Thursday, May 1, 2008

Breaking down the Derby

Here is a look at the pros and cons of each derby contender, listed by post position...

1) Cool Coal Man

Pros- Zito horse is 3 for 4 from the rail, always a good sign, especially for a younger horse who might not appreciate being squeezed into the rail. Fountain of Youth winner didn't appreciate the synthetic surface, but if you throw that race out (as many bettors will do with Pyro), then he seems to fit well. By Mineshaft, this 200K yearling purchase is one of the better bred horses in the field and should appreciate the distance more than most.

Cons- The question is whether you want to ignore the Blue Grass, which was certainly a clunker. He stalked modest fractions, but was still nowhere to be found by the 1/8th pole. He also loses Desormeaux, and while Leparoux is certainly capable of winning, it is a little disconcerting that this is now his 6th jockey in 9 races.

Final word- Talented colt could work out a real nice trip with no speed directly to his outside, and will probably be overlooked at long odds. Certainly playable underneath

2) Tale of Ekati

Pros- The only dual qualifier in the field (a duel qualifier is essentially a horse that ran well as a 2YO, but also has a low dosage index, indicating he is bred to run longer), this horse was a monster at two in New York, and bounced back nicely after a disappointing Louisiana Derby where he broke very poorly to win the Wood over champion War Pass. His female side is probably the classiest of any horse in the field, and even a novice racing fan knows Barclay Tagg always is a live threat to win a big race.

Cons- Despite winning the Grade I Wood last out, his Beyers are really on the light side for a legit contender. He had something of a dream trip in that race, sitting comfortable off of War Pass' fast fractions before collaring him in the stretch. The track was drying out, which at times can make it very tiring, but that final furlong in almost 14 seconds is extremely slow. Tale of the Cat's (his sire) progeny have generally been more successful sprinting or running middle distances, so there are concerns there.

Final Word- It's not often that the winner of the Wood is a throwout in the Derby, but this might be an exception. He just hasn't run fast enough to show he will be a major threat in this race, and I think the extra furlong only hurts him.

3) Anak Nakal

Pros- His best race came over this track back in November in the Kentucky Jockey Club, where he stalked the pace effectively before taking over midstretch and holding on gamely to win. Deep closer might get a white hot pace to run at, which would be to his advantage.

Cons- Has the lightest speed figures in the field, and those horses rarely run well in any race, let alone a race with 19 opponents. Never a good sign to be making an equipment change on Derby Day, as clearly blinkers were useless last time. Hasn't been competitive as a 3YO, and might be one of those horses that was precocious at 2 but never really advanced over the winter as a 3YO.

Final Word- If the pace is wicked, he could pass tired horses, but it's hard to imagine much more than that.

4) Court Vision

Pros- Another horse exiting the Wood, this horse was trying to get at the leaders but just couldn't seem to close ground in the final furlong to get the job done. The track was very speed favoring that day, so the fact that he was able to come from way off the pace to get close is a good sign. IEAH spent a lot of money to buy this horse, and Mott/Gomez are two of the best in the business.

Cons- Another horse who is rather light Beyer wise, and also making an equipment change, this time putting blinkers on for the first time. Has been very wide in a lot of his races, which is probably a result of his late running style more than racing luck, and will probably have to go even wider if he wants to make a serious run at the leaders coming home.

Final Word- Like Anak Nakal, the only way I can imagine this horse making a dent is if there is a pace meltdown up front. IEAH manages money about as well as Bear Stearn's mortgage desk (zing!), and I don't see this horse being a threat for a top 4 position.

5) Eight Belles

Pros- The only filly in the field, but this miss will not be intimidated by the boys, as she is a physical specimen who is bigger than many of her male counterparts. She enters this race on a four race winning streak, including two victories in graded stakes races where she sat off moderate fractions before finishing powerfully in the stretch in fast times. A 375k yearling purchase out of Unbridled's Song, she is one of the best bred horses in the race, and her sire should give her the stamina to compete at 10 furlongs. She's been somewhat ignored by the press, which is surprising, and might offer some value.

Cons- Despite what Rags to Riches did last year, it is always a major step up in class for a filly to compete in a race like this. She's never run over a mile and a sixteenth, and she hasn't even faced off against the best fillies of her generation yet. She has run almost exclusively in races where the fields were small and the pace was sensible, and neither of those will be the case on Saturday.

Final Word- Connections were on and off about running in this race or the Oaks, but I think they made the right choice. There is only one Derby, and she has a right to be competitive in this spot. I wish she ran in some bigger fields or more competitive races, but she is fast enough to compete and is one of the few horses that is bred to go the distance. Not sure that she wins but underneath is a real possibility.

