Kentucky Derby 2014 Field: Handicapping the Horses at Churchill Downs

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistMay 3, 2014

Kentucky Derby 2014 Field: Handicapping the Horses at Churchill Downs

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    California Chrome gallops below Churchill's signature twin spires.
    California Chrome gallops below Churchill's signature twin spires.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Many of the pieces have already predicted who will win and where the rest will finish. They've addressed running styles, strengths and weaknesses.

    So, yes, this piece will handicap the 19 horses but also slot them according to four categories: favorites, contenders, dark horses and donkeys—sorry, I mean, "no chances."

    Their odds, running styles and whether they will peak on Derby Day are huge factors as to where they rank on this list.

    Take a deep breath. Let's go diving.

    Workouts and data were obtained using purchased past performances from Daily Racing Form. Odds came from Kentucky

The Favorites

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    The big horse: California Chrome.
    The big horse: California Chrome.Morry Gash/Associated Press

    California Chrome: 5-2

    Our favorite, California Chrome. He has raced more times (10) than any horse in the field. He took a while to come into his own, but when he turned three, he truly exploded, winning all his races by a total of 24 1/4 lengths. 

    He should break well and be sitting fourth or fifth around the entire oval. When it's game time at the top of the stretch, he should kick clear and hold off many of the late runners who want a piece of him.

    His jockey, Victor Espinoza, won the Derby back in 2002 with War Emblem, so CC has experience in the saddle.

    Ellis Starr of Fox Sports wrote:

    In recent history, the horse in front at the eighth pole in the Derby has won more often than not, because most of the others are feeling the effects of running the mile and one-quarter distance they had not run previously, so if California Chrome runs as he has in those recent races he's going to be the one to catch in the final stages of the race. 

    Sounds about right.


    Danza: 8-1

    Danza is a lightly raced colt by Street Boss, with only four races under Danza's saddle. He went from a 79 Beyer in his prep for the Arkansas Derby and blew up for a 102 when he won the Arkansas Derby. That could signify a bounce on just three weeks' rest. 

    If he pairs that effort up, he could be in the mix. He should get a steady trip around the oval and stay within striking distance of the leaders in sixth or seventh place. If he regresses off that Arkansas Derby pace, he'll likely trail off and finish mid-pack.

    Starr sees more to like:

    Perhaps more importantly, Danza showed excellent acceleration when asked, leading with an eighth of a mile to run and widening from there. With improving to do in his third start as a three-year-old and as one of the four entrants in the race trained by North America's leading trainer, Todd Pletcher, Danza could take another step forward and be a strong factor in the Derby.


    Intense Holiday: 8-1

    Much has been made of how Intense Holiday worked this week. He buried his stablemate We Miss Artie in his work on April 27, a four-furlong breeze in 48 3/5 seconds. 

    Horses that acclimate to the track in the week leading up to the Derby have a distinct advantage. In 2007, Hard Spun had a great week of training, then ran a monster race eventually finishing second to Street Sense in the Derby.

    If Intense Holiday can race up to his training, he could be dangerous in exotics.


    Wicked Strong: 6-1

    His kick to win the Wood Memorial has to be respected even if he did draw Post 20. 

    That 104 Beyer Speed Figure is the second best in the entire field, and if he runs up to that he will be very dangerous.

    Seeing how the race unfolds to his left will allow his jockey, Rajiv Maragh, to get the position he needs to set up his one run late in the race. He's very dangerous.


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    Wildcat Red has a chance being on the front end.
    Wildcat Red has a chance being on the front end.Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Wildcat Red: 15-1

    Wildcat Red set the pace in the Florida Derby by shooting out from Post 1 like a rocket. It wasn't a blazing half-mile (48 seconds), but he proved he could get to the lead and relax. 

    He was simply worn down by Constitution in the Florida Derby. That was at 1 1/8 miles. The Kentucky Derby is 1 1/4 miles. Wildcat Red has a lot of fight in him, but his 126-pound jockey is going to feel like a three-ton SUV in the final furlong.

    "My horse has proved that he can run at this level … and he can be here against all these big horses with these big barns," said trainer Jose Garoffalo, per Steve Jones of The Courier-Journal. "I'm pretty confident and pretty optimistic about what the horse has done and what he'll do in the Derby.


