Kentucky Derby Preview, 2014


Ah, the Derby.  By far, the most mainstream horse racing gets in the U.S. It’s also followed very closely by those on the inside of the sport.  Getting to this race is the goal of almost every trainer and owner in the sport.

As for betting the Derby, here is the single most important fact that you can hold in your head while making a decision:  You are most likely going to be wrong.  Even if you bet on the favorite, on average, you are going to wrong 67% of the time!

This isn’t a bad realization!  This is the biggest field in American horse racing.  Most races have anywhere from 5 to 14 runners.  Here, we have 20.

It should open you up to do one of several things:

  • You could take a greater chance with your wager because you realize that return isn’t all that likely here anyway.
  • You could bet multiple horses to try to increase your chance of a return (but lowering that return).
  • You could do some combination of the two steps above.

The key is finding the horse that you feel comfortable with and that gives you a chance to win. There are all sorts of way to make some money at the races.  But not taking chances isn’t one of them.

This doesn’t mean that the favorite can’t be played — often they are a great value.  But, in the Derby, where so much can happen and there are so many questions, it’s a good place to go shopping for a price.

We’ll be going through the field between now and Saturday to give you all the information you need to bet the derby wisely.

1. Vicar’s in Trouble (30-1)
This horse is certainly fast enough to win here.  Getting this kind of horse for this price would be a steal.  It will probably be around 15-1.  You will hear too much about the 1 post.  Yes, it has been bad in the past, but Looking at Lucky was overrated coming into that Derby.

Why should you play him? This horse has several things going for him which make him an exciting bet.  He’s already shown that he can run fast.  He has Rosie Napravnik, who is the top female rider in the country, and could retire as the best ever. And he’ll likely be a good price.

2. Harry’s Holiday (50-1)

Maybe the easiest elimination of all the horses.  He does have a win over the track — although it was in a lower-level maiden event.   He qualified with a second-place finish in the Spiral, which isn’t that impressive of a prep race, and he’s hasn’t run close to fast enough to win this race.

Why should you play him?

You’d bet him if you think that he’ll improve returning to dirt, and your hopeful that very few of the main contenders have good races. He’s been victimized by lots of early speed in recent races, and you’d have to think that won’t be the case here (which is unlikely.)  But there’s a line between a good longshot (who has flaws but can win) and a bad longshot (who just isn’t fast enough).  Could he win?  Of course it’s possible, but I’d stay away and look elsewhere for prices.

3. Uncle Sigh (30-1) It’s not unheard of for a NY-bred to win the Derby, but this would be a major surprise.  He was Samraat’s main rival through the winter at Aqueduct, but hasn’t finished on top since his maiden win.  He’s adding blinkers for the Derby — a curious choice considering the amount of speed in the race.  Irad Ortiz — who is a very skilled route rider — is aboard. He’s a nice horse, but on paper, he doesn’t seem as good as the rest of these.  He’d need to improve and show amazing early speed.  And his breeding leaves a bit to be desired — I’d like him at a mile.  All in all, he’s probably going to float higher than the 30-1 line, and he’s probably a good horse to avoid.

Why should you play him? He’s almost certain to show speed and he will be on the inside.  Even with 20 horses, it still is the shortest way around the track if he gets the rail.  Ortiz is a really skilled pilot.   He probably will get mentioned early, so that’s always a bit exciting.  But he’s a longshot for a reason, and there are better ones out there.

4. Danza (8-1)  

Along with Intense Holiday, this is a horse that really popular with insiders.  And, of course, the son of Street Boss has a very clever name.  But does he deserve to be single digits odds on a twenty-horse field?  The stretch-out — running a mile or more for the first time — really suited him well as he put up a speed figure that would be fast enough to win here. Plus, he’ll be close enough, but not on the pace, to get “first run” at the tiring front-runners, and if the pace isn’t super-electric, that might get it done.

Why should you play him?

I’m never going to recommend a horse simply because of a name, even with a name as cool as this.  I’m a child of the ’80s, and “Who’s the Boss” was regular viewing.  Outside of the name, there are far worse horses to bet here.  Joe Bravo is not a national rider but he is still sharp — he owns NJ racing and gets a chance to shine nationally.  He certainly has the speed to win, and improving again would put him right into the winner’s circle.  He’s not a lockdown, but I’d put Danza in a group of serious contenders to win, and especially strong coming off a mild pace. If you bet him, watch the time they announce for running a 1/2 mile.  If it’s around 47.5/48 seconds, it could If he floats to around 12-1, he could be a very sharp play to give Pletcher another Derby.

5. California Chrome (5-2) Here’s your likely short-priced favorite. He’s run faster than any other horse here.  The basics:  He’s very cheap — his owners bred their mare to Lucky Pulpit, a no-name California sire for $2,500, and somehow find themselves with the Derby favorite.  While some owners drop millions on horses trying to reach the Derby, California Chrome’s connection got here for the price of a very large TV.   Despite the speed, there are still too many questions for a low price.   California-bred horses don’t do terribly well in the Derby, and his style — up near the lead — doesn’t fit the race.  He certainly can win, but I’d be surprised.  Considering the likely small payoff, I’d take a look elsewhere.

