If the Masters is a "tradition unlike any other," I'm not quite sure what Nantzian catchphrase could be used to describe the Kentucky Derby.
The first Saturday in May is an American institution. Not even a scheduled Floyd Mayweather fight can take the Run for the Roses off the top of the national purview, though having the best boxer in the world and the biggest horse race on the planet on the same day brings back some "old-timey" memories. If folks start suddenly dressing like Don Draper again, I'm going to be seriously freaked out.
The Derby matters, mostly, because it's the only one that is guaranteed to matter in the long term. Churchill Downs starts the Triple Crown season, and as soon as the first-place horse crosses the finish line he's instantly branded the favorite to pull it all off again. The Preakness and Belmont are great, historic races. But they're also ones that are largely reliant on the Kentucky Derby winner entering and having a chance to pull off all three titles.
Affirmed was the last Triple Crown winner in 1978. The top Billboard song of the year for 1978 was sung by Andy Gibb. I would honestly be lying right now if I said I didn't just check Wikipedia to remind myself who that is.
The point: It's been a very, very long time since all three races mattered in a historical sense. The Derby? Always, always, always going to matter. With that in mind, let's check in with a quick-hit preview for the early-2014 odds and dive in on a few horses in depth to assess their chances.
|Vicars In Trouble||10-1|
|Dance with Fate||16-2|
|General A Rod||25-1|
|Ride On Curlin||25-1|
|We Miss Artie||33-1|
|Tap It Rich||50-1|
Note: Odds are current as of April 27.
The Favorite: California Chrome (7-4)
Color me surprised that California Chrome is not the name of a famous rap song. Just a pretty cool name for a horse, apparently. Believe me. I did the requisite research—a Google search—to figure this all out.
The three-year-old colt has been dominant all season long. He's won all three of his appearances on the track in 2014. While it's at least worth acknowledging that all of those wins came at Santa Anita—which is decidedly not Churchill Downs—the bubbling hype is real. There are some who have begun discussing California Chrome as a potential Triple Crown winner, and at 7-4 he is already an overwhelming favorite with less than a week to go.
"If there is a horse who has the qualifications, and I'm talking about a horse who does not have a flaw, it's California Chrome," Steve Haskins, a senior correspondent at Blood-Horse magazine, told An Phung of NBC Bay Area.
California Chrome's ascent to favorite status has been something of a slow build. In seven starts in 2013, the horse had as many non-placing finishes as he did wins. This was nothing nearing a monolithic stud that has been winning every race since entering the track, but something clicked toward the King Glorious Stakes in December that has everyone going all in.
Trainer Art Sherman would become the oldest in history to win a Kentucky Derby. Sherman has been in this game for a long, long time. He began as a jockey in the 1950s before retiring and moving into training. He's been a fixture on the circuit ever since, but at age 77 is not seen in the same light as the Bob Bafferts of the world.
California Chrome's ascent may wind up being the perfect testament to Sherman's patience. In a world where trainers, owners and jockeys often overshadow the work of the horses, Sherman has long been something of a background figure. This will be his first experience as a Derby trainer.
It seems surreal that the gallop rider for 1955 Kentucky Derby winner Swaps would train 2014 Ky Dby favorite California Chrome.--Art Sherman— Ed Burgart (@qheddie) April 26, 2014
Victor Espinoza has plenty of experience. His problem for the last decade or so has been results. Since winning atop War Emblem at Churchill Downs and Pimlico in 2002, Espinoza, 42, has been on a steady decline. Five of the last six years have seen him come and go outside the Top 20 in jockey rankings.
Yet, the horse is so good here that none of this matters: Sherman's age and lack of Kentucky Derby experience and Espinoza's decline have all been thrown out the window in service of this dominant horse.
Coming On Strong: Wicked Strong and Danza (8-1)
Again, allow some appreciation for horse names here. Wicked Strong sounds like someone—anyone, really—who has ever tried mockingly impersonating a Boston accent. Danza, I can only hope and pray, relates to actor Tony Danza—whose own accent has been repeated over and over going back to his days on Taxi.
Horse racing names make me wish we did better as a society naming out dogs. There are only so many Maxes and Charlies we can have in the world, people. Find me someone who named their dog after Walter White and they'll have a friend for life.
Anyway. Digression. Right. Wicked Strong and Danza are worth noting not just for their interesting names, but because they're recent winners of some of the sport's most prestigious warm-up events. Wicked Strong, trained by James A. Jerkens and jockeyed by Rajiv Maragh, is coming off a win at the Wood Memorial.
The Wood Memorial is perhaps the biggest pre-Derby race on the calendar. It's also been something of a death sentence for a horse's Derby chances in recent years. Not since Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 has a Wood winner gone on to wear the Roses. Considering how poorly Wicked Strong ran at his two previous races in the calendar year, he's easily the underdog among the three "favorites."
Danza is a bit more of a mystery, given he's run just four races in his entire career. An injury cut his two-year-old season short, but he's come back strong since returning to the fold in March. Danza followed a third-place run at the Allowance Optional Claiming with an Arkansas Derby victory early this month. In four career races, Danza has never finished worse than third.
Recent history again says the odds are not in his favor. Smarty Jones in 2004 was the last time an Arkansas Derby winner went on to do the same in Louisville. Because something doesn't typically happen, it does not mean it never will happen again—a trend is only a trend until it's broken.
But the unproven nature of Danza makes him a scary choice. You're beginning to see why so many have a crush on California Chrome.
Ride On Curlin (25-1)
Jockeyed by Calvin Borel. OK, you've got my attention, Ride On Curlin. The young colt's career has mostly been defined by close-but-no-cigar performances. He's never finished worse than fourth in a race but has captured only two victories across nine starts—none of which were in particularly prestigious events.
A second-place finish at the Arkansas Derby to Danza and consecutive third-place outings at Oaklawn Park prior cast a shadow over a potential win. Ride On Curlin is a 25-1 underdog, mainly because he's always the groomsman, never the groom.
The issue with horses like that is that they can become wildly undervalued heading into contests like the Kentucky Derby. Ride On Curlin's career tells us it's more likely he loses than wins. It also says that there are few horses in this field more consistently contending at the front of the field. If Ride On Curlin is not among the first handful of horses dashing to the finish line, I'd be mildly surprised.
It also helps to have a world-class jockey and Churchill Downs savant like Borel on your side. Borel is a three-time Kentucky Derby winner, most recently in 2010. The 47-year-old legend is famous for his close riding of the rails at the track, which fits well with Ride On Curlin's style and could make the pair the best long-shot chance come Saturday.
Keep in mind how rarely favorites actually pull off the Run to the Roses at this point. There is such a slim separation between the haves and have nots in this sport that the past few years have proved that anything is possible. Four of the last six winners carried double-digit odds prior to reaching the starting gate.
Ride On Curlin is, at least at this point, your best bet to make it six in seven.
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