced when they came to the stretch. We think he'll be in a good spot in this race - maybe 5-7 lengths off a moderate pace - and in prime position to take over and hold off the closers down the stretch. And give Mr. McGaughey his first Derby win, at long last.
How to Play the Race
Orb is currently 7-2 on the morning line, and we think he's going to be longer than that: closer to 9-2/5-1. At those odds, just bet him to win, as there's nothing wrong with quadrupling your money. And the same holds true for most of the other horses: we don't think too many will be single digit odds. If you're looking to make a bit more than that, take a peek at the multi-race bets. Wise Dan and Point of Entry tower over the field in the Woodford Reserve in the prior race, and doubles with them should be okay, especially if you're able to pick between the two. (We can't.) If you're interested in a Pick Three, check out closers Hierro, Pass the Dice and Unbridled's Note in the CD Handicap, a race that's loaded with speed. And to make it official, the picks:
3rd: Normandy Invasion
4th: Black Onyx
Good luck to all and enjoy the Derby!
UPDATE: Black Onyx has scratched, so move Palace Malice into the 4th slot.