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May 2, 2014

Handicapping the Kentucky Derby field

Herald-Leader staff writer Ben Roberts handicaps the 2014 Kentucky Derby.
1. Vicar's in Trouble Need to know:

He's a tough little horse in a tough little spot: that inside post position, which often means a lot of bumping in the early going. He likes to be on or near the lead, which won't be a great spot in this race because of what should be a fast pace. Finished a well-beaten third in his only effort from off the pace. His Louisiana Derby win looked solid, but it wasn't especially fast (97 Beyer speed figure).

A good bet?

At morning-line odds of 20-1, he could be a good long-shot bet to finish in the money if he doesn't get pushed around from that inside position. He's a gritty competitor.

2. Harry's Holiday Need to know:

He lost a three-horse photo finish to We Miss Artie in Turfway's biggest prep race, then turned in an absolute dud in the Blue Grass Stakes (13th place). His last four races have been on synthetic surfaces and his dirt performances have been unimpressive, but he does have one win on the Churchill dirt. Corey Lanerie, Churchill's leading jockey in four of the past five meets, will ride.

A good bet?

He's one of three horses in the field at 50-1 on the morning line, and he's a worthy candidate to go off at the biggest price. No reason to think he'll be close at the finish.

3. Uncle Sigh Need to know:

A bad break in the Wood Memorial last time out threw him off his game and resulted in a career-worst fifth-place finish. His previous two starts were solid, but Samraat edged him both times in the stretch. He's one of several who likes to be near the lead, and he should do it from the inside post. A nice horse who always fights at the end, but he's probably overmatched in this race.

A good bet?

30-1 isn't bad for a guy who always goes hard in the stretch. Of the long shots in this one, he might be the best bet to hit the board and spice up a trifecta.

4. Danza Need to know:

He came out of nowhere to win the Arkansas Derby by nearly 5 lengths at 41-1 odds. It was a visually impressive victory and earned him a 102 Beyer (only California Chrome and Wicked Strong have done better). It also was a squeaky clean trip, which he's unlikely to get Saturday. The Derby will be only his third race since August and just his second at more than 7 furlongs — both outliers in this field.

A good bet?

Fluke or freak? That's the question with Danza, who never looked like a Derby contender before the Arkansas romp. At 8-1 odds, go with "fluke" and hope he's not for real.

5. California Chrome Need to know:

He has shown more than any other horse in the field, and it's really not even close. His last two races have been the best of the prep season. His Santa Anita Derby romp (108 Beyer) showcased his style: Sit near the front and run away at the top of the stretch. He has never been outside of California, and some question whether he can get the distance. His biggest problem might be getting caught near a hot pace.

A good bet?

He'll be the biggest favorite since Big Brown in 2008, and he deserves it. A decent trip and it should be his race to lose. If he gets caught chasing the leaders? Different story.

6. Samraat Need to know:

He was undefeated in five starts before a second-place finish in the Wood Memorial. He's always fighting at the end, which you like to see. But he's never looked the part of a Kentucky Derby winner. The New York-bred has struggled with lead changes in the past, and his jockey — 20-year-old Jose Ortiz — is making his first start in the big race. His best Beyer is a middle-of-the-pack 98.

A good bet?

He'll be running at the end, and that makes him a solid play in exotics. But his 15-1 morning-line odds aren't enticing for a guy who needs to put it all together at the right time.

7. We Miss Artie Need to know:

He has run his best races on synthetics, including a hard-earned victory in the Spiral Stakes last time out at Turfway Park. His last dirt race? An eighth-place finish, beaten 17 lengths in the Fountain of Youth. Trainer Todd Pletcher questioned whether he should even be in the race, but owner Ken Ramsey wants a Derby victory, and Artie had the points to qualify. So be it.

A good bet?

He might not finish last, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise if he does. He has shown nothing that should make anyone think he has a chance to beat this field on this track.

8. General a Rod Need to know:

He fought with Wildcat Red on the lead in each of his last two races, ending up behind Red both times. He's always in the mix and has never finished more than 2 lengths behind the winner. He's another one who likes to be on or near the lead, and that could be his undoing in this race. His only run from off the pace came in his career debut — at Keeneland — in October. Jockey Joel Rosario won last year.

A good bet?

He'd be an intriguing play at longer odds than his morning line of 15-1. As is, just too many doubts about his running style and staying power against this field.

9. Vinceremos Need to know:

His only race against Kentucky Derby-caliber competition was a last-place clunker in the Blue Grass Stakes, his first run on a synthetic surface. He has been better on dirt (he couldn't be worse) but still hasn't shown anything resembling Derby form. His best Beyer speed figure is a 90, among the lowest in this field. He's one of four horses out of the Todd Pletcher barn this year.

A good bet?

Hard to imagine what he's done to earn that 30-1 designation on the morning line. Should be back with the 50-1 crew. If you got him in the office pool, you'll probably lose.

10. Wildcat Red Need to know:

He's always on the lead or trying to get there, and that seems like a bad idea in this race. But of all the pacesetters — and there are many — this Florida-bred is among the grittiest. Luis Saez is back in the saddle after riding another in the Florida Derby. Saez was on Red for his career-highlight victory in the Fountain of Youth. Last workout was pedestrian, but his trainer seemed unconcerned.

A good bet?

