Brian’s Derby Preps: Kentucky Derby 2014

We’re a little more than 24 hours away from the big race, and while John Perotti has accumulated a daunting number of points at the top of our charity league leaderboard, the 525 points on the line at Churchill mean that an awful lot of of players still have a chance win the league and the $1800 charity donation that goes with it.

Brian Nadeau is back with a comprehensive look at the race, and over at Forbes.com, five handicappers have offered their thoughts on Kentucky Derby 140.

Good luck with your wagers, and of course, safe trips to all.

Churchill Downs: The Grade I, $2 million Kentucky Derby at 1 ¼ miles

#1 Vicar’s in Trouble (20-1): Rousing GII La. Derby winner sure looked good when last seen winning at Fair Grounds but took all the worst of it at the post position draw, as the rail is the utter kiss of death, especially for a horse that wants to flash speed early. On paper, this son of Into Mischief ranks as a moderate contender, but he also got all the best of it last time, when he caught a flier and made a loose lead (especially when the other speed, Rise Up, didn’t break) and never looked back, but that’s certainly not the case on Saturday, as there’s a ton of speed to his outside and he’ll no doubt need to be used hard to get position into that treacherous first turn from this draw. If you’re a fan, it’s also highly unlikely you’ll see this 30-1 ML, as he’s got Rosie riding for Ramsey and Maker, connections that take boatloads of money in Kentucky whenever they run. Talented sort seemed like a fringe player before this draw and certainly looks like an easy toss after it; tough to tout.

#2 Harry’s Holiday (50-1): Arguably the longest shot on the board has been a synthetic specialist in his career, though you can use that term loosely as he’s never actually won a graded stakes race and his dirt form is about 1 1/2 miles behind these in this 1 1/4-mile race. Son of Harlan’s Holiday (who was the Derby favorite several years ago) is Maker’s second runner and does own a local win, albeit in a maiden-claimer, so those are small pluses at least, but that joy lasts for about one second when you look at the rest of his dirt form. Stalker figures to set up in midpack but nothing on paper suggests he can win this race, let alone be in it; easy toss.

#3 Uncle Sigh (30-1): Snakebitten New York-bred has been unlucky at the draw all winter and didn’t get any help here either, so it’s going to be tough to work out a trip from the inside with several who want to be involved early breaking outside of him. Contessa adds the blinkers to an Indian Charlie colt that gave Samraat all he could handle this winter without winning, though that rival doesn’t figure here, so it’s tough to think this dude does. Hard- knocker should be involved early, especially with the blinkers going on to sharpen his speed, but it’s a little implausible to think that a horse who is eligible to run in a N1X state-bred race is going to make a dent in the Kentucky Derby; not seeing it.

#4 Danza (8-1): The trickiest read of the lot blew up the toteboard and the field in winning the GI Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park at over 40-1 last time in what was his first two-turn start and looks clearly on the come for Pletcher, who will saddle four in here. Son of sprinter Street Boss got a dream rail run in his win in Arkansas and it’s tough to think he’ll get the perfect setup today, with 20 horses entered and a potentially dicey inside run into the first turn. Stalker enters with just four lifetime starts, meaning he’s the most inexperienced member of the field, but his running style is the type that does play well in the Derby, so expect him to set up 8-10 lengths off the lead and look for a seam entering the far turn. On paper he’s one of the few in here who can win, based on the number he ran last time, but you’re allowed to wonder if he can duplicate and/or improve off that run, which was by far his lifetime best, or if he’s more likely to regress and come back to the pack a bit, all at what figures to be an underlaid price to boot; tread lightly if landing here.

