The field for the 140th running of the Kentucky Derby is still not set, with a trio of recent defections opening spots for Uncle Sigh, Vinceremos and Harry's Holiday. Attrition always plays a part in the build-up and more than a handful of three-year-olds remain outside the bubble waiting for a spot to materialize.
Midnight Hawk was removed from consideration Monday and while his absence (or any other longshots that may be withdrawn) figures to have little effect upon the price of the favorite, California Chrome, the recent losses of viable win contenders Cairo Prince and Constitution dealt more of a blow to his price.
Barring a dreadful inside post, California Chrome likely will be in the 2-1 vicinity at post time.
Post positions will be an added element but here is an early look at some strengths (S) and weaknesses (W) for the top 22 Derby contenders (ranked by points).
Strengths -- The fastest three-year-old, the Chromester earned a field-best 106 BRIS Speed rating for his sterling 5 1/4-length win in the Santa Anita Derby and a 102 for a seemingly effortless 7 1/4-length romp in the San Felipe two back. The athletic chestnut puts himself into the race with his natural speed and displays push-button acceleration, with jockey Victor Espinoza waiting until the stretch drive to ask for run in the last two wins. California Chrome put away the Santa Anita Derby field in a matter of a few strides before being wrapped up on. Super impressive so far.
Weaknesses -- This isn't the pedigree of a Kentucky Derby winner, with sire Lucky Pulpit (stakes-winning turf sprinter) inspiring little confidence for 10 furlongs, and California Chrome has had issues with tardy starts, breaking a step slow in the Santa Anita Derby. He probably can't afford any troubles leaving the starting gate in a 20-horse field and wouldn't be the first California sensation to falter at short odds shipping into Churchill Downs.
Vicar's in Trouble
S -- Excelled in the Louisiana Derby, netting a 104 Speed rating while scoring by 3 1/2 lengths, and Vicar's in Trouble has displayed a nice acceleration for home while capturing three of his last four starts. Rates as an improving colt for trainer Mike Maker and jockey Rosie Napravnik and will be forwardly placed in Derby, looking to take the lead into the stretch drive.
W -- Legitimate questions surround his effectiveness at 1 1/4 miles. Bred to be more of a miler, the Louisiana-bred essentially had his way on the lead in all three career wins. Those circumstances appear unlikely given the other speed in the 20-horse field and Vicar's in Trouble faltered when changing tactics in the Risen Star.
Dance with Fate
S -- Possesses the late foot to make his presence felt in the final furlongs if he handles the track at Churchill Downs, earning century-topping BRIS Late Pace ratings in his last two outings, and the top three finishers in last year's Derby were 15th or worse after the opening six furlongs. This year's event could set up similarly. Dance with Fate closed boldly to win the Blue Grass going away last time and will attempt to carry that form forward.
W -- Winless in two previous dirt attempts, Dance with Fate has run faster on synthetics and turf. Trainer Peter Eurton long targeted the Blue Grass on Polytrack and wasn't ready to commit to Churchill Downs immediately after the race, citing the dirt track and three-week turnaround as major concerns. Few will be surprised to see the Derby turn into a failed experiment.
S -- After opening the year with a pair of disappointing efforts at Gulfstream, Wicked Strong's TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial victory stamped him as a major player. He drew off impressively, netting a 103 Speed rating for the 3 1/2-length decision, and figures to receive a better set-up in the Derby. With a favorable pedigree for 10 furlongs, the Jimmy Jerkens-trained colt looms a dangerous closer.
W -- Proven at Belmont and Aqueduct, Wicked Strong needs to prove he can transfer his form outside of New York. He waited until the stretch drive to make serious headway last time, closing dramatically in the final furlong, and the Derby is usually won on the far turn. Must avoid a regression after a huge jump in Speed ratings.
S -- Hard-trying horse merits respect. After easily capturing his first three starts over New York-bred rivals, Samraat displayed grit posting commendable Grade 3 wins in the Withers and Gotham. He didn't experience the best trip stalking the pace in the Wood and Wicked Strong left him withering late in third, but Samraat never quit, battling gamely to overhaul Social Inclusion for second on the wire. Trainer Richard Violette achieved his goal getting to the bottom of the colt and is expecting a jump forward.
W -- Samraat has never earned a triple-digit Speed rating and his ability to thrive at 1 1/4 miles rates as a major concern, with races up to nine furlongs possibly representing his ceiling. He's never been more than two lengths behind at any point of call previously and could get caught chasing a fast pace if he doesn't settle willingly in the early stages.
S -- New kid on the block made his two-turn debut in the Arkansas Derby, exploding from just off the pace to win going away by 4 3/4 lengths, and earned whopping Speed (104) and Late Pace numbers (106). Danza's late kick appears tailor-made for a Derby field loaded with speed and the late-blooming colt is peaking at the right time.
W -- The Arkansas Derby came out of nowhere, with Danza showing little in his 2014 bow and possessing only a 5 1/2-furlong maiden win last July, and the 41-1 outsider received a perfect inside trip after breaking from the rail, with Bayern drifting out to open clear sailing turning for home. Lightly-raced type could be hard-pressed to reproduce that effort while facing more extreme circumstances in a 20-horse Derby field.
