Archarcharch among best bets in wide-open Kentucky Derby Field
Inconsistent performance from early favorites has made 2011 Derby wide open
His post (No. 1) is a hindrance, but Archarcharch is a late closer bred to run all day
Animal Kingdom, Soldat, Santiva and Pants on Fire could hit board at big price
Pick a name out of a hat. Close your eyes and point. Or better yet, go by colors, numbers and names.
Any method of handicapping Saturday's Kentucky Derby is just about as good as any other. Because, after the failures of the early favorites during the prep season, this year's Run for the Roses is wide open. That, however, will not stop us from trying to repeat last year's success in picking the winner.
The race figures to be one with enough speed to favor someone coming from off the pace, and several hours of handicapping have narrowed down the choices to four horses. They appear in order below, but ask me for my picks again in five minutes and that order could change.
The selections, in order (morning line odds in parentheses):
On my flight to Louisville, a man in the row behind me offered his opinion of Archarcharch: "He drew the rail. He has no chance."
Those who discount this horse just because he drew the most dreaded spot in the gate should be warned. Yes, the post could be a hindrance as it was to Lookin At Lucky last year. But this son of Arch might be good enough to overcome that.
First, he is bred to run all day, so the Derby's 1 1/4-mile distance will not be a factor. He is also coming into his own, having won the Arkansas Derby in what looks like the best of all of the prep races. And, according to all reports, he has trained sensationally at Churchill Downs, which suggests he is sitting on a big effort.
Because of his late-running style, drawing the rail should have less impact on Archarcharch than it would a speed horse. As he did in Arkansas, jockey Jon Court is likely to leave the gate, find a position toward the back of the field, save ground and come flying around the turn. If the horse is good enough -- and if the Derby Gods won't punish him for having the most awkward of names -- he should take the lead inside the final furlong and hold off the closers.
Nehro was my original pick to win the Kentucky Derby immediately after he nearly chased down Archarcharch in Arkansas, losing by a neck. This late-developing son of Mineshaft still could very well win. He's improving at the right time, the distance should be no problem and his late-running style fits the race profile. If he can navigate the traffic -- a big if in a 19-horse field -- and not let Archarcharch get the jump on him, it would not at all be shocking to see Nehro flying in the stretch and crossing the wire first.
Only one horse -- Soldat -- owns a Beyer speed figure as fast or better than Mucho Macho Man's best (99), which he earned in the Remsen as a 2-year-old. He's coming off a third in the Louisiana Derby but ran well considering he lost a shoe in the race. He drew an advantageous post position, which will allow him to stalk the pacesetters and pounce once they begin to tire. And if the early fractions are not overly ambitious, Mucho Macho Man could be at the front for a while.
Many Derby "rules" have been broken in recent years, but the biggest one that hasn't is this: Horses that haven't raced as 2-year-olds have not won the Derby since Apollo in 1882. Midnight Interlude, who did not make his debut until January, could end that drought. No Derby contender has come along faster than he has in the last three-plus months. His Santa Anita Derby win was excellent, as he was able to chase down Comma To The Top in a paceless race. A repeat of that performance would put him right with the others.
Post: No. 8 (4-1)
The probable favorite has been the most consistent of the Derby favorites, but he came home slowly in winning the Florida Derby, a red flag considering the extra furlong in Louisville. The guess here is that he's better in one-turn races than two. On Saturday he should be picking off runners in the stretch and could very well win, but in a wide-open race he provides no value.
Post: No. 16 (30-1)
He's coming off a last-to-first win in the Spiral Stakes on the artificial surface at Turfway Park. He is bred to excel on the grass, but he did finish second in his lone start on dirt (in his debut race) and he had a visually impressive workout on a fast Churchill Downs surface on April 30. Trained by the very capable Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom would not be a surprise to hit the board at a big price.
Post: No. 17 (12-1)
Soldat is best when he makes the lead. He had two impressive front-running wins before a fifth-place finish in the Florida Derby, in which he failed to make the front and took dirt in the face the whole way. With his outside post in the Kentucky Derby, he likely will be stalking the early speed and could hang on at a price. If the track comes up sloppy, he moves way up this list.