This year’s Derby – can anyone win this thing?

| April 27, 2011

We’re 10 days out from the 137th Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands as these words flow from brain to fingertips, and the shrinking countdown to the first Saturday in May compels me to offer a confession.

I have not a single clue who might win this thing.

Sure, there are plenty of clues out there and I have been impressed in some fashion by several horses, but no horse, to this point, has truly inspired me.  Not a single one has jumped up and screamed “I’m your boy!”

Given my abysmal record for picking Derby winners, one might suggest that I’m not listening closely enough when those horses actually do speak to me.  But this year, my “This could be the one” indicator is still sitting on zero.

It’s been said of passionate bettors and racing fans that they are “frequently wrong – but never in doubt.”  That’s usually me at Kentucky Derby time, but not this year.

So we’ll see what the next week brings.

I think there are several horses that could win this year’s Run for the Roses, but I cannot come up with enough compelling reasons to believe that any individual will be the one to get the job done on Derby Day.

That’s not really frustrating to me.  Actually, it’s marvelous fun.  It makes the processes of analyzing the most overanalyzed two minutes of any year even more fascinating.  Every gallop and workout is assessed like a championship chess move.

It’s unlikely that the picture will be clear until the last few strides before the finish line after the run through the 1,234 1/2 feet of homestretch at historic Churchill Downs.

But it might not clear even then.

With just over a week to go, here’s a look at the horses that appear to be the most likely winners, those who are major question marks and those who could be outsiders with the opportunity to do something special.  The Kentucky Derby is sometimes won by the best horse, but almost always by the horse that is the best on that day.  There’s a big difference.

So here we go.

POSSIBLE WINNERS

Dialed In – my consistent top choice through most of the winter and spring for two-time winner Nick Zito – yet one that for some reason I cannot completely embrace.  I wish he had come to Louisville a little earlier from Florida (he arrives Saturday) and his late-running style is fraught with possible peril.

Mucho Macho Man – he has the style to win the race and I believe he will be on the lead at some point in the stretch, but not sure if he wants to go 1 1/4 miles in top company.  The sentimental choice as he is trained by Kathy Ritvo, a heart transplant recipient and mother of two who is bidding to become the first woman to train a Derby winner.  He’s the best story – and the Macho Man has the talent to back it up.

Nehro – This stretch runner has just one win in five races, but his runs in the Arkansas and Louisiana Derbies stamp him as an obvious major player.  But he seems to be the logical “wise guy” pick and it’s unlikely that you’ll get the odds you deserve on a horse that must weave his way through 19 rivals.

Toby’s Corner is going to be the betting value of the race as I believe that most will believe that his Wood Memorial win over Uncle Mo was a fluke.  My belief is that he’s a horse that is moving forward at the right time and could be the “now” horse on Derby Day.  His Wood effort was much better than it looks.

Midnight Interlude – What once looked like a three-horse Derby challenge by Bob Baffert has lost The Factor and Jaycito, and now Baffert’s hopes for a fourth Derby win lie with the least experienced of his horses.  But he might also be Baffert’s best shot as he is improving each day and has the pedigree for the job.

His biggest issue is history: his first start came on Jan. 29 and the last horse to win the Derby without the benefit of a race at two was Apollo in 1882.

Soldat – A forgotten horse after his flameout as the favorite in the Florida Derby, he lurks as one of the most interesting horses in this Kentucky Derby.  His tactical speed makes him a factor from the opening bell, but I believe he’ll rate just behind horses and that his grass-heavy pedigree will actually move him up on a Churchill Downs dirt surface that is very kind to grass horses.  He’s ridden by Alan Garcia, who could be our next superstar jockey.

QUESTION MARKS

Uncle Mo/Stay Thirsty – I always believed Uncle Mo was suspect at the Derby’s mile and a quarter, and his poor run in the Wood and an illness that popped up after the race make me skeptical that he can be ready for his best in the Derby.  He might be one of those star-crossed Derby horses that is ready for his best after a tough Derby run.

As for his stablemate Stay Thirsty, I just don’t think he’s good enough.  But if the Mike Repole-owned, Todd Pletcher trained horses prove me wrong, I’ll be cheering.

HORSES WITH OPPORTUNITY

Master of Hounds – In this most wide-open Derby that I can remember, I’m wondering if this the year a European comes in and takes the roses home.  Aidan O’Brien’s horse should handle the course and the distance – and I’ll be most interested if they’re wise enough to secure Calvin Borel in the saddle.

Decisive Moment – He is this year’s Super Saver.  Every day on the track at Churchill Downs has been a good one.  I’m not sure how good his is, but confident that trainer Juan Arias will get a good effort.  He’s a good trifecta shot at 50-1.

Pants On Fire – He has a good pedigree that suddenly looks great if you dig just a little bit, and I was surprised at just how physically impressive he was when I saw him on the track.  If you’re looking for more “Girl Power,” jockey Rosie Napravnik will be looking to become the first woman to ride a Derby winner.  The name of the horse is not elegant, but it sure will sound better if it’s preceded by the words “Kentucky Derby winner.”

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