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Submitted by Jim Hurley on Friday, May 2, 2014 at 12:00 AM


2014 Derby Preview

It started with hundreds of nominations, continued with close to 50 significant prep races run in 2013 and 2014 and once again the First Saturday In may is upon us and all the speculation, all the opinions, all the hunches and all the advice from those that love jockey silks colors to the meticulous purveyors of Ragozin and Thorograph Sheets and others will be deemed right or wrong approximately two minutes after they spring the gates for Race 12 at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

Over the course of the last 19 editions of PREPPING FOR THE DERBY I’ve addressed everything from the history of Derby Preparation to how the qualifying 3-year olds are indicating their abilities or liabilities to breeding influence to post position indications. But when they spring the latch and the gates open at approximately 6:25 (Eastern) the 20 (if all that entered go) competitors won’t have read anything that I’ve written, won’t know what jockey silk color is rippling above them and won’t care what number Ragozin or Thorograph has attached to them and won’t feel the pressure of living up to the records of their trainers or jockeys. In fact, they won’t even have to carry the extra weight of the money being bet on them. All they are going to do is try and get to the finish line ahead of as many of their rivals as possible.

And if anyone wants to Cash A Ticket they’ll have to figure out which horse finishes in front of any other.

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That being said, below in order of post position is my Final Kentucky Derby Preview for 2014.

NOTE: Hopportunity has been withdrawn due to a bad foot. That means Pablo Del Monte draws in and every horse after the 10 post moves in one...Dance With fate, originally 12 becomes 11, etc.

VICAR’S IN TROUBLE (30-1) - Forgetting the difficult post position, which might have factored into the posting of this large ML number, this Mike Maker trained son of underrated young sire Into Mischief is arguably solid value based on his 5 race career. And though a number of pundits have ignored the Fair Grounds preps in recent years it is worth noting that the Louisiana Derby last year produced the second (Golden Soul 34.5-1), third (Revolutionary 6.4-1) and fifth place (Mylute 15.3-1) finishers in the Derby. If this guy wants to hit the board he is going to have to use his speed early, as he did in winning the Lecomte from a pressing second and the LA Derby in wire-to-wire fashion. But he might not be fast enough what with Uncle Sigh (3), California Chrome (5) and Samraat (6) having more speed and likely to get him pinned down on the inside where he’ll have to wait for at least the first wave to clear before swinging out. That’s why this good race horse will have to be super good to factor.

HARRY’S HOLIDAY (50-1) - I’ll just say it once and then won’t have to repeat it every time the preview for one of the 20 entered at this point is a dismissive one..."Sure, Anything Can Happen." O.K. now that we have that out of the way, the feeling here is that there are too many hurdles to overcome. Not many horses claimed out of a maiden race for 30K become Derby winners. Yes the Harlan’s Holiday colt did improve enough to win an upper level optional claimer and a minor stakes but the best running has come on the synthetic (last 4 races) and he was a disaster in the Blue Grass after running second in a very weak Spiral. His female line breeding also hints at distance limitations. Maker’s rail horse is the stronger of his two.

UNCLE SIGH (30-1) - If, and it is a huge if, the subpar Wood Memorial performance, a distant 4th behind Wicked Strong, Samraat, who he battled head-to-head with in two previous Derby Preps at Aqueduct and Social Inclusion, who didn’t make it to the Derby can be forgiven due to his slow start and 4 wide trip on both turns then he should be considered on equal footing with Samraat. On the plus side his breeding, which has solid stamina on the female side (Pine Bluff mare Cradlesong) might make him a better off-the-pace runner anyway in which case the off-the-pace necessity in the Wood could help. But if he needs to be engaged early to be at his best his limited male distance breeding and the plethora of speed in here could negate his chances. Also flashing a big question mark sign is trainer Contessa’s addition of blinkers for the first time. This handicapper in particular still remembers what the first-time hood in a big race did to Palace Malice last year. This guy would have to run more than "his race."