#5 California Chrome (5-2): The deserving heavy favorite has been visually impressive in winning his last two graded stakes by open lengths, the GII San Felipe and GI Santa Anita Derby out west, and certainly is the best horse on paper in a race where very few have actually run fast. Cal-bred son of Lucky Pulpit has won four straight by a combined 24 1/4 lengths for Sherman and will win this if he reproduces either of his last two at Santa Anita, but the question is, will he? Dig a bit deeper and you’ll see that the San Felipe was run on Big ‘Cap Day over a track that was a paved highway, and in the SA Derby he stalked a maiden through a :47 half-mile before pulling clear over two runners, Hoppertunity and Candy Boy, who were merely prepping. So yeah, as impressive as both those wins were, they can easily be picked apart to a certain extent as well. And that’s all before even mentioning that he’s never traveled, has never run outside of California and didn’t make any friends with his appearance on the track this week. So, point being, taking 5-2 in a 20-horse field from a tricky draw with a dicey pace scenario just doesn’t seem all that enticing; tossing completely.

#6 Samraat (15-1): Talented New York-bred saw his perfect record come to an end when 2nd to fellow rival Wicked Strong in Aqueduct’s GI Wood Memorial in his last but still ran well and certainly rates as one of the gamest horses in the race. Son of Noble Causeway feasted on easier competition through advantageous draws this winter in New York, when he beat Uncle Sigh in the GIII Withers and Gotham over the inner track at Aqueduct but found deeper foes a bit too much in the Wood, so that doesn’t bode well for his chances. You also get the impression that there’s no upside here, as he’s essentially run the same race every single time, so to expect improvement today for Violette might be asking a lot, all for a horse who looked like he was laboring in the lane when going 9Fs last time; confident toss.

#7 We Miss Artie (50-1): Pletcher-Ramsey charge has made his name—and Derby points—running on turf and synthetics throughout his career and hasn’t made a dent in any of his three dirt starts, so he’s a decided longshot today. Son of BC Mile winner Artie Schiller isn’t bred for this either, which only further clouds the picture, not to mention that his trainer has gone out of his way to pooh-pooh his chances this week after watching him work over the local oval. GIII Spiral winner is trying to emulate Animal Kingdom, who won the Derby off a win in that race a few years back, but that guy is a Hall of Famer and one of the most talented and versatile horses of the last 20 years, while this guy might not even be favored in the Hall of Fame Stakes at Saratoga this summer; next.

#8 General A Rod (15-1): Under-the-radar Florida runner has done little wrong in five lifetime starts but also seeks his first career graded stakes win today, while picking a mighty ambitious spot to get it. Maker charge traded paint with fellow rival Wildcat Red at Gulfstream Park in his last two, and while he lost a heartbreaker to him in the GII Fountain of Youth there, he definitely regressed when 3rd in the GI Florida Derby last time, so how he enters this is in question. Son of Roman Ruler is stretching pedigree a bit thin at this distance, and his pace-pressing style isn’t ideal for this speedy renewal either, so until he shows he can settle and pass horses, it’s best to make him prove it; midpack finish seems likely.

#9 Vinceremos (30-1): The third from Pletcher was just beaten a Sean Landeta punt in the GI Blue Grass over the Polytrack at Keeneland and certainly doesn’t come into this the right way after bombing so badly. Stalker did improve with each start earlier this year while winning the GIII Sam Davis at Tampa Bay Downs three-back before running second in their GII Derby in his last dirt start, so at least you know he’s getting back to the surface he prefers today.  On paper he’s never run fast enough to split this field, let alone threaten it, and it’s just tough to envision that he can rebound from a 28 1/2-length drubbing and run the race of his life, which might not be good enough anyway; no thanks.

#10 Wildcat Red (15-1): One of the fastest horses in the race also has the biggest heart, as he showed when winning the Fountain of Youth before running a too-good-to-lose second in the Florida Derby, but as a son of sprinter D’wildcat, he’s also outrun his pedigree and now has to go an additional furlong today. Trainer Garoffalo has managed this colt to perfection this spring but reports were that he has not looked good in training over the track and may be regressing in form, which is a worry on many levels, especially since his running style isn’t conducive to the Derby’s race flow. If you’re a fan, you’ll get a great price on a horse who has never missed the exacta in seven lifetime starts, but off those speed-biased runs at GP with a pedigree that wants nothing to do with 10Fs in a race loaded with speed, he looms as a pace factor and nothing more; pop and stop time.

