Kentucky Derby 2014: Breaking Down Early Favorites at Churchill Downs

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Kentucky Derby 2014: Breaking Down Early Favorites at Churchill Downs
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Many of the marquee Grade 1 races have already taken place, so the field for the 2014 Kentucky Derby is thus beginning to take shape. Some early favorites are already emerging as trendy picks to be top contenders to finish in the money—or even win it all in the 140th annual Run for the Roses.

Jonathan Lintner of The Courier-Journal tweeted an overview of the field as it stands at the moment:

The clear headliner atop the Kentucky Derby points standings is California Chrome, champion of the recent Santa Anita Derby in what was a magnificent run versus an elite field. It stands to reason that even against 19 other prospective entrants, the current odds-on favorite at 7-4 (h/t OddsShark.com) can find the winner's circle.

Below is a closer look at California Chrome and two other horses who aren't immediately behind him in the standings, but should threaten to triumph in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Note: Ranking and points are indicated in parentheses. For complete Kentucky Derby points standings, visit the race's official website. Statistics were obtained from Equibase.com unless otherwise indicated.

 

California Chrome (1st, 150 points)

The odds are heavily in his favor, but California Chrome still has to go out and earn the crown at Churchill Downs. Although four consecutive wins is hard to argue against, the Santa Anita Derby still marked California Chrome's Grade 1 debut.

Still, California Chrome has done enough to sway expert Matt Carothers to place him atop his list of contenders for the Kentucky Derby, per TVG.com:

There is plenty of confidence stemming from this unique horse's camp, too. Trainer Art Sherman bought California Chrome for just $10,000, yet now he has developed him into the consensus Kentucky Derby favorite.

The Guardian's Daniel Ross did an extensive feature on the horse and logged some interesting comments from his connections. That included the testimony of co-owner Steve Coburn, who believes California Chrome will have an epic run at Churchill Downs:

I’m saying this right now: if this horse gets a clean trip, he will win the Kentucky Derby and he’ll go down in history [...] There’s not another horse out there that has his speed and his ability. If you look at the statistics, there’s not another horse going to Kentucky that’s faster than him. So let the games begin.

To put that type of self-inflicted hype out into the press, Coburn had to be almost certain that California Chrome could back it up. Now with the race quickly approaching, horse racing enthusiasts will find out soon enough if the prohibitive favorite lives up to that gaudy projection.

 

Danza (6th, 100 points)

Danny Johnston

Don't be deceived by Danza's lower standing in Kentucky Derby points, because he is coming off a monumental, dominant victory in the Arkansas Derby by 4 and 3/4 lengths.

Co-owner Aron Wellman had a good feeling about his horse entering Hot Springs, per the Associated Press' Kurt Voigt:

We internally had a lot of faith in the horse. We knew we were going to be a longshot. It was just a matter of whether he was going to be good enough to compete with these horses. Fortunately, he went out there and executed on the race track today.

The betting powers that be certainly aren't sleeping on Danza any longer. Even though he was a 40-1 shot entering his last start at Oaklawn Park, Danza is listed as an 8-1 favorite to match Wicked Strong for the second-shortest odds of winning in Louisville.

Joe Bravo got the mount and is looking forward to the biggest race of Danza's career, per AmericasBestRacing.net's Vince Mathews:

Right now it is all about the anticipation. Everything about this horse has been such a nice surprise. Whenever you ride a horse for Todd Pletcher and his team, you always have a little bit of extra confidence; and when I started reading more into Danza, I started falling in love with the horse prior to the Arkansas Derby. Now that we've seen what he can do, it’s all about the anticipation of seeing if he can do more in Louisville.

Danza's breakout performance should continue to see him gain momentum the closer we come to the starting gates. Post position is going to have an impact on his chances, but if his Grade 1 debut is any indication, he should be up to the task.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has accomplished a lot in his career, including a Kentucky Derby triumph in 2010 with Super Saver. That track record of success suggests he could see his upstart Danza win another for him.

 

Hoppertunity (7th, 95 points)

Danny Johnston

The longer 14-1 odds for Hoppertunity may discourage bettors, but he proved his legitimacy by running second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby.

That margin of victory was rather substantial at 5 and 1/4 lengths. There's no shame in running second to such a dominant force in California Chrome, though. Decorated jockey Mike Smith should be in the saddle for the beginning to the Triple Crown campaign, and he enacted an interesting strategy in Arcadia.

Jay Privman of the Daily Racing Form alluded to it in his analysis: "Liked his SA Derby a lot. In an obvious prep, Smith never hit him down the stretch. Beware."

Hoppertunity has an excellent support system in Smith and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, and he won the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes in March.

Which horse is likeliest to win the Kentucky Derby?

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Plenty can change in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby from the field to the fluctuating odds. But one constant should remain in California Chrome, who seems destined to be the No. 1 favorite when the morning-line odds are released and post positions are determined.

That would be an excellent story, especially given the modest investment Sherman made to acquire California Chrome. Danza—other than being named for actor Tony Danza—would also dazzle if he were able to complete a meteoric rise from Arkansas Derby long shot to champion at Churchill Downs.

Among the purported dark horses, Hoppertunity seems among the likeliest to be a contender, but horse racing is so difficult to predict, particularly with the high stakes of the Triple Crown race. The initial look at the field promises yet another exciting entry in "The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports."

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