Horse racing fans have been waiting for this day all year. The 2014 Kentucky Derby is upon us, with a field of 19 horses looking to join a long, illustrious list of champions and take that first step to becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed 36 years ago.
There's plenty of time to dissect whether the winner of Saturday's race has a chance to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, but for now, all eyes are locked on Churchill Downs.
The week leading up to the race has been notable. Hoppertunity, who was the No. 2 betting favorite, was forced to withdraw due to an issue with his left front hoof.
Trainer Bob Baffert reports Hoppertunity (left front hoof) will bypass Saturday's #KyDerby & will be examined later today in Lexington.— Kentucky Derby (@KentuckyDerby) May 1, 2014
Hoppertunity's absence has helped enhance the support for California Chrome. The California-bred horse has seen his already heavy odds get stronger, meaning a loss in this race would be a huge upset.
Whatever the rationale is for the oddsmakers to do what they do best, we will break down odds for the top contenders after taking a look at the entire Kentucky Derby field.
|1||Vicar's In Trouble||Rosie Napravnik||25/1|
|2||Harry's Holiday||Corey Lanerie||50/1|
|3||Uncle Sigh||Irad Ortiz Jr.||35/1|
|5||California Chrome||Victor Espinoza||21/10|
|7||We Miss Artie||Javier Castellano||33/1|
|8||General A Rod||Joel Rosario||18/1|
|9||Vinceremos||Joe Rococo Jr.||50/1|
|10||Wildcat Red||Luis Saez||18/1|
|12||Dance With Fate||Corey Nakatani||14/1|
|14||Medal Count||Robby Albarado||22/1|
|15||Tapiture||Ricardo Santana Jr.||20/1|
|16||Intense Holiday||John Velazquez||12/1|
|17||Commanding Curve||Shaun Bridgmohan||33/1|
|18||Candy Boy||Gary Stevens||18/1|
|19||Ride On Curlin||Calvin Borel||18/1|
|20||Wicked Strong||Rajiv Maragh||8/1|
It seems that all that can stop California Chrome from winning the Kentucky Derby is himself or jockey Victor Espinoza. The list of reasons to like the California-bred horse is vast, and it includes four straight wins by an average of more than six lengths.
California Chrome is also a horse that everyone can get behind because of his rise from humble beginnings to become the most talked-about runner in the biggest race of the year, as Joe Posnanski of NBC Sports wrote:
Everything about this sounds like a sitcom, right? Two older guys, nothing in common, buy a broken-down horse, breed her with the cheapest horse they can find, and then believe they have a Kentucky Derby winner. Then, to add to the comedic possibilities, they send California Chrome to a kindly 77-year-old trainer named Art Sherman who last went to the Kentucky Derby in 1955, when he was a stable boy and slept on the train next to a horse name Swaps.
Despite his background, coming from nowhere to be the biggest race horse in the world, California Chrome is doing things that no other horse can do. All things being equal, his combination of size, speed, strength, burst and acceleration is matched by no one.
It would be an upset if another horse were to win the race, though in an event that lasts only two minutes, where the slightest misstep can derail everything, the margin of victory might not be as wide as you think.
Which favorite will have the best finish at the Kentucky Derby?
One reason to be skeptical about California Chrome being such an overwhelming favorite is Wicked Strong, a name given to honor the spirit of Boston following last year's Marathon bombings.
Despite starting on the outside gate, Wicked Strong has all the ingredients necessary to pull off an upset, though calling a horse with 8/1 odds an underdog seems illogical.
Chris Fallica of ESPN Stats and Information noted that the outside has been the place to be in recent years at the Kentucky Derby:
Each of the past three and seven of the past 15 winners have started from the auxiliary gate -- posts 15 and out. So don’t discredit anyone’s chances because of posts 15-20. The past three winners from the main gate were all rail-skimming rides by Calvin Borel (Super Saver, Mine That Bird