Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Narrowing Down the Kentucky Derby Contenders

Now that we've finished the major Kentucky Derby preps, I've narrowed down my list of Kentucky Derby contenders. I won't make my final selections until after the confirmed runners have worked at Churchill Downs and the posts have been drawn, but for now, these are the horses who I am considering. Bare in mind, these are listed in no particular order and the comments are my personal notes on how I view each of the contenders at this point. 

California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit - Love the Chase, by Not For Love)
--Pros: Clearly comes into the Derby with the best resume of any horse in the field, as is shown by his four-straight victories in stakes, highlighted by his most recent win in the G1 Santa Anita Derby. He's shown a versatility in running styles, although he does seem to prefer to be near the lead early. He definitely possesses a "winning move," where he switches into high gear at the most crucial time of the race and in about two or three strides has kicked clear of the pack, not to mention his speed figures are improving the further he runs.
--Cons: Is is possible that he's won too easily to this point? It's hard to think he'd be able to win the Derby without a fight and he certainly isn't the most battle tested of the bunch. Aside from the San Felipe Stakes, he has a history of stumbling out of the gate and although his powerful first few strides have bailed him out so far, that could be a bigger issue in a larger, more talented field. Speaking of his stride, it's fluid and powerful, but not necessarily long, which again brings into question how he would fare if engaged in a battle while tired in the last furlong of the Derby.

Vicar's In Trouble (Into Mischief - Vibrant, by Vicar)
--Pros: One of the more consistent of this crop, having won three of his five starts and never finishing outside of the top three. He has progressed nicely from his big win in the G3 LeComte, in which he ran a bit greenly at times, to his most recent victory in the G2 Louisiana Derby, where he looked like a veteran in that wire-to-wire victory. Won by a wide margin on a downgraded track, so he's another who could be a major factor if rain is in the forecast.
--Cons: Distance is the obvious concern. Into Mischief had two sons on the Derby trail last year in Vyjack and Goldencents and neither were able to hang with the big boys when going further than nine furlongs. Not to mention, he came home quite slowly in the Louisiana Derby, which perhaps was the first sign that ten furlongs will be too far for him, as well. Additionally, he does his best running on the lead, so the potential pace scenario could prove difficult for him to overcome.

Wicked Strong (Hard Spun - Moyne Abbey, by Charismatic)
--Pros: By a Kentucky Derby runner-up and out of the daughter of a Kentucky Derby winner certainly gives one confidence that he'll relish ten furlongs more than most. He seems to be getting good at the right time, as his closing fourth place finish on the speed biased Gulfstream main track was a good effort before he broke through with his win in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. He's one of the true closers in this group, which certainly bodes well for his chances with all of the speed that's signed on at this point.
--Cons: His no-show appearance in the Holy Bull is still a bit of a mystery and he has done his best running in New York to this point. More troubling, perhaps, is his tendency to get a bit erratic when the whip is used. That was a major issue for him as a two-year-old in the Remsen and it appeared to again show (albeit to a much lesser degree) in the Wood.

Danza (Street Boss - Champagne Royale, by French Deputy)
--Pros: Surprise winner of the G1 Arkansas Derby won in impressive fashion over runners who were much more seasoned than him. He came home strongly in that nine furlong contest and, in fact, ran only 0.13 seconds slower than multiple graded stakes winner Will Take Charge, who won at the same distance the race before. He only has four career starts, two of which were this year, so there may very well be room for him to further improve and his off the pace running style certainly boosts his case for the Derby.
--Cons: His pedigree screams miler, but he's clearly outran that already. He did run a bit greenly down the stretch last out, although that's perhaps not too surprising given it was only his fourth career start, and he did storm through the wire when it counted. He does appear to have a high knee action, however, and one could question whether his lack of seasoning will catch up to him when facing the best of his crop on the first Saturday in May.