DANZA (10-1) - One of four from the Pletcher barn the Street Boss colt certainly emerged from out of nowhere to not win, but dominate the Arkansas Derby. Given the influence of that prep on the Kentucky derby in recent years, 2012 winner Bodemeister (2nd in the Derby), 2011 runner-up Nehro (2nd in the Derby) and 2010 runner-up Super Saver (Kentucky derby winner) there is definitely reason to like the colt. If there is concern it is that after winning his debut last July and then running third in the Saratoga Special the colt wasn’t seen again until winning a Gulfstream allowance sprint 0n March 8 before slipping through along the rail and drawing off in career start number 4 and first around two turns in the Arkansas Derby. He’ll be ridden again by Joe Bravo and if he doesn’t bounce off such a huge effort compared to his previous races (went from an 87 BRIS in the allowance sprint to a 104 at Oaklawn) his improved effort at two turns could make him a factor.

CALIFORNIA CHROME (5-2) - I might be wrong, but with the defection of Hopportunity due to the foot injury you’ll be hard pressed to get close to 5-2 on this consensus best of the crop 3-year old. As long as you look past the distance limiting breeding and to the race track you couldn’t ask for more. The Art Sherman trained California bred was well conditioned as a juvenile, winning as early as last May and grabbing a couple of stakes races later on, albeit vs his state-bred peers. That became a non-issue when he made the Grade II San Felipe and Grade I Santa Anita Derby virtual walkovers. He has continued to train forwardly at Los Alamitos and perhaps most important of all his qualities is the way he runs so lightly over the surface, which has kept him in training and racing for 10 lifetime starts since his debut last April and that such a way of running allows for the push-button turn of foot that gives jockey Victor Espinoza the option of getting this colt out of any potential trouble and on the motor whenever he feels it necessary. There are only two things that can beat him...the distance and something unlucky during the race. He is as legitimate a favorite as we’ve seen since Big Brown.

SAMRAAT (15-1) - Up until the Wood Memorial there was little question as to the tactics to expect should he have made it this far. Up until the Wood Memorial he was the lay down the gauntlet, big heart speed ball that gave it everything he had every step of the way. The  in the Wood, whether by instruction or not, jockey Jose Ortiz let Social Inclusion go early, set back a bit off the pace and made an early run toward the lead but was totally unprepared to hold off Wicked Strong in the final furlong. Looking at his resume one would have to believe that would he choose to rate rather than battle early with the likes of Vicar’s In Trouble, Uncle Sigh, Wildcat Red, General A Rod, Chitu and Pablo Del Monte the distance limitations that might have been exposed by his :38 3/5 final three furlongs in the Wood could come into play. He is also racing outside of New York for the first time and but for his debut race at Belmont has raced exclusively at Aqueduct and no horse in recent memory that has raced exclusively at one track (although the main and inner dirt are different) has won the Derby. He appears to have a lot of questions to answer but might have a big enough heart to get a piece.

WE MISS ARTIE (50-1) - Déjà vu bettors will hearken back to 2011 and Animal Kingdom and find no difficulty in a repeat of that colt’s move from the win over the synthetic in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park to Kentucky Derby greatness and scarf at how lucky they are to be getting such a huge price.  Or they might just look at Todd Pletcher in the trainer column and say they have to take the shot. All that being said, this son of Artie Schiller, though bred to handle the distance has yet to prove he can handle traditional dirt. He was beaten 17 lengths without excuse in the Fountain Of Youth two races back and faded in the BC Juvenile at Santa Anita. That being said, Javier Castellano probably could have had any of the four Pletcher runners but sticks here and should a trip handicapper be willing to toss the Fountain Of Youth because of the known fact that many horses just don’t handle that surface, he could see the bad start, the need to wait for room and lack of lasix in the BC Juvenile as which case...Animal Kingdom all over again. 

GENERAL A ROD (15-1) - The third of a trio of Mike Maker trainer runners his tactical speed and solid bottom on the female side could make him the most impactful of them all. The son of Roman Ruler was lightly raced as a two-year old and opened his 2014 campaign by winning the Gulfstream Park Derby on New Year’s Day. He finished second by a head to Wildcat Red in the Fountain Of Youth and then third behind Constitution (who left the Derby Trail soon after) and Wildcat Red in the Florida Derby. He might appreciate getting away from Gulfstream and it is noteworthy that his place finish in career start number two was over the CD surface so he shouldn’t have a problem. What could be a problem, however, is a very slow 5 furlong work here on 4/23 in which he didn’t gallop out after completing the drill in 1:03 2/5 and necessitated a half mile breeze 4 days later. On performance he looks to lack enough speed to outrun the fastest and strong enough kick to move forward late. It appears as though he’d need to run the best of his career to get a piece.

