Within minutes of yesterday's post going up, Hoppertunity, one of the horses we really liked, scratched out of the Derby. Initially we were upset because we liked him, but truth be told, it actually made our lives easier because we had two horses we thought were a bit ahead of the others. Now we've got one. Who is it? Let's get to the top 9.
Others Like You, But We Don't
9. Samraat. He's never been out of the exacta in his six career starts but we're not in love with his chances. His breeding suggests a mile would be his best distance, and his failure to finish strongly in the Wood Memorial did nothing to dissuade us from feeling that he's not going to love the last furlong of the Derby. To top it off, he's shown a propensity for running fast early, and there is a good amount of early speed in the race. We think it burns him out by the far turn and we see him contesting 7 furlong races this summer.
8. Tapiture. The horse that nobody in racing wants to see win because he's trained by Steve Asmussen, he of the PETA video and controversy surrounding care for horses. (We are not going to comment on that here - there are hundreds of others with takes on that video.) We were high on this horse in early April, as his breeding and connections were good, he had a nice foundation as a 2-year old, a win over the track, a nice win in the Southwest, then a good second in the Rebel to a horse we liked. We were all set to tout him as one of our preferences for the Derby.
Then he ran in the Arkansas Derby and showed nothing. Not just that he lost or finished 4th - he came up completely empty in the stretch and showed no resolve to take on the 2nd and 3rd place finishers, much less the winner. Now horses have rebounded from sub-optimal showings to run well in the Derby. And we often tout horses that have run below expectations in their prep races as potentially interesting price plays on Derby day, and will do so again below. But the complete lack of an excuse - trip, track condition, bias, equipment malfunction - leaves us at a loss. Maybe he's just peaked and is on the wrong side of the curve. We think that's a lot more likely than his last race is a total toss and he rebounds in a field of 20 horses.
7. California Chrome. He's won four in a row with good speed figures, has a neat backstory, and is the deserving favorite. Color us unimpressed. As evidenced by his last few races, he needs to be on or just off the lead; his attempts to rate earlier in his career were disasters. Flaunting early speed is a winning strategy on the West Coast where the attributes for winning on the dirt are speed, speed, and more speed. It's very reminiscent of Game on Dude, who has a ton of early speed and good stamina and is deadly when racing in California because his strong speed will lead you to a victory at 10 furlongs. But when Game on Dude ships out of state to take on top competition or doesn't get a good early lead, he yields late.
So back to California Chrome. What happens when he ships and now gets a few more speed burners thrown at him, such as the intractable Wildcat Red? We're pretty confident it means that he folds. And badly. This horse has the look of an overrated favorite that retreats back to California afterwards and has a wonderful career of winning millions on the California circuit, but rarely making an impact outside of his home state at the top level. Just like Game on Dude.
6. Intense Holiday. The third horse of Todd Pletcher's quartet, he's the one that's likely to be the shortest price on Derby Day. He's also the media darling of the week based on his strong workouts, which we think means he'll take a little more money than we originally thought. But we're unconvinced that he's going to give Pletcher his second blanket of roses. For one, we don't love the breeding: Harlan's Holiday couldn't get 10 furlongs, and the dam side looks like it leans miler, rather than router. More importantly, we think he's been unimpressive every time he's run against the best competition. He ran in a lot of stakes races as a 2yo and was never a factor. He was similarly never a factor in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream earlier this year. He did blossom somewhat at Fair Grounds, which leads us to believe he's either a horse for the course or has been beating up on inferior competition. Either way, we're not particularly interested.
Interesting for Exotics
5. Uncle Sigh. It's tough to endorse for the win slot a
horse that's never won anything other than a New York state-bred maiden
race. But it's easy to endorse him as a bomb to finish in the
superfecta when he's going to be one of the longest shots on the board
and has some hidden attributes. After winning the maiden race, he ran
second twice to Samraat in the Withers and Gotham, showing solid speed
in both races while taking the worst of a tough trip in the Gotham. He
then had a trip from hell in the Wood, where he broke slowly, was
carried very wide on all turns, and had no shot. We think his Wood is a
complete toss-out, and love that he's been working out extremely well
at Belmont the last two weeks. We don't see him as a winner, but more
as someone who will be in the mix at the top of the stretch and can hold
on for a piece of the money at a huge price.