#11 Hoppertunity: SCRATCHED

#12 Dance With Fate (20-1): Turf/Polytrack runner impressed in winning the Blue Grass from the back of the pack but needs to improve open lengths off his two dirt races last year, which resulted in a second-place finish in a slow renewal of Santa Anita’s GI FrontRunner in September and then a well-beaten eighth in the BC Juvenile there in November. Son of Two Step Salsa is another who is bred to be a miler or middle distance type, but Eurton has done a nice job here and he has made some friends on the backside with his appearance this week. On paper he’s a decided cut below these, but the Polytrack-to-Derby angle has worked in the past and the price will be right if you believe, so he’s not the worst bomber in a race that just seems destined to fall apart in the lane; hardly impossible for a piece underneath.

#13 Chitu (20-1): Baffert colt has done nothing wrong in winning 3-of-4 career starts but has battled a foot issue in the weeks leading up to this, which surely isn’t the right way to try and win the biggest horse race of the year. Son of Henny Hughes is by a sire who never won past 7Fs, so the fact that this dude won the 9F GIII Sunland Derby in his last start is somewhat remarkable, though getting 10Fs here is an entirely different beast. Tactical sort has the speed to be involved throughout, though that’s not necessarily a good thing as the pace looks hot and contested here, and he just seems destined to get swallowed up in it all; tough to endorse.

#14 Medal Count (20-1): Beautifully bred son of Dynaformer (think Barbaro) has progressed nicely this year for Romans, albeit on turf and Polytrack, and enters off a closing second-place run in the Blue Grass. On the face of it, his two most recent dirt runs—the BC Juvenile and Fountain of Youth—were drubbings that make him an easy toss here, but not so fast, as both were conducted over intense speed-favoring, hard tracks that just don’t cater to his late-running style. And do yourself a favor and go back and watch his debut win, when he won an off-the-turf MSW at Ellis Park in eye-catching style. Obviously he beat nothing that day, but make no mistake, this is a horse than can run on the dirt and will get all the best of it Saturday, when the pace and deeper, fairer track will fit perfectly with his running style. His trainer has also worked the Blue Grass-to-Derby route well in recent years, saddling Paddy O’Prado and Dullahan to money finishes in the Derby out of Keeneland’s premier race, so there’s a lot going in this corner. Experienced colt has plenty of miles under him this year, gets all the best of it in terms of race flow and figures to be a juicy price as well, so it all adds up to the shocker; call to mow them down in the lane.

#15 Tapiture (12-1): Tapit colt was high on everyone’s list this winter, when he was a sharp winner of Oaklawn’s GIII Southwest in February, then was second in their GII Rebel in March, but he took a big step back when a flat fourth in the Arkansas Derby in his last, so he’ll need to wake up in a hurry to factor. Fans will point to Thunder Gulch’s Blue Grass dud in 1995 before he won the roses, and while it’s a valid comparison, it’s also more the exception than the rule, as winning the Derby off a poor performance is a tough thing to do. And that’s before you factor in that this Asmussen charge wasn’t exactly running fast this winter when he made headlines, which means he’ll have to improve about 10 lengths to factor, let alone win. Local graded stakes winner also had never done a thing wrong prior to the Arkansas Derby run, which makes you think he’s on the downside of his form cycle, which means at an underlaid price, he’s worth playing against; not using.

