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Monday, March 31, 2014
Welcome to another strange Derby chase


At this time of year, there's usually at least a small measure of clarity about the Kentucky Derby, a fact of equine life best reflected in the future wagering on the race.

In February, the future bet is all about taking miniscule odds on the field, a grouping which gives a bettor about 400 possible options as opposed to 23 individual choices. Meanwhile, by the end of March, there's usually about 10 horses with a realistic chance of winning the Run for the Roses and none of them land in the field wager.

That's why a single entrant has usually been the favorite in each year's final offering of the wager.

But not this year.

When this year's final future wagering pool closed at 6 p.m. on Saturday, the betting public made the massive conglomeration of horses in the field the 5-1 favorite, marking just the third time that has happened in the bet's 16-year history.

About an hour later, those who backed the field proved to be clairvoyant.

Cairo Prince, the 9-1 co-choice with California Chrome among the 23 individual wagering interests, went down to a humbling defeat, finishing fourth in the Florida Derby.

The No. 1 choice in last week's recent ESPN.com 3-year-old poll, Cairo Prince now rates as an uncertain starter in the opening leg of the Triple Crown for a variety of reasons.

Horses like Cairo Prince who have lost in their final Derby prep have been known to perk up on the first Saturday in May. Six of the last 13 winners of the Derby came into the race off a loss.

But for Cairo Prince, there's an added complication beyond returning to top form. His fourth-place finish at Gulfstream Park netted him just 10 points in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series that will determine the 20 starters in the race. He now has 24 points and is 16th on the list of candidates. That puts him in the body of the race today, but in the next few weeks there are five more preps that will allocate enough points to nudge several horses past him.

Horses like Cairo Prince who have lost in their final Derby prep have been known to perk up on the first Saturday in May. Six of the last 13 winners of the Derby came into the race off a loss.

Four of them -- the Wood, Santa Anita Derby, Arkansas Derby and Blue Grass -- will award 100 points to their winner and 40 to the runner-up. That's eight horses that will have more points than him. The third horse in each of those races will get 20 points, giving those horses a solid chance of passing him as well.

Realistically some of those horses will already have more points than him, and others ahead of him will inevitably drop out of the chase for one reason or another. Hope for the son of Pioneer of the Nile also comes from last year's series when less than 10 points was enough to secure a spot in the starting gate.

Yet this year, with so many of the well-known contenders faltering or dropping out of contention, there figures to be an overflow crowd of horseman who believe their horse has a chance to script an improbable victory like Mine That Bird did at 50-1 odds in 2009. Plus trainers like Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert and Mike Maker who currently have more than one horse with more than 24 points would be wise to stack the field with their horses in hopes of excluding a major threat such as Cairo Prince.

Much like a number of NCAA basketball teams earlier in the month, the connections of Cairo Prince find themselves very much on the bubble.

The Florida Derby also pumped up the volume on the confusion because of the horses that finished in front of Cairo Price. The winner of the Florida Derby, the Pletcher-trained Constitution, made his stakes debut on Saturday and owns just three career starts -- all of them in 2014 and all of them victories. That lack of seasoning could come back to haunt him on Derby Day, much like it did to Pletcher's top 2013 prospect, Verrazano.

Verrazano also did all of his racing at three and then finished 14th in the Derby for his first career defeat, helping to extend a jinx in which a horse unraced at two has not won the Run for the Roses since 1882.

The second and third finishers in the Florida Derby, Wildcat Red and General a Rod, both turned in solid efforts, but neither speedster has the look of a horse that can prevail at the Derby's 10-furlong distance.

Adding to that cloudy outlook for them -- and adding even more juice to the early pace scenario -- was the Louisiana Derby, contested later on Saturday, when Vicar's In Trouble went gate-to-wire in winning by 3 ½ lengths over the 9-5 favorite, Intense Holiday.

Both of them have now have more than enough points to run in the Derby -- something that cannot be said of another major contender named Cairo Prince, which at this time of year is rather strange to say.

Needless to say, welcome to a strange year for 3-year-olds.