If you made a Kentucky Derby future bet on a speed horse, don't worry if you misplaced the ticket. By sundown on May 6, it almost surely will be worthless. With an inordinate number of front-runners in the likely field, chances are they'll all become pace casualties and set up an exacta combining a closer with a midpack runner.
Besides Blue Grass Stakes winner Sinister Minister, whom his trainer, Bob Baffert, calls "a run-off" and "a runaway train", Santa Anita Derby winner Brother Derek, Arkansas Derby winner Lawyer Ron and Florida Derby winner Barbaro all prefer to run on or near the lead. So do Illinois Derby winner Sweetnorthernsaint and Florida Derby runner-up Sharp Humor.
Even with need-to-lead types First Samurai and Like Now withdrawn from the 132nd Derby, the pace projects as potentially insane. It could be reminiscent of last year, when 70-1 shot Spanish Chestnut blazed through absurd fractions of :22.28, :45.38 and 1:09.39 to pave the way for 50-1 Giacomo, one of the flukiest and least talented Derby winners ever. That was only his second career victory, and he hasn't won since. Deep closers Monarchos (2001) and Grindstone (1996) also capitalized on ridiculous fractions to get the roses, and neither was a major horse, either.
So who will be the hero of America's Race this year? I'll give you my educated guess next week, but for now here are my takes (in alphabetical order) on the 3-year-olds headed for Churchill Downs.
Has the pedigree (by A.P. Indy) and the 2-year-old foundation, but he's lost ground in the final furlong in his last four races, a very bad omen for success in the Derby. Figures aren't great, and his price might be less than it should be because his trainer, John Shirreffs, pulled off the miracle with Giacomo.
It's hard to knock an unbeaten horse, but he's run on a fast track only once, and the Derby will be only his second race in three months. Looks like distance shouldn't be a problem, but he's never been farther back than second at any point in any of his five races. Has the makings of a turf champion, and I think that will be where he does his best work. May be too close to a fast pace, run a good one and be praised despite finishing fourth or fifth. A major talent, but I suspect May 6 won't be his day.
I'm willing to throw out the Blue Grass, usually a fluky race, but he's never beaten a top 3-year-old. Todd Pletcher has spotted him well, and he has talent. He'll be a big price, and he's shown the ability to stalk. Has a decent closing punch and might be worth throwing into exactas, even after running fourth by 21 3/4 lengths at Keeneland.
BOB AND JOHN
Has excellent bloodlines (by Seeking the Gold from a Deputy Minister mare), the ability to stalk and fire, and the right connections (Baffert and stakes demon Garrett Gomez). Winning the Wood in the slop in essentially a two-horse race may not be as good as it seems, particularly with the crawling 14-second final furlong. He's a legitimate contender and has run some big closing fractions.
Likely post-time favorite enters unknown territory here. He's been getting his own way while loose on the lead in small fields. Now he'll face intense pace pressure in a wild rodeo to the first turn. My gut feeling is that he's a play-against because of his running style. Still not convinced he's as good as he looks on paper.
CAUSE TO BELIEVE
Northern California colt hasn't beaten much, and he bombed in the Illinois Derby. Made his money and reputation beating up on weak fields. Doesn't need to be near the pace and usually is gaining at the finish. Not impossible for underneath in the exotics, but a win seems out of the question.
DAWN OF WAR
His uninspiring fourth on Saturday in the Derby Trial should convince his owners not to bother with the Derby.
Hasn't done anything except at Tampa Bay Downs, which is a weak Derby resume. He's another that needs to be up on the pace to do his best work, so logically he doesn't fit at all.
Is 1-for-9 lifetime, including 0-for-3 this year, and 0-for-4 in graded stakes. Wasn't beaten by a lot in the Fountain of Youth or the Florida Derby, but never looked like a winner at any point. Stay in the barn.
Passed an exhausted Keyed Entry in the final yards to be a late-running second in the muddy Wood. Still eligible for preliminary allowance conditions, so I'm not real impressed. Race shape should aid his move from far back, but I don't see him as the second coming of Giacomo.
Not sure why he's in the Derby, because he looks more like a miler with a need-to-lead style. Can't recommend, as they say in the Racing Form selections.
Showed he didn't have to go wire-to-wire in the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby, and he's 7-for-7 on fast tracks. I fear him more than Brother Derek because this guy is more versatile. His 14 races are the most in the field, so I wonder if racing since last year with only one five-week winter break will catch up to him. Maybe he's an iron horse. His figs are good but not great, and I wonder if 4-1 or so will be a fair price. Still, one of the top ones.
He's 0-for-5 this year, 1-for-10 lifetime. Running fifth, beaten by 12? lengths, in the Illinois Derby isn't exactly the ideal prep for the first Saturday in May. Forget it.
Would be a pace casualty, at best, in the Derby. Speed type tried a different style in the Derby Trial, but rating and making a late move was only good enough for a non-threatening third. Wait for a much easier spot.
He was up the track in the Arkansas Derby after being second and third at huge odds to stablemate Lawyer Ron in his previous two. Doesn't class up and should stay away from the big boys.
Baffert said he probably will be the wise guy horse of his three runners, and I agree. Looks like an improving colt, and he doesn't have to be near the front. Has a terrific distance pedigree (by Point Given out of a Broad Brush mare) and should relish 1 1/4 miles. Had only one 2-year-old race, which is a concern, and only two wins overall. He could be my pick, but I won't be super confident.
Looks like he was overrated off a few good 2-year-old runs. Showed very little in two races in Arkansas, and trying to win the Derby off only two 3-year-old preps isn't the way to go.
His career highlight was finishing less than two lengths behind Brother Derek when second in the Santa Catalina in March. Wiped himself out when he nearly fell at the start of the Santa Anita Derby. Not without talent, but only win in six starts came by DQ. Pass.
Canada-based colt was lost in the Blue Grass, plodding in more than 30 lengths behind wire-to-wire Sinister Minister. Ran second in a very weak Lane's End Stakes at Turfway, which was his only decent effort this year. Don't bother.
Put up a great battle with Barbaro in the Florida Derby. Unfortunately, he's among the many need-to-lead types. New York-bred appears to have a big future at 1 1/8 miles or shorter, but I can't see him hitting the board in Louisville.
This guy is undefeated (3-for-3) and unquestionably has a lot of talent. His problem is lack of experience, having not made his racing debut until Feb. 11. He showed a new dimension by coming from behind to win the Lexington at Keeneland. If he stays healthy, he should win a lot of races, but the Derby looks like way too much too soon.
He'll probably be in front the first time under the wire, but definitely not the second time. He could set Derby records for fastest fractions up to a mile, then backpedal. Won't win but should have a major impact on how the race shapes up. Could take a lot of good horses down with him.
Figs are so-so, but closing style gives him a chance to slip into the superfecta in third or fourth. Needs a pace meltdown and a clean run through the stretch, and he could be a poor man's Giacomo, getting up for third at 28-1 or so.
He ran a decent third to Barbaro in the Florida Derby after never getting into the race after being steadied into the first turn. Has a ton of upside but is still eligible for NW-2 allowances, so the Derby looks like a reach. Look for him to run well for Todd Pletcher at Belmont and Saratoga.
Ran like a demon in the Illinois Derby, and he might not be bet as heavily as he should be. His final figs and last two closing numbers are outstanding, and maybe he can join War Emblem and hit the Illinois Derby-Kentucky Derby double. Has a legit chance to win as an overlay.
Kentucky Derby television coverage begins Saturday, May 6 at 5 p.m. ET on NBC Sports.