#16 Intense Holiday (8-1): The fourth from Pletcher instantly gets appeal based on his late-running win in the GII Risen Star at FG in February, since that style looks like it will be preferred in this speedy spot. Son of Harlan’s Holiday was a modest second to ‘Vicar’s in the La. Derby last time, but took all the worst of it that day when he was forced to chase the loose speed, as opposed to settle off of it, so that’s an effort that can easily be forgiven. It’s also likely he bounced a bit off a career-best run in the Risen Star, which means he’s sitting on “go” today, a thought that has been echoed by his backstretch appearance this week, as many have labeled him the most impressive-looking horse on the grounds. Stretchrunner is in expert hands, seemingly gets all the best of it in terms of how the race will unfold, and figures to be motoring late while many are throwing in the towel; huge chance for all the marbles.

#17 Commanding Curve (50-1): Deep closer just snuck into the field off his closing third in the La. Derby and rates a longshot look as an improving runner who is another that suits the profile today. He’s also got some karma working for him, as trainer Stewart got into the field last year with Golden Soul, who was well down the list on points, but rallied stoutly to blow up the board to be second, so it’s not like there isn’t a blueprint here. Of course, this colt also goes for the West Point contingent, who are as good a group as you will find, but who also like to send it in at the window, so don’t expect that 50-1 ML price–and maybe even expect half of it. But regardless of all that, he will be a big number, is on the improve, and will get a scenario that will flatter his running style, which means he just might outrun his odds and the expectations of the public; quite eligible to blow up the exotics.

#18 Candy Boy (15-1): California invader had no chance when a meek third in the SA Derby last time, but that was nothing but a prep in a start that was designed as a means to an end and to get him to Kentucky, so obviously the mission was accomplished. Son of Candy Ride goes for a Sadler barn that has been a player on racing’s biggest days for years, and the pedigree is there for 10Fs, as dad was once a track record holder at this distance at Del Mar. if there’s a knock, it would be that the California contingent has often struggled over the deeper Churchill Downs strip, but this colt seems to be the exact opposite of that, as he looks the type that would relish a deeper, more forgiving track. His win in SA’s GII Lewis in February stamped his quality and he should only move forward off his last, so with the right running style, a decent price and a trainer that has been able to follow a schedule he mapped out long ago, you have to think this colt is firing a mighty big shot; look out.

#19 Ride On Curlin (15-1): Experienced son of Curlin has danced a lot of dances for Gowan along the Derby Trail and had a “someone had to be second” feel to him when he finished behind Danza in the Arkansas Derby. Son of Curlin, third in this race in 2007, has certainly picked it up in his last two, as he was also a close third in the Rebel, so it’s nice to know he’s heading into this at the top of his game. He also picks up Borel, which is a great move as he’s won three Derbys, but it also probably cuts your price in half, so taking 10-1 on a horse who should be 20-1 isn’t ideal in a 19-horse Derby that has the look of utter chaos. On paper there are several who are more appealing, but he has a nice stalking gear, should get that patented Borel rail run, and has showed in the past he can fire a big shot, so it’s tough to fault anyone looking his way; capable of a share.

#20 Wicked Strong (6-1): Stretch-running Wood winner looked like a different horse that day from the one who bombed twice at GP this winter, so how you view him is simply a matter of which side of the fence you’re on. On the one side, he’s never shipped and raised a hoof, not to mention done much running in the heat, so at about 6-1 today, he’s a huge underlay. On the other side, his running style is perfect for this race and his Wood win was about as fast—and impressive—as anything ‘Chrome has done, which means he’s a huge threat while seemingly getting all the best of it in terms of pace and flow, not to mention that dad Hard Spun was a big second in this race in 2007. His outside draw has been much publicized, but he was going to be 15th into the clubhouse turn whether he broke from the rail, the 20-hole or the 40-hole, and with no one to his outside, it actually could be a blessing, so if he’s for you, don’t jump off just because of his starting spot. Jerkens runner no doubt took a giant leap forward last time and ran fast enough to be a major player here, so even though there are questions in this corner, his running style and expected hot pace make him tough to leave out of the number; the one to fear in the lane.

#21 Pablo Del Monte (50-1):  SCRATCHED

Selections:

#14 Medal Count

#18 Candy Boy

#16 Intense Holiday

#20 Wicked Strong

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