LOUISVILLE, Ky. — If you enjoy puzzles, this year’s edition of the Kentucky Derby is positioned to be one of the hardest ones to put together in several years.
This afternoon the 140th Run for the Roses will take place at Churchill Downs under the iconic Twin Spires before a projected crowd exceeding 150,000. The race restricted to 3-year-olds will be run at 1¼ miles, a distance never traveled by any of the 19 Derby contenders. The Kentucky Derby will be carried by NBC Sports (Ch. 2) with a three-hour telecast from 4 to 7 p.m. Post time for the Derby is 6:32 p.m.
With Thursday’s scratch of Hoppertunity, and Friday’s scratch of also-eligible Pablo Del Monte, the No. 1 gate will be left empty, similar to last year. There’s never been such a mix of pedigrees with blends of speed and stamina creating havoc for horseplayers trying to project the winner.
The field drawn on Wednesday evening is led by California Chrome (5-2), the overwhelming morning line favorite off his fourth straight win in California by a combined 24¼ lengths. He is trained by 77-year-old Art Sherman, who could become the oldest trainer ever to don the roses.
The break at the start will be the key for California Chrome as he has four speed horses to his inside and if he breaks badly, which he’s done in two of his last five starts, he’ll be behind the eight ball. He’s never eaten dirt before and in a 19-horse field this is more likely than not. On the positive side, the last horse to take the Derby from gate to wire was War Emblem in 2002, a colt that came out of the same post position No. 5 to win.
A horse I am bullish on is the Todd Pletcher-trained Intense Holiday (8-1), who will be in the auxiliary gate that will house the outside six horses. The son of Harlan’s Holiday out of an Unbridled’s Song mare has been near the top of most workout reports and has loved the Churchill dirt course since his arrival.
Pletcher was very pleased about the post.
“We like it. Orb drew the same number last year and he got it done. The outside gate is hot and it will allow” jockey Johnny Velazquez “an opportunity to get clear and pick a spot,” he said.
Having Hall of Famer Velazquez – who won on Animal Kingdom three years ago – in the irons only solidifies my thoughts on Intense Holiday. He’s a terrific-looking horse that brought $380,000 as a yearling and was the most expensive of 70 Harlan’s Holiday yearlings offered at public auction in 2012, which is a testament to his looks. Velazquez will need to take him back early and make a late run and he should have enough room from the first auxiliary gate to do so. Improving speed figures, good workout tab and a solid pedigree is usually a good combination for a Derby champion.
Another horse in the Pletcher barn that wowed me the minute I laid eyes on him in Kentucky and moved quickly into my top three is Danza (8-1). He’s been on his toes all week and is coming off an impressive victory where he was pulling away from his rivals in the Arkansas Derby. He has a half sibling, Majestic Harbor, who won a 12-furlong dirt race at Santa Anita several weeks ago. There is deep stamina on his female side and his sire was a top notch closing sprinter.
Pletcher, looking for his second Derby winner to complement Super Saver’s win in 2010, hopes actor Tony Danza’s namesake continues his winning ways.
“We should be able to save ground in the first turn and hopefully establish a good position,” Pletcher said. “The first turn can be very congested and crowded. I like the post and the fact that he’s had some experience on the inside in the Arkansas Derby and the Saratoga Special should treat him well.”
A long shot that could hit the board is the Dale Romans-trained Medal Count (20-1), a horse that hasn’t had an affinity to run on dirt, but has tremendous stamina and has trained well at Churchill. It is his third race in five weeks, so Romans, whose horses have hit the board in two of the last three Derbies, thinks he can compete. Romans was not short on confidence on Thursday morning.
“I feel better than I ever have about any of my chances going into the Derby,” Romans said. “I think that we fit really well with this group. I think he’s peaking at the right time.”
Over the past 12 months we’ve seen New England-based sports teams win the World Series and the NCAA basketball championships, so is the Kentucky Derby next? Wicked Strong (6-1), named for the bombing victims of last year’s Boston Marathon, is owned by the Boston-based group Centennial Farms, which purchased the horse for $375,000 about 20 months ago. Syracuse-based attorney William Lynn bred Wicked Strong, who was renamed from Moyne Spun.
His breeding suggests that he will be a factor in this year’s Derby, despite his outside post. Wicked Strong’s sire Hard Spun was a game second to Street Sense in the 2007 Derby and his damsire Charismatic nearly swept the Triple Crown in 1999. If he can duck in mid-pack at the start of the race and get a clean trip, he could be charging down the lane, similar to his Wood Memorial victory at Aqueduct in April.
Trainer James Jerkens said on Thursday that the outside post does not concern him.
“His two best races by far, were where he was able to tuck in on the fence, he stays competitive that way,” Jerkens said. “The two races in Florida where he got hung out wide he spit the bit as soon as he turned away on the back side,” he said.
He’ll have some work to do this afternoon to tuck in behind the leaders and avoid the traffic troubles that can prove chaotic in the Derby, but if the recent past is any indication, it’s not impossible. I’ll Have Another won in 2012 from post No. 19 and Animal Kingdom (2011) and Orb (2013) both won from post No. 16.
With the amount of money in the pools, don’t be afraid to take a shot with a longer priced horse by betting him to show. Some horses on which I wouldn’t make a win bet but could reap a profit with a show bet include General a Rod, Candy Boy and Ride on Curlin. I’ll be using all three underneath in trifecta betting later this afternoon.
The puzzle will be solved later this afternoon and we’re looking for the stalking Pletcher duo to hold off the late closers.
Post Time Outlook: 1 – Intense Holiday; 2 – Danza; 3 – Medal Count; 4 – Wicked Strong.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.