VINCEREMOS (30-1) - SO far trainer Todd Pletcher hasn’t given up but on his record of sending multiple horses to the Derby on most occasions that should not be viewed as a plus. The son of Pioneer Of The Nile has been just good enough to get his backers hopeful. On the bright side, beyond the conditioner and the services of Joel Rosario, all one needs do is toss what was obviously a complete dislike for the synthetic surface in the Blue Grass Stakes and look back to a decent enough second in the Tampa Bay Derby in what was only his third career start. He is also bred well enough top and bottom to get the distance and if his upside after such a light development still has an opening then it wouldn’t be a complete surprise should he move forward, especially since you will get a price. But keep in mind that the colt was beaten in the Tampa Bay Derby by last out MSW winner Ring Weekend and in his allowance win was hard pressed to put away Harpoon and Cousin Stephen, neither of whom had any ability to crack this class level. It should also be noted that the needed improvement will also have to be significant enough top overcome a post position that in the last 23 Kentucky Derbies has managed to produce but a trio of fourth place finishers.

WILDCAT RED (15-1) - You want a got a pace. There is little mystery as to how the son of D’Wildcat is going to run. He’ll be spitting blood in order to get to the lead. To his credit his distance breeding has been questioned since under-the-radar and very capable conditioner Jose Garaffalo decided to stretch him around two turns with hopes he’d get here. He was all grit in fighting off a number of challengers to win the Fountain Of Youth on the front end despite never having more than a head lead and then answered the bell again with a strong second when beaten a neck by Constitution in the Florida Derby. Can he be another Bodemeister? That remains to be seen, but his breeding suggests that even the 9 furlongs of the Florida Derby is beyond his reach and that he succeeded there based more on the speed bias of that oval. And s[peaking of that oval, even more than the aforementioned Samraat, this guy has never raced anywhere else but over the Gulfstream Park main track, which does work against him seeing that no 3-year old exclusive to one locale for his development has succeeded in the Derby in modern memory. Just the same, he’ll be a tough customer in a crowded front end speed battle so who knows.

DANCE WITH FATE (20-1) - He was well-touted by his handlers and backers heading into the Blue Grass and delivered as advertised with a professional sweeping move rally that cleared the field. He now moves to the traditional dirt and given his two failures on that surface must, like Artie Schiller, prove he can make the transformation. The Peter Eurton trained son of Two Step Salsa is part of the highly regarded Southern California contingent and like Artie Schiller can be given a pass for his subpar BC Juvenile performance since he was squeezed badly at the start and had to race 5 wide and without lasix for the only time in his career. He did finish a good second in the Grade I Front Runner Stakes at SA so at least has some claim to traditional surface ability. He is worth a long look although that look must also take into consideration that he is not bred stamina on both sides and is one of the late arrivals that has never been over the surface and will only gallop and jog prior to the race. He is a difficult read, especially since with the defection of Hopportunity he moves into the 11 post which in the last 23 Derbies has produced just one second place finish out among the top four.

CHITU (20-1) - With the defection of Hopportunity trainer Bob Baffert is dealt an obvious blow and a subtle one. With Hopportunity in the race this lightly raced speedball was slated to leave the 13 post which has produced 10 finishers in the 1, 2, 3, or 4 spots in the last 23 Kentucky Derbies. Now the son of Henny Hughes moves into the 12 post which has produced but a second and a third over that same 23 race period. Of course it would be counterproductive to base expected performance solely on the post draw but given how many of these middle of the pack runners have been shuffled back by inside runners gaining earlier position and outside horses gunning early so as not to be caught wide on the first turn it is not a completely arbitrary occurrence. So we are likely to see Martin Garcia send this son of Henny Hughes into the jaws of the speed duel from the start. Certainly the colt has shown he can battle on the front end or just off it. His resilient win in the Sunland Derby, which gave him the qualifying points he need to get here was impressive. Nonetheless, he’ll need to improve his speed significantly in here as he is hardly flattered by Candy Boy’s (who beat him in the Robert B. Lewis) well-beaten third in the Santa Anita Derby or Midnight Hawk’s (who ran just behind him in the Sunland Derby) second place finish at 2-5 behind a last out allowance winner in the Illinois Derby. Plus the colt will have to run his sire’s speed breeding as well. Tough spot for a horse that might be better prepared if gets to the Preakness.