4. Ride on Curlin. Every year there's one or two horses in Triple Crown races that have the pedigree to get 10 furlongs but lack tactical speed, and are perfect fodder for finishing out trifectas and superfectas without ever really threatening the winner. This year we have Ride on Curlin, who's winless in his 6 stakes appearances but has never finished out of the superfecta. He's shown a bit more tactical speed in his last few races than he did as a two year old, but we think he'll be a bit further back off the strong Derby pace (sitting 12th or so) followed by a mild rally on the turn and into the stretch. We don't see him finishing strongly enough to actually win, but given his propensity for passing tiring horses, you'd be crazy to leave him out of the bottom slots of your exotics.
3. Danza. The fourth horse trained by Todd Pletcher, in his last race he took the Arkansas Derby at a robust 41-1. Backing a Todd Pletcher horse that comes into the Derby having won his prep race as a longshot has historically been a waste of money. Here's what happened with Pletcher horses than ran in the Derby after winning their prep race at 15-1 or higher:
Graeme Hall (1999)........14th
Balto Star (2001)............19th
Pollard's Vision (2004)...17th
Flower Alley (2005)........9th
Coin Silver (2005)..........12th
Cowtown Cat (2007).......20th
Despite being students of history, we're a little higher on Danza than those horses. The Arkansas Derby was Danza's fourth race; most of those other horses had run more times and indicated less upside. Danza's past performance lines confirm that Pletcher has had a high opinion of this horse: he broke his maiden first out, ran a good 3rd in a Saratoga stakes race, and was ambitiously placed in the Arkansas Derby off a bad comeback race that was completely excusable based on a long layoff and a track (Gulfstream) that many horses simply don't like.
Now we're not picking him for the top spot because there's a solid chance his Arkansas Derby was a mirage because he did have everything go his way - perfect placement right off the pace, a rail trip, other contenders didn't fire. But we see upside here, and think that hedging with this guy is a must. There's an excellent chance he wins right back at a good price (20-1?) and we all leave on Saturday shaking our heads on how we all let a Pletcher horse that had just won a Grade 1 race get away at a big price.
2. Candy Boy. There's a lot to like here. He hasn't been out of the money in his last 5 starts, and when he's lost, has done so to some very nice horses - a 3rd in the Santa Anita Derby, a 2nd to 2yo champ Shared Belief, and a 2nd to freak Tap It Rich. He is going to be closing into a strong pace and has shown enough stretch punch that we think he'll be flying late and we know that Gary Stevens is more than capable of putting together a good ride. His last race is a bit of a toss for us; trainer John Sadler (who's good) said he's going to be a closer, not a stalker, and it was his first race in two months, giving up recency advantages to California Chrome and Hoppertunity. We think he moves forward off that start and comes flying late at a solid price (15-1?), but doesn't get to...
1. Wicked Strong. The ephemera around this horse is excellent. Jimmy Jerkens is an outstanding trainer; his father Allen Jerkens is one of the great trainers in the annals of horse racing, and Jimmy is owed one after Quality Road didn't make it to the Derby in 2009. The horse got his name after the Boston Marathon bombing and a portion of his winnings go to charity. Even if he was a stiff, there are reason to root for him.
Fortunately, he's not a stiff. After an okay debut, he won his allowance race professionally, then ran an excellent third in the Remsen last November, closing into the slowest pace we've seen in a non-harness race behind two horses (Honor Code and Cairo Prince) that were on everyone's short list for Derby contenders. His only bad race came next in the Fountain of Youth where he completely no-showed. Jerkens smartly dropped him into an allowance race where he ran a sneaky good fourth: the track was speed biased to make closing impossible, but he still closed some ground while racing wide and losing to the eventual winner of the Florida Derby (Constitution) and two allowance horses (Mexicoma and Tonalist) who many had as Derby sleepers. He then shipped to New York for the Wood as a "wise guy" horse, and rewarded backers with a closing victory at 9-1 odds.
He has almost every factor in his favor. He's a closer in a race that should burn out early speed. He drew the 19 post which should help him settle back and avoid early traffic trouble and waiting in the gate. He has good breeding for the distance. His connections are impeccable. While he's eligible to regress off the Wood, we think that based on his workouts, he's on the improve and moves forward on Saturday, and takes the Derby at around 6-1.
How to Play the Race
California Chrome should be a good favorite (3-1), so if you like anyone else, bet them to win. We also think Untapable lays over the field in the Kentucky Oaks, and Wise Dan has only one horse that can beat him in the Woodford Reserve Turf (Bill Mott's horse), so look to the Oaks-Derby double or Oaks-Woodford-Derby pick three with those as your mainstays. We also like wheeling Wicked Strong over Candy Boy, Ride on Curlin, Danza and Uncle Sigh in exactas.
Good luck and enjoy the race!