Hoppertunity (Any Given Saturday - Refugee, by Unaccounted For)
--Pros: One of the contenders who has noticeably improved, particularly since his wide but closing fourth place finish in the G2 Risen Star. He's yet to put in a poor effort and his speed figures have consistently improved the further he's had to run. A half to multiple graded stakes winner Executiveprivilege, Hoppertunity is built like a "classic-type" router, has a beautiful long stride, and his gallop-outs after nearly every one of his races are eye-catching. His best performance to date was over a wet-fast track in the G2 Rebel, so rain on Derby day shouldn't be an issue. He's ran well at multiple tracks and no matter the circumstances, he just always seems to run his race.
--Cons: He ran a sneaky good race in the Santa Anita Derby, but it was still a bit alarming how quickly California Chrome skipped away from him even before Dublin Up had forced him out wide. It's also worth mentioning that he did not run as a two-year-old and will be making his sixth start of the year in the Derby.

Wildcat Red (D'Wildcat - Racene, by Miner's Mark)
--Pros: You'd be hard-pressed to find one from this three-year-old crop who has a bigger heart than Wildcat Red, who perhaps had the most gutsy performance of these runners when he fought tooth and nail to just miss to Constitution in the G1 Florida Derby. He broke from the rail there, which all but forced him to take the early lead, but contrary to popular belief, this guy can settle off the pace -- and he did just that en route to winning the G3 Hutcheson. He never goes down without a fight, which in and of itself will make him a factor in most races. His pedigree has been tabbed as that of a sprinter's, but he has certainly showed an ability to route and his dam did win going ten furlongs on turf.
--Cons: He did ride the rail for the bulk of the Florida Derby (pretty much all but when it mattered most) and while he did hold the lead from the start, he wasn't exactly setting a blistering pace, which throws up a red flag about his ability to stay that extra furlong.

Ride on Curlin (Curlin - Magical Ride, by Storm Cat)
--Pros: Has shown slow, but steady progress throughout the year after a nice juvenile season that was concluded by an impressive third place finish behind Havana and Honor Code in the G1 Champagne. Ten furlongs should not be an issue and he does have the ability to run comfortably off the pace. He's another who would appreciate a wet track, if that were to come into play, and he does have experience -- albeit with mixed results -- at Churchill Downs.
--Cons: The way he finished in the Rebel was a bit off-putting to me, as he snagged the lead late and then was passed, and not necessarily because he couldn't get the distance, as was shown by his runner-up finish in the Arkansas Derby. His best finishes have come when he's been closing late, but following the Rebel, I'm thinking he's one who's move to the lead needs to be timed perfectly, as he can perhaps idle a bit when out alone in front. His two career wins don't necessarily support that theory, but neither of those came in stakes races, so he could have just simply been the class of those fields, regardless.

General A Rod (Roman Ruler - Dynamite Eyes, by Dynaformer)
--Pros: The battle-tested General A Rod seems to have fallen off the radar since the Florida Derby, but he deserves more credit than he's getting for that run. Wide all the way, he ultimately finished just one and one half lengths behind Constitution, who had ridden the rail during the entirety of the race. He's a fighter and he always seems to find a way to get himself into the mix. He has a second place finish at Churchill Downs to his name and his maiden win and the manner in which he did it was mighty impressive. Perhaps he's a more versatile runner than some think?
--Cons: He's another who has outrun his pedigree, so his ability to stay ten furlongs is questionable. Every race of his since his maiden win has been done in the same manner -- running outside and very close to the pace -- but that formula likely will not work if there's a hot early pace come Derby day.

