Many Kentucky Derbys have had 20 starters, but I haven’t seen a recent one where the pool of talent was shallower.
Several horses that would not have had the graded earnings to break into the field in past years have, due to attrition, been able to give their owners free access to the best Derby parties, and little else.
Consider that six horses each have only a maiden win, and only three have won a Grade 1 stakes. One of the race’s “buzz” horses, Dunkirk, is eligible for a non-winners-of-three allowance.
Then there are horses that have raced on synthetic tracks in all or most of their starts. Synthetic surfaces are as different from dirt as dirt is from turf. The Derby is not the place to make your dirt debut. Note that none of the top four finishers in the 2008 Derby had raced on a synthetic track. I don’t think that was just a coincidence. (Nor was it Just A Coincidence—he ran last week.)
All this has made my handicapping a bit easier this year—almost too easy.
My first group of horses to eliminate is those who are clearly overmatched: Mine That Bird, Join In The Dance, Atomic Rain, Nowhere to Hide, and Flying Private.
Then there are those who have not started on dirt, or have shown poor form on dirt: Mr. Hot Stuff, Advice, Hold Me Back, Chocolate Candy, and Pioneerof The Nile.
Which leaves us with 10 horses.
Regal Ransom and Desert Party—Here we go again. Sheikh Mohammed is determined to have things his way by prepping his horses in Dubai instead of the U.S. This has not worked in the past, and I don’t see this year being an exception. These horses’ 2-year-old starts in the U.S. were not outstanding enough to overcome the unorthodox training strategy (although you might want to throw Desert Party in your exotics if the track is muddy). It’s also telling that Frankie Dettori didn’t come over to ride one of them.
Summer Bird—I was looking at this one as a live longshot after the move he made at the end of the Arkansas Derby until I looked at his past performances. March 1 of the 3-year-old year is the latest racing debut for a Derby starter I can recall. His connections are asking for too much, too soon.
Dunkirk—I’ve never seen so much support at the Derby for a horse who has never won a stakes. Trainer Todd Pletcher blamed a slow pace for Dunkirk’s loss in the Florida Derby. In what universe is six furlongs in 1:10.3 slow? Watch the replay of that race and you’ll see that he just couldn’t stay with Quality Road down the lane.
General Quarters—He’s been one of the feel-good stories because his owner-trainer is a 75-year-old retired teacher. He looked good in the Sam F. Davis (and the Blue Grass, of course, but that was on a rubber track), where he handed Musket Man his only loss. I watched both the Davis and the Tampa Bay Derby (where Musket Man won) and didn’t see a real excuse for either loss. Then again, all races at Tampa Bay Downs look like a stampede through a sandbar. I prefer Musket Man because his overall record is more consistent.
And now, in honor of Dr. Demento, it’s Funny Five time!
5. WEST SIDE BERNIE—Every year, there’s a plodder who comes in third or fourth and messes up everybody’s gimmicks. This one is a late-closer with dirt experience, and he’s been getting a share of the purse against the big boys. He could be this year’s Denis of Cork.
4. MUSKET MAN—Don’t overlook a horse who has never been off the board, especially one with that all-important dirt experience.
3. FRIESAN FIRE—The karma choice. After all the undeserved abuse his connections have taken after Eight Belles’ death last year, it would be so great for them—and the sport—to see them win it all. I would feel a little better, though, if the horse’s last race weren’t seven weeks ago. Could move up one—or two—notches if the track is sloppy.
2. PAPA CLEM—I thought of him as a one-dimensional speedball, but the Arkansas Derby reverses that judgment. He showed that he doesn’t need the lead, and his kind of tactical speed is very dangerous in the Derby.
Call me a chalk-eating weasel, but on paper and on video, there is a clear number one this year….
1. I WANT REVENGE—He was just one of several contenders on the West Coast plasti-tracks, but a move to the New York dirt gave him another gear. Reminds me of what happened when Cigar was moved from turf to dirt. If you have any doubts, just watch this:
Anything that could have gone wrong did for I Want Revenge in the Wood—a horrible start, traffic problems in the stretch, and a pace that was down to a crawl—but he still won. Barring a true disaster, I don’t see what else the Derby could throw at him.
That’s it. Your mileage may vary.