Kentucky Derby 2014: One Reason Each Contender Could Win at Churchill Downs
The problem with the Kentucky Derby is if you think long enough you can conjure any reason any of these horses could win the race.
Monba? Why not?! Java's War? Sure thing! Spanish Chestnut? Looks as good as anyone!
The challenge is not to over-think it too much. Impossible, but that's the key.
Now that all the major players have had their final workouts before Saturday's big race, we're starting to get a sense for who's ready and who may just spring an upset.
Horses that acclimate to the surface at Churchill Downs sometimes run off the screen. One horse in this slideshow did just that and put himself into the conversation as a sleeper.
In the following slides, you're going to see the major reasons why each of the 10 best horses have a chance to be the 140th Derby winner.
Some reasons may surprise you.
All the workout times were taken from DRF.com.
California Chrome: Comfort While on the Lead
California Chrome has been stellar for his trainer Art Sherman.
Everything has gone smooth so far including the two most convincing preps of the entire season in the San Felipe Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby.
The one reason California Chrome can win the Kentucky Derby is his ability to be comfortable near the lead.
He has a high cruising speed and horses that can dictate the terms of the race without overextending themselves have a great chance at striking late.
California Chrome could be like War Emblem in 2002 and wire-to-wire the field, or he may be like Smarty Jones (2004), Barbaro (2006) or Big Brown (2008)—tracking the pace setters then kicking clear in the final quarter-mile.
It would be an amazing story if Sherman led this colt to a win. At 77, he would become the oldest trainer to ever win the Kentucky Derby, passing the great Charles Whittingham, who won it at the age of 73 and 76.
Sherman told the New York Times:
Any trainer that says the Derby doesn’t mean anything is crazy. It's not an easy race to win. I think it's a prestigious race, and at least you know, 'Man, I won the Kentucky Derby.' Then I'd be able to say that I’ve done it all.
Intense Holiday: Great Breeze at Churchill Downs
Intense Holiday hasn't won a race since the Risen Star Stakes back on Feb. 22.
He finished a distant second to Vicar's in Trouble in the Louisiana Derby, but that relative clunker may be a thing of the past.
When handicapping the Derby, do not ignore how horses train over the surface.
Some come to Churchill and love it—exploding over the dirt. Hard Spun, circa 2007, was one such horse. He hadn't raised too many votes, but his breeze was so quick that, in hindsight, it should not have been a surprise that he set the pace and held on for second place.
Intense Holiday had one of those moves over the dirt this past Sunday. He drilled a half-mile in 48.60.
There have been quicker works in the past, but it was the reaction of his trainer, Todd Pletcher, that indicated this horse will run a special race on Saturday.
"I would probably classify this as the best work I've seen from him," Pletcher told The Kansas City Star. "Having said that, the horse always trains well ... but I thought that was exceptionally good."
For any lukewarm on Intense Holiday prior to his Sunday breeze, the one reason he could win may be how much he loved the track.
Ride On Curlin: Calvin Bo-Rail
Ride On Curlin's greatest chance to win—aside from being a legitimate closer with a solid pedigree—is his jockey, Calvin Borel.
Borel, affectionately nicknamed "Bo-Rail," for his penchant for riding the fence all the way around the oval, makes no secret that he owns the one-path.
That's how he won all three of his Kentucky Derbys.
Right now Borel is tied with Gary Stevens, Kent Desormeaux, Angel Cordero Jr., Earl Sande and Isaac Murphy with three. A fourth would tie Borel with Bill "The Shoe" Shoemaker, just one behind the all-time leaders in Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack.
Ride On Curlin will be saving energy early (just like Street Sense and Mine That Bird, two horses Borel rode to roses) and come running late.
He'll undoubtedly skim the fence thanks to Bo-Rail.
Samraat: Old School Training Keeps Him Fit
For those privy to modern training methods for today's thoroughbred, four-and five-furlong breezes are the norm with four being the most common.
But one mile, eight furlongs, that's bananas.
Samraat uses the mile breeze to maintain his endurance and his lung capacity.
His trainer, Rick Violette, has been using mile breezes all season and doesn't see a reason to stop the week of the biggest race of his and his colt's career. Samraat covered the mile in 1:45.91 at Aqueduct.
Violette told This Is Horse Racing back in February:
It just works. Not necessarily fast miles, but miles where you repeat 13 after 13, squeeze on them a little at the end and knock it out a little bit. When they can do that they usually can run a little bit.
It's worked for him. We had some awful training conditions coming up to the Damon Runyon. We missed a lot of training. I had a foot issue where I missed some training and going into the race, I kind of thought it was going to be a disservice if I didn’t get some serious air in his lungs, so a half mile in :49 wasn't going to quite make it. So he went a terrific mile, on what wasn't a very fast racetrack, but he got stronger as the work went on. Then he ran off the screen, so I said, 'If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.'
Samraat's unconventional training at that longer distance is a throwback and a reason he could surprise this field and win this race.
