Friday, April 30, 2010

A humble analysis of Kentucky Derby 136

“Space is the place.” – Sun Ra
“Pace is the race.” – R.A. Fritz

….Mine That Bird? Mine That Bird? Mine That Bird?

Oh, wait, this is 2010. That’s different. Never mind.

After I got through the five steps of accepting that the best 3-year-old of this year would not be racing in the Kentucky Derby, I watched the field take shape and couldn’t believe what was happening.

At the risk of tempting the racing gods, things were starting to look almost too easy.

A principle of pace handicappers, such as me, is that several confirmed front-runners are likely to tire each other out contending for the early lead, which sets the race up for a closer. In a race such as the Derby, though, there are often few horses that have to have the front end, so the come-from-behind wins that people love to see don’t happen too often.

This year is an exception. For some reason, there’s enough speed in this field for three Derbys, as several of the major preps were won by front-runners who were able to get an easy lead and carry it to the wire. They will not have that luxury Saturday.

Then there’s another weird phenomenon. The graded earnings requirement, which limits the field at 20, seems to have encouraged the connections of several horses to try the Derby even though most of their graded earnings have come on the turf, or as 2-year-olds who have since fallen off that early form. Just because you can enter your horse in the Derby doesn’t mean you should. (A caveat—and no, not the Belmont winner—here, though: Mine That Bird qualified for the Derby based on graded stakes earnings as a 2-year-old.)

As such, I have found it easy to eliminate two groups of horses.

The following horses either lack any foundation on a conventional dirt track, or do not have sufficient recent form to prepare them for the Derby: Stately Victor, Dean’s Kitten, Make Music For Me, Paddy O’Prado, and Homeboykris.

This group will be too busy beating each other early and figure to have nothing left for the legendary Churchill Downs stretch: Super Saver, Line Of David, American Lion, Conveyance, Discreetly Mine, and Sidney’s Candy.

The next one out is Noble’s Promise. While he’s been consistent up until the Arkansas Derby, and his running style suits the race, there’s just too much question about his condition. No horse, to my knowledge, has won the Derby three weeks after a lung infection.

I don’t see Dublin winning. I don’t care for his tendency to hang in the stretch, and his fractiousness during recent workouts is troublesome. If he thought marathon runners were too disturbing, how will he handle 100,000 drunks singing “My Old Kentucky Home” off-key?

The next horses I eliminated were Mission Impazible and Jackson Bend. I had to throw some more horses out because I don’t have the money to play them all. The speed figures on these two indicate to me they are a cut below the top group. Besides, Mission Impazible is a stupid name and I just can’t see it on a mint julep glass.

So here are the five horses that I plan to use in my Derby wagers.

5. Backtalk. My “Are You Kidding?” selection. Nobody but me likes this horse, which may be a bad sign right there. But if you draw a line through his Illinois Derby—a race where they always get in a straight line and walk to the wire—there are a few things to like. He’s the only horse in the race to have won twice at Churchill Downs and twice on off tracks (some are predicting an apocalyptic flood Saturday). Plus, he’s by Smarty Jones, who won the 2004 Derby in a swamp.

4. Awesome Act. He has a big shot here if he runs back to his Gotham Stakes. Trainer Jeremy Noseda said he lost a shoe in the Wood Memorial, and he does appear to not be going well in the race video, so that start can be thrown out. The distance should suit him too, if his late run in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf is an indication.

3. Lookin At Lucky. He’s been the most consistent of this bunch, as he was beaten only a head in seven starts prior to his awful trip in the Santa Anita Derby (not that he’d have beaten Sidney’s Candy that day anyhow). The problem here is his post. A stalker like him is likely to run into a lot of trouble from post 1, as 19 horses will be trying to get into his lane. Can’t leave him out of the gimmicks, but a win looks unlikely.

2. Devil May Care. If you like my top selection, you have to like Devil May Care, too, since she won the Bonnie Miss on the same day—in the same time—as my top pick’s last race. There’s also some racing karma at work here. Trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velasquez lost their chance with Eskendereya. It would be a perfect chance for the racing gods to repay them.

(Also—and I’m not making this up—the other night I had a dream about the Derby card where the 11 won and “Duke” was in the horse’s name. The dream was about an earlier race on the card, so bear that in mind. I looked at the entries and didn’t see a horse with “Duke” in its name on the whole card, so I figured I just ate too much Fresh Fish Basil from The Green Mango—great place if you’re in the Pittsburgh area, BTW. As I write this, it dawned on me that Devil May Care is number 11, and Duke’s nickname is the Blue Devils. And this dream was before the post draw. Read into it what you will.)

And the Oscar goes to:

1. Ice Box. It’s been years since I’ve seen a pace scenario set up as perfectly for a horse. There are six horses here who figure to be on or near the lead, and Ice Box is the only stone closer. He came from last at the top of the stretch to win the Florida Derby, and the blazing fractions—and maybe a deep, tiring track—set up a similar scenario Saturday. Expect Ice Box to come in from Terre Haute in the stretch to give Nick Zito his third Derby victory.