MEDAL COUNT (20-1) - This is another in the group of runners that have shown a preference for synthetic surfaces but come into the race in solid form. This son of Dynaformer would, if can pull off the upset, or even get a piece of the exotics make for a great story. It can’t be a false assumption to make that prior to entering the colt in the Fountain Of Youth trainer Dale Roams was hoping against hope that something might develop. It didn’t in that Grade II Gulfstream race that’s for sure. The colt ran 5th beaten 9 lengths when he gave way at 43-1. That race confirmed Medal Count’s performance on traditional dirt in the BC Juvenile when he was beaten 17 lengths without even a hint of an excuse. Back on the synthetic in the Transylvania on Keeneland’s opening day he woke up to run the best race of his career and then 8 days later rallied strongly to finish second in the Blue Grass. Now here he is for his third race in 4 weeks and back on traditional dirt. Is he just a better horse now than he was in the past on dirt? He might be. Those who believe in him will point to a terrific 5 furlong drill at GP after the FOY debacle as well as his sharp 1:13 six furlong work over the CD main track last Saturday as proof that he is a better colt now. We’ll see. One thing is for sure, he might well be the best bred 10 furlong runner of them all. 

TAPITURE (15-1) - The glass half empty guys will look at the fourth place finish in the Arkansas Derby and see a colt that followed a most impressive win in the Southwest with a grueling physical battle in the Rebel in which he was probably the best but was banged around between two rivals in the stretch before a ½ length beaten second and is now on the downturn. However, there is no reason to fault the glass half full supporters who see a colt that went from a close to the pace win in the Southwest to a tough, more measured off-the-pace race in the Rebel to an Arkansas Derby race in which Asmussen switched from regular rider to Joel Rosario and as solid as that jock is he turned in one terrible ride. He had the colt out in the middle of the track, five wide for much of the way and that is not where you ride at Oaklawn. Regular jock Ricardo Santana is back and of the twenty signed on the argument can be made that he is the true horse for the course with a third place finish in the Grade III Iroquois while still a maiden followed by a 4 length triumph (to break his maiden) in the seminal Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club. Another gritty effort won’t be a surprise although his tendency to be a tad aggressive and breeding that suggests a mile and a sixteenth is about his limit could catch up to him.  

INTENSE HOLIDAY (12-1) - The fourth of the Pletcher quartet was ridden to victory in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds two back and then rated professionally just off the pace before being bumped and spun a bit wide at the 7/16ths pole in the Louisiana Derby before continuing on to get the place behind the uncontested early winner Vicar’s In Trouble. It was a wise decision by jockey Mike Smith to go on with mild urging in a race further perseverance wouldn’t have won anyway and could set the son of Harlan’s Holiday up perfectly. Ironically, Smith will not be riding in the Derby but could very well have helped prepare this guy for a big effort under Pletcher’s main man John Velazquez, who takes over. With plenty of stamina on both sides (Unbridled’s Song mare Intensify on the female side) there should be little question as to the ability to get the distance and after taking a while to develop could be maturing at the perfect time. Beginning with the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct in his juvenile finale, when he rallied 5 wide in the upper stretch and made up ground behind the at-the-time division leaders Honor Code and Cairo Prince and just behind Wicked Strong he continued to get closer and closer the further they ran. There is always the question about deep closers in the Derby but of late this guy has shown the kind of tracking moves that could with a good trip easily be within the 2 ½ length range of the leader at the furlong marker in the Derby, a necessity that is borne out by past winners. His recent form and a solid half mile breeze over the surface on Sunday point to the kind of effort that could get him a piece if not the garland.