Wicked Strong: Powerful Closing Kick No Matter the Pace
Sometimes it's hard to get behind closers because the conditions of the race have to set up for them. They can't dictate the terms; they need a fast pace.
The Derby, without question, will get a fast pace in the neighborhood of 46 to 47 seconds for a half-mile.
Over 1 1/4 miles, that's wicked awesome for trainer Jimmy Jerkens.
Here's another reason Wicked Strong could perform well: He's already closed into a rather tepid pace and won. See the Wood Memorial.
Wicked Strong came charging late in the Wood while the opening quarter was just 23.79 seconds, and the half was 47.47. It was quick, but not the type of fractions that unequivocally set the table for a closer.
If three-quarters of a mile go in 1:09 and change, watch out for Wicked Strong bombing down the center of the track as Giacomo in 2005 and Street Sense in 2007.
Dance With Fate: Possible Effort Off Win on Polytrack
Dance With Fate's best shot at running huge in the Derby is the fact that it will be the first race on dirt after a strong effort on Polytrack, the artificial surface of the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.
Pioneerof the Nile ran a huge Derby after running his prep on Santa Anita's all-weather surface, then threw in a dud, in the Preakness. That first effort on dirt after running on the fake stuff is sometimes legendary, wait for it, DARY!
Adding to that, Dance With Fate whipped through a half-mile in 47.00 flat at Santa Anita.
Had he drilled that time over the Churchill Downs oval he would be raising many more supporters. Santa Anita tends to run faster than most tracks, so take that for what it's worth.
That breeze proved that Dance With Fate is very fit and primed to run.
Hoppertunity: Versatility Is His Strength
Hoppertunity's best chance at winning Saturday hinges on his versatility. He proved something Monday when he worked five furlongs in 1:01.25.
He did it in the slop.
His trainer, Bob Baffert, didn't have much of a choice with the storms coming through Louisville. Pushing his work back could have been disastrous to his conditioning.
He plowed through, worked with stablemate Drill and proved he can handle Churchill Downs when it gets muddy.
Saturday calls for 71 degrees and sun, but that can change in a blink.
Hoppertunity is one of the most well-traveled horses in this field. He ran races in California (second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby) and Arkansas (where he won the Rebel Stakes). Now he's in Kentucky trying to win Baffert a fourth Derby.
"It was a good work," Baffert said. "I’m glad I got the work in. He looked great. He was reaching out well. Got it in and got it out of the way. I can relax now, sit around and go buy my tickets."
Danza: Close Quarters No Problem at All
What Danza proved in the Arkansas Derby was his comfort near the fence.
Some horses don't like to be pinned against the rail and another horse. It's claustrophobic. But Danza slipped through on the rail to kick clear and win by daylight for Todd Pletcher.
In Kentucky, all these horses will face traffic like they never have before or, for that matter, ever again.
Twenty horses all jockeying for position is stressful on all involved, making Danza's ability to handle the tight quarters his best endorsement for a strong effort on Saturday.
ESPN's Gary West writes:
Powerfully put together, Danza probably looks more like a sprinter or a miler than a classic Derby horse. His dam, Champagne Royale, never won a stakes while racing exclusively at Hastings Park in Vancouver. And the sire of Danza, Street Boss, sprinted his entire career, never racing beyond seven-eighths of a mile. But, then again, Benjamin Franklin was the son of a candle maker.
While some, including West, may have reservations about Danza, Danza may buck that trend. It certainly wouldn't surprise West if Danza ran big.
After all, Danza's father, oddly enough, was also a candle maker. True story.
Vicar's in Trouble: He's Got Napravnik
Like Calvin Borel aboard Ride On Curlin, Vicar's in Trouble's best chance at winning is the jockey in the saddle: Rosie Napravnik.
Horseman all over say Napravnik gets horses to run.
She can turn a good horse into a great one. She has that sixth sense with horses where they become an extension of herself.
Very meta, but true.
Vicar's in Trouble got an easy lead in the Louisiana Derby and still had enough to clear the field. There's no such thing as an easy lead in the Kentucky Derby, but if there's anyone who can get her horse to relax, it's Napravnik.
She finished fifth in the Derby a year ago with Mylute, the highest ever finish for a female rider. She's no longer "that female jockey" (was she ever?).
She's as real as they come.
Wildcat Red: All Heart
Wildcat Red has an intangible quality: heart.
He runs hard and never gives up, and that's the reason he's got a puncher's chance in Louisville.
Whenever it's game time, he'll lock horns with any horse in this field and make them think twice about doing it again.
If there are any lingering concerns about Wildcat Red, it will be the time of his final workout: 1.04.40 for five furlongs.
That's like Usain Bolt running the 100 meters in 12 seconds.
"He used to be very anxious but now he can relax as he goes longer," said his trainer, Jose Garoffalo. "He is more mature and steadier. I am not worried about the time."
If his Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby are any indication of how hard he'll run, expect him to be the in mix late, even if he doesn't win.
Follow Brendan on Twitter @BrendanOMeara.