Kentucky Derby Favorites: The Biggest Flaw of Each of the Top Contenders
At the beginning of the year, the crop of three-year-old colts working toward a berth in the Kentucky Derby starting gate looked like one of the strongest in recent memory. Since then, many of the most promising stars have been left to watch from the sidelines with injuries, leaving a group of sophomores full of question marks.
Though many of the early favorites will not be in contention for a place in Kentucky Derby history, there have been several horses who have emerged as top contenders to win the 140th Run for the Roses.
No horse is invincible. Each horse, despite its talent, has one major flaw that could keep its name out of the Kentucky Derby history books. Some horses lack experience; others may be hindered by physical or behavioral flaws. When handicapping the Derby, much like with finding a romantic partner, it is about finding the flaws you can live with.
Here is a look at the potential standouts and the flaw each has that could stand in the way between the starting gate and the winner's circle.
Flaw: Unproven outside of California
The greatest test in the Kentucky Derby for the West Coast invader, California Chrome, will simply be proving that he can be as brilliant outside of his home state. Though his juvenile season was lackluster, he has transformed into a powerhouse as a three-year-old and is undefeated in three starts this year.
The popular chestnut has passed every test with flying colors. His dominant performance in the Santa Anita Derby was extremely impressive, and he proved many naysayers wrong with that scintillating victory.
History is not in his favor, however. Over the years, there have been many California greats who simply were not able to translate that form outside of the state. It is not difficult to draw comparisons between him and General Challenge, another flashy chestnut California-bred who went off as the favorite in the 1999 Kentucky Derby after dominating the Santa Anita Derby and languished over the Churchill Downs track to finish 11th.
The biggest question surrounding the talented Wicked Strong is simply which version of the colt will show up on the first Saturday in May. Will it be the horse that ran his rivals off their feet in the Wood Memorial, or the one that showed absolutely nothing in the Holy Bull Stakes?
To be fair, both of his poor performances this year came over a speed-favoring track at Gulfstream Park, and he showed significant improvement over a fairer surface. With only six career starts, his body of work is too limited to tell if he had a legitimate excuse over the track in Florida.
If you are willing to overlook his pair of clunkers, there is one other issue that could prove to be this colt's undoing. In several of his better races, he has proven to be difficult to control and has been erratic in the stretch. In the Remsen as a juvenile, he was all over the place in the stretch, and he hinted in the Wood Memorial that he has not quite grown out of those antics. In a 20-horse field like the Kentucky Derby, there is no room for that kind of behavior in the stretch.
Vicar's in Trouble
Vicar's in Trouble
Flaw: Too Slow
It is difficult to find a real fault with Vicar's in Trouble's career record. From five starts, he has three wins and a pair of third-place finishes, including a victory in his final prep, the Louisiana Derby. However, though a win is a win, that effort did not exactly inspire confidence.
After getting an uncontested lead and being allowed to lope through reasonable fractions, he still crawled home and finished the final eighth of a mile in an uninspiring 13.62 seconds. His greatest competition in that race, Intense Holiday, had an erratic trip and nearly crashed into the rail, making things even easier for Vicar's in Trouble out front.
Simply put, he might be too slow to keep up with the fastest front-runners early in the Kentucky Derby and will have to show he has a faster gear than what he showed last time.
Flaw: Bad habit of cross-firing
In the Louisiana Derby, Intense Holiday unveiled his greatest weakness. Though there is no denying his talent and consistency, he has developed an unfortunate habit of cross-firing. Cross-firing is essentially when a horse races on different leads with his front and back legs. This produces an awkward, crooked gait and could be a big explanation for why he nearly went through the rail in mid-stretch in Louisiana.
Cross-firing can be caused by an underlying physical issue or could simply be a bad habit or a sign of immaturity. Regardless of the reason, he will not be able to win the Kentucky Derby if his jockey cannot get his leads under control. The good news is that his gallops at Churchill Downs have been promising and on the correct leads.
Flaw: Bad feet
Though calling Sunland Derby winner Chitu a top contender may be a stretch of the imagination, the lightly raced colt has won three of his four starts and will represent the always formidable Bob Baffert stable.
With only four starts, his inexperience is another major flaw. The reason for so few races may trace back to his terrible feet. He is plagued by a hoof condition known as seedy toe where fungus gets into the hoof wall and compromises the integrity of the hoof. The condition has been treated and is under control, but the structure of the hoof is still compromised until, like a fingernail, it grows out and is trimmed away.
In one of his final works preparing for the Kentucky Derby, he lost one of his corrective shoes during the workout.
Flaw: Inexperienced jockey
There is absolutely no denying that Samraat is one tough racehorse. Though his undefeated streak was snapped by Wicked Strong in the Wood Memorial, he has been battle-tested all year and has proven he has the heart to go with his talent.
He is, however, a horse that may struggle with the 1 1/4-mile distance. This is not helped by his tendency to hang on his left lead in the stretch. Often, a horse will switch leads in the stretch, and that change will give it the extra burst it needs. He puts himself at an automatic disadvantage by being inconsistent about switching leads.
Jockey Jose Ortiz is one of the most talented young riders in the country. But, at only 20 years old, he will be making his first start in the Kentucky Derby, and there will be no room for errors.
Samraat's trainer, Rick Violette Jr., stressed the importance of his jockey getting the horse to properly switch leads in an interview with the New York Racing Association.
“There’s no question it’s a priority,” he said. “I don’t think he can win the Derby without changing leads. When he did change leads really late in the Wood, he went and got second. It’s a big thing. Jose is aware of it … I think he’s got to be very aware of that before he turns for home in [the Derby]. You like a sweeping change coming out of the turn, almost accelerating, and to use that momentum to go do what he has to do. I don’t think you can lay on horses in the Derby; there’s too many that can come and get you. So you need to set sail at the head of the lane and run to the wire.”
Flaw: Did not race as a two-year-old
Hoppertunity will not only have to compete with a field of 19 rivals in the Kentucky Derby starting gate, but he will be running a race against history. He is trying to become the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby after having not raced as a juvenile.
Trainer Bob Baffert has tried to make up for lost time, and this colt has had five starts this year over three separate race tracks. Though he does lack the experience as a juvenile, he has proven to be a tough, professional colt who has some real talent and plenty of stamina.
However, it is tough to argue with over a hundred years of history.
Flaw: Lack of stamina
Wildcat Red has outrun his pedigree in a big way. After back-to-back victories in the early preps at Gulfstream, he showed how big his heart is with a resilient defeat to the highly-regarded Constitution in the Florida Derby, losing by only a neck.
He is the type of horse that needs the lead to be successful and will be up against it on the front end in the Kentucky Derby. Couple some inevitable pace pressure with a horse who by all accounts is bred to be a sprinter, and the grueling 1 1/4 distance is going to be way beyond his scope.
Not helping his cause is the fact that his initial workout over the sometimes tricky Churchill Downs surface did not draw rave reviews as Mike Welsch of the Daily Racing Form tweeted that it was "very disappointing" and was "obviously not as fond of this strip."