Even though the horses are the star of the show at the Kentucky Derby, the jockeys on the backs of these massive animals are just as instrumental in deciding who wins and loses.
It's one thing for a horse to have speed, but it's something else entirely to have a jockey who understands when to sit back and when to push forward. Churchill Downs brings out the best riders in the world, which should make for a brilliant race.
As we examine the field in Kentucky, there are compelling cases to be made for several horses to win the most prestigious race in the world. Here is a look at the 20 horses you will see on Saturday, as well as the key names to support.
|2014 Kentucky Derby Field|
|1||Vicar's In Trouble||Rosie Napravnik|
|2||Harry's Holiday||Corey Lanerie|
|3||Uncle Sigh||Irad Ortiz Jr.|
|5||California Chrome||Victor Espinoza|
|7||We Miss Artie||Javier Castellano|
|8||General A Rod||Joel Rosario|
|9||Vinceremos||Joe Rocco Jr.|
|10||Wildcat Red||Luis Saez|
|11||Hoppertunity (Scratched)||Mike Smith|
|12||Dance With Fate||Corey Nakatani|
|14||Medal Count||Robby Albarado|
|15||Tapiture||Ricardo Santana Jr.|
|16||Intense Holiday||John Velazquez|
|17||Commanding Curve||Shaun Bridgmohan|
|18||Candy Boy||Gary Stevens|
|19||Ride On Curlin||Calvin Borel|
|20||Wicked Strong||Rajiv Maragh|
No. 1 Contender: California Chrome
California Chrome's jockey, Victor Espinoza, is no stranger to big races. He led War Emblem to a win at Churchill Downs in 2002 and followed that up with a win at the Preakness Stakes. That was also the first and last time the 41-year-old jockey won a Kentucky Derby.
The story of how Espinoza came to ride California Chrome sounds like something you would see in a Disney movie. Here's what the legendary jockey told Ed Zieralski of U-T San Diego: "I told Brian (his agent), ‘You might think I’m crazy, but I like this horse. I knew he was a Cal-bred, but there was something about him I really liked. He caught my eye. I told Brian I’d like to get on him in the future."
Now Espinoza is leading the Kentucky Derby favorite, just on the off chance he happened to be looking at race results one day. Going back to the movie analogy, that's a plot contrivance that critics would jump all over.
There's a reason California Chrome is the overwhelming favorite in this year's Derby. Espinoza has pushed him to new heights, including a dominating victory at the Santa Anita Derby.
The one drawback is the horse has yet to run a race outside of California, but given the amount of time he's had to prepare, it shouldn't be a big problem when everyone steps up to the gate.
No. 2 Contender: Wicked Strong
The only bad thing anyone can say about Wicked Strong leading into the Kentucky Derby is his starting position on the outside. He drew the 20th post, something that seemed to drop his stock because horses don't win when starting that far off the rail.
Even though the outside isn't traditionally a spot where Kentucky Derby winners come from, I'll Have Another won this race from the 19th post in 2012.
Jockey Rajiv Maragh has done a masterful job of pacing Wicked Strong in the past, even rallying from a slow start to win the Wood Memorial by a comfortable 3.5 lengths.
Andrew Beyer of The Washington Post believes Wicked Strong is going to win the race based largely on that one win but also notes that oddsmakers are forgetting his efforts last year:
The Remsen was run over nine furlongs with a ridiculously slow pace — the leaders crawled the first six furlongs in 1:17.56. It’s difficult for any horse to rally under such circumstances, but Wicked Strong was gaining on Honor Code and Cairo Prince in the stretch and lost to them by only a half-length. Both of those colts would have been leading Derby contenders if they had stayed healthy.
If there's a horse not named California Chrome who can afford a slow start or a bad post position, it's Wicked Strong. He's been battle-tested, won a prestigious race already this season and has a jockey who has demonstrated the ability to control his horse in what appear to be losing situations.
Sleeper Pick: Wildcat Red
Wildcat Red's jockey Luis Saez had to deal with some controversy last year when he was accused of using an electrical device with Will Take Charge, but the New York Gaming Commission cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Saez was masterful in riding Will Take Charge, as Darin Zoccali of The Meadowlands Racetrack pointed out:
That alone tells you all there is to know about why Wildcat Red has a great chance to emerge from the pack at the Kentucky Derby. It also doesn't hurt that the horse got what is historically the best draw. The No. 10 post has produced nine Derby winners, the most recent being Giacomo in 2005.
Wildcat Red isn't a natural runner, relying on full-speed sprinting instead of pacing and timing, but that hasn't stopped the thoroughbred from being consistent on the track. He's never finished worse than second in seven career races and has four wins.
It's going to take a steady, controlling hand like Saez to maximize Wildcat Red's full potential on the track at Churchill Downs. He has to overcome the stigma of being an all-out, all-the-time horse. At the very least, he has the right jockey to get him there.
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