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2014 Kentucky Derby Contenders: Clear as mud

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California Chrome is your 2014 Kentucky Derby favorite. The rest of the field? We're still trying to separate out the contenders from the pretenders.

Matthew Stockman

Ideally, the final prep races on the road to the Kentucky Derby provide clarity on the status and class of the contenders. And then sometimes we are left with the carnage that occurred yesterday at Keeneland and Oaklawn Park where the winners of the final two major preps did little to clear the fog on the majority of this year's contenders for the Kentucky Derby.

The top of the points standings, and clearly the most consistent and dominating horse of the crop at this point, is held by California Chrome. He's your Derby favorite and really the only colt to put forth one of those eye-popping races that make us say to ourselves, "There's your Derby favorite."

The Current Standings

California Chrome is at the top, while Medal Count sits on spot #20 for a spot in the starting gate, but you can probably move everyone up a place as Asmar (IRE), the runner-up in the UAE Derby, is not nominate to the Triple Crown (unless he was supplemented late and I missed it). Taking Asmar off the list leaves Candy Boy in the #20 spot with Albano, Cairo Prince, and Uncle Sigh in a three-way tie for the two AE slots. UAE Derby winner Toast of New York will also bypass the Derby, which leaves Candy Boy at #19, and Cairo Prince as #20; Cairo Prince owns the tiebreaker over Uncle Sigh. Albano is out of the Derby.

Graham Motion hasn't made a decision on whether Tampa Bay Derby winner Ring Weekend will start in the Derby. His defection would pave the way for Uncle Sigh or Bayern to slide into the Top 20.

Next Saturday's Lexington is a 10-4-2-1 race and could only help horses like the aforementioned Albano, Cairo Prince, and Uncle Sigh solidify a spot at Churchill Downs. Most of the rest of the non-qualifiers need more than 10 points to safely secure a Top 20 spot. The horses within 10 points of Cairo Prince right now are:

Uncle Sigh (tied), Bayern (4 pts back), Commanding Curve (4), Harry's Holiday (4), In Trouble (4), Pablo Del Monte (4), Social Inclusion (4), Vinceremos (4), Strong Mandate (8), Big Bazniga (10), and Kristo (10).

Many of those colts ran this last weekend or just a week ago, so the likelihood of them running in the Lexington is slim to none.

What's that all mean? Our 2014 Kentucky Derby field is pretty much set with only the typical dropouts left to significantly alter the field.

Arkansas Derby Results

With post time odds of 41/1, Danza essentially attracted the interests of about 2.3% of the win pool in yesterday's Arkansas Derby. Nobody liked this horse. I digress; I'm sure there's a player running around somewhere telling the world how he loved this horse and it was his number one play yesterday. But for the overwhelming majority of the horse betting population, not only did we not have Danza but we barely considered him a legitimate threat to win the race. More to the point, the results of the Arkansas Derby says less about Danza and more about the quality of this year's crop of three-year-old colts.

Tapiture: Of all the colts in the Arkansas Derby, I think Tapiture's performance was the most disappointing. On paper the race probably won't look that bad. But on tape, this colt looked like he was about to make a winning move on the turn until he flattened out badly and couldn't even get himself into the top three. It was an absolutely dismal performance (in my view) from a colt that looked fantastic winning the Southwest and backed that up with a good performance in the Rebel.

Strong Mandate: I'm really glad Strong Mandate's 3rd place in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile didn't allow this colt to get a big head-start on the way to the Derby because he's done nothing deserve a spot in the Derby, with yesterday's last place finish at Oaklawn punctuating a winless spring. As I pointed out a few weeks ago, under the old rules D. Wayne Lukas and Strong Mandate's connections would be booking hotel rooms in Louisville. Under the points systems this colt is nowhere near the cutoff point. And really, Strong Mandate doesn't deserve to be in the Derby field; he hasn't won a race since the 7f G1-Hopeful back on September 2nd and he just finished last in his final test before Kentucky.

Bayern: Given his inexperience and the fact that he had to take some time off for minor injuries, I thought Bayern's third place finish was pretty solid. His performance is also a reminder at how hard it is for a horse to jump up from the allowance ranks to top-level graded stakes competition, no matter how sterling their performance may look against lesser competition. Bayern won't make the Derby unless a handful of horses drop out and, really, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. He looks like a colt that has a good deal of talent but probably needs a bit more time to develop.