If he can change up his running style just a little, there's a lot to like. But it's more likely he'll be close to the lead, and 15-1 odds aren't good enough to take on that risk.

11. Hoppertunity

One of two horses in the Kentucky Derby field trained by Bob Baffert, Hoppertunity was entered Wednesday as the 6-1 second choice in the morning line but was scratched from the race Thursday morning because of soreness in his left front foot.

"The horse is fine," Baffert said. "It's not like he came up with a career-ending injury."

Jockey Mike Smith said he was disappointed but praised Baffert's caution. "I'd rather lose it this way than have something happen on the racetrack. Bob does right by his horses."

12. Dance With Fate Need to know:

His connections haven't been shy in saying that he's better on non-dirt surfaces. His best race was a come-from-behind win over Keeneland's Polytrack in the Blue Grass Stakes. His trainer isn't a fan of running him off three weeks rest and thought about skipping the Derby, flying Dance With Fate to his home base in California after the Blue Grass before bringing him back to Kentucky.

A good bet?

That closing kick in the Blue Grass is what you want in a Derby contender. It would have been better to see it on dirt. Even at the decent price of 20-1, not much of a fan.

13. Chitu Need to know:

His 102 Beyer in the Sunland Derby is tied for third-highest in the field, and Candy Boy is the only horse who has ever beaten him. But he's yet another who likes to be right on the lead, and he's never been more than a length or so off of it in any of his four starts. He and Danza are the only two here who have never run in a race with 10 or more horses.

A good bet?

If he goes straight to the front, don't expect him to be around at the end. There's little reason to think he won't go straight to the front. 20-1 isn't long enough.

14. Medal Count Need to know:

Dale Romans has talked him up as the best horse he's ever trained, and he's had some good ones. Medal Count went way wide and came home a strong second in the Blue Grass Stakes. He won another race at Keeneland just eight days before that. Not much to like about his last two on dirt, but that closing style will come in handy against the expected hot pace Saturday.

A good bet?

It's hard to ignore Romans' confidence with this 20-1 shot, but it's hard to see him getting the win. Could easily be running well enough in the stretch to hit the board.

15. Tapiture Need to know:

This guy was on his way to being one of the Derby favorites until a head-scratcher in the Arkansas Derby. He went wide, never fired and finished fourth, 7¼ lengths behind Danza. His three previous races were a hard-fought second to Hoppertunity, a romp in Arkansas and an impressive win at Churchill. Ricardo Santana Jr. is back after riding him in those three, but sitting out the Arkansas Derby.

A good bet?

At 12-1, he's still one of the top five favorites in this race. You'd hope for longer odds after the Arkansas dud. If his price improves, he might be worth a closer look.

16. Intense Holiday Need to know:

His workouts at Churchill Downs over the past few days have turned heads, and he's quickly becoming the "wise guy" horse in this field. He has finished strong in the past despite some problems and wide trips. He has shown that he can hang back and close, and that's the type of running style that could win this one. John Velazquez will ride him for the first time Saturday.

A good bet?

He has generated the most buzz of the four Todd Pletcher trainees this week. 8-1 isn't the best price, but he's dangerous if he can finally get a decent trip.

17. Commanding Curve Need to know:

If you're looking for a horse to come from way off the pace, this is your guy. He closed strong for third in the Louisiana Derby and is trained by Dallas Stewart, who finished second at last year's Derby with long shot Golden Soul. Commanding Curve's only victory in six starts came last November at Churchill. Shaun Bridgmohan rode him that day and is back on Saturday for the first time since.

A good bet?

This will probably be the "it" long shot. Given his style and Stewart's second-place finish last year, you're unlikely to get him at 50-1. You probably shouldn't want him anyway.

18. Candy Boy Need to know:

He likes to be near the lead but doesn't necessarily have to be on it, which is good. His best race came in February, when Gary Stevens got him to sit off the pace and then make a big run in the stretch. That's what they need Saturday. The knock? California Chrome beat him fair and square by almost 9 lengths last time out in the Santa Anita Derby. That's a lot of ground to make up.

A good bet?

His best Beyer is a not-so-hot 96, but there's reason to think he can do better. His 15-1 odds might be a little short, but Stevens should have him in position to hit the board.

19. Ride On Curlin Need to know:

He has been in the money in eight of nine starts (the other was a fourth-place finish) and he has run at just about every distance. He closed strong at the end of the Arkansas Derby, but finished nearly 5 lengths behind Danza. Calvin Borel — winner of three Kentucky Derbys — will ride him for the sixth time. He's a grinder who could come from the back and be picking off horses in the stretch.

A good bet?

Borel could very well shorten his 15-1 odds, but we all know what Calvin does on Derby Day. If he can shoot to the rail at the start and find an opening late, look out.

20. Wicked Strong Need to know:

Many of those trying to beat California Chrome will turn to him. His 104 Beyer in the Wood Memorial is the next best in the field. His closing run in that race was strong, but not exactly smooth. The pace should set up for him, and the 1¼ miles shouldn't be a problem. But that far outside post isn't ideal, and it puts him close to that huge Derby crowd. He has a reputation for getting antsy around the starting gate.

A good bet? He could be a great one or he could get lost in the shuffle, as he did in his two starts before the Wood. The 6-1 price seems short for the questions and a field this big.

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