Post positions promise to change the latest Vegas odds for the 2014 Kentucky Derby, and those will be revealed later on Wednesday. However, there are contenders in the 140th annual Run for the Roses that should threaten for the first jewel of the Triple Crown regardless of where they enter the starting gates at Churchill Downs.
Barring some unforeseen development, California Chrome will be the morning-line favorite, likely followed by the likes of Wicked Strong, Danza and Hoppertunity in some order. That is the exact hierarchy according to the oddsmakers, with California Chrome (11-4) the clear No. 1 entrant, followed by the aforementioned three at 7-1, 9-1 and 10-1 respectively, per OddsShark.com.
Wednesday's post position draw will commence at 5 p.m. ET and will be televised on NBC Sports Network and also be viewable on live stream at NBC Sports Live Extra.
As for what actually transpires in the race on Saturday, the following are some predictions as to how the latest edition of The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports will unfold.
Wildcat Red Emerges as Dark Horse to Finish in the Money
Even with four wins in seven career starts and no finish worse than second, Wildcat Red isn't commanding much respect in the latest odds as a 20-1 shot to win.
In his first Grade I race, only a late surge by Constitution prevented Wildcat Red from winning the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Wildcat Red's trainer, Jose Garoffolo, has been preparing his contender for the longer distance of 10 furlongs he'll be facing in Louisville, per BloodHorse.com's Claire Novak:
I do not like the breezes too much. You have to keep them in shape with the gallops. These kind of horses, they try hard whatever you ask them. If my horse works a bullet, that will be okay, but I'm not looking for that. I just need to keep the horse fit the longest possible time—fit and sound, which is the secret in this business. And that's what I have been doing with Wildcat Red since maybe the last month of 2013, and he's been handling it very good. So I have noticed the change in him, and every time he runs he goes longer and longer, and he does it with no problems.
While Mike Welsch of the Daily Racing Form noted how Wildcat Red struggled on five furlongs in his work on Sunday, TVG.com pointed out how the horse improved in his most recent work:
Wildcat Red has had too many strong results and has been prepared for endurance too well to flop in the Kentucky Derby. Many others haven't proven themselves in higher profile races, and there shouldn't be much reason to be discouraged by how Wildcat Red couldn't quite cap off a wire-to-wire victory at the Florida Derby.
There is room for improvement, and the way that Wildcat Red has trained suggests that he can finish at least in the top three. Among the dark horses, he seems like the most viable bet to do so.
Hoppertunity Becomes Strongest Local Hope
The Hall of Fame combination of connections in Hoppertunity's corner features Bob Baffert as the trainer and Mike Smith in the saddle. Smith won the Belmont Stakes last year aboard Palace Malice and knows how to get the most out of a strong horse when stamina is at a premium.
Connections who run Hoppertunity's Twitter account alluded to analysis provided by horse racing personality Steve Byk, who suggests the horse is the flavor of the week at Churchill Downs:
Hoppertunity will have the home crowd behind him as he attempts to jaunt into horse racing immortality, and his chances figure to be strong. The current odds have him as a 10-1 favorite and projected to finish in fourth, which is a rather accurate assessment.
Baffert insists that Hoppertunity isn't anything flashy:
The Daily Racing Form's Marcus Hersh expects Hoppertunity to continue picking up steam, though:
With Smith getting the mount and his steady runner-up finish in the Santa Anita Derby to California Chrome, Hoppertunity should be in the hunt. Absent a ringing endorsement from Baffert and the explosiveness to burst to the finish, perhaps finishing second yet again is the best Hoppertunity can hope for.
On the other hand, Smith is as capable as anyone of getting the most out of his horses, so don't sleep on Hoppertunity to emerge as the victor.
Winner: California Chrome
Backing any other horse is difficult when California Chrome has won his past four races in such convincing fashion, all with jockey Victor Espinoza manning the reins.
Even though his horse is the unquestioned front-runner to seize ultimate glory at Churchill Downs on Saturday, trainer Art Sherman seems to imply there's a chip on his shoulder, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Larry Stumes:
[California Chrome]'s getting so much media attention that I don't know if it's the people who own him or me being an older trainer or just he's been so impressive in running. [...] I think people are looking for someone new. Guys like (Bob) Baffert and (Todd) Pletcher can have three or four horses in these kinds of races, but here's a small operation. It's the owners' first foal by a $2,500 stud fee stallion out of an $8,000 mare. It's kind of like a David and Goliath story and people like that.
It's that kind of mentality that should make Sherman one of the more compelling and quotable personalities leading up to the race. But California Chrome has exceeded all expectations and, despite his modest roots, cannot be mistaken as an undeserving favorite.
Espinoza is a jockey who's won both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in the same year (2002) with War Emblem. It doesn't seem unrealistic that he could pull off the double again this time around, given California Chrome's excellent resume and potential to ride even better.
The breath of fresh air Sherman can bring to horse racing, along with Espinoza's previous success and California Chrome's legitimate ability to crush the rest of the field, make this sound like a winning combination on paper.
Wildcat Red should provide an interesting storyline with his strong finish, while Hoppertunity will allow the traditional powers like Baffert to remain a fixture near the top at Churchill Downs. But neither will muster quite enough to defeat California Chrome.
Pace shouldn't matter much in the 2014 Kentucky Derby, and it seems Espinoza has a good enough feel for California Chrome that he won't push him too early in the 10-furlong race. As long as that's the case, it's hard to envision any other contender emerging with the maiden Triple Crown jewel of the season.