Thursday, May 1, 2014

2014 Kentucky Derby Preview Part I: The Pretenders

The prep races have been run, the workouts are for the most part completed, the post positions have been drawn, and all the hats have been purchased.  That's right - it's time for the 2014 Kentucky Derby!

For the first time in 6 years, we have a Kentucky Derby with a solid, legitimate favorite.  In prior years, we've been scrambling between a mish-mosh of horses that constituted the "group of favorites" or 2-3 horses that stood out from the field.  But this year, we're going to see California Chrome as a solid favorite on Derby Day, off of his 4 straight wins in California, the last two of which were by widening margins over solid fields.  We haven't had a horse this solidly backed since Big Brown in 2008, and he only romped over the Derby field by open lengths.  California Chrome is 5-2 on the morning line, and we think he'll be near that price come post time.

So is California Chrome a cinch?  Well, let's do our annual Derby preview and see how he stacks up against a fully loaded field.  As always, we'll count down all 20 horses currently in the race - sorry, Pablo del Monte - in reverse order of likelihood that we see them wearing a blanket of roses at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday.  Today we'll deal with the 10 we like the least; tomorrow we'll get to the contenders and make our pick.  As always, these picks are made with the assumption that the track is fast and not absurdly biased on Derby Day.

Isn't Kentucky Lovely In May?

20.  General A Rod.  In one of the odder moves we've seen in recent years, the erstwhile owner of General A Rod solid his entire interest in the horse on Monday to new owners.  It wouldn't be surprising if an owner of a Kentucky Derby entrant hedged his interest by selling off a share of his horse, but if the horse had an actual shot in the race, wouldn't the original owner have held on to at least a small share?

19.  Wildcat Red.  He and General A Rod spent their last two races dueling it out on the front end of the Gulfstream Park prep races, showing little ability to rate and even less chance that either wants any part of 10 furlongs.  They only ran well in the Fountain of Youth because the track was absurdly speed-biased that day; unless the Derby track is a conveyor belt, you'll hear from these two early, but not late.

18.  Harry's Holiday.  The fact that the owners of this horse also wanted to buy a piece of General A Rod tells you what they think about this guy's chances on Saturday.  The fact that he lost his last race by a cool 28 1/4 lengths while finishing 13th of 14th probably doesn't help either.

17.  Vinceremos.  And here's the one horse that ran worse than Harry's Holiday in the Blue Grass Stakes.  He rates marginally higher because he has a stakes win on the dirt (Sam Davis Stakes), which he followed up by running a disappointing second in the Tampa Bay Derby and his DAFL in the Blue Grass.  Todd Pletcher usually has one horse in the Derby that runs near the back of the pack and does nothing; of his four entrants, this appears to be the most likely to fit that bill.

16.  We Miss Artie.  Or it could be this grass and synthetics specialist, who's looked horrible on the dirt.  In fact, after his last workout, rival trainer Bob Baffert said "I'm not sure at all if he should be running in the Derby."  Next time Bob, don't hold back with your opinions.

15.  Commanding Curve.  Drew into the race when his stablemate, who would have been 30-1, came down with a fever at the last minute.  He's only won once, and was a non-threatening third in a lower-tier prep race last out.  It's tough to view this entry as anything other than your usual publicity stunt by West Point Thoroughbreds.

Nice Last Race.  Still Don't Care.

14.  Dance with Fate.  The winner of the Blue Grass Stakes in his last start, he looks to continue a stretch of horribleness for winners of the race since Keeneland went to a synthetic track.  Here's how the recent winners of the Blue Grass fared on the first Saturday in May:

2009.....General Quarters.......10th
2010.....Stately Victor.............8th
2011.....Brilliant Speed...........7th
2013.....Java's War................13th

We do have some indication as to how this guy will do in a dirt route: badly.  In his last dirt start, the Breeders Cup Juvenile, he ran 8th and was never a factor.  To top it off, his owner and trainer were vacillating on whether to even run him in Derby right after the Blue Grass, noting that this horse is better on turf and synthetics.  Clearly, Derby Fever got a hold of them both.  If the owner and trainer don't think he really belongs, we don't either.

Voice of Churchill Downs and Friend of the Gazette, Larry Collmus.
13.  Medal Count.  Rates slightly higher than Dance with Fate even though he lost to him in the Blue Grass because he at least has some dirt pedigree and his owners aren't running here for kicks.  But all of his good races have been on turf and synthetics, while all of his dirt races have been unimpressive.  We look forward to seeing him and Dance with Fate renew their rivalry in the Secretariat Stakes in August.

12.  Chitu.  The winner of the Sunland Derby, this guy has always looked like Bob Baffert's backup plan.  While that worked in the case of Real Quiet, it's less impressive when he lost his only race of consequence to Candy Boy, who's also running in the Derby and has taken on tougher horses.  His race in New Mexico looked impressive visually and came up pedestrian on the numbers.  Given he beat nobody of interest in that race, we side with the numbers.

11.  Vicar's In Trouble.  The star of the Louisiana circuit.  After running a perfunctory 2yo race at Keeneland's fall meet, he's run four times at Fair Grounds with three wins, including the Louisiana Derby.  But we're skeptical.  Two starts ago, in the Lecomte, he ran a clean race (if a little wide) behind a fair pace and was never close to the top two finishers.  In the Louisiana Derby, the favorite (Intense Holiday) broke poorly and he and others had traffic trouble, allowing Vicar's in Trouble to get an easy (if unexpected) lead that was never really contested.  He hit the top of the stretch with plenty left in the tank and was never really threatened by others who couldn't quite get their act together.

There are few horses that are better bet-againsts than horses who ran well when they had an uncontested lead and nothing to challenge them.  He won't get an easy lead in the Derby - we don't think he'll be anywhere near the lead, honestly - and we've seen nothing to indicate he has the stretch punch to beat Intense Holiday again, let alone the other contenders.  We think you'll hear his name exactly once during the entire call of the race, and will next think about him when he's running in Louisiana as a four-year old in January.

Coming tomorrow: Our look at the top 10 and our pick.

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