I had a great time at the track on Oaks day, but as far as the handicapping and wagering was concerned, I honestly didn’t find very many races that I felt all that strongly about. A couple of the horses that I touted did run fairly well–—Undrafted may have been best in the Turf Sprint and Fiftyshadesofgold was a game winner of the Eight Belles—but both were underlays and I ended up not really capitalizing on either opportunity. Kentucky Derby day presents the opposite situation as I see plenty of intriguing races and more than a handful of horses that I’m looking forward to playing with enthusiasm.
In the interest of popular demand, I’ll start with the main event:
Race 11: The Kentucky Derby (G1) at 1 1/4 miles for three year-olds
California Chrome (#5) has been the subject of a great deal of discussion and debate during the four weeks since the Santa Anita Derby. I’ve read that some are of the opinion that he can’t possibly be beaten while others apparently believe that he’ll fall apart if he encounters a single straw in his path. My personal take on this horse falls somewhere in between those two extremes. Yes, he got a perfect trip in the Santa Anita Derby, but he also made that perfect trip for himself. He wasn’t on the lead because he simply doesn’t need to be and he didn’t take back off the pace because there was no reason to do so. He showed in the San Felipe that he can set blazing fractions and still finish, while in the California Cup Derby he displayed the ability to settle a couple of lengths off the pace before drawing off in typically impressive fashion. In the Kentucky Derby, he should be able to take up a position about two to three lengths off the leaders as Victor Espinoza gradually tries to work his way towards the outside.
The only problem is that there are about ten other horses in this race who are looking to get the exact same trip. However, most of those do not possess California Chrome’s turn of foot and I expect Victor Espinoza to try and break the race open at around the three-eighths pole as long as he’s in position to do so by that point. Whether he’s special enough to continue to draw away or possesses the stamina to hold off the closers remains to be seen. He’s going to be favored and you never want to settle for betting favorites in the Kentucky Derby, but I cannot deny that he is the most likely winner.
I have no major knocks against likely second choice Wicked Strong (#20). His Wood Memorial was both fast and visually impressive as he drew away with powerful strides through the final furlong. His running style and pedigree indicate that a mile and a quarter should not pose a problem so the only possible concern is the trip. There is this perception that it’s always preferable to support closers in the Derby, but I think people forget that not every Kentucky Derby features a total pace collapse. Among the deep closers in each Kentucky Derby, there are often two tough luck stories for every fortunate trip. It’s certainly no easy task to work your way past twelve to fifteen tiring runners and come away unscathed. The far outside post position should give Rajiv Maragh some options as to where to drop in, but the fact still remains that Wicked Strong will probably have no more than three or four horses behind him in the early going. I believe he’s good enough to win, but I’m not among the camp that thinks he’s assured of getting a significantly better trip than California Chrome and some of the other pace-pressing contenders.
I’m against most of the horses exiting the major prep races at the Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, and Gulfstream this year since I believe the horses that contested the Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby are a stronger group overall. I have major doubts about Florida runners Wildcat Red and General A Rod getting the distance, though I do respect their ability. The Oaklawn three year-olds appeared to be a stronger group a couple of months ago, but I did not like the efforts of Tapiture and Ride on Curlin in the Arkansas Derby. Danza won that day in fast time with a perfect trip, but he has attracted a lot of attention this week and feels like an underlay. I won’t be shocked if he wins, but I’d want at least 10-1 odds to consider using him. Vicar’s in Trouble is not bred to get this distance and has a tough task ahead of him from the inside post position. Intense Holiday is another buzz horse who people seem to be gravitating towards just because he’s a closer. He was undoubtedly a cut below the best three year-olds early in the season and I see no evidence that anything has changed since then. I think you’re making a mistake if you’re backing him at odds of less than 15-1.
Finally, synthetic specialists Dance With Fate and Medal Count have never run well enough on dirt for me to seriously consider using them.
That basically leaves me with three horses: Candy Boy, Samraat, and Uncle Sigh. Candy Boy is a bit of an enigma. He ran an exceptional race when he finished second to Shared Belief in the CashCall Futurity and there was nothing wrong with his Robert Lewis victory. However, I can’t get past his poor effort in the Santa Anita Derby. I realize that his connections keep saying that he was too close to the pace that day, but I’m having trouble buying that as a legitimate excuse. He had no punch at all in the stretch and barely out-finished an over-matched maiden for third.
Samraat (#6) intrigues me as a value play. He should go off at odds somewhere between 10-1 and 15-1 and I feel he would present good value at such a price. He’s simply done very little wrong in his career and has a grinding style that could fit the race flow as long as Jose Ortiz can work out a trip. While has learned to successfully rate behind horses, he still shows a bit of greenness in the stretch and has shown a tendency to cock his head to the side or lug in. He also failed to change leads until very late in the Wood Memorial and such an error could prove costly in the Derby. I strongly considered making Samraat my top selection due to the value he will present, but I ultimately have decided to go with his New York-bred rival, who should be an even larger price and proved over the winter that he’s just as good as the Withers/Gotham winner.
UNCLE SIGH (#3) is my pick in this year’s Derby—and I don’t feel that I’m just taking a stab with a long shot. I’ve actually found quite a bit to like about this horse.