Medal Count (Dynaformer - Brisquette, by Unbridled's Song)
--Pros: He arrives at Churchill Downs as one of the more in-form runners after having won the G3 Transylvania, which was taken off the turf, and finishing second in the G1 Blue Grass. His most recent attempt on dirt, which was in the G2 Fountain of Youth was also a relatively sneaky good run, in my opinion. Recall that race was run at a quick pace on the speed friendly Gulfstream main track and Medal Count spent most of the race in the second flight of runners behind the dueling duo of Wildcat Red and General A Rod. Essentially, he was in no man's land, running more quickly than he'd like. Everyone he was running near for the bulk of the race was backing up before the far turn and the fact he at least somewhat stayed on under those circumstances caught my attention. It's also worth noting he has trained at Churchill Downs in the past, so one would expect him to be comfortable with that surface.
--Cons: His best results have clearly come on turf and synthetic surfaces and the fact he's run twice on dirt without a top three finish to show for it could make it difficult for some to give him another chance on that surface. It's also worth mentioning the Kentucky Derby will be his third start in a month.

Cairo Prince (Pioneerof the Nile - Holy Bubbette, by Holy Bull)
--Pros: Having begun his career winning four out of five races -- with his lone loss being by a nose to Honor Code in the G2 Remsen -- Cairo Prince was the "it" horse for most of this year's road to the Kentucky Derby. Unlike many of these, he has nice tactical speed that allows him to get in striking position early and he has used a quick burst of acceleration to snatch the lead going into the stretch in every one of his victories. His fourth place finish in the Florida Derby also wasn't nearly as bad as some are making it out to be, particularly with him coming off a two month layoff. Surely, he needed the run and he did start to make his signature outside move before flattening out late. I'd expect him to strip fitter from that effort and perform better next time out.
--Cons: I got the chance to see Cairo Prince in the flesh in Florida back in February and his build isn't exactly what you'd expect from a potential Kentucky Derby winner. He has a more compact build than I'd expect from a classic router, but at the same time he had a lighter frame than you'd typically see from a true sprinter. I've spoken in the past about my concern in that he had never ran behind horses prior to the Florida Derby and that concern was justified by his clear discomfort while running behind Constitution early last time out. If kickback is in fact the issue on a dry track, you'd have to think he's a toss if the track comes up wet on Derby day.

Uncle Sigh (Indian Charlie - Cradlesong, by Pine Bluff)
--Pros: He started off his career as consistent as they come, having finished in the top two in his first four races and never losing by more than one length. In his first two tries in graded stakes, he had to "do the dirty work" up front, which in turn, gave Samraat a tactical advantage both times. He most recently ran fifth -- beaten eight lengths -- in the Wood, in what I feel was one of the best under the radar runs of the major prep season. He blew the break and was forced to rush simply to get himself back into contention and despite having the widest trip in the field according to Trakus, he was still passing horses late. In fact, the only runner who was going faster than him at the finish was the winner Wicked Strong. Although it may have been forced by his slow start, Uncle Sigh did show he was able to settle off the pace, which makes him a more versatile runner than perhaps previously thought. He also finished a very game second in his debut, in which he lost by just a head in a quickly run race over a muddy track, so if the track comes up wet on Derby day, look for him to take advantage.
--Cons: In both the G3 Gotham and G3 Withers he was handily beaten by Samraat, so the case could be made that he simply wasn't good enough to get the win. His speed figures also aren't quite up to par with the top contenders, although they aren't a long way off.

---- Not Yet in the Field: 
Commanding Curve (Master Command - Mother, by Lion Hearted)
--Pros: The only horse who doesn't yet have a spot in the field that I want anything to do with is Commanding Curve, who was my choice in the G2 Louisiana Derby. He wound up finishing third there despite being bumped hard by Rise Up early on, in what was his best performance to date. Trained by Dallas Stewart, who also trained last year's Kentucky Derby runner-up Golden Soul, Commanding Curve is a true closer and is one of the few in the field who I am confident can stay for ten furlongs. His lone win also just so happened to come at Churchill Downs.
--Cons: He's not the most consistent runner of this crop and you definitely have to really look to find the positives in some of his performances. While he did come on strong late in the Louisiana Derby, visually it probably looks better than it really was considering how slowly Vicar's In Trouble and Intense Holiday finished that race.


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