Monday, April 14, 2014
California Chrome Notwithstanding, Derby Chaos Reigns
SARATOGA SPRINGS, April 14, 2014—Barring last-minute qualifiers from Saturday’s Lexington Stakes and late injury defections, the field for the 140th Kentucky Derby is all but set. And if there weren’t a modicum of clarity at the top, the Derby field--at least from a handicapping perspective--is in disarray.
California Chrome is a clear cut Derby favorite and solid support can be garnered for Santa Anita Derby runnerup Hopportunity, Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong, and undefeated, albeit lightly raced Florida Derby winner, Constitution. After that, it’s Katy bar the door.
With three weeks remaining, the Derby 140 picture is so muddled that fans might have an easier time making a case for California Chrome to become thoroughbred racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner than for any of his rivals to upset the Derby applecart.
How in the name of sanity are handicappers supposed to evaluate Saturday’s winner in Hot Springs in a Derby context in that not only did Danza’s win come in his second run this season, his fourth lifetime overall and his first start around two turns, but the Grade 1 was his “a other than" win?
In short, what does his victory say for the vanquished?
Ride On Curlin is hickory, honest, and his development has been managed adeptly by trainer William Gowan. With rating tactics, we thought he had an excellent chance to upset the Arkansas Derby and indeed finished up very nicely for the place. But should the top Derby contenders be very afraid?
Formerly undefeated Bayern showed in his third lifetime start that he’d prefer to run freely rather than be rated, at least at this point of his career. But what can anyone expect from such an inexperienced young horse in three weeks time?
Clearly, Strong Mandate has not yet made the transition from 2 to 3. Tapiture, high on everyone’s list going into the Arkansas Derby as the co-favorite, might have run himself out of serious Derby contention with a good, albeit wide, mid-race move that he failed to sustain.
Even back in the day, it was unreasonable to expect anything near a peak performance for any three-race Derby prepster, but the time you least want a letdown is in the final tune-up. And then you had better be going in the right direction at the finish, not retreating slightly as Tapiture did Saturday.
As for the Blue Grass, who knows? When Street Sense prepped on Polytrack prior to his 2007 Kentucky Derby victory, he was a champion at 2 and had a strong Northern Florida campaign that winter. Coming from arrears with a fast finish behind Dominican in slow time was just what he needed.
Dance With Fate was an impressive Blue Grass winner, giving him two wins on synthetics, one on turf, and was second in the G1 FrontRunner on Santa Anita dirt at 2. The last Blue Grass winner to repeat in the Derby was Strike the Gold 23 years ago but Dance With Fate is peaking right on schedule.**
It should be noted that Blue Grass runnerup Medal Count, who broke maiden going a mile in his racing debut at Ellis Park last year, trained well at his Churchill Downs base but never has run for money there. His pedigree certainly is long enough and lack of conditioning won't be a concern.
Can’t imagine what Lexington Stakes last-gaspers have in store for the Derby faithful, but this certainly looks like a year when adaptability and good training over the Churchill Downs strip could pay off handsomely in the storied mile-and-a-quarter-without-any-water.
HRI Derby Power 10 Consensus, Week 8 (reflects two dead-heats):
1. California Chrome—32
3. Wicked Strong—22
5. Wildcat Red—15
6. Vicar's In Trouble--11
7. Intense Holiday—10
8-tie General A Rod—7
11-tie Candy Boy--5
**Subsequent to posting, connections of Dance With Fate announced they will skip the Derby in favor of giving their horse more time between starts