6) Z Fortune

Pros- Coming into this race off of his best effort to date, this NY bred colt couldn't quite get past Gayego in the Arkansas Derby but certainly ran fast enough to make him a contender in the Derby. Settled in nicely in that race and closed on a track that is very speed favoring, and has trained very well since. Ran over a 90 Beyer as a 2YO and over 100 as a 3YO, an achievement most Derby winners have accomplished.

Cons- By Siphon, who is more known as a middle distance type sire, there could be some distance concerns. Another horse that has had several jockey changes in his short career, suggesting he might not have been any jockey's number one choice.

Final Word- I'm not generally a huge fan of New York Breds as legit Derby horses, but this stable knows what they are doing, and I expect big things from him Saturday.

7) Big Truck

Pros- Second New York Bred, this Hook and Ladder colt showed promise against state breds before moving up to open company and staying competitive. Ran well at Tampa Bay, including a win over 1-20 War Pass, giving that horse is first career defeat. Like Funny Cide, this colt is also trained by Barclay Tagg

Cons- While he has hung around against open company for the most part, he hasn't run fast enough to prove he really can compete with the best 3YO's in the country. His win over War Pass had probably more to do with the fact that War Pass never picked up his feet than anything else. If you throw out his two races at Tampa Bay, he looks like a horse that will not match up to most of these. His breeding also suggests he might be better in long sprints than at classic distances.

Final Word- While the connections have earned the right to take a shot in this race, it's hard to imagine him having much of an impact.

8) Visionaire-

Pros- Gotham winner literally came from the clouds to win that race, as heavy fog prevented anyone from seeing most of the race until deep stretch. His late running style could be useful if all of the speed outside goes hard in front of him. Another horse who wasn't at his best on the Polytrack, but at least he made a respectable run to finish 5th beaten 6 lengths. Trained by Michael Matz, same trainer as Barbaro.

Cons- Has only run one race that makes you think he could be a factor on Saturday, and that was against a suspect group who set extremely fast fractions in front of him on a sloppy track. While rain is in the forecast tonight, it looks most likely the track will be either good or fast, so that shouldn't work in his favor.

Final Word- His closing style might make him a threat to get up for a piece, but unless the track is sloppy or the pace is crazy, I don't see this horse in the top 4

9) Pyro

Pros- Most considered him the favorite for most of the winter, and rightfully so. This son of Pulpit ran very well as a 2YO, running 2nd to War Pass in the Champagne and Breeders Cup in swift times. His speed figures have been a little slower this year, but that may be mostly due to the slower early pace of the races he was in. He has shown the best acceleration of any horse in the stretch this year, and his final quarter mile times suggest he should have no problem going farther, as does his breeding

Cons- The one big negative is, of course, the Blue Grass, where Pyro did next to nothing running a nondescript 10th beaten by over 11 lengths. Even if he didn't take to the polytrack, a truly great horse probably puts up more of a fight in that spot, which clearly he did not. A case can also be made that his two stand out races might be suspect. The Beyer from the Champagne seems abnormally high for a horse running a mile in over 1:36, and the Breeder's Cup race was run over a sloppy track that was changing throughout the day.

Final Word- The determining factor with this horse is whether you think the Blue Grass is a throw out. Personally, I think it is, and I hope he gets overlooked to some extent on Saturday. Serious win candidate, and must use underneath for exotics.

10) Colonel John

Pros- The best of the west, Colonel John comes into this race off of two impressive victories in California, beating the likes of El Gato Malo and Bob Black Jack among others. By two time Breeders Cup Classic champ Tiznow, this horse is bred to run all day, and his late running style figures to be effective again today. His Beyers are on the light side, but that may have more to do with the way most polytrack races are run, where jockeys tend to restrain there horses more for a strong finish. Colonel John has shown just such an ability, as he has come home in under 12 seconds for the last furlong in each of his past two races. His bullet breeze in 57.4 seconds for 5 furlongs suggests he should have no problems on the dirt, either.

Cons- Not too much to knock on this consistent colt. His Beyers are a little light, and his competition out west was certainly questionable. The biggest knock on this horse is that he hasn't run on conventional dirt yet in a race, and there is no way to know exactly how good he is on such a surface until he runs on one.

Final Word- Most horses that run well on synthetic surfaces don't have a problem on the dirt, and Colonel John should be no exception. Another horse that is a strong win candidate and must use in exotics.