Why should you play him?

On paper, he’s the best.  Horses outrun their breeding all the time (and often don’t run to it.)  Looking at what he’s done so far, he should win this race by a few lengths.  And if you think he’s going to win, it’s far better to make a little money than throw it after a longshot that you don’t really believe in.  I’d take a good look at him when he steps on the track.  Trust your gut — if he looks happy, he might be simply be the best play.

6. Samraat (15-1)

A NY-bred horse who finished second in a key prep leading to the Derby.  That’s exactly the same profile as Funny Cide, winner of the 2003 Derby.  He won his first five starts — beating Uncle Sigh twice — including two graded stakes.  He’ll need to improve to win here and also likely alter his running style to relax off the pace a little bit.  While possible, both don’t really seem all the likely. He’s out of Noble Causeway, who is far from a top-notch sire.  While he’s a good horse — and a fantastic NY-bred, who typically are a notch below the horses from Kentucky.  Jose Ortiz — a very talented young rider — gets the mount.

Why should you play him?

You very well may have a soft spot in your heart for NY-breds, and he’s the better of the two here.  He certainly will be heard from early, so you’ll have the joy of being near the lead early on.   He’s certainly in shape — Richard Violette, his trainer, likes to build stamina in training.  But you’d have to get a good price — around 25-1 — before I ever started considering him.

7. We Miss Artie (50-1) I’m hesitant to waste time here.  So I’ll go right to the quote from his trainer, Todd Pletcher, after his last workout:  ”I’m not sure We Miss Artie should be running in the Derby.”   The only reason he’s here is because his owners are dying to win this race and will take any chances.  He’s a turf/polytrack horse and he’s a good notch or two below these.

Why should you play him? You want to have the longest shot on the board. You think Todd Pletcher is gaming you and trying to drive up the price. That’s not really Pletcher’s style.  You could really miss Artie, too.  The name refers to Breeders’ Cup Champion Artie Schiller, a fan favorite for many years.

8. General A Rod (15-1)

Unfortunately, he’s not named for Alex Rodriguez, but instead his previous owner, J. Armando Rodriquez.  But, I still love the vision of General Alex Rodriguez.  He seems very MacArthur-like in his defiance.  Oh well.

As for the horse, he’s fast, his sire is a bit underrated, his jockey is very good, and he’s won off the pace before.  All bode well for the Derby.

Why should you play him?

He’s really done very little wrong in his career.  He’s hit the board in all his starts, showed good stamina, and won a stakes.  He’ll probably be a very good price as he hasn’t seen the winner’s circle in a bit.  He’s also making his third start of a layoff (time away from the races) which normally is the time in which a horse will surge forward.  And, unlike baseball’s A-rod, I like him more and more each day.

9. Vinceremos (30-1) His past is just ok, but his potential is awesome. He won the Sam F. Davis at Tampa.  Tampa Bay Downs has nice racing, but I’d rather see that win in the Tampa Bay Derby.  He’d really need to improve on those speed figures, and the Bluegrass was a disaster.  That said, he was expensive, owned by the sharp WinStar Farm, and trained by Todd Pletcher.  Out of Pioneer of the Nile, he certainly should like the distance of the Derby. Plus, the result in the Bluegrass is irrelevant — it’s a different surface.

Why should you play him? You see value in unrealized potential.  He should jump forward sometime this year — whether it’s on Derby day remains to be seen.   If you’re a bit of an aristocrat or, perhaps, you just like smart business, than Vinceremos should be appealing.  Demand a price, but once he sails over 20-1, take a good look.

10. Wildcat Red (15-1) 

I really like Luis Saez as a rider.  He’s patient and skilled.  I really like the underrated trainer Jose Garoffalo.  And Wildcat Red has really done nothing wrong so far. 4 wins (5 without a DQ) and 2 close seconds.  He’s proven himself against top company.   But, perhaps, it’s his modest breeding or his subpar recent work. He just feels a notch below these others.

Why should you play him?

He’s solid and will likely put forth a solid effort.  If others don’t run well, he certainly could be there at the finish line.  He’s got a great starting position.  Still the distance seems unlikely and his style isn’t a great fit.  I’d be hard pressed to go strong with this guy, despite the excellent connections.

11. Hopportunity (SCRATCHED)

12. Dance with Fate (20-1)

A nice horse, but his trainer, the talented Peter Eurton, didn’t want to bring him here. But he was overruled by the owners, who couldn’t pass up a shot at the Derby.  I tend to trust a horsemen when it comes to his horses.

Why should you play him?

He’ll be closing in a race favorable to closers, and he looked great in the Bluegrass.  He’d need to improve, but only by a little.  But his trainer — who works with this horse everyday — thinks that dirt isn’t Dance with Fate’s surface. I think we’d have to be foolish to think otherwise.

13. Chitu (20-1)

A relatively off-the-rader horse, Chitu is trained by the great Bob Baffert, who certainly knows how to win a Derby.  He’s fast — a regression by California Chrome and he can win the race.  There are questions whether he can get the distance, and he has been off six weeks (which isn’t a big deal anymore.)