    Uncle Sigh: 30-1

    Uncle Sigh's trainer, Gary Contessa, is gregarious and gutsy and makes no secrets about how he plans on running his colt. He's strapping blinkers on Uncle Sigh for the first time in his career, and that likely means one thing: He's going to the front. 

    With the exception of his maiden race and the Wood Memorial (where he broke poorly), Uncle Sigh has been on the lead or in second place at first call.

    "Ideally, I'd like to see him in the first flight, behind two horses duking it out on the front end," Contessa told Ed McNamara of Newsday. "I'm not going to worry about what position he's in until they turn for home. Then I'm going to be a little stirred up."

    He has distance concerns with that Indian Charlie top side, but he ran on gamely to finish fifth in the Wood despite a horrible break. If he stays in contention through the entire race, he'll dig deep and could get a small piece.


    Samraat: 15-1

    Samraat has never finished worse than second. In his six starts, he's won five races and finished second to Wicked Strong—one of the Derby favorites—in the Wood.

    People who question Samraat question his ability to get the distance. He has some distance pedigree on his top side with his granddaddy Giant's Causeway. Something immeasurable is how hard this horse runs every time. That doesn't show up on past performances.

    He runs hard. There's always a horse or two that gets up for third or fourth that shocks everyone. Samraat could be one of those colts.


    Dance With Fate: 20-1

    Dance With Fate won the Blue Grass Stakes by relaxing in the middle of the pack then kicking clear to win by almost two lengths over Medal Count.

    He turned in a blisteringly fast half-mile work at Santa Anita in 47 seconds. And according to the handicapping notes on the Daily Racing Form, the clockers said, "He has been full of himself at Churchill Downs this week." 

    Add to that, horses have been known to move forward on dirt after a strong effort on Polytrack. He's worth playing, and Ellis Starr of Fox Sports really likes him:

    Having earned a career best 108 Equibase Speed Figure in that victory, one point shy of California Chrome's 109 best figure, and with potential improving to do in his fourth start as a three-year-old, Dance With Fate should be passing most if not all of the other 19 in the Derby and could post the upset win.


    Ride On Curlin: 15-1

    Even breaking from Post 19, Ride On Curlin is definitely a contender. He's got Calvin Borel, a three-time winner of the Derby, in the irons. Any time Borel gets aboard a horse at Churchill Downs, you have to respect his chances. 

    Ride On Curlin, according to Borel, is one mean dude. And if he's going to war down on the fence, you want a horse that is ready to bite his rivals like a zombie. 

    Sure, he lost to Danza in the Arkansas Derby, but he's never run a bad race, and putting faith in Borel has yielded some nice results since 2007. 

Dark Horses

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    Jockey Rosie Napravnik won the Oaks on Friday. Can she do it on Vicar's in Trouble for the Derby?
    Jockey Rosie Napravnik won the Oaks on Friday. Can she do it on Vicar's in Trouble for the Derby?David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Vicar's in Trouble: 20-1

    Post 2 is a bear for this son of Into Mischief. Jockey Rosie Napravnik has a tough decision: gun for the lead, or sit back and let a few other horses clear out, and then settle back. Vicar's in Trouble went to the lead in the Louisiana Derby and controlled the speed. It worked then. Can it work now? Napravnik is going to have to shoot him out.

    This colt hasn't trained well leading into the Derby. He breezed five furlongs in 1:03.39, the 58th of 70 recorded works at that distance. 

    He'll be toward the front since that's his only choice, and he'll begin fading around the 3/8s pole.


    General A Rod: 15-1

    There's a lot of speed to General A Rod's left, and they're going to get the jump on him. Post 8 is the perfect position for him to fall out and see how the race unfolds. He gets last year's winning jockey in Joel Rosario, but General A Rod has yet to win a race longer than a mile. 

    In all of his races he hasn't been more than 2 3/4 lengths behind the winner (and on that one it was Polytrack). He's got a lot of heart and has had taxing duels down the homestretch in his last three races. If he doesn't let the speed get too far away from him, he can be right in the thick of things turning for home.


    Tapiture: 8-1

    Winchell Farms loves horses by Tapit. That much is clear, especially after its filly, Untapable, won the Kentucky Oaks by daylight on Friday. Winchell Farms and trainer Steve Asmussen could pull off the Oaks/Derby double with Tapiture, but it's unlikely.

