Wide-open Kentucky Derby field is detriment to sport; and Derby picks
Looking at the last nine Derbies, three winners came in as stars of a sort: Smarty Jones (2004), Street Sense (2007) and Big Brown (2008). Barbaro (2006) became a star by winning the Derby decisively, but even more so by surviving after a horrible Preakness injury. War Emblem (2002) won the Derby and Preakness, but flopped in the Belmont and was never embraced. Giacomo (2005) and Mine That Bird (2009) were epic long shots that got the fortnight buzz and lost in Baltimore. Super Saver (2010) walked in the shadow of jockey Calvin Borel, who won the Derby for the third time in four years.
That leaves Funny Cide, who hadn't won a graded stakes race (although he had finished third in the Florida Derby and second in the Wood Memorial) until he took the Kentucky Derby. The story of his common-man ownership, including five high school buddies from the hinterlands of upstate New York, sent Funny Cide into a brief crossover ride. He won the Preakness, drew more than 100,000 spectators to the Belmont and ran 29 more races -- he was a gelding with no breeding value -- over the next four years. He was no Seabiscuit, but people knew his name, or at least his story.
And he is the only horse in the last decade that came into the Derby in relative anonymity (outside the racing world) and left as a star (as measured in racing terms). It just doesn't happen with any frequency at all.
Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch has worked brilliantly here, but on Wednesday evening he drew the No. 1 post position, hurting his chances to be that star. The last and only horse in the 20th century to win the Derby from No. 1 post position in a field of 17 or more was War Admiral in 1937. (It pains me to write this, because I was planning to pick Archarcharch to win the race, and now I will not. It's an unwritten rule in handicapping that if you find yourself about to endorse something that hasn't happened in 74 years, back off.)
Now, picks. Some thoughts on the process: There are some fast horses in the race -- Comma to the Top (second in the Santa Anita Derby) is fast. Shackleford (a game second in the Florida Derby) is very fast. Soldat (winner of the Fountain of Youth) is fast, but trainer McLaughlin says he will drop back. We'll see. Pants on Fire (winner of the Louisiana Derby) is fast. I'm throwing every one of them out though. The Derby goes fast every year and only a truly exceptional horse could handle that pace and win. I don't think there are any such horses in this field.
Now, the picks, round two, for a Derby that's indeed, wide open. Look for a cavalry charge down the lane and possibly a multiple-horse photo finish (also a measure of greatness's absence).
1) Nehro -- When all else fails (and all else does fail), look for a horse that's improving. Nehro didn't run a race until Dec. 12 in Louisiana and has only made five starts. But he's coming on, with a solid second in the Louisiana Derby on March 26 and a flying second in the Arkansas Derby three weeks later. Essentially, he ran two "final'' prep races. "I needed validation,'' says his trainer, Steve Asmussen. Now he's got it; the horse was confused and tentative in Louisiana and aggressive in Hot Springs. Nehro will be breaking from the No. 18 post, way outside, but there are fast horses directly to his left. He should get a clear run and save ground under jockey Corey Nakatani. Then he comes flying at the end.
2) Dialed In -- Trainer Nick Zito's delicately handled Florida Derby winner is the "safe" pick. He's the 4-1 morning line favorite, he's won a major prep race and he has a trainer with two Derby wins and a 28-year-old jockey (Julien Leparoux) who is leading the next generation of riders. Dialed In is a dead closer, so I'm worried that he might get too far back or encounter too much traffic in trying to finish, but in the end he's an honest, predictable horse that's always made a run.
3) Archarcharch -- This is how much I like the Arkansas Derby winner. To repeat: The last and only horse in the 20th century to win the Derby from No. 1 post position in a field of 17 or more was War Admiral in 1937. (Ferdinand won from the No. 1 hole, but there were only 16 horses in the race.) Clockers say he has trained brilliantly at Churchill Downs. He has shown the tactical speed and toughness (a horse flipped over the starting gate next to Arch in the Rebel Stakes on March 19, kicking him about the legs, and he bounced back stronger) to survive a rodeo like the Derby. I'm convinced Arch's post position will prevent him from winning the race, but not from hitting the board.