Why should you play him?

You like the idea of supporting a Baffert horse, but also want to get a bit of a price. You think he’s the fastest of the early speed horses, and you really like Martin Garcia (which you should.)  He probably won’t win and will fade in the final furlong, but you’ll get an exciting horse around the first two turns.

14. Medal Count (20-1)

This royally-bred son of Dynaformer (also the sire of the legendary Barbaro)ran a sharp second in the Bluegrass.  But, unlike the winner in that race, he may have a penchant for dirt. Dale Romans is a very good trainer and has won at every class and level. I don’t think distance will be a problem, but he’ll need to improve to win here.

Why should you play him?

You’re the type of person who likes horses with upside potential.  You love his royal breeding, and you think he’s going to come charging down the stretch.  I think that’s quite possible and, if you can get a good price, he might make your day profitable.

He’s got a great pedigree and a successful trainer.  He should an ability to deal with trouble in the Rebel and not give up.  He’s a fighter.  He might not be fast enough, but with a nice, off-the-pace trip, he could be in the right place at the right time.  I’d want at least 15-1, maybe a bit more, for me to bite here.

15. Tapiture (15-1)

He was the horse to like in the Arkansas Derby.  But then Danza improved and blew by him in the stretch.  He looked very good in the Rebel at Oaklawn, despite a really troubled trip.  He’s out of a very hot sire in Tapit and a barn that won the Oaks with Asmussen.  He’d need to improve, but that’s not impossible.  He may be a bit off-form; I’d rather see a horse peaking.

Why should you play him?

He’s got a great pedigree and a successful trainer.  He should an ability to deal with trouble in the Rebel and not give up.  He’s a fighter.  He might not be fast enough, but with a nice, off-the-pace trip, he could be in the right place at the right time.  I’d want at least 15-1, maybe a bit more, for me to bite here.

16. Intense Holiday (12-1)

An improving horse, he has the breeding to win here.  His workouts have been sharp and he’s got great connections with Pletcher and Velasquez.  A bit more speed is needed, but he should do well with the added distance.  He hasn’t really beaten anybody of note — Vicar’s in Trouble — is probably the best.  He’s also a bit of a “Wise Guy” horse — so the price might be unnecessarily low.

Why should you play him?

He should get a really good trip, if Velasquez can get him over to save some ground in that first turn.  He’ll come off the pace and he’s in great shape.  Form, or the condition of a horse, can sometimes be the deciding factor.  Based on all the reports out of Louisville, this guy has that.

17. Commanding Curve (50-1)

It’s hard for me to see this horse as 50-1.  He’s a better than that and he has the right style. He’s making his third start of a layoff (break).  His trainer is well-regarded.  But he’s still never be in contention in easier races this these.  He’d have to improve and the race would have to fall apart, which isn’t unheard of here.

Why should you play him?

It’s a “chaos” play.  You think the race will fall apart and that this guy will be there to pick up the pieces.  If everybody goes way too fast too early (say 45 seconds to the half-mile), this guy might make your year.

18. Candy Boy (20-1)

I follow a bunch of Southern California racing, and John Sadler is as good as they get.  Candy Boy looked great in the Robert B. Lewis, but then got thrashed by California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby.  His sire is Candy Ride, who produces some great distance horses, such as the great Invasor.   He’s a solid horse, but he need to run better than he ever has to win.  He’s another who would benefit from a crazy fast pace.

Why should you play him?

You trust the connections, especially Sadler and the ageless Gary Stevens in the saddle. You think he’ll improve and the race will come back to him. Still this seems a bit out of his reach for now, so I’d want to see a very nice price, at least 25-1, to feel like it’s worth the risk.

19. Ride on Curlin (15-1)

A bit of a fan favorite horse meets up with a fan favorite jockey in Calvin Borel, who will be seeking his 4th Derby.  Ride on Curlin is a solid horse, but he was soundly beaten by Danza in Arkansas.  He ran an amazing maiden race at Ellis park last summer, but hasn’t gotten quite back there yet.  He’s another that will sit of the pace.  He’s a nice colt, but this is a bit too much for him now.

Why should you play him?

Borel knows how to win this race and you trust him to do it again. That said,  Calvin might have trouble breaking from such an outside post.  While this horse only sold for $25,000, he does have a bit of an underdog quality.  He’ll be a decent price, but having Borel as the pilot will drive the price down, probably too low for a good play.

20. Wicked Strong (6-1)

I was impressed with his performance in the Wood Memorial.  The Wood set up for a closer, which is what we might see here in Louisville.  He’s well-bred and was quite expensive ($375K).  His sire, Hard Spun, was a beast.  And, of course, he has the whole Boston angle going for him.  It’s hard to root against that story.

Why should you play him?

He’s plenty fast and probably the best closer in the race.  The 20 post isn’t great, but Big Brown did win from there. I’d be worried that the price would be driven down by his great name, however.  i wouldn’t want to pay for that.  You certainly couldn’t go wrong betting him anyway, and the way Boston sports have been the last decade or so, it might be his year.

 Image: John Athayde, “Detail.” Copyright 2005.