While seemingly innocuous on the surface, Wednesday's post position draw for the 2014 Kentucky Derby holds more significance than most realize.
On the surface, it's only a random draw. The same horses have to travel the same distance on the same track. They all start and finish at the same place. This is not akin to NASCAR, where there is an obvious advantage to starting first and a massive disadvantage to starting last. Wicked Strong in post 20 is equidistant to the finish line as Vicar's in Trouble is in the first post.
Yet history and the fluctuation of the odds following Wednesday's draw prove the fallacy in the seemingly straightforward process. The reality—and no one disputes this—is that some posts are simply better than others.
Being on the outside has historically come with a one-way ticket to disappointment. Only three horses in Kentucky Derby history have started to the right of the No. 16 post and still gone on to glory—though two of those have happened since 2008. The inside posts have been equally daunting in recent years. Affirmed was the last to win from the second position in 1978, and no horse has won from the rail in more than a quarter century.
Trends can be broken, sure. But to act as if there is not a better or worse place to be in the field is disingenuous—even with a talented, highly favored horse. Keep in mind that the two horses that won from the outside (Big Brown, I'll Have Another) also went on to win the Preakness Stakes. Sometimes breaking the trend just simply means being a historically great horse.
With that in mind, let's check in on the post positions updates and see what we can take from the changes in odds.
|1||Vicar's in Trouble||30-1|
|7||We Miss Artie||50-1|
|8||General a Rod||15-1|
|12||Dance With Fate||20-1|
|19||Ride On Curlin||15-1|
Predicted Winner: California Chrome
I know. Stepping way out on the limb for this one. Apologies if this #hotsportstake is too much for you all to handle. I do not know my own powers.
California Chrome is the overwhelming favorite for good reason. While not rooted with a deep prestigious pedigree nor a trainer who is well-known nationally, the horse makes up for it and then some by simply being better than anyone else. California Chrome's last four wins have come by a combined 24.25 lengths.
If California Chrome were able to keep that average going Saturday, it would be one of the most dominant wins in the race's history. The record for largest margin of victory in a Kentucky Derby is eight lengths—and that hasn't happened since 1946. Mine That Bird's 6.75-length triumph in 2009 is the largest victory in recent memory. A six-length win would rank tied for seventh all-time.
But even a regular old victory would do just fine for California Chrome. One of the unlikelier favorites in recent Kentucky Derby history, the three-year-old colt is owned and trained by what amounts to novices at this high level.
Trainer Art Sherman is 77 years old and has more than six decades under his belt in the horse racing industry. He's also been a mid-level trainer throughout most of his professional career, earning a ton of respect around the sport but never reaching the pinnacle. California Chrome is Sherman's first Kentucky Derby entrant of his career.
Likewise, co-owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin have an almost nonexistent track record within the sport. As noted by Sports Illustrated's Tim Layden, the two began investing in horse racing only in 2008—mostly on a whim. They bought a horse, Love the Chase, with next to zero pedigree for just $8,000. Hell, their partnership operation is called Dumb-Ass Partners.
It's really all been a run of dumb luck filled with smiling faces and one horse leading the way. Rooting for favorites is often tough in horse racing. They've either been bred and trained and primed for this moment since the womb—the Bryce Harper of animals, essentially—or are attached to familiar faces we've seen umpteen times before.
Plus, it's always kind of fun when someone bets on a 50-1 underdog on a whim and walks away a kajillionaire. In 2014, though, the underdog story might just be the one sitting at 5-2 odds.
Predicted Disappointment: Wicked Strong
I'm unsure what it is about 2014 Kentucky Derby favorites, but it seems like this is the "year of the cool name." Wicked Strong sounds like a Saturday Night Live parody of what a New England-based horse would be named.
Go ahead and Google Wicked Strong. You get a bunch of news articles about the horse and 30 advertisements asking you to buy Boston Red Sox gear or some tangentially related item. The only way Wicked Strong could be more Boston Strong—and note that the horse was named as such to honor the Boston Marathon bombing victims—is if he was jockeyed by David Ortiz screaming "this is our (expletive) city" with every whip.
Right. OK. About the horse. Wicked Strong was the third favorite prior to Wednesday's draw, following a victory at the Wood Memorial as a 9-1 underdog. Jockeyed by Rajiv Maragh, Wicked Strong was in perfect form from the outset, unseating then-undefeated Samraat by 3.5 lengths. The three-year-old colt was barely part of the Derby outlook at the beginning of the month, yet it goes to show just how much one race can buoy a reputation.
That might not be the best idea. When judging a horse, it's always better to look at the long(ish) sample rather than a one-race blip. Wicked Strong's win at the Wood Memorial was just his second in six career starts and first in a stakes.
In fact, 2014 had mostly been filled with massively disappointing finishes. Wicked Strong was ninth in a mediocre field at Holy Bull in January and only improved to fourth in his other run this year at Gulfstream Park. The reason he was not considered a Derby contender was, simply, he looked nowhere near that level.
Maybe Rajiv Maragh found something at the Wood Memorial. Crazier things have happened. Yet, when discussing a horse that is not exactly at high odds at the moment, it is probably better to back away and see if you can get better numbers come Saturday morning.
Maragh's best performance is third place atop Mucho Macho Man in 2011, and it's been 14 years since Fusaichi Pegasus became the last Wood winner to take the roses. It's probably not happening again with this horse.
Predicted Spoiler: Chitu
Bob Baffert, even in his advancing age, remains horse racing royalty. He's perhaps the most recognizable face in a sport with a series of ever-changing owners and, obviously, horses. But that wasn't the case at this point last year. In fact, there was no Baffert at Churchill Downs. Without a qualifying horse, a strange absence was felt by almost anyone tangentially interested in the sport.
No such feeling will be had in 2013. In Hoppertunity, Baffert has a real chance to win his fourth Kentucky Derby. The colt, which finished 5.25 lengths behind California Chrome at the Santa Anita Derby, comes in at 6-1 morning line odds—second behind only the favorite. Hoppertunity might be Baffert's best chance to win in Louisville in more than a decade.
Chitu, Baffert's other horse in the field, has a quietly strong shot at upsetting the field. In four career races, Chitu has three first-place finishes and one second. Injuries have played a large factor in the colt's inability to get more exposure on the track—four races is almost nothing for a three-year-old—but Chitu is relatively healthy at the moment.
Baffert had a scare earlier this week when a fungal condition caused a specially designed shoe to come off his foot. The shoe is designed to protect against the fungal condition causing further damage. Chitu lost a piece of his right front hoof last year and has been racing with the replacement gear ever since. Baffert said Chitu would be re-shod with a conventional shoe, which should not cause any problems in preparation.
If that's the case, Chitu might just pull off the unthinkable. The No. 13 post was a near-perfect draw for a speedy horse coming out of the gate—and 20-1 odds aren't too bad for a Baffert trainee.
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