Triple Crown 2014: Power Ranking the Horses Ahead of the Kentucky Derby

Brendan O'MearaFeatured ColumnistMay 2, 2014

Triple Crown 2014: Power Ranking the Horses Ahead of the Kentucky Derby

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    California Chrome, on paper, appears to be the best shot this year at a Triple Crown.
    California Chrome, on paper, appears to be the best shot this year at a Triple Crown.Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Fans who follow horse racing preach of a need for a Triple Crown winner. It's been a long time, 36 years, since Affirmed buried his rival Alydar three straight times to become No. 11.

    But horse racing doesn't need a Triple Crown winner. No, it just needs a Triple Crown threat. So long as a horse wins the Derby and Preakness, that's enough electricity to power Spider-Man's latest villain

    And that's what we have here in this list: A handful of horses capable of stringing together three winning races in five weeks. 

    What makes these horses over the other 10 in the race a consideration is their class and their running styles. These horses have the greatest potential to win the Derby (Step 1 in winning a Triple Crown. Duh.). And in most cases, stalkers take precedence over closers, because stalking horses don't necessarily need a fast pace to win a race ... unlike closers.

    There were nine slides, but with the scratch of Hoppertunity, there are eight horses who could make a run at becoming No. 12. Continue reading to find out what makes the following horses capable of winning the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

8. Danza

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    "Jersey" Joe Bravo aboard Danza after winning the Arkansas Derby.
    "Jersey" Joe Bravo aboard Danza after winning the Arkansas Derby.Danny Johnston/Associated Press

    Are you a sucker for jockeys throwing up double thumbs up? Of course you are. 

    And that's Danza's only chance at winning the Triple Crown.

    In all seriousness, Danza showed some serious guts and class the way he won the Arkansas Derby. He stalked the pace (a theme in this slideshow) before squeezing through on the fence to win by daylight. He also boasts the second highest Beyer Speed Figure with a 102 in this field.

    If he can carry that speed and ration it out, he could get it done. 

    Also, his trainer, Todd Pletcher, has won one Derby and two Belmont Stakes. That kind of experience in Danza's corner can only help him try to become No. 12 on the very short list of Triple Crown winners.

7. Uncle Sigh

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    No cup of sweet tea for this Uncle Sigh.
    No cup of sweet tea for this Uncle Sigh.Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Aside from his last effort, Uncle Sigh has never run a bad race. And in that one (the Wood), he had an excuse. 

    If he breaks well (which he didn't do in the Wood), he should be able to set the pace or be right near it in all three of the Triple Crown races. He, like Samraat and Wicked Strong, are trained by New York-based trainers, so that final jewel will be on his home turf. It's just a matter of getting there.

    His strength lies in dictating the terms of the race. The real question remains whether he'll have the stamina (sire is Indian Charlie) to win any of these races. His running style gives him a chance, and that's all his connections can hope for over the next few weeks.

6. Chitu

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    In his four career starts, Chitu has never finished worse than second. He's a very fast horse out of Henny Hughes, who ended up being a good sprinter.

    Chitu has the speed to win the Triple Crown, posting a 102 speed figure in the Sunland Derby. That figure ties him for the second fastest in the entire Derby field. He's got the speed, but can he stretch out that speed?

    He has raced only twice in 2014, so he's undoubtedly fresh, fresher than many of his rivals. His strength may be what he has left in the gas tank versus many of these other horses.

5. Samraat

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    Samraat (left) has the heart to win the three legs.
    Samraat (left) has the heart to win the three legs.Adam Coglianese/Associated Press

    Samraat is another New York horse. He does most of his training at Aqueduct, not far from Belmont Park. What makes him capable of Triple Crown glory is not only his running style, which is favorable, but the heart with which he runs.

    He's all guts and runs hard no matter what. Seattle Slew was a tough, rough horse, and Samraat has a little of that edge in him too. His training has been rigorous too—one-mile breezes—so his trainer, Rick Violette Jr., is drilling stamina into this colt.

