Even though the morning line for Saturday's Kentucky Derby suggests that this year's Run for the Roses is a four-horse race (top top four choices are 5-1 or better, and no one else is lower than 15-1), the reality is that a case can be made for perhaps a dozen entrants donning the blanket of roses around 6:30 p.m. Saturday. But playing a 12-horse exacta box is a bit cost prohibitive, especially in these lean times, so let's attempt to narrow the field using our observations from the Derby preps, an examination of the past performances, reports from the morning workouts in Louisville and some projection on how the race may play out.
6 Friesan Fire (5-1)
15 Dunkirk (4-1)
11 Chocolate Candy (20-1)
There are many reasons to like the runaway victor of the Louisiana Derby who is the fourth choice on the morning line. He is improving at the right time, winning three straight, including that 7 ¼-length score at the Fair Grounds over eventual Arkansas Derby winner Papa Clem. Being a son of A.P. Indy, he should also relish the Kentucky Derby's distance of 10 furlongs. And he loves an off track, in case the forecast for rain in Louisville is correct. But perhaps most importantly he has been pointed to run his best race on Saturday. After the Louisiana Derby win, trainer Larry Jones decided to train Friesan Fire up to the Derby rather than waste another big performance in a Derby prep. The decision is unconventional; no horse has won the Derby off a seven-week layoff in more than 80 years. But Jones did something similar with Hard Spun in the Kentucky Derby two years ago (Hard Spun finished second off a six-week layoff), and Friesan Fire's drills have suggested that he has not been affected by the time off. He worked a bullet :57 4/5 in preparation for the race on Monday. Interestingly, on the Monday prior to his Louisiana Derby win, Friesan Fire worked a bullet :58 1/5. The pick.
This lightly raced colt has come a long way in a short period. He made his debut in January and quickly won his first two races in impressive fashion before tackling tougher in the Florida Derby. Running from off the pace in that race, he made a sweeping run around the far turn, only to be repelled by Quality Road on a track that had been favoring speed. Though that huge move at Gulfstream was not enough to win the Florida Derby, it is a Kentucky Derby-winning-type move (See: Monarchos) so ability is not the issue. The questions are if he has enough experience (he'll attempt to become the first Derby winner since 1882 without having raced at age 2) and if he will move forward from that Florida Derby effort. (Trainer Todd Pletcher had pushed Dunkirk to be ready for Florida Derby day thinking the colt's only chance to make the Kentucky Derby was with a win.) And coming from off the pace, he'll either need a faster-than-expected pace or a little racing luck. Dangerous.
If you like Santa Anita Derby winner Pioneerof the Nile, you also have to like Chocolate Candy. In the Santa Anita Derby, the late-running Chocolate Candy was compromised by a lack of pace (Pioneerof the Nile was up on the lead) and a five-wide trip on the far turn (Pioneerof the Nile saved ground). Still, Chocolate Candy closed to finish only one length behind. In addition the Santa Anita Derby was his first race off a seven-week layoff so he should be sitting on a huge effort on Saturday. The question with Chocolate Candy, as well as with many others, is how he will handle the dirt surface and the kickback for the first time. It is a legitimate concern, but at 20-1 on the morning line, it is a shot worth taking.
The distance and expected moderate pace of the Derby sets up well for Dubai shipper Desert Party (15-1), who has impressed since arriving at Louisville and is a very live play ... Pioneerof the Nile (4-1) should move up with the added distance and having a couple of pacesetters to run at. And his trainer, three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert, knows how to get to the winner's circle on the first Saturday in May ... The Bill Mott-trained Hold Me Back (15-1), making his third start after a layoff, is eligible to improve off his last and will be flying at the end, assuming he makes the switch to dirt better than he did back in November.
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