COMMANDING CURVE (50-1) - There is actually a handful of TV pundits who have said they are including this guy in their combos. More power to them. While he did improve from the 6th place finish in the Risen Star to a 3rd in the Louisiana Derby it can equally said that he did so by picking up the runners in front of him who tried much harder to actually win the race. And given the difficulty his style of runner has had in the Derby in the last few decades (even Giacomo, whose 50-1 triumph in 2005 is spoken of as being a much deeper close than it actually was (he was only 4 lengths back with a quarter mile to go) makes him a sprinter compared to this guy. Can he catch what figures to be a plethora of wilting speed horses? Of course. But he’ll have to be much further along than a horse who needed four tries to break his maiden and has only the aforementioned 6th and 3rd since then. In addition, his female line doesn’t have much of a history beyond a mile. And not to line up too many negatives but trainer Dallas Stewart enters with a 1 for 34 graded stakes win mark. Tough to see him getting a piece.

CANDY BOY (20-1) - Much continues to be expected from this son of Candy Ride. But at this point he’ll have to show much more than he has shown in his buildup to the run for the roses. After needing 4 tries to break his maiden he received a lot of props when he went from that initial win to run a decent second in an important two-year old race, the Grade I Cash call Futurity. After an 8 week break he made his sophomore debut a winning one in the Robert B. Lewis and the  following another 8 week break made no impact at all when third behind California Chrome and Hopportunity (beaten 8 ¾ lengths.) Trainer John Sadler has continued to work him strongly in the morning and he continued to flash speed in the morning with a third best of sixty four 5 furlong drill in :59 4/5 two Saturdays ago before shipping to Kentucky early enough to breeze 5 furlongs in 1:00 4/5 (5th best of 70 this past Saturday.) In his five juvenile races he settled much further off the pace than he has in his two 3-year old tries so the key might be getting this big bay to relax a bit more and let him find his stride. Gary Stevens remains confident and stays aboard but this colt needs to match his morning drills with an on the track performance. Maybe it comes Saturday.

RIDE ON CURLIN (15-1) - This is another of a handful of this year’s 3-year olds that have done just enough to keep bettors waiting for his breakout performance. Early in his career he travelled more like his sire Curlin. After two sprints to begin his career he rallied from well off the pace for the place in the debut and then went right to the front two win start number two. In his first two turn start he went up to challenge the pace in the 8 ½ furlong Iroquois and ran even through the lane to check in fourth. He began to figure it out in the Champagne and rallied for third behind the well-regarded Havana and Honor Code and hit the board in five straight races culminating in the runner-up to Danza in the Arkansas Derby. He has the breeding to go long and if he runs the way he did in the Champagne and Arkansas Derby he could finally grow up in the final quarter mile of the Derby. But if he resorts to his head-strong pressing tactics, especially from this 18 post he could easily go backwards. One has to wonder how much he will improve at this level as his trainer William Gowan isn’t usually in the paddock in stakes races (0-5 in his career) so if you are going to use him, even in a supporting role...demand value.

WICKED STRONG (8-1) - Off his definitive Wood Memorial upset and with the defection of Hopportunity the Hard Spun colt might wind up as the second choice. That in itself becomes problematic because even if he steps forward again, which odds say he won’t given the disparity between his 103 Wood BRIS speed number and his inability to hit 90 in the first five races of his career, he will not provide the value he should, especially from post 19 where in the last 14 races where at least this many horses raced only I’ll Have Another, who was the upset winner in 2012 finished in the first 4 and when I’ll Have Another got to Louisville he was already a multiple Graded Stakes winner and much further along than Wicked Strong. In addition, he has never raced or worked over the CD surface and although that isn’t a total killer his able trainer James Jerkens is in uncharted waters where he has only managed a single graded stakes win from twelve starters. He might be as good or better than he was in the Wood but it is worth repeating that since Funny Cide and Empire Maker exited the Wood Memorial and ran 1-2 in the 2003 Kentucky Derby only one graduate from that race, Tale Of Ekati in 2008 has run as high as fourth. There are more factors leading to a bounce than a repeat so proceed with caution.

PABLO DEL MONTE (50-1) - What can we say? He gave us a thrill in the Blue Grass and came within a sixteenth of a mile of stealing it on the front end. Since this is the final gate all the speed is inside of him and his final work (6 furlongs in 1:11 1/5 at Keeneland a week ago Friday indicates he’ll run to form and try to clear the field. We’ll let you decide whether you think that works but will leave you with this: in recent memory only Big Brown has won from this post and with all due respect to very capable trainer Wesley Ward, this guys is quick, but he "ain’t no Big Brown."

Well, that does it. All that’s left is decision time. Good Luck.

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