    Tapiture has run some great races in 2014, the problem is that he is in downward form. He won the Southwest, finished second in the Rebel, then was fourth in the Arkansas Derby. This isn't quite the progression you want to see in a horse heading into Kentucky.

    His works have been mediocre, so he's hard to support, especially at odds of 8-1.


    Candy Boy: 18-1

    He got within a whiff of California Chrome by finishing third in the Santa Anita Derby. Granted, that third-place finish was 8 3/4 lengths behind CC. Still, a whiff of CC is awfully nice, all things considered.

    He won the Robert B. Lewis Stakes back on Valentines Day by a half-length over Chitu. 

    He's been working well at Churchill, but he's hard to back with so many other horses with legitimate shots at winning this race.

No Chance

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    We Miss Artie leads the horses with no chance.
    We Miss Artie leads the horses with no chance.Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

    We Miss Artie: 50-1

    We Miss Artie, no matter what owner Ken Ramsey says, doesn't belong in this race. He belongs on synthetic tracks or the turf.

    His last two races on dirt, he finished a combined 21 1/2 lengths behind the winner. He hasn't been training well at all, and even though he won the Spiral Stakes (on Polytrack), his jockey for that race took off for another horse. That jockey was Hall of Famer John Velazquez.

    Nothing to like here.


    Harry's Holiday: 50-1

    Trainer Mike Maker has Vicar's in Trouble and Harry's Holiday bottled in tight in Posts 2 and 3. Harry's Holiday showed early speed in the Spiral when breaking from the outside. He flopped in the Blue Grass Stakes finishing second to last.

    His only hope is to break sharp and see how far he can carry that speed. You'd have to go back to December for the last time he won on dirt. Tepid works, a bad draw and slow Beyer Speed Figures put this colt at a serious disadvantage.


    Vinceremos: 30-1

    His Tampa Bay Derby two races back wasn't terrible, but it wasn't all his fault. Ring Weekend got loose on an easy lead, so nobody was catching him.

    Vinceremos is sired by 2009 Kentucky Derby runner-up Pioneerof the Nile, but it appears Vinceremos hasn't been working well over the dirt and was out-worked by stablemate Danza earlier this week.

    He ran a 90 Beyer Speed Figure in the Tampa Bay Derby, and even if he moves forward off that it clearly won't be enough to back him.


    Chitu: 20-1

    Chitu is lightly raced and posted a tie for the second-highest Beyer 102, but that was at Sunland Park where speed is in great supply.

    He's by Henny Hughes, who was a great sprinter, but not a horse that could get the distance.

    Chitu's best distance is likely a mile or shorter, and he won't be much of a factor in Kentucky.


    Medal Count: 20-1

    Medal Count is a steady horse that finished a distant fifth in his only effort on dirt in 2014. His best efforts have been on artificial surfaces, and that makes him a play against.

    What he does have in his corner is a decent pedigree. His sire, Dynaformer, fathered Barbaro, the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner. So he has that going for him. 

    Beyond that, he's tough to back—though Ellis Starr of Fox Sports likes him a whole lot. It's up to you.

    Medal Count finished second to Dance With Fate in the Blue Grass Stakes, coming back on just seven days rest. The Derby will be his third start in four weeks but he appears to be the kind of "iron horse" of days gone by that can handle that amount of racing, perhaps thrive on it. As a son of Dynaformer, sire of 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, Medal Count should have little issue successfully running the mile and one-quarter of the Derby, and as he too is on a three race pattern of improvement with figures of 91, 103 and 106, he deserves a good deal of respect in this year's run for the roses.


    Commanding Curve: 50-1

    Commanding Curve snuck into the Derby after the defection of Ring Weekend (who came down with a fever). Commanding Curve did have a nice five-furlong workout in 1:00 on the 26th, but he hasn't won a race since November. Naturally, he's tough to back.

    In 2014, he finished sixth in the Risen Star Stakes and third in the Louisiana Derby (behind a horse that is marginal at best).

    His best Beyer Speed Figure is 89, which puts him far short of contention.


    All handicapping statistics and Beyer Speed Figures come from Daily Racing Form. You can also find free Brisnet PPs at