The 2014 Kentucky Derby received a shake-up when it was announced Hoppertunity, the second choice behind California Chrome based on the morning-line odds, wouldn't be fit to run. His absence opens the door for other secondary contenders.
Although the loss of Hoppertunity, who very well could have won the "Run for the Roses," is unfortunate, the long-term health of the horse is always more important. He could still have a successful racing career ahead once he returns to full strength.
The horses that do enter the starting gate on Saturday will be racing for a multimillion dollar purse, as Jennie Rees of The Courier-Journal noted: "If 20 horses start, the Derby purse will gross $2,202,800, with $1,442,800 to the winner."
As usual, the Kentucky Derby also kicks off the search for a Triple Crown winner for the first time in more than three decades. So let's check out all of the key information for the race, followed by a preview and prediction.
Where: Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky
When: Saturday, May 3 at 6:24 p.m. ET
Live Stream: NBC Sports Live Extra
Hoppertunity may be a name racing fans see later on the Triple Crown trail depending on his recovery from the hoof injury. Esther Marr of Blood-Horse magazine passed along comments from trainer Bob Baffert, who said running him this week simply wasn't worth the risk:
Above all else, his absence further elevates California Chrome's status as the clear favorite. The talented colt is coming off four straight victories, including one in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, and has seemed to get stronger with each passing start.
The other good news for his camp is the fact the next best horse in the race is now Wicked Strong, who will be forced to break from an outside gate. It doesn't completely eliminate him from contention, but it does bode well for the Art Sherman trainee.
One other thing to like about California Chrome is his experience. While the trend is for horses to race less when they're younger, he made his first career start more than a year ago. He's already got 10 career outings under his belt heading into the Derby.
Just like anything else, it takes time for horses to become acclimated to the situation. The California bred horse seems to have worked out all of the kinks and has been basically unstoppable since the calendar flipped to 2014, making him the rightful top choice.
Despite the unfavorable post position, Wicked Strong still deserves plenty of attention after an impressive run to win the Grade 1 Wood Memorial.
He made the turn for home in fourth place and looked in danger of turning into an also-ran. Then about midway through the stretch run, he found another gear and simply blew past the top three to win and establish himself as a Derby contender.
That late pace is key when it comes to contending from the outside. Jockey Rajiv Maragh should attempt to break conservatively from the post in order to drop down toward the rail early while also conserving some energy.
The hope for Wicked Strong's connections is that he'll be able to stay within striking distance of the lead pack and then showcases that same final kick at Churchill Downs.
Among the other horses to watch is Vicar's In Trouble. Drawing the inside post was far from ideal and makes a clean break from the gate crucial to success, but his performance to win the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby means he can't be counted out.
While Vicar's In Trouble is a strong horse, most of the focus will be on jockey Rosie Napravnik. As the Opelousas Daily World notes, she's trying to become the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Derby after falling short with Mylute last year:
"Vicar In Trouble's jockey, Rosie Napravnik, would make history of her own in becoming the first female jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. She is the regular rider of Vicar's in Trouble, a front-runner who was never threatened in taking the $1 million Louisiana Derby."
Danza, Samraat, Dance With Fate and Intense Holiday are notable names among the second wave of contenders. Whether they will have enough to edge California Chrome or Wicked Strong is very much a question mark, though.
In the end, California Chrome looked like he was a step above the rest even before Hoppertunity was taken out of the race. Now, it becomes even tougher to pick against him given his recent form and the fact one less major contender is in the field.
Look for him to cross the finish line first as a late rally while Wicked Strong falls short.
Prediction: California Chrome
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