The greatest two minutes in sports. The build-up for the Kentucky Derby is finally over and the horses will line up in the Churchill Downs’ starting gate at 6:24 p.m. (ET) on Saturday.
NBC will provide live coverage of the festivities from 4-7 p.m.
The Kentucky Derby represents an extreme test for three-year-olds, with participants asked to negotiate 1 ¼ miles for the first time in a bulky 20-horse field, and distance and/or traffic woes can undermine even the most logical win contenders.
For California Chrome, the 5-2 favorite on the morning line, post position was critical. He needed to avoid getting stuck in one of the inside posts (Nos. 1-3) and came away nicely from the post draw in gate 5.
His detractors will point to distance and trip, questioning his effectiveness over 10 furlongs and ability to settle into comfortable spot given the other speed in the field, but I’m looking past any possible concerns.
California Chrome is my pick to win Kentucky Derby 140.
California Chrome will look to establish favorable positioning on or close to the early lead. After dropping four of his first six starts, the chestnut colt started to blossom over the winter for trainer Art Sherman, reeling off four straight wins in convincing fashion, and he easily brings the best form into the Derby.
He made his last start in the strongest prep race, recording an impressive victory in the Santa Anita Derby, and earned a field-best 106 BRIS Speed rating for the 5 ¼-length decision. I loved his instant acceleration that afternoon, with jockey Victor Espinoza waiting until the top of the stretch to ask for run.
Santa Anita Derby runner-up Hoppertunity was one of his most dangerous foes when the field was drawn Wednesday and that colt’s withdrawal Thursday morning improved California Chrome’s chances. In fact, three legitimate win contenders have been scratched in recent weeks, with Constitution and Cairo Prince bowing out as well, and other serious prospects like Top Billing, Honor Code and Shared Belief fell by the wayside earlier in the year.
Smarty Jones brought similar form in the 2004 Derby, displaying the best form by far of any three-year-old in his prep races, but bettors questioned whether he could carry speed 1 ¼ miles, sending him off as a lukewarm 4-1 favorite. He overwhelmed the competition with this talent and California Chrome can do the same.
In regard to the pace, there is some speed around California Chrome in the starting gate but a lot of the early types would prefer to sit up close – I’m not expecting a :45 1/5 opening half-mile liked we’ve witnessed the past two years. The pace should be contested but not overly fast.
The projected pace scenario favors California Chrome, who can wait to offer his best stride entering the stretch run.
Medal Count shows tremendous progress over the past five weeks, turning around his form in April with a pair of sharp performances on Keeneland’s Polytrack. A maiden winner on dirt, the Dynaformer colt has trained forwardly over the main track at Churchill Downs and I love his ability to corner: he closed boldly on the far turn of his last two starts and can rally into a threatening position at this critical stage of the race. The Dale Romans charge rates the best chance at an upset.
Samraat isn’t drawing much love in the build-up to the race but I consider him to be a legitimate contender. He sustained his first loss last time, recording a respectable second in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial, and that setback could benefit the game colt. He may not be an ideal candidate for 10 furlongs with his pedigree but stalker puts himself in position to challenge every time and remains eligible to outrun any distance concerns.
Intense Holiday recorded non-threatening efforts in his first four stakes starts but has come on at the right time for Todd Pletcher. A rallying winner of the Risen Star two back, he exits a troubled second in the Louisiana Derby and has signaled his readiness in recent weeks, training forwardly at Churchill Downs. Late runner could continue to show more Saturday.
Danza is not easily dismissed following his resounding upset in the Arkansas Derby. The lightly-raced colt can be viewed as a candidate for a regression following the career-best effort but he appears to be holding his form for Pletcher, impressing in morning preparations at Churchill Downs. The stalker has the numbers to offer a serious challenge, netting a 104 BRIS Speed rating last time, and is eligible to make at least a minor impact if he negotiates a favorable trip.
Candy Boy can be granted a pass for his non-threatening third in the Santa Anita Derby following a two-month layoff and appears to have taken a step forward in his training, making several strong appearances at Churchill Downs. Must overcome the outside draw and a questionable pedigree for the distance, but I like his run style and believe the colt could have much more to offer than he showed last time.
Wicked Strong flew home through the stretch to post as smart win in the Wood but must prove he can transfer his form outside of New York (ran poorly in two Florida starts earlier this year). I didn’t like the outside draw for the one-run closer and taking a slightly negative view, but wouldn’t be surprised to see the promising colt rally into the frame in the latter stages.
Predicting final Derby odds is a fruitless pursuit but I thought California Chrome could drift up to at least 4-1 before the scratch of Hoppertunity. Still don’t think he’s going to be an overwhelming, perhaps in the 3-1 or 7-2 range, and I will play him to win at that price and key him in the following exotics.
$45 win 5
$10 exactas 5 over 6,14 ($20)
$5 exactas 5 over 4,16,18 ($15)
$1 trifecta 5 over 4,6,14,16,18 over 4,6,14,16,18 ($20)
Enjoy the Derby!