Searching for wheat in Derby field

Trainer McGaughey likes the way Orb has been training as of late. AP Photo

No matter how you turn the page, none of those generally regarded as the principal threats to win the 139th Kentucky Derby comes into focus. Typical. But less than a week remains before this decision must be made. Get to work.

First, it is necessary to consider that this is Todd Pletcher's world and we're merely here to watch him train horses. The statistical probability of having six Derby starters -- including the likely undefeated betting favorite and two of the principal contenders -- is incalculable. He has four fillies for the Oaks, too, but who's counting?

Numbers mean nothing in a race that has frustrated students of statistics since before the invention of the abacus. If Pletcher's numerical advantage appears daunting to the competition or bettors in search of an alternative, he goes into Saturday 1-for-31 in America's race.

"I have a tremendous appreciation for how difficult the Kentucky Derby is to win," Pletcher said Saturday after putting most of the herd through final works. "Even if you have the best horse, a lot of times that doesn't mean you're going to succeed."

Pletcher's connection to as much as 30 percent of the field notwithstanding, many unknown factors beyond human influence contribute to the Derby's perennial confusion; however, none is more confounding than attempting to project form at 10 furlongs based upon form established at 9 furlongs or less. Until the leaders arrive at the furlong pole at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May, the final furlong of the Derby is like Mars -- unexplored, forbidding and short of oxygen.

There is considerable support among horseplayers for Verrazano, Orb, Revolutionary, Vyjack, Normandy Invasion, Goldencents, Overanalyze and a sufficient number of others to fully embrace about half the field of 20 without providing even a modicum of confidence. Separation of the wheat from chaff leaves a great deal of wheat.

First, the easy part.

Mylute has emerged as the wise-guy horse but until an offspring of Midnight Lute, a champion sprinter but a sprinter nevertheless, stays 10 furlongs, it is prudent to view the prospect skeptically. Mylute substantiated this dim view of his prospects when he hung on the money in the Louisiana Derby. The significance of a narrow defeat rests in the eye of the beholder and in this view; Mylute had every opportunity to beat Revolutionary and hung. For all her ability and obvious charisma, Rosie Napravnik will not make enough difference to turn Mylute into a Derby winner and besides, the wise-guy horse never wins.

The depth of talent in this field only goes so far. So … in alphabetical order: Black Onyx, Charming Kitten, Code West, Falling Sky, Frac Daddy, Golden Soul, Itsmyluckyday, Java's War, Lines of Battle, Palace Malice, Power Broker, Tiz a Minister and Winning Cause are in one way or another either flawed or simply not good enough. There is little room for error on Derby Day.

On any other day, Oxbow and Will Take Charge also would be eliminated from consideration as potential winners, but this is the Derby and both are trained by D. Wayne Lukas, Pletcher's erstwhile employer, whose first thought of every day, some believe, is this race. Lukas has won the Derby and other major races with inexplicable long shots often enough that it is no longer a surprise. So, it is almost mandatory to use these horses in some way if only in self-defense, like hedging an investment portfolio with gold. Nobody really understands exactly why, but it works in an onslaught of unexpected disaster.

The most heralded of the Pletcher delegation, Verrazano, will probably be the betting favorite. It is difficult to fault perfection and Verrazano is undefeated after four starts that include the Wood Memorial. In a field of 20 with several others meaningfully supported, he likely also will be a favorite that offers a reasonable price.

Distance notwithstanding, the single greatest unknown factor faced by Verrazano is the Derby's dynamic, the development of which may well compromise his chances. While winning four races, Verrazano has been on or very near the lead and there is an abundance of early speed in this field in the form of Itsmyluckyday, Goldencents, Falling Sky and Governor Charlie.

The possibility of one or more of the outsiders being sent on a kamikaze mission is never far-fetched in this race. What happens early will have a great deal of influence on Verrazano's fortune on Saturday and he did not give the impression that he was brimming with run at the end of the Wood. Certainly, he can win and is a formidable favorite, but there may be too much going on here for a colt that has so far seen everything go his way, and there is little separating the leading figures beyond running style.

All things considered, this looks to be a race that will fall to one of those who will be running late.

The up-and-coming Chad Brown has wasted little time getting himself and a horse to the Derby with a chance of winning and Normandy Invasion, one-paced and long-winded, is that animal. On the other hand, this colt has been sparingly raced leading up to this assignment -- and despite the obvious attributes just two starts in advance of the Derby, one less than inspiring -- he cannot be viewed in a positive light.

Revolutionary has won three straight races, two this season, including the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, in which he prevailed in a determined effort. Pletcher has chosen the less-is-more approach with this colt but he won in New Orleans off a break of almost two months. He is best when rated well behind the early pace and is yet to fail when asked to deliver what is a powerful late run. He is a colt of great quality that almost certainly will make his presence felt and must be considered a potential winner.

Since the season's outset, only one 3-year-old has left the impression at the end of a 9-furlong, Grade 1 race that he wanted more ground, and that horse is Orb.

Overanalyze has at times been erratic and has yet to recapture his best 2-year-old form, but unfurled a season-best effort with an eye-catching late run that carried him to a clear victory in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. He is yet another who has been raced sparingly in preparation for this assignment, but his previous race suggests there is more to be seen from this colt. The question is: When? Best when rated well behind the pace, he also has displayed the versatility to set or prompt the early tempo. He is a major player if rated. If not, see ya.

What to do with Vyjack?

He suffered his first career defeat from five starts when third behind Verrazano and Normandy Invasion in the Wood and was not a threat, enough to give pause to those considering pari-mutuel support.

This is a handy colt who has won while setting the pace and from well behind the early leaders. His racing to date has been confined to Aqueduct, however, and a new surface poses yet another not insignificant question. A dull piece of recent work when sent to Fair Hill may be viewed as alarming, but he was decidedly more enthusiastic with trainer Rudy Rodriguez in the boot for his first work at Churchill Down. While he has been able to maintain his form to this point, Vyjack has not improved significantly, and playing a substantial role here requires a step forward.

Since the season's outset, only one 3-year-old has left the impression at the end of a 9-furlong, Grade 1 race that he wanted more ground and that horse is Orb.

Orb has won four straight races, including the Grade 1 Florida Derby, while leaving the impression in each that there is more to give. A powerful, long-bodied colt with a huge stride, he has improved steadily in lockstep with the increased distances of his races. Best when held up behind the pace, ideally in mid-pack, he lacks a quick turn of foot but once gathered reliably produces a devastating run.

He probably lost five lengths of ground while wide throughout in the Florida Derby, was drawing away at the end and appears to have maintained his sharp form since arrival in Kentucky, where he has been the picture of reserved energy in his initial morning gallops. Of these, none is better equipped for the task at hand, and winning the Derby likely means beating him.

"I've never had a horse show so much improvement over this short period of time at this time of the year," said trainer Shug McGaughey, whose career has seen some very good horses pass beneath his shedrow. "When he won the allowance race at a mile and an eighth, we were way ahead of where we wanted to be. Then, when he cut back to a mile and a sixteenth [for the Fountain of Youth], drawing the 1 post, I didn't know what to expect. Then, going into the Florida Derby, he'd trained so well and made so much physical improvement from the Fountain of Youth to the Florida Derby, I said to myself when they were going into the gate, 'I'm going to be interested to see how this horse runs today.' "

Coming from McGaughey, this borders on hyperbole.

We're cautiously convinced.

Orb wins the Derby.

Unless it rains.