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2014 Kentucky Derby: Thoughts on the contenders at the end of March

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Five weeks from the Derby - is the picture any clearer? Or is it clear as mud?

Cairo Prince's light racing schedule this spring leaves him squarely on the Kentucky Derby bubble.
Cairo Prince's light racing schedule this spring leaves him squarely on the Kentucky Derby bubble.
Matthew Stockman

Another weekend, another week closer to the 2014 Kentucky Derby. With the Florida and Louisiana Derbies in the books, all that's left is the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, San Anita Derby, and Arkansas Derby, along with the Lexington (which awards only a fifth of the points of the major preps). While we're no where close to a completely set field for this year's Run for the Roses, the picture is just a bit clearer after Saturday's results.

Here are a few thoughts on the current state of this year's potential field for the Kentucky Derby:

Cairo Prince is squarely on the bubble

Actually, his position might be worse as Cairo Prince is tied for 16th with a lot of horses below scheduled to race the next couple of weeks. Any horse with a current minimum of 10 points, which places third or better in the SA Derby, Wood, Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass, would jump Cairo Prince. Any horse that has zero to 20 points and finishes second or better in any of those races will also bump him out the top 20.

If there's one thing the new points system has accomplished it is this: horses have to run consistently to get into the Derby field. The days of winning a single decent purse and then picking your spots the rest of the way are over as long as this format stays around. Under the old system, Cairo Prince's $500k of graded earnings would have him as a lock right to make the Derby field. Today? Not so much.

Old vs. New

Speaking of the old system, if graded stakes earnings were still the deciding factor for a Derby start, here are the horses currently outside the Top 20 that would be inside, and where they'd rank under the old system:

26 - Rise Up (2)
24 - Tamarando (9)
25 - Strong Mandate (10)
27 - Giovanii Boldini (15)
37 - Casiguapo (17)
28 - Candy Boy (18)

On the other hand, here are the horses currently in the Top 20 that would be outside of that barrier under the old rules (current position listed first, then old rank):

15 - Albano (21)
18 - Vinceremos (22)
12 - California Chrome (24)
19 - Harry's Holiday (27)
17 - Uncle Sigh (28)
20 - Commanding Curve (31)

Biggest winner under the new points system (at least so far in 2014)? California Chrome; his 50 points makes him a virtual lock while under the old rules he'd need additional graded earnings to jump securely into the field.

Biggest loser? No contest - it's Rise Up. Under the old rules winning the slot-infused Delta Jackpot purse guaranteed a spot in the Derby. Now? It's not even close.

I don't feel too bad about Rise Up, though; he was awful in the Louisiana Derby when he broke poorly, made a huge move on the backstretch to get into a stalking position, and then just quit and faded to last. If you're finishing last in your final Derby prep, you don't belong at Churchill Downs.

The other "losers" under the new system are any colts that run well in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile*, like Strong Mandate. Despite the fact that he hasn't won a race during 2014, he'd be squarely in the Derby field under the old rules on the strength of his third place finish in the Juvenile.

*Assuming they are still in training, which, you racing.

When I first ran this list I immediately said to myself, "Casiguapo? What the...?" [looks at PPs] "Oh, that's right; runner-up in the Delta Jackpot."

I suppose that's a simple way to look at the major impacts of the change from a earning-based system to a points-based system (and it's certainly nothing new and something we've discussed that last couple of years):

Success as a juvenile, especially in races with big purses but not necessarily fields with an abundance of runners that will develop as three-year-old colts, is almost irrelevant.

The rest of the "ins" and "outs" are all bubble horses that need to perform well in their final Derby prep in order to a secure the place in the gate. And, really, that's not that different than in year's past. At some point, a horse has to run well and, most importantly, run well in multiple starts. And when we look at the current points standings there are some quality horses that are on the bubble (or worse) almost entirely due to the fact that their connections chose a light campaign this spring.

Candy Boy, a colt I really liked earlier this spring after his win in the Lewis, is sitting at a measly 10 points and hasn't run a race since February 8th. The margin for error in the upcoming Santa Anita Derby is essentially nil; a third place finish gets him to 30 points, which may or may not be enough for a trip to Louisville. If Candy Boy had run in the San Felipe and finished, let's say, a well-beaten second to California Chrome, he would be in a much better position.

Toasting Dubai

California and Kentucky may move away from synthetic surfaces, but as long as Meydan runs over Tapeta we’ll have to do some pedigree digging to evaluate winners from the UAE Derby taking a shot in Kentucky. Case in point: Toast of New York.

I won’t be lining up to bet on Toast of New York for a variety of reasons, chief among them his solitary start in 2014, the long trip from Dubai and running in one of the toughest races in the world in only five weeks, and the fact that it’s questionable whether his tactical speed on synthetics will directly transfer to the dirt at Churchill Downs. I’d feel better about his chances if he was a closer, not a horse that wants and needs to run up near the lead.

Tribe posted an excellent analysis of Toast of New York's pedigree, a piece that sheds light on this colt's chances of taking to the dirt. And while there is certainly enough in the bloodlines to suggest dirt won't be a major issue, the concerns outlined above will keep me off of his bandwagon over the following weeks. However, I do appreciate his victory in the UAE Derby; those 13/1 odds put a nice bit of change in my pocket yesterday morning.

131 Years

Apollo won the Kentucky Derby in 1882 without racing as a juvenile. It hasn't happened since.

Perhaps Constitution is the colt to break the Curse of Apollo; I was impressed with his Florida Derby win considering how rank he was in the early stages and his ability to fight through along the rail late in the race. Not a lot of young horses are able to overcome those kinds of obstacles and still prevail over quality competition. On the other hand, there's a reason why the Curse of Apollo survived the last 130+ years: the Derby is the toughest race in America to win (and one of the toughest in the world).

Perhaps Constitution is a super freak with the ability to over come more than a century of failures. Maybe. From what I saw of him in the Florida Derby, I think Constitution is a very good colt that, unfortunately at this point in time, is not a colt I view as leaps and bounds better than his rivals.

More questions than answers

In Trouble's performance at the Fair Grounds didn't do a whole lot to flatter the dynamic New York duo of Samraat and Uncle Sigh.

The fourth and final Official Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool closed yesterday afternoon with The Field as your favorite*. That, to me, is a reflection of the fact that, as of right now, there is a clear lack of a Derby favorite, and not an indication of bettors really liking one of the field horses. There are a bunch of horses that have run some quality race but, overall, not one of these colts has really distinguished himself from his rivals. And unless somebody freaks in one of the last four prep races, we could see one of the more lukewarm Derby favorites in years.

*California Chrome and Cairo Prince were the top individual interests at odds of 9/1. The field closed at 5/1.

From my perspective, part of the lack of a perceived standout colt (or colts) is due to the fact that so many of this year's Derby contenders have produced very similar results from very similar races. If the current pattern holds, we're going to have 20 horses in the Derby gate, 18 of which want to run on or just off of the lead.

I always find the hardest races to handicap are the ones where seemingly every runner in the field wants to do the exact same thing. If you have a race full of speed and a couple of good closers, you've got something to take a hard look at. When you got a field full of speed and essentially nothing coming from off the pace, well, the analysis is a lot tougher. Do we look for the speed of the speed, or simply a horse that is really an off-the-pace runner masquerading as a speed horse due to prior pace and conditions?

The Derby is always a tough race to handicap, but this year's version, at this point in the spring, looks like a bear.