11) Z Humor

Pros- Ran well as a 2YO, including a nice third behind War Pass and Pyro in the Champagne, came right back to dead heat for the Delta Jackpot, clinching his spot for this race. By Distorted Humor, same sire as Funny Cide, out of an AP Indy mare, he should not have a problem with the extra furlong in the Derby. He also has improved in each of his three races this year.

Cons- Despite his improvement from the winter, he still hasn't done much as a 3YO, including a nondescript fourth in the Fountain of Youth and third behind longshot Recapturetheglory in the Illinois Derby. Another horse who is changing equipment on Derby Day, this time taking off blinkers that he has worn for his past 5 races. His Beyers are also light compared to other horses that have won the Derby.

Final Word- In most other years, this horse is probably a throwout, but if he were to continue to improve into this race he could make some noise against this puzzling group of horses. Still, I would only use him sparingly if at all underneath.

12) Smooth Air

Pros- Consistent son of Smooth Jazz ran well to be second behind Big Brown in the Florida Derby, punching his ticket to Kentucky in the process. He was successful stretching out in the Tampa Bay Derby after a couple of wins at 7 furlongs down in Miami, and has yet to finish out of the money in 7 starts in his career.

Cons- Smooth Jazz was a sprinter, so there are definitely concerns about his ability to get the distance from a breeding perspective. He also missed training a few days last weekend with a fever, and it's hard to make up those days with so few days before the Derby

Final Word- Another horse that usually would be a safe bet to toss out, but his consistency makes him a possibilty underneath. Still can't see him winning, though.

13) Bob Black Jack

Pros- Speed merchant ran the fastest Beyer of any 3YO this year, running a 109 in the Sunshine Millions Dash. Looks to be the speed of the speed in this race, and despite being somewhat outside he shouldn't have too much trouble getting towards the inside for the first turn. He's probably a better sprinter, but his two tries routing have been very respectable.

Cons- Appears to be a need the lead type, and even a lightly poor break would ruin his chances. He should be able to get the lead, but he might have to go 22 for a quarter and 45 for the half to get it, in which case it's hard to imagine him anywhere close to the leaders by the 1/8th pole. He has yet to run on conventional dirt, and is also making a switch to blinkers, which should have him very keen to go early.

Final Word- He'll give you a thrill as he should be out in front, and he might be worth a small saver bet in case the track really favors speed or the pace in unexpectedly moderate.

14) Monba

Pros- Pletcher horse comes out of the Blue Grass a victor despite being steadied early and forced wide into the lane. By Maria's Mon, sire of Derby winner Monarchos, out of an Easy Goer mare, he should have no problems whatsoever with the Derby distance. Despite running only 5 times, this horse has 3 wins, sporting a winning percentage not too many others in the field can match.

Cons- His three best races are arguably on synthetic surfaces, and his most recent try on the dirt was an out and out flop, running last beaten 40 lengths in the Fountain of Youth. He was going crazy in the paddock that day, which is not a good sign given the 100,000+ people expected to be on hand Saturday. Another horse that has run very light Beyers compared to those who have won this race in the past.

Final Word- You always have to respect every horse Pletcher leads out to the track, but this one seems like a polytrack specialist. If you must bet him, make sure you see him in the paddock first and that he is not uncomfortable or sweating.

15) Adriano

Pros- Exceptionally well bred horse (By AP Indy out of a Mr. Prospector mare) punched his ticket to the Derby via his win in the Lanes End stakes in March at Turfway Park. He is training great coming into the race, and perennial leading jockey Edgar Prado (rider of Barbaro) was so impressed with his works he decided to stay on board for the Derby. Graham Motion is another trainer that always must be respected in any race where he has a horse running.

Cons- Like Monba, he looks like a polytrack/turf horse. His one dirt race was a poor effort, running 9th beaten almost 20 lengths in the Fountain of Youth. After winning the Lanes End, his connections said they would not point to the Derby, but after working out well over the Churchill Downs strip they could not turn the chance to run for the roses. Yet another horse who is light on the Beyer side.

Final Word- I can't blame the owners for taking a shot in this race, but his one race on the dirt isn't nearly enough to inspire confidence this horse will be prominently involved in the finish.

16) Denis Of Cork

Pros- Was 3 for 3 going into Illinois Derby, including an impressive win in the Southwest Stakes, where he rallied stoutly from well off of the pace on a track that generally favors speed to win going away, earning a solid 96 Beyer. This is Harlan's Holiday's first crop of Derby age, and so far he has been a hit as a sire. A mare by Unbridled underneath should give him some extra stamina, and Calvin Borel, jockey of Derby winner Street Sense last year, sees fit to ride. The last horse to make the field, he has been training very well and seems to be at home at Churchill Downs.

