The West Coast’s young thoroughbreds are faster than the East Coast’s crop this year.
They’ll most likely prove that in the Kentucky Derby today. My call is for the horses that ran first and third in the West Coast’s biggest prep race for the Derby -- California Chrome and Candy Boy -- to take the top two spots in Louisville (the second-place finisher in that prep race, Hoppertunity, was scratched May 1, preventing the possibility of a one-two-three Cali-sweep).
With odds speculation on California Chrome dropping with the passing of each day, from 5-1 a few weeks ago to 3-1 and then to 5-2, I’m finding myself hard-pressed to bet him. Candy Boy, at odds of 15-1, seems worthy of a wager, though. A search beyond the top two for big-price candidates took me to a 20-1 shot, Medal Count, and how about throwing a few bucks on a 50-1 outsider by the name of We Miss Artie? The Derby’s oversized fields do, after all, have a way of creating chaotic results.
Here’s a horse-by-horse breakdown of the race. Runners are listed by post position. Odds are Churchill Downs Racetrack’s estimate of how gamblers will bet.
-No. 1 Vicar’s in Trouble (20-1) -- He sure is. The one post is the kiss of death in the Derby, sending the horse on a collision course with the inner rail. This little ugly duckling of a colt has some ability, but not enough to overcome this draw. Eight of the past 15 horses to break from the one hole have finished 13th or worse. None has done better than fourth.
-No. 2 Harry’s Holiday (50-1) -- Harry’s who? Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t bet on this horse to win the North Dakota Derby, let alone the Kentucky Derby.
-No. 3 Uncle Sigh (30-1) -- The addition of newly fitted blinkers on this one makes him something of an enigma. Hard to know exactly how he’ll react. My guess is that he’s sprinting at the front of the pack early and jogging at the back late.
-No. 4 Danza (8-1) -- OK, so let me get a show of hands from all of you who had this horse at 41-1 in the Arkansas Derby last month. Right, right, I didn’t either. Here’s the deal: After we all overlooked him in a field of eight horses that day at 41-1, are we really going to get suckered into taking 8-1 on him in a field of 19? Count me out. I know it’s possible that he’s getting good at the right time, but I’m passing.
-No. 5 California Chrome (5-2) -- Not exactly the ideal post position for the favorite. Jockey Victor Espinoza will have to hustle the big colt out of the gate to avoid getting stuck behind a wall of horses and then try to get him into a relaxed, comfortable beat near the frontrunners while rivals to his outside pinch down on him. A stutter-step start, like the one he had in his win in the Santa Anita Derby, could end his race before it begins. But Chrome has one big advantage in here: he’s superior to these horses. If he gets a clean trip around the track, he has the potential to turn the Derby into a runaway.
-No. 6 Samraat (15-1) -- a New York-bred colt who’s a likable enough sort, just feels a cut below the top horses in here.
-No. 7 We Miss Artie (50-1) -- This is a highly speculative play that I’m recommending. (Translation: This horse has absolutely no shot.) Yes, I know he’s bred for the grass, and yes, I know that he’s never run a half-decent race in his life over a dirt surface. But if there’s one day in the year when a turf horse can jump up and run big on dirt, it’s today at Churchill Downs. They have a way of tightening up the racing strip on Derby day that creates the kind of firm footing that turf runners crave (Exhibit A: 2011 winner Animal Kingdom). At 50-1, I’m in for a few.
-No. 8 General a Rod (15-1) -- This colt has done about all his racing free and clear on the outside, a trip he doesn’t figure to get today. I doubt he’s good enough to acclimate to a different kind of race position and beat this group.
-No. 9 Vinceremos (30-1) -- Hard to tout a horse that was beaten from here to Brooklyn in his last start. I know that race was run over a synthetic surface and the Derby is run on dirt, but still.
-No. 10 Wildcat Red (15-1) -- A speedball who’s all fight and heart and grit, but he’s in deep here.
-No. 11 Hoppertunity -- Scratched
-No. 12 Dance With Fate (20-1) -- The trainer was dead-set against running in this race, saying the horse doesn’t travel well over dirt, until he succumbed to a bad case of Kentucky Derby fever. I’m taking that as a negative.
-No. 13 Chitu (20-1) -- His father was a sprinter, he’s built like a sprinter and he runs like a sprinter. The Derby distance (1 1/4 miles) will prove too far for him.
-No. 14 Medal Count (20-1) -- Like We Miss Artie, and Dance With Fate too, this one has done his best racing on turf and synthetic surfaces. He seems to be getting good at the right time, though, and figures to be running at the leaders down the stretch.
-No. 15 Tapiture (12-1) -- Very athletic and fast, he could turn out to be one of the best from this crop of three-year-olds. I have two concerns about him in the Derby: 1) his last race, a lackluster fourth-place finish behind Danza in the Arkansas Derby, could signal that his form is tailing off; 2) he’s a touch too aggressive for my taste in the early stage of races, tugging against the rider’s reins and using up precious energy that he should conserve for the stretch run.
-No. 16 Intense Holiday (8-1) -- A major player who’s been turning heads with his energetic morning workouts at Churchill Downs the past couple weeks. He’ll need to improve his footwork today after a rare technical mishap, known as cross-firing, compromised his chances in the Louisiana Derby.
-No. 17 Commanding Curve (50-1) -- Looks overmatched.
-No. 18 Candy Boy (15-1) -- He’ll have to improve a bunch after the big horse handled him easily in the Santa Anita Derby, but he seems capable of it. I loved the way he lengthened his stride to run down the leaders in his 2014 debut in February, a performance that suggests there’s more upside to him. Like Tapiture, he has a tendency to get a bit keen early in his races. He’ll need to relax better to have a shot at the end.
-No. 19 Ride On Curlin (15-1) -- I’ve been betting on him to ill-effect for the past three months. Now that I’m giving up on him, I’m sure he’ll win in a romp.
-No. 20 Wicked Strong (6-1) -- Talented and improving but just too mercurial for me. I don’t know that he’s mentally tough enough to handle the Mardi Gras atmosphere he’ll face today. (Do note, though, that my 11-year-old daughter Victoria, whose very first words as a baby were “trifecta box” and has become the best handicapper in the family, is touting this horse. I don’t want folks accusing me of withholding information after he wins by five lengths.)
-No. 21 Pablo Del Monte (50-1) -- Scratched
(David Papadopoulos, the deputy managing editor for emerging markets coverage at Bloomberg News, has been following thoroughbred racing for more than two decades and was runner-up in 2008 Eclipse Award voting for feature writing on the sport.)