Uncle Sigh is dirtied up after his disastrous Wood Memorial and many fans abandoned ship after that race. However, I don’t think his effort was nearly as bad as it might have appeared at first glance. Breaking slowly and sustaining a wide trip are never recipes for success, but Uncle Sigh actually overcame both of those obstacles to run a decent race. The Trakus data indicates that he ran 49 feet farther than Wicked Strong, which means that even though he lost by eight lengths, he actually only ran about three lengths slower than the winner. It’s also worth noting that he was the only horse in the race aside from Wicked Strong to record a final eighth of a mile in under 13 seconds, which means he was actually doing some running in the stretch.
That brings me to my second major reason for liking Uncle Sigh: his pedigree. His dam, Cradlesong, is perhaps the strongest female stamina influence of any dam represented in this race. She is by Preakness winner Pine Bluff out of a daughter of A. P. Indy and she has produced a couple of stakes-winning routers, the best of which is Percussion. New York racing fans are familiar with this horse, who has won a stakes race at 9 furlongs and finished second in the mile and a half Brooklyn Handicap (G2) last year. Cradlesong is a half-sister to High Cotton, a three-time stakes winner at a mile and a sixteenth who also finished second in the 9-furlong Ohio Derby (G2). Another sibling, Symphony Sid, won the Carlton F. Burke (G3) going 12 furlongs on the turf at Santa Anita. Delving one generation deeper, Cradlesong’s dam is a half-sister to Two Year-Old Filly Champion Storm Song, whose best foal was Balladry, a runner that placed in stakes at both 11 and 12 furlongs.
Uncle Sigh comes into the Derby with two significant additions: Gary Contessa is putting blinkers on for the first time and will also give a leg up to new rider Ortiz, Jr. Contessa has said that the blinkers are intended to make Uncle Sigh more willing to run through tight spots rather than sharpen his speed, so I’m hoping that the plan is to take him back off of what should be a contested pace up front. Irad Ortiz is not known for his early aggression and is actually quite adept at getting horses to relax off the pace. If Ortiz can coax Uncle Sigh into rating kindly about three to four from the front, he might just possess enough stamina and guts to move into contention and grind out a victory. I would peg fair odds on this horse at around 12-1 and it’s looking like I might get nearly double that price, which makes Uncle Sigh a fantastic wagering opportunity in a very competitive race.
I’ll be betting Uncle Sigh to win, but will also use him with large doses of California Chrome, Wicked Strong, and Samraat in exotics and multi-race wagers. Good luck!
$20 Win 3
$4 Exacta Box 3,5,6,20
Race 2: Optional Claiming $75,000/N1X at 1 1/16 miles for three year-olds
DEMANDER (#5) took a huge step forward in his second career start and signaled that he may be a horse some real ability. He didn’t have to like Polytrack last time since his pedigree is all dirt as a half-brother to Neck n’ Neck.
$15 Win 5
Race 3: Maiden Special Weight at six furlongs
MASOCHISTIC (#1) was ridden very conservatively in his debut—almost curiously so. It was as if the connections had instructed the rider to just give him a race and not really try to win first time out. His recent works are strong and I expect him to show a lot more speed today. This one looks well meant.
$15 Win 1 (WINNER; Payout: $46.50)
Race 6: The Distaff Turf Mile (G2) at one mile for fillies and mares
Im not quite convinced that Centre Court is still as good as she once was, and after you get past her, this is a pretty wide open race. I’m taking a shot with READY SIGNAL (#7), who I’ve always thought had some ability. She’s really come to hand this winter at Gulfstream and if you haven’t seen the replay of her last race, I suggest you check it out. She’s not going to get much pace to run into, but if she shows the same turn of foot that she showed last time she’ll be tough to hold off.
$10 Win 7
Race 7: The Humana Distaff (G1) at seven furlongs for fillies and mares
I have no interest in playing against MIDNIGHT LUCKY (#8), who was superb as a three year-old and is probably just the best horse in this race. Judy the Beauty (#3) may not be quite as good on dirt as she is on synthetic surfaces, but she is in the best form of her life right now so I can’t toss her from consideration. I’m playing this race because I’m interested in trying to get STREET GIRL (#1) to sneak into the exacta or trifecta behind these two. She received a positive trainer switch to Eddie Kenneally two back, but hasn’t been in the right spots since then. He ran some very good races as a three year-old and could be picking up the pieces late here.
$5 Exacta 8-1 (WINNER; Payout: $270.50)
$5 Trifecta 8 with 1,3 with 1,3
Race 8: The American Turf (G2) at 1 1/16 miles on the turf for three year-olds
I’m mildly against Storming Inti, who has gotten very favorably setups in his turf races, and I want to see Picozza and Woodfield Springs duplicate their Transylvania efforts on the turf before backing them in a spot like this. That leaves me with CHIEF BARKER (#2), who showed quality in Europe when beating the excellent Chriselliam, and QUOTIENT (#3), who still may have room to improve after failing to change leads in the stretch last time.
$5 Exacta Box 2,3
Race 9: The Churchill Downs Stakes (G2) at seven furlongs
CLEARLY NOW (#2) had a nightmare of a trip in the Carter and looks like the value in this race. I’ll bet him to win and will box him in the exacta with the classy SAHARA SKY (#4).
$15 Win 2
$10 Exacta Box 2,4
Race 10: The Woodford Reserve Turf Classic (G1) at 1 1/8 miles on the turf
WISE DAN (#1) is clearly the horse to beat, but I’m going to take a small shot against him with BRIGHT THOUGHT (#2), who has been freakishly good at times and might now be rounding back into form. He’s a threat to wire the field.