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Smell the Roses: 140th Kentucky Derby Preview

After its dominating victory last month in Santa Anita, jockey Victor Espinoza will take California Chrome into The Kentucky Derby on Saturday as the odds-on favorite. (AP Photo)
After a dominating victory last month in Santa Anita, jockey Victor Espinoza will take California Chrome into The Kentucky Derby on Saturday as the odds-on favorite. (AP Photo)

–by Michael A. Riley

Well, folks, it is that time of year again: 20 thoroughbred horses will race 1 1/4 miles for what many believe, myself included, is the greatest prize in the game. Every trainer, jockey and owner in the sport dreams of winning the Kentucky Derby. The race has earned the nickname “the most exciting two minutes in sports.” One horse will have its name added to the list of 139 others before it and will wear the blanket of roses.

The frenzy of the Triple Crown officially getting underway on Saturday is magnified even more given the fact that no horse has won the actual Triple Crown – which requires a horse to negotiate three different tracks at three different distances and in three different states in the space of five weeks – since Affirmed pulled off the hat trick 36 years ago. Immortality that comes with achieving horse racing’s Holy Grail can’t happen without starting here first. The industry, fans and media have all been wishing for a Triple Crown winner in the hopes that it will generate long-standing excitement, attract new fans and increase overall attention to the sport. I have long said that we probably will never see the feat accomplished again due to changes in the way the horses are bred, trained, raced and managed. But on Saturday evening, beneath the famed twin spires at Churchill Downs, there will only be one horse with a chance to claim that elusive crown. Better yet, the allure of the pursuit of the Triple Crown will carry that horse, its trainer and fans worldwide to the next stop like a tidal wave, as it tries to make history all over again at The Preakness Stakes in Baltimore. I will wish it good luck.

But let’s get back to the Derby. Not only is the race exciting, with 20 horses running this distance competitively for the first time in their lives, but the handicapping and wagering is like no other race in the country. Money pours into Churchill Downs from all over the world and creates some lucrative payouts. So let’s take a look at some of the contenders, as well as a long shot or two that will hopefully light up the tote board.

The Favorites:

The obvious and deserving favorite is California Chrome, currently posting at 5-2. He impressed earlier this year by beating all challengers on the West Coast in the Santa Anita Derby by 5 1/4 lengths. However, he has never raced outside of his home state of California, never raced this distance (well, none of them have) and, personally, I never like a favorite who is being asked to do several things for the first time. Look for him to fade in the stretch after taking an early lead off the far turn.

Although second favorite Wicked Strong has Boston roots, his trainer is Long Island-born Jimmy Jerkens, who is looking for his first Derby win. (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Although second favorite Wicked Strong has its roots in Massachusetts, its trainer is Long Island-born Jimmy Jerkens, who is looking for his first Derby win. (Getty)

Wicked Strong is the second choice on the morning line (6-1) and will have the fans in Boston rooting him, as he was renamed in honor of the “Boston Strong” rallying cry following the Boston Marathon bombing just over a year ago. Also, owner Donald Little, Jr., who owns the Beverly, Mass. stable (Centennial Farms) where Wicked Strong is based, has promised to give 5 percent of the horse’s Triple Crown series winnings to the victims of the bombing. The colt was impressive in winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct last month, and we have seen many people jump on the bandwagon for those horses. He has a fairly difficult outside post; originally he drew post 20, but will advance one spot further inside to 19 as Hoppertunity – the likely third choice in the wagering – was scratched Thursday morning due to foot issues. Wicked Strong can sit off the leaders and make a late run in the stretch, and his breeding seems to indicate he will like the distance. If he can work out a decent trip from that outside post, stay out of trouble heading into the first turn and settle on the backstretch before closing at the wire, he has an excellent shot to take it all. I am just afraid he will be overbet, given his success as well as the storyline.

Dark horse candidates:

Breaking from post one is Vicar’s In Trouble, who could go off with odds in the 20-1 range (he’s currently listed at 20-1 as of Thursday evening). But he’s going to be in trouble as he breaks from the rail, and no horse has won from that dreaded post since Ferdinand in 1986. Though it should be pointed out that there have been eight winners from the one hole since the use of a starting gate in 1930, the fields in this race only recently expanded to a 20-horse limit. When that mass of horsepower starts to head into the first turn, the path can close quickly on the inside of the track as the riders attempt to move their horses from the outside paths to the rail to save valuable ground. If Vicar’s In Trouble stays out of too much trouble, I look for him to hit the board at juicy odds. I will definitely be using him underneath in the exotic wages (e.g. exactas, trifectas, superfectas) and might even throw a few bucks on him to win if he is 20-1 or higher.

Another intriguing horse is Danza, being ridden by one of my favorite jockeys, “Jersey” Joe Bravo. He earned this nickname by dominating the New Jersey racing circuit for more than two decades but is capable of winning outside the state as well. If Danza breaks clean, I feel he is versatile in his running style and can sit off a hotly contested pace if that materializes or can be forwardly placed if the pace is weak. He really stepped up when winning the Arkansas Derby as a 40-1 shot, earning him a trip to Churchill Downs. He should be the third or fourth choice in the betting at around 6-1 or so, and all the reports from Louisville say he is training sharply under the capable hands of Todd Pletcher, who can find the winner’s circle in any race.

Selections:

1st: Danza– Won’t be 40-1 like last month, but at 6-1 or higher worth a win bet

2nd: Vicar’s In Trouble– Might have too much work to keep out of trouble, must use in exotics

3rd: Wicked Strong– Would be great to see him win for the city of Boston, but feel he’ll get overbet

4th: California Chrome– Talented, but doesn’t appear to want the distance, and I don’t bet 5-2 in the Derby

If you are lucky enough to be at Churchill Downs on Saturday, whether in Millionaires Row, or by the infield with 100,000 fans in shorts and t-shirts, or watching with friends at home or a bar, pour some mint juleps and enjoy “The most exciting two minutes in sports.”

 

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