Best horse will emerge on Saturday

May 1, 2007 7:38 AM

 

If there’s anything certain about the 133rd running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, it’s that the winner will probably pay a decent price to its backers.

Most experts believe the race is wide open and without a clear-cut favorite. That’s good news for those who like to find a horse "under the radar."

The problem this year is the lack of racing experience among the crop of 3-year-olds — never has there been so many horses with so few races under their belt.

Many of the contenders have shown flashes of talent along the Derby trail, but there hasn’t been enough outings to establish a stand-out contender.

For instance, Circular Quay looked brilliant winning the Louisiana Derby, but that was seven weeks ago. Doesn’t trainer Todd Pletcher know that you can’t bring a horse up to the Derby without a race within five weeks?

Of course, Barbaro shattered that myth last year.

Should we be prepared to let go of other "rules" that Derby horses are supposed to follow?

Remember, no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without starting at least one race as a 2-year-old.

This year, the likely favorite, Curlin, never raced as a 2-year-old. Moreover, Curlin is bucking another trend — no horse since 1915 has won the Kentucky Derby with only three career starts.

Trends, rules and guidelines are nice, but they seldom identify the horse that will win the Kentucky Derby.

Toward that end, we’ll start with the contenders, based on how fast these horses have shown they can run.

For the past several years, we’ve used a speed-based formula to identify five contenders. In virtually every Derby, the winner has emerged from that group of five.

This year, the top five contenders, based on past speed ratings, include: Any Given Saturday, Curlin, Hard Spun, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Scat Daddy and Street Sense. (There are six horses because two have identical ratings.)

Another couple of horses most likely would have made the Top 5 if it weren’t for bad racing luck. Circular Quay, before his big win in the Louisiana Derby, had to take up in the Risen Star Stakes while avoiding a fallen rider. The incident eliminated him from any contention and dismantled his speed figures.

It’s safe to assume, if he had run his race, his numbers would be among the top five. So, for our purposes here, we’ll include Circular Quay in the mix.

The same argument can be made for Great Hunter because of his traffic problems in the Bluegrass. But the pace in that race was so unusual, it’s hard to estimate what would have happened on a "normal" surface.

Now it’s down to choosing, based on how we feel the horse will handle the grueling 1¼ -mile distance.

Even though Curlin is the "now" horse because of his dramatic win in the Arkansas Derby, he’s simply too inexperienced to back here. His first race was a 7-fulong maiden affair in February, and with only three lifetime starts, he’s simply too green. Moreover, he’s never raced in a Grade 1 event, and his two wins have been against very mediocre opposition.

Hard Spun is a horse that looks like he has ability, especially his good showing in the Lane’s End Stakes. But, again, he doesn’t look like he’s faced enough stiff competition. We won’t take him out of our exotics, but we don’t feel he can beat a couple other top contenders.

Although we look for a horse to come from off the pace, Circular Quay might find the traffic problems too difficult to overcome on Saturday. This horse has heart and should relish the longer Belmont Stakes down the road. But fighting through 19 other horses might be too much to ask.

The remaining four horses — Any Given Saturday, Nobiz Like Shobiz, Scat Daddy and Street Sense — all have a legitimate shot at winning the Derby.

Let’s take a look at how they got here. In the Wood Memorial, Nobiz Like Shobiz had a perfect rail trip and pulled away in deep stretch. In the same race, Any Given Saturday, raced wide the entire trip (four wide first turn, three wide entering the stretch) and didn’t have anything left for the stretch run.

In a rematch we would lean to Any Given Saturday, Nobiz isn’t likely to have it so easy.

In addition, Any Given Saturday, was wide in the Tampa Derby, and nonetheless caught Street Sense, who had an easy rail trip, at the wire and raced evenly afterward.

Scat Daddy looked good winning in Florida. He stalked the leaders in the Florida Derby, was aided by a :46.3 half and made a big move on the backstretch to take charge.

If Scat Daddy can remain patient on Saturday, he might be able to make another big move in the lane.

Where does this leave us? We think three of the four contenders will hit the board, most likely in the following order:

1. Any Given Saturday

2. Nobiz Like Shobiz

3. Street Sense

One final thought: We previously alluded to Great Hunter, who ran into bad luck in the Bluegrass, when he was cut off in the stretch run.

The race was unusual to start with, given the pedestrian pace, but Great Hunter might have the capability of picking off a few front-runners in the stretch in the Derby.

Keep an eye on his betting action on Saturday. He could be the dark horse we’re all hoping for.

who had an easy rail trip, at the wire and raced evenly afterward.

Scat Daddy looked good winning in Florida. He stalked the leaders in the Florida Derby, was aided by a :46.3 half and made a big move on the backstretch to take charge.

If Scat Daddy can remain patient on Saturday, he might be able to make another big move in the lane.

Where does this leave us? We think three of the four contenders will hit the board, most likely in the following order:

1. Any Given Saturday

2. Nobiz Like Shobiz

3. Street Sense

One final thought: We previously alluded to Great Hunter, who ran into bad luck in the Bluegrass, when he was cut off in the stretch run.

The race was unusual to start with, given the pedestrian pace, but Great Hunter might have the capability of picking off a few front-runners in the stretch.

Keep an eye on his betting action on Saturday. He could be the dark horse we’re all hoping for.