Given the superabundance of detailed information about the contenders in Saturday's Kentucky Derby (G1), it's easy to miss the forest for the trees. So let's try to look at the field in a different way, by categorizing them according to certain broad traits.
Here is one run-down of the classic hopefuls, but by no means the only way to classify them. These are just the common characteristics that struck me first.
DIALED IN (Mineshaft) is trained by Hall of Famer Nick Zito, already a two-time Derby winner courtesy of Strike the Gold (1991) and Go for Gin (1994). Interestingly, Zito invoked Strike the Gold just moments after Dialed In's last-to-first heroics in the Florida Derby (G1).
"I haven't felt this emotional in 20 years since Strike the Gold," Zito said.
MIDNIGHT INTERLUDE (War Chant) might look like a strange addition here. After all, he was unraced at two (thus laboring under the dreaded jinx since Apollo in 1882), and didn't break his maiden until March. The answer is his trainer, Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who has hoisted three Derby trophies. While Midnight Interlude doesn't fit the profile of Baffert's past winners -- the proven battler Silver Charm (1997), or the seasoned Real Quiet (1998), or the front-running beast War Emblem (2002) -- he earned his way in fair and square with a victory in the Santa Anita Derby (G1).
Five-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer Todd Pletcher lost his leading candidate with the withdrawal of last year's two-year-old champion Uncle Mo (Indian Charlie), but has a capable substitute in Gotham (G3) winner STAY THIRSTY (Bernardini). Pletcher noted that Stay Thirsty turned in the best work of his life last Sunday in company with Uncle Mo. After breaking through with his first Derby win one year ago, Pletcher has a live chance to double up.
Knocking on the Door
NEHRO (Mineshaft) fits this description in more ways than one. Aside from his near-misses in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1), he represents connections who appear bound for Derby glory sooner or later. Owner Ahmed Zayat might have felt on the verge of the Roses in 2009 when Pioneerof the Nile cruised up on the far turn, only to see 50-1 shot Mine That Bird bolt up the rail. Last year was even worse. Zayat had the raging favorite Eskendereya, only to see him sustain an injury and never get into the Derby starting gate. Nehro's trainer Steve Asmussen has conditioned Horses of the Year Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, and the two-time Eclipse Award winner will win one of these editions.
Fountain of Youth (G2) hero SOLDAT (War Front) is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, a protege of four-time Derby winner and Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. McLaughlin has himself conditioned Horse of the Year Invasor (Arg), 2006 Belmont S. (G1) winner Jazil and Closing Argument, who narrowly failed to spring a 71-1 shocker in the 2005 Derby.
The Sentimental Rooting Interests
MUCHO MACHO MAN (Macho Uno) has the market cornered on the feel-good story of Derby 137. The gangly June 15 foal is trained by Kathy Ritvo, a heart transplant recipient, who has a legitimate shot at becoming the first woman to condition a Derby winner. Moreover, his regular rider was Eibar Coa, who was seriously injured in a spill at Gulfstream Park on February 18, the day before he was due to partner "Macho" in the Risen Star S. (G2). Rajiv Maragh picked up the mount and guided Macho to a convincing score. In a gracious gesture, the colt's majority owner Dean Reeves presented Coa with the share of the purse he would have received ($18,000). Reeves also lauded Coa as a valued member of the team who had helped teach Macho along the way.
Arkansas Derby winner ARCHARCHARCH (Arch) is a serious contender who also happens to have a great story going for him. The nearly-black colt has a bomb-proof temperament, both by nature and by nurture. "Arch cubed" spent plenty of time behind owner Robert Yagos' salvage yard, on land overflown by massive C-130 cargo planes from an Air Force base, so the Derby pressure-cooker won't be a problem for him. Yagos, who sold a half-share in the colt to his wife Val for $10, has turned down lucrative offers from overseas interests, citing his desire to campaign a Derby horse. He's the first-ever Derby runner for his 70-year-old trainer Jinks Fires, a former rodeo rider, and his son-in-law, 50-year-old jockey Jon Court.
PANTS ON FIRE (Jump Start) will be ridden by the up-and-coming Rosie Napravnik, who hopes to become the first woman jockey to win the Derby. She's already made history as the first female to capture the riding title at the historic New Orleans Fair Grounds this winter. Pants on Fire is also an example of the once-overlooked horse ultimately making good in the end. He was in the shadow of better-fancied stablemates Sweet Ducky, who was later sold abroad, and Nacho Business, whom jockey Joe Bravo chose to ride in the Louisiana Derby. That left the mount open aboard Pants on Fire. Napravnik stepped in to engineer the upset, and forged a partnership that's brought her to the Derby.
