California Chrome is the prohibitive favorite in the 140th annual running of the Kentucky Derby, but the 2014 edition of the Run for the Roses has other strong contenders that should challenge him.
The 7-4 odds suggest that California Chrome may as well be handed the first leg of the Triple Crown. However, Arkansas Derby winner Danza is coming on strong despite his limited experience, and he shares short 8-1 odds with Wood Memorial Stakes victor Wicked Strong.
All of the entrants to the Kentucky Derby have some sort of legitimacy to get to the starting gates, though, so there's no guarantee all three of these horses will finish in the money. Let's take a closer look at them and project where they might finish now that the Louisville field is a little more crystallized.
|2014 Kentucky Derby Odds|
|Vicars In Trouble||10-1|
|Dance with Fate||16-2|
|General A Rod||25-1|
|Ride On Curlin||25-1|
California Chrome (7-4)
Trainer Art Sherman used to be a jockey, and when asked recently if he could have chosen a horse to rise in his 23-plus years in the saddle, he mentioned his Kentucky Derby contender first.
"California Chrome," said Sherman, per AmericasBestRacing.net. "I would fit him good (laughs). I told Victor Espinoza, listen, he’s winning easily by too many lengths, I might be able to ride him (laughs)."
Espinoza is an excellent jockey who won the 2002 Derby and backed it up with a Preakness Stakes triumph aboard War Emblem. He knows how to get the job done at Churchill Downs and should give Sherman a great chance for a Triple Crown winner.
The margin of victory California Chrome has claimed in the past four races since Espinoza took the reins has been stupendous.
Most recently, his excellent stretch was capped by a 5.25-length triumph in the Santa Anita Derby. Putting that much distance between him and the rest of the Grade I field, which included another Kentucky Derby contender in Hoppertunity, shows the explosiveness this horse possesses.
Sherman doesn't have much maintenance to do, because it appears he's found the perfect jockey in Espinoza to push California Chrome to his full potential, which seems limitless at this point. This coming Saturday, the world will see that upside at Churchill Downs when California Chrome romps to the winner's circle.
Wicked Strong (8-1)
Claiming victory at the Wood Memorial Stakes—or any of the high-profile Grade I races preceding the Kentucky Derby—does not guarantee success in the Triple Crown season.
Look no further than Verrazano last year, who was a trendy pick to win the Run for the Roses with renowned trainer Todd Pletcher and decorated jockey John Velazquez in his corner. Verrazano was viewed as a heavy favorite but settled for 14th place in the field of 19.
A similar fate probably won't be in store for Wicked Strong, but the lack of experience through his connections is a bit of a wild card.
Centennial Farms president Don Little Jr. noted how he wanted to rename his horse "Boston Strong" following the tragedy that occurred at the 2013 Boston Marathon but settled on Wicked Strong instead. This is the first time Little has had a Kentucky Derby entrant, but he feels confident after seeing the Wood Memorial run redeem a deflating ninth-place effort at the Holy Bull Stakes in January, per the Boston Globe's Anthony Gulizia:
Like the city of Boston and like his name, you look back, and it looked like we had a superstar at the end of his two years, and the wind kind of went out of your sails [with the Holy Bull]. But with his determination, his attitude, and his development, he fought back to be on top, and he’s right on top.
Wicked Strong will certainly be one of the feel-good stories at Churchill Downs, but there are just too many strong jockeys and trainers who have been on this stage before to guarantee a great run from him. It speaks more to the level of competition than it does to Wicked Strong's own immense abilities.
Although he should have a strong start out of the gates the maintain it, the edge in experience from the other top contenders will eventually be evident. A formidable pedigree featuring 1999 Derby and Preakness champion Charismatic won't be quite enough to put Wicked Strong in the money.
Prediction: Fifth place
Pletcher may have as many as four horses entering the Run for the Roses, but the consensus best bet from his stable is Danza, whose breakout performance at Oaklawn suggests he can thrive on this big stage, too.
The trainer believes his horse's recent form and his evident stamina bode well for his chances to nurture another Kentucky Derby champion. Pletcher noted how Danza seemed to have even more in the tank at the end of his jaunt in the Arkansas Derby.
"I don't think that race took much out of him," said Pletcher, per BloodHorse.com's Frank Angst. "It wasn't like he had to battle through the stretch or anything."
Angst observed that Danza was the best-looking horse to do work on Friday at Churchill Downs:
With an extra furlong to cover at Churchill Downs in the Kentucky Derby, it seems Danza will be up to the task. Danza is limited on experience but did have a third-place effort at the Grade II Saratoga Special Stakes last August before making the leap to Arkansas with grace and dominance.
Although it's hard to endorse Danza as the winner over California Chrome at this point, he should be chief among those battling him down to the wire. It won't be enough to claim the top prize, yet Danza's recent meteoric rise will still be a great storyline.
Since Wicked Strong and Danza are in a dead heat for the No. 2 favorite status, it stands to reason that their stocks will fluctuate before the 140th Kentucky Derby. Look for Danza to pull ahead based on his fresher status and the red flag brought on by Wicked Strong's Holy Bull Stakes showing. It's hard to envision anyone other than California Chrome being the morning-line favorite, though.
The sheer odds of emerging from what projects to be a 20-horse field as the victor against such a strong slew of fellow starters makes winning the Kentucky Derby as the one to beat all the more difficult. But if there's anyone that can live up to the hype, it seems California Chrome has all the goods.
Long shots have won three of the past five editions of the most exciting two minutes in sports, suggesting that the Kentucky Derby will once again live up to that famous label this time around.