The 2014 Kentucky Derby will commence the journey to end horse racing's 36-year Triple Crown drought. Though there have been numerous horses to win the first two legs within the past decade, no horse has seriously threatened to make history since Big Brown in 2008.
So which horses should fans keep an eye on next weekend? Here are the top contenders to win the Derby and capture the attention of the mainstream sports world for the next two weeks.
At 7-4 odds, California Chrome stands out as the clear favorite in this derby. Victor Espinoza, who won the 2002 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes riding War Emblem, will serve as the horse's jockey. Espinoza's experienced hand only adds to the intrigue surrounding California Chrome, who has looked terrific in the races leading up to the Derby.
California Chrome is 3-0 in races in 2014, with his most recent win coming at the Santa Anita Derby on April 5. According to horse racing observers, California Chrome looks to be peaking in practice sessions headed into the Derby:
California Chrome work was even better than last week's. He is very intense from pole, ears straight up, thought he was real good on video— Racingwithbruno (@Racingwithbruno) April 26, 2014
Indeed, according to USA Today's Jennie Rees, trainer Art Sherman and Espinoza are both extremely encouraged by their horse's last timed workout before May 3:
"Very good. Exactly what I needed for the horse," trainer Art Sherman said. "He doesn't need much now. He's ready. I just wanted to put some air into him. He's happy and fresh. That's the way I want to keep him for this race.
"Victor told me he couldn't believe how easy the horse went. He just said he felt so good. Victor wrapped up on him and didn't let him do too much. He knows this horse so well."
The colt will have a pair of light gallops early next week at Churchill Downs. For now, there is little reason to believe that California Chrome will not put in a strong showing next week.
Wicked Strong comes in as the race's second favorite, holding 8-1 odds. Despite that consensus, however, there are some who see the Massachusetts-bred horse as the top contender in the field:
There is little doubting that Wicked Strong has the upside to win the race, but inconsistencies have plagued the horse. Though he won his most recent race at the Wood Memorial Stakes, he came in fourth and ninth in his two previous races.
The distance at the Derby should play in Wicked Strong's favor, however. After the win, owner Jimmy Jerkins noted that Churchill Downs should be a conducive track for the colt, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com):
Wicked Strong is trained by Jimmy Jerkens, the son of Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens. He has never had a Derby starter, coming closest with Quality Road, the 2009 Florida Derby winner who missed the entire Triple Crown with a foot injury.
"I'd love to get another crack at it, that's for sure" Jerkens said of the 1 ¼ mile Derby. "He looks like a horse where distance shouldn't bother him."
Wicked Strong overcame 9-1 odds to spring the upset in that event. Though potentially volatile, he has shown that California Chrome's stranglehold as the favorite should not be taken for granted.
The other horse who snuck in with 8-1 odds is Danza. Danza has burst onto the scene in recent months, with a third-place finish at Gulfstream Park in March and a shocking win in the Arkansas Derby on April 12, where he was a 40-1 underdog. According to ESPN.com's Jack Shinar, jockey Joe Bravo believes Danza's win was the horse's perfect run:
"That was a pretty great effort," Bravo said. "Todd was pretty high on the horse and he told me this morning that he was going to be fresh so don't take anything away from him. Try to save as much [ground] as you can and let him run his race. It was textbook, just textbook. Everything unfolded like a dream."
Trainer Todd Pletcher finally broke his Derby drought in 2010 and looks primed to win his second Run for the Roses with Danza. Though the colt has made just four lifetime starts, his recent form has observers impressed:
First morning on CD backside. Gallops I liked best today were Danza and Ride On Curlin. Looking forward to watching works Sat/Sun. #KyDerby— Jay Privman (@DRFPrivman) April 25, 2014
As such, Danza stands out as a worthy dark-horse contender. Endorsing Danza as a top favorite with California Chrome and Wicked Strong might be a bit presumptuous, but the Arkansas Derby win means that another similar showing at Churchill Downs will not surprise anyone this time.