U.A.E. Derby (UAE-G2) near-misser MASTER OF HOUNDS (Kingmambo) flaunts the most outrageously aristocratic pedigree in the field, high-class international form, good cruising speed, and a world-renowned trainer in Aidan O'Brien. In fact, the Irish invader could be described as the total package, if it weren't for the ultimate wild card of how he'll handle racing on dirt for the first time. Otherwise, he's good enough to make history as the first European-based Kentucky Derby hero, and just the second foreign-based horse to claim the Roses, following Venezuela's Canonero II in 1971.
Spiral S. (G3) winner ANIMAL KINGDOM (Leroidesanimaux [Brz]) has shaped up like a monster in the making on the synthetic Polytrack. Judging by his sensational work at Churchill last weekend, the powerfully-built chestnut might be at least as sharp on the dirt.
Blue Grass (G1) victor BRILLIANT SPEED (Dynaformer) flopped in his two dirt attempts, but the well-bred colt shouldn't be hastily convicted on that account. Since both efforts came in sprints last summer, his subsequent improvement probably has less to do with switching to turf or Polytrack, and more to do with his needing more distance and strengthening with maturity. He breezed smartly in the slop on Monday.
Dirt Questions Subcategory -- The Derby-Themed Names
Lexington S. (G3) romper DERBY KITTEN (Kitten's Joy) and Blue Grass runner-up TWINSPIRED (Harlan's Holiday) have defied their fate-tempting names by actually making it to Derby 137, but both were beaten out of sight in their lone tries on the dirt.
Derby Kitten's only experience on the surface was a chance occurrence. He simply stayed in a Belmont maiden last fall that was rained off the turf and transferred to the main track. While he faded badly that day, he's finally started to catch onto the game, and is a different animal now. Twinspired's dirt debut was likewise forgettable, a distant eighth in the Springboard Mile at Remington Park in December.
The Speed Brigade
Florida Derby runner-up SHACKLEFORD (Forestry) does his best work when on the engine, and after his sizzling five furlongs in a bullet :58 4/5 last Saturday, he figures to be in the early pace mix. Trainer Dale Romans said that Shackleford reminds him of Paddy O'Prado (El Prado [Ire]), last year's Derby third. They're not similar in running style, but they were coming up to their respective Derbies in similarly eye-catching fashion. Of the three in this category, he's the most likely to stick around for the long haul.
CashCall Futurity (G1) winner COMMA TO THE TOP (Bwana Charlie) has plenty of early zip himself -- so much so that he's got serious stamina concerns, and might be on fumes by the time they reach the quarter-pole. For that very reason, trainer Peter Miller didn't even intend to run in the Derby, and planned to give the gallant gelding a well-deserved break. After he was just caught late in the Santa Anita Derby, his connections had a change of heart, asking Comma to try to provide an exclamation point.
Spiral runner-up DECISIVE MOMENT (With Distinction) has been a pace factor in all eight of his career starts, but often tires in the latter stages. The most interesting factoid about him is his indirect association with the aforementioned Canonero (See Master of Hounds). His trainer Juan Arias has the same name as Canonero's trainer, though he's no relation. Decisive Moment's owner/breeder, Ruben Sierra, is originally from Venezuela, and remembers the excitement created by Canonero's storybook Derby win.
Admittedly, it's unfair and maybe even churlish to classify SANTIVA (Giant's Causeway) in this group, but I'm at a loss about where else to put him. On the plus side, his claim to fame is breaking his maiden in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) at Churchill last fall. On the other hand, that wasn't a vintage renewal. The final time was much inferior to the one posted by Kentucky Oaks (G1) contender Kathmanblu (Bluegrass Cat) in her conquest of the Golden Rod S. (G2) on the same day. Furthermore, before Super Saver came along last year, no Kentucky Jockey Club winner had gone on to win the Derby since Cannonade in 1973/74. Prior to Cannonade, one had to go all the way back to Twenty Grand, who turned the double in 1930/31.
TWICE THE APPEAL (Successful Appeal), who broke his maiden for a $30,000 claiming price, punched his ticket by staying on better than anyone else in the lucrative Sunland Derby (G3). That race turned into a staggering affair in the end, suggesting that even the Derby magic of Calvin Borel might not be enough to carry him here. Ironically, trainer Jeff Bonde's more highly-regarded Derby prospect, Sway Away (Afleet Alex), didn't have sufficient earnings to get into the field because he was running against deeper competition in better prep races! If Bonde could turn the clock back, would he have run Sway Away at Sunland to guarantee him a Derby spot?
WATCH ME GO (West Acre) could also have been put among the sentimental rooting interests, if he'd been good enough to actually have a major chance. Like Ritvo, his trainer Kathleen O'Connell is seeking to become the first woman to train a Derby winner. Watch Me Go earned his Derby berth by upsetting the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) at his winter base at odds of 43-1, but he's got to move forward off a drubbing in the Illinois Derby (G3). Yet he does have something going for him -- a strong work Monday with a gallop-out worthy of the Energizer bunny.