Cons- As nice as his first three races were, his last race was certainly perplexing. Running in a 7 horse field that didn't appear too tough on paper, he was never a factor and finished 5th beaten almost double digits. He also concedes experience to most of his foes, having raced only 4 times thus far, and even champions such as Curlin have had a hard time overcoming a lack of experience. While there is little question Harlan's Holiday is a nice sire, he was most effective as a runner at 8-9 furlongs so there could be some distance limitations potentially.

Final Word- This is a nice colt who deserved a shot in this race. Another horse I don't see winning but certainly could see underneath.

17) Cowboy Cal

Pros- Second Pletcher horse is, surprise, also exceptionally well bred, this time by Giant's Causeway out of a Seeking the Gold mare. He ran a very game second in his last on the polytrack, and in fact has been first or second in each of his races since his debut at the spa last summer. John Velazquez, who rides first call for Pletcher, retains the mount, which alone makes him a threat.

Cons- Another horse that has run only on turf or synthetic surfaces, except for his first race where he was a well beaten 7th in his debut. He looks like a horse that will be close to the pace, which could be a problem from an outside post with speed both to his inside and outside. His Beyers are also a little on the light side.

Final Word- His one race on dirt was a dud, but many horses don't fire first time out, so I think that race is a toss out. What's left is a very consistent horse who can win on the lead or by stalking the pace, which makes him very dangerous at a square price.

18) Recapturetheglory

Pros- Cherokee Run colt was very impressive making every pole a winner in the Illinois Derby. He just ran 12 second furlongs all the way around the track, which would be an ideal way to run on Saturday if possible. This horse seems to get better and better with each race, and you can never count those types of horses out entirely.

Cons- His best race was against a suspect field of 7, and he was able to set moderate fractions without being challenged at all. There is no way he is going to be able to go 24 and 48 in the Derby and be anywhere close to the lead, so the choice is either go faster and hope he doesn't get cooked early, or rate behind the leaders and hope he doesn't mind dirt in his face. The longest shot on the board in his last race, he was not considered a Derby contender until that win.

Final Word- If he had drawn more to the inside, I would have considered him having a chance to work out a good trip, but being this far outside with fast horses all around him will only hurt his chances. Hard to recommend.

19) Gayego

Pros- Was extremely game winning the Arkansas Derby, stalking a fast pace but still having enough left in the tank to win in impressive time. Was running fast on the synthetics out west before shipping in to Arkansas and posting a 103 Beyer in his first dirt start, which compares nicely to other Derby winners in their final prep. He's never been worse than second in 5 starts, and looks poised to run a big one on Saturday as well

Cons- The post position is a killer, as he is probably going to have to go early with Recapturetheglory to his left and Big Brown to his right. Mike Smith will have to work out a much better trip than he gave Flashy Bull from out here in 2006, where he was perhaps as wide as any horse that has ever run in this race's storied history. His Sire, Gilded Time, is also known more as a sire of sprinters.

Final Word- Had he drawn to the inside, this horse very well might have been my pick to win it all, but even with the tough post I think he can be really tough, and will be using him on top and underneath in exotics.

20) Big Brown

Pros- 3 starts, 3 wins by a combined 29 lengths... what more can you say? He is a standout on paper, and has trained great in Churchill this week. He will almost certainly be the favorite come post time, and looks to be the one horse who could be a legit Triple Crown threat if he were to win Saturday. Kent Desormeaux, who has ridden as well or better than anyone in the country over the past year, insisted after his off the turf allowance win that he will go anywhere to ride this horse, which speaks volume about this horse's talent.

Cons- Despite his impressive wins thus far, there are causes for concern. It's always hard to win a race like this off of only 3 races, including only two since the summer. He didn't miss these races because he was vacationing, either; he missed them because of chronic foot problems, which could rear their ugly head come Saturday where the track is usually souped up to be extra hard so the final times are faster. His last breeze was done in front bandages, another red flag, and he will be wearing those same bandages Saturday. If Mike Smith decides to give Gayego a tour of the grounds as he did with Flashy Bull two years ago, this horse will most likely be to the outside of that, which would almost certainly eliminate his chances of winning.

Final Word- This horse clearly has a ton of potential, but there will be at least a dozen horses on the undercard races that day that will have much better chances of winning their race at better odds. The Derby is not the race to try to score on a 5/2 horse, and this one is no different, as there are too many question marks to justify such odds. My gut tells me this horse will pull a Point Given/Afleet Alex, get beat in the Derby before proving his talents in the Preakness and/or Belmont.

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