Tuesday, April 26, 2011
How many mint juleps will it take?
It's starting to get a nuts here in Louisville, and that is fitting for Kentucky Derby 137 because this Derby field is driving everyone crazy. I'm beginning to wonder how many mint juleps it'll take to make the 2011 crop of three-year-olds look good to anyone.
Last night, we had a Derby handicapping session at the University of Louisville Equine Business program, where I am at the eighth pole (graduating in mid-May). Our panel of guest handicappers included Churchill Downs track announcer Mark Johnson and paddock host Jill Byrne, and the overwhelming consensus was that the Derby ought to consider allowing donkeys into the race this year because they might run faster.
Personally, I think it's a bit premature to characterize this entire lot of three-year-olds as a bunch of of mules, but the prep races certainly haven't inspired a whole lot of confidence.
And it's still the Kentucky Derby, the world's most famous horse race. So here's a week-and-a-half-before-the-race breakdown of the Derby contenders, based on the panel discussion, my own opinions after having watched every single Derby prep more than once and on having access to observers closely watching the workouts at Churchill (in no particular order except the first two):
Dialed In: If there is a Triple Crown winner in this group, he is it. Mark Johnson said every once and while he has a "tingly" moment where the hair stands up on the back of his neck while he's calling a race, and he had one of those moments during Dialed In's maiden race last fall at Churchill. Sure, the horse looked as green as a shamrock, but Johnson could see Dialed In's natural brilliance.
Dialed In has since learned how to be a racehorse, and perhaps his most valuable race was his only loss - against older horses, which is a very clever move when most three-year-olds only run against their own age. Trainer Nick Zito has kept his colt in Florida, and it may be because he knows he's sitting on a volcano of talent. He doesn't want to screw things up training over the mudbath that is the Churchill Downs racetrack in late April.
Dialed In likes to come from way back, and that is not easy in a field of 20 runners, but he does seem to be a special colt. I like his chances in this field.
Mucho Macho Man: Cue the sentimental music - this guy is the "story" of Derby 137. He was believed dead at birth at the end of the foaling season in June, and he has miraculously recovered to become a solid Derby contender. His performances so far have been nothing short of all-out, gutsy. While he looks terrific in workouts, he still appears to have some growing to do, and guess how many June foals have won the Kentucky Derby?
Zero. Still, I like his toughness. He lost a shoe in the Louisiana Derby and still finished a tight third. He's the type who will run over cut glass, and I'm betting he'll be right there at the finish in the Derby.
Uncle Mo: I went to this shindig a couple weeks ago in Lexington with fellow equine students and other horse industry folks (Bobby Flay showed up for desert, although he didn't prepare it). We all took turns naming our Derby horse, and I was astonished that only one of about 35 people named Uncle Mo. If the dinner had been held two weeks earlier, I daresay 80% of the room would have picked Uncle Mo. How far the mighty have fallen since finishing third in the Wood Memorial.
The quote of the night came from Tim Capps, one of the professors in the Equine Business program. After someone mentioned that Secretariat also finished third in the Wood, Tim said: "Yeah, but a lot of horses have finished third in the Wood, and only one of them was named Secretariat."
There's good reason to doubt Uncle Mo, despite the giant expectations that accompanied him on the Derby trail. His pedigree screams Churchill Downs (Indian Charlie and Arch progeny seem to love it), but the same pedigree shouts: "I really don't want to run 1 1/4 miles! Please don't make me!!" Besides, trainer Todd Pletcher has not put enough foundation under this colt, and he just looks like he needs more time. He might crush the Travers in August, but I'm not so sure he's ready for the first Saturday in May.
Archarcharch: That's Arch Arch Arch in case you go cross-eyed trying to read the name. He's pretty gangly and leggy, and if they gave an award for "worst action" to a Derby contender, this might be him. Still, he has shown up consistently of late, and you could do worse in picking a Derby longshot.
Comma To The Top: Seriously, if this horse wins the Kentucky Derby, I will eat a huge plate of beef Beef Stroganoff, which I find to be the most repulsive of foods. As somebody put it, Comma is a lock to win a 350-yard Quarter Horse sprint at Los Alamitos on a Friday night, but the Derby? Forget it.
Pants On Fire: The name suggests he does not have the dignity to be a Kentucky Derby winner. However, his rider will be Rosie Napravnik, and she has been fantastic. A victory would make her the first woman to win the Derby, and it's hard not to root for that. But his running style suggests he will be sucking wind at the top of the stretch and begging to lay down in the infield with all the drunk college kids.
Master of Hounds: Now that's a name that sounds regal. In fact, he would be this year's only European horse in the Derby if he runs, and guess who is being talked about as his jockey??? Yes, that would be Calvin "Churchill Downs is my bitch" Borel, who has won three of the last four Derbies. Master of Hounds was impressive finishing second in the UAE Derby in Dubai, and if he comes over, look out.
Shackleford: If you like Dialed In, you have to take note of this guy. He ran his guts out in the Florida Derby and just got beat by the horse that closes from another zip code. If the pace is "slow" by Derby standards, he might just be around at the end.
Animal Kingdom: While I know some folks who love this guy, he absolutely hated having the Polytrack kicked in his face during the Vinery Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. How much will he be moaning about Churchill dirt being tossed into his snout? Of course, he won that race at Turfway, and he hasn't run on dirt yet, so those who dismiss him too quickly might be eating crow.
Santiva: The comment that stood out from the panel discussion on Santiva: He still looks like a two-year-old. But I know a few people who are high on him. He just hasn't proven worthy yet.
Soldat: This fellow might be a turf horse, but I cannot count him out. Until his last race, he looked pretty brilliant, and War Front has proven to be a phenomenal sire so far. I don't know that he'll love 1 1/4 miles, but I have a feeling he might show up with better on Derby day.
Nehro: This is without a doubt, the "wise guy" horse for Kentucky Derby 137. He's getting all kinds of love after his impressive performances in the Arkansas and Louisiana Derbies, and perhaps with good reason. He's a Mineshaft colt, and there's nothing wrong with that. He should be coming late. I wouldn't toss him.
Decisive Moment: If Nehro isn't the wise guy, maybe this one is. I hear he's looking great over the Churchill Downs surface, and he has a bold jockey from Louisiana. The question is - will he get cooked in the Derby speed duel? I'd consider him for underneath in the exotics.
I'll leave it at that for now. There are others who might get in, and we still have the post position draw, which is a significant factor in choosing a Derby winner. But we're getting closer, and even though this field might leave something to be desired, you just never know when a horse might step up and make his mark on history. Personally, I can't wait for May 7!