    He's going to need it.

4. Ride On Curlin

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    Ride On Curlin is a nasty horse with attitude.
    Ride On Curlin is a nasty horse with attitude.Garry Jones/Associated Press

    Ride On Curlin is one bad dude, at least according to Calvin Borel.

    There's no room for nice horses on the Triple Crown. Do you want Frank Underwood or Woody Allen leading the charge for racing immortality? Exactly. 

    Ride On Curlin will be assured of the shortest trips with Borel in the irons, and when Ride On Curlin gets down on the fence, he's going to crush anyone who comes near him. Matt Gardner of SB Nation wrote, "Ride On Curlin looks like a colt with additional room to develop, a good deal of experience getting bumped around during a race, and a really, really nice pedigree."

    His sire, Curlin, was third in the Derby, won the Preakness and came within a nose of winning of the Belmont. Ride On Curlin means business.

3. Intense Holiday

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    Intense Holiday could be a blur through the Triple Crown.
    Intense Holiday could be a blur through the Triple Crown.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    John Velazquez gets the mount. He's won the Derby (2011) and the Belmont twice (2007, 2012), and it's that latter fact that should be encouraging to anyone hoping he can make it through this five-week grind.

    Intense Holiday has a nice running style in that he can sit mid-pack. He finished second to Vicar's in Trouble in the Louisiana Derby, but more importantly he could be showing his true colors now, at the right time.

    In each of his last three races he's shown the ability to relax in the middle of the pack and let the pace-setters do their thing on the front end. With every fraction he creeps up into the mix. He's able to strategically ration his speed, and that will be important for all three legs of the Triple Crown.

2. Wicked Strong

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    It's hard to get behind a closer as a viable Triple Crown threat because a closer relies too much on the conditions of the race. The closer needs speed to close into, and thankfully for him and all the other closers, pace is usually hot in the Triple Crown classics.

    Wicked Strong breaks from Post 20 and has all the speed to his left. That should, in theory, allow the speed the time to get ahead. Wicked Strong, ridden by Rajiv Maragh, gets to slip in and draft. 

    But if he's going to win the Triple Crown, he's going to have to rely on the pace to be hot in all three races. He's a New York-based horse, so if he can get to Belmont with a chance to win the Triple Crown, all those reps that Maragh has there, and the familiarity trainer Jimmy Jerkens brings, could set up beautifully for this son of Hard Spun.

1. California Chrome

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    Chrome could be all alone.
    Chrome could be all alone.Morry Gash/Associated Press

    The last three horses to win the Triple Crown—Affirmed, Seattle Slew and Secretariat—all had one thing in common: They were close to or on the lead through the first half-mile of all the Triple Crown races. That allowed them to dictate the terms of the race. 

    The horses in the last 10 years that have had a chance at the Triple Crown, namely Smarty Jones and Big Brown, were of the variety to run the race on their terms. California Chrome is that kind of horse. After winning the Santa Anita Derby with aplomb, ESPN.com's Gary West wrote:

    Nobody has looked better; nobody stronger. Yes, the Santa Anita surface was kind to speed Saturday -- every winner but one on the main track either led early or was arguing about the early lead -- but California Chrome didn't win the Santa Anita Derby with his speed, or not with just that. He finished fastest of all; he was explosive and dynamic. He ran his fourth quarter-mile as fast as his second. And after he tucked the victory away, he "waltzed home," as the great Trevor Denman put it. And then, in the final yards, California Chrome pricked his ears, as though receptive to the flattery.

    CC, especially with the defection of Hoppertunity, will be able to set his own pace somewhere off the leaders. He can cruise along at a high speed while being relaxed the entire way. That's the type of running style that wins Triple Crowns. Closers don't get much of a chance because too much is left out of their control. 

    CC has the look; he's well rested and possesses the running style to shake the cobwebs off that Triple Crown trophy. It's been 36 years. It's time.