Ride On Curlin: With the exception of his Southwest Stakes run where he got caught very wide at times (but still managed to finish third), Ride On Curlin has put himself into the mix in every start this spring. He's not flashy by any means, but he's run well under a variety of circumstances and pace scenarios. He's been up front on the lead, and well back of the pacesetters. He won't "wow" you with a big turn of foot but, a lot like Intense Holiday, he has that grinding style that just keeps running late.

Commissioner: I'm really not sure what to make of this colt after his non-performance at Oaklawn. He's either a clear step below the graded stakes level, or he just hasn't figured out what the hell he's doing on the track (or supposed to do). I didn't like him at all in the Arkansas Derby primarily due to the fact that I felt he should have done much better in the Sunland Derby. Not only did Commissioner ail to duplicate his run at Sunland, he was the very definition of "non-factor" in Arkansas after throwing a bit of a fit prior to the race.

Blue Grass Results

The records on synthetic for the top four finishers in the Blue Grass prior to yesterday:

Dance With Fate: 4-1-2-0
Medal Count: 2-1-0-0 (Win @KEE)
Pablo Del Monte: 2-2-0-0 (Two wins @KEE)
Big Bazinga: 3-1-1-0

Bottom four finishers:

Extrasexyhippzster: 0-0-0-0
Bobby's Kitten: 0-0-0-0
Harry's Holiday: 3-1-0-0
Vinceremos: 0-0-0-0

I cast my lot with Medal Count in this spot which got me little to nothing

The Blue Grass on the Poly is a difficult race to find the winner (as evidenced by the big payouts in the race the last several years). On the other hand, horses that have run well over synthetics in the past sure seems to do well over synthetics in the future. And, really, the crowd didn't do a bad job with the odds in this race; the odds were evenly spread out across the field which is exactly correct since there wasn't a true standout in the field. If Bobby's Kitten wasn't a Ramsey/Kitten's Joy, he probably doesn't take as much action as he did. The top two finishers, Dance With Fate and Medal Count, were the 3rd and 4th choices on the board, so it's not like they were ignored by the crowd.

The difficultly with handicapping the Blue Grass on Poly isn't so much trying to figure out which horses will like the surface and which won't; we have plenty of data and results to at least have a decent clue about horses that will take to the Polytrack. The real difficulty lies in the fact that this is a big, very evenly matched field of runners year after year. Going through the PPs it's hard to really eliminate anyone which leaves us with a field of thirteen or fourteen horses and very few throw outs.

The Blue Grass will be back on dirt next year so, at a minimum, we can get rid of the incessant complaining about how hard it is to handicap this race from the national pundits.

As for the chances of the top two in the Derby:

Dance With Fate ran a good second to Bond Holder in the Front Runner last September, so we know he can run on dirt. But, much like the horse he was runner-up to in the El Camino Real Derby, Dance With Fate looks like a horse that's versatile enough to run and win over multiple surfaces but is clearly better on synthetics. (And trainer Peter Eurton expressed those same thoughts after the race. [H/T Paulick Report]) His Derby week works at Churchill should provide us a better view as to his chances at Churchill, if the connections decide to run him in three weeks.

Medal Count has run twice on dirt and flopped both times. He was 11th, seventeen lengths back in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and then finished 5th, over nine lengths back of Wildcat Red in the Fountain of Youth. I suppose there could be excuses for both of those efforts, but his record is his record, and his record on dirt isn't good and is a step below his form on synthetics.

Three weeks 'til Louisville

So what's California Chrome going to go off at in the Derby? 5/2? 2/1? Lower? Higher?

While there is a lot of debate at what to make of horses sitting in spots two through 23 on the current Kentucky Derby standings, the horse at the top fits the bill of a deserving favorite. And what an unlikely favorite he is considering where he came from over the past year; California Chrome has run six times against Calbred competition with just a run in the G1-Del Mar Futurity and the Proctor Memorial his only tries versus non-Calbreds until early March, which is right after he decided to start destroying every field he faced over the course of a five month span. And, perhaps more importantly, he's gotten better as he stretched out in distance.

California Chrome gives me a little of a Smarty Jones-vibe in terms of him outrunning his pedigree; on paper, I'd expect California Chrome to max out at right around a mile. But he's had enough left in the tank to demolish his competition at both a mile and a sixteenth and a mile and a eighth that you wonder how much further he can carry his speed. In his current form, if he's able to relax in the early stages (even if he's in touch with a quick pace) a mile and a quarter seems well within his reach.