S -- Didn't race at two but Hoppertunity figures to be plenty fit after making five starts this season. Well-bred for the 1 1/4-mile distance, the improving colt broke through with a bold win in the Rebel two starts back and his non-threatening second in the Santa Anita Derby last time was simply for conditioning -- three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert will look to tighten the screws on Derby day.
W -- Hoppertunity won't bring the best numbers into the race, managing his first triple-digit Speed rating in the Santa Anita Derby (100), and the grinder must prove that he can quicken readily enough to challenge. He raced close to the pace in both wins, and settled up close as well in the Santa Anita Derby, but the colt figures to employ different tactics from well off the pace.
S -- His ability to finish could prove valuable, especially if the pace collapses like it did last year, and Intense Holiday has come on in his last two outings, gamely posting his first stakes win in the Risen Star before recording a clear second in Louisiana Derby after a rough trip. Todd Pletcher charge has already raced at five different tracks, so shipping to Churchill Downs should be no problem, and he's a late runner to consider.
W -- Quality issues still surround him -- Intense Holiday wasn't a serious factor in his first four graded attempts -- and he didn't leave a favorable impression weaving in and out through the stretch of the Louisiana Derby. Could be viewed as more of a plodder than a legitimate late-running threat.
S -- Speed, speed, speed. Wildcat Red posted strong wins in the Hutcheson and Fountain of Youth before a neck second in the Florida Derby, and he's never been worse than second in seven lifetime starts. Broodmare sire Miner's Mark, a Grade 1 winner at 1 1/4 miles, could potentially balance stamina with a speed-infused top of the pedigree, and the Florida-bred colt is as game as they come.
W -- Wildcat Red caught a speed-favoring track that played to his run style and got away with slow fractions over the same oval in the Florida Derby; it's tough to say he could've reproduced those efforts elsewhere. Easy to envision him being more of a middle-distance specialist in the future, with Saratoga's Grade 1 King's Bishop at seven furlongs a viable target for the talented colt.
We Miss Artie
S -- Surged late to earn his way into the Derby, posting a nose win in the Spiral on Polytrack, and regains the services of Eclipse Award-winning jockey Javier Castellano. His run style could play favorably behind an expected lively pace and We Miss Artie will look to rally in the final stages.
W -- He's been better on turf and synthetics, recording well-beaten efforts in the Fountain of Youth and Breeders' Cup Juvenile on dirt, and didn't run fast capturing the Spiral. We Miss Artie may be done with dirt racing if he doesn't fire in the Derby.
Ride on Curlin
S -- Got up late for second in the Arkansas Derby, ensuring the hard-trying colt a spot in the field, and Ride on Curlin picks up the services of three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel. His Speed ratings are increasing nicely and the bay colt has shown that he can overcome adversity, an admirable trait in a 20-horse field. He figures to be saving ground from the inside in midpack and owns a solid late kick.
W -- His only two wins came sprinting (earning his career-best Speed rating when setting a 5 1/2-furlong track record at Ellis Park) and grinder type can be labeled more of an exotics contender than a win threat, placing in all six graded attempts while never seriously threatening to prevail. His propensity to find trouble is also worrisome.
S -- Drew off superbly in the stretch of the Sunland Derby, earning a commendable 103 Speed rating for the 2 1/4-length decision, and Chitu has never run a bad race, sustaining his only career setback in four starts with a half-length second in the Robert Lewis. Owns good tactical speed and will look to get in the clear and settle into a comfortable position close to the pace.
W -- A.P. Indy provides stamina on the dam side, but tough to envision a son of Henny Hughes winning the Kentucky Derby. He's also very lightly-raced, with Animal Kingdom being the only other Derby winner in modern times with only four previous starts, and Chitu has faced little adversity racing on the front end in previous outings.
S -- Churchill Downs stakes winner ran well in his first two starts this year at Oaklawn, posting a convincing win in the Southwest before a troubled second in the Rebel, and he's a candidate to rebound following a subpar fourth in the Arkansas Derby. Tapiture figures to be stalking in midpack and is eligible to get first run on the deep closers -- he's the type that could be in the mix turning for home.
W -- By leading sire Tapit, Tapiture receives little help from his dam side for the 1 1/4-mile distance. His regression in the Arkansas Derby -- the first start at 1 1/8 miles -- is disconcerting given the distance issues surrounding the colt and he's never earned a triple-digit Speed rating. Legitimate questions surrounding his chances.
S -- Tampa Bay Derby winner is a gelded son of Tapit from a stamina-filled female family. Ring Weekend proved a little rank when trying to rate in the Calder Derby last time, but the Graham Motion trainee settled nicely off the pace when breaking his maiden and has finished in the money in six straight starts since making his career debut.
W -- Seized the early initiative, opening a clear lead rounding the first turn of the Tampa Bay Derby, and stole the race on the front end at 14-1. Ring Weekend was drilled last time in a soft non-points race, finishing 9 3/4 lengths back as the 1-5 favorite, and his past performances provide little hope that he can compete against this level of horses.
General a Rod
S -- General a Rod came up a little short when utilizing stalking tactics in the Florida Derby, finishing 1 1/2 lengths back in third, but the race served its purpose as an educational experience. The Mike Maker-trained colt will attempt to rally from just off the pace with Joel Rosario, last year's Derby-winning jockey, and the presence of dam sire Dynaformer (sire of Barbaro) is encouraging. Honest performer has never run a bad race in five career starts and brings plenty of moxie to the equation if he handles the distance.
W -- Despite the female side of his family, General a Rod is a speedy type with concerns at 10 furlongs. He dueled from the start of the Gulfstream Park Derby and Fountain of Youth, battling throughout with another speedball (Wildcat Red) over surfaces that favored them, and his only wins have come around one turn. He could get caught chasing the pace if he doesn't settle.
S -- He's recently developed into a quality three-year-old for Dale Romans. A non-threatening fifth in the Fountain of Youth, Medal Count rebounded from that disappointment with an eye-catching win in the Transylvania on Keeneland's Polytrack and exits a good second in the Blue Grass. The Dynaformer colt broke his maiden on dirt and is based at Churchill Downs, so he's a candidate to make the transition from synthetics, and packs a big late kick. Rates as an intriguing closer.
W -- Medal Count opened the year with a dead-heat win on turf and preference so far for turf/synthetics is no surprise given the influences in his pedigree. He's got a lot to prove on dirt against a higher caliber of competition than he faced at Keeneland and the lack of a triple-digit Speed rating (career-best 97) does not flatter his chances.
S -- Opened the year on a strong note, posting a comfortable victory in the Robert Lewis, but Candy Boy did not fire following a two-month freshening in the Santa Anita Derby, chasing the early pace before weakening in the stretch drive. That effort served as a useful tightener and the colt figures to enjoy a better trip at Churchill Downs, rating off an expected hot and contested pace. Three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens believes he can make an impact in the final furlongs.
W -- His breeding is suspect for the 1 1/4-mile trip and trainer John Sadler fared poorly in his last Derby attempt, sending out Santa Anita Derby winner Sidney's Candy and Arkansas Derby victor Line of David to finish 17th and 18th, respectively, in 2010. Candy Boy's numbers are also light, with a career-best 97 Speed.
S -- Will look to rebound in the Derby after losing all chance at the start of the Wood, breaking a step slowly. He performed admirably in two previous attempts, finishing a close second to Samraat in Gotham and Withers despite a seasoning disadvantage, and Uncle Sigh could have more to offer moving forward. Indian Charlie colt does his best running on the front end but appears to receive some stamina from classic-winning dam sire Pine Bluff.
W -- Like so many in the Derby field, he must find a way to carve out a reasonable trip up close during the early stages and Uncle Sigh will probably look to show a lot more speed after breaking slowly last time. His ability to navigate 10 furlongs is in question -- it's easy to classify him as one who is probably best-suited for less ground.
S -- Vinceremos shipped to Tampa Bay Downs off a maiden special weight win and recorded a gutsy victory in the Sam F. Davis. Runner-up in the Tampa Bay Derby next out, he didn't handle the Polytrack in the Blue Grass and will attempt to show more back on the dirt at Churchill Downs.
W -- Didn't run fast in his Tampa races and Vinceremos' career-best BRIS Speed rating (93) probably won't get it done.
S -- Churchill maiden winner captured a minor stakes sprinting on Turfway's Polytrack before posting a third in the John Battaglia Memorial and a nose second in the Spiral. Faltered in the Blue Grass, but trainer Mike Maker is optimistic that he can turn things around in the Derby.
W -- His ability in dirt routes can be doubted and Harry's Holiday will bring a pedestrian set of Speed ratings into the race, earning a career-best 93 in a slowly run Spiral.
S -- Currently 21st on the points list, Commanding Curve will offer some appeal if he makes the field. A Churchill Downs maiden winner in his juvenile finale, he made his 2014 debut and first start against winners in the February 22 Risen Star, offering a decent middle move before flattening out. Figured to move forward in the Louisiana Derby but wound up being slammed at the start by a rival breaking inward, retreating to last early. Passed most of the field on the far turn and stretch for third and the late runner could continue to show more for Dallas Stewart, who recorded a second at 34-1 last year with the deep-closing Golden Soul.
W -- The inexperienced ridgling is only a maiden winner and could be forced to navigate traffic while trying to make his presence felt from the back of the field. Commanding Curve wasn't a serious factor in both starts this year (finishing five lengths back of the winner last time) and the question remains whether he's good enough to challenge in the Derby.
Pablo del Monte
S -- Pablo del Monte exits his best effort of the year, finishing third in the Blue Grass, and figures to show speed if he makes the Derby field.
W -- Both wins have come sprinting on Polytrack and he wasn't a serious factor in his first two dirt starts this year, finishing fourth in the Gulfstream Park Derby and third in the Hutcheson, both one-turn races. And with his speedy female family, Pablo del Monte could find the 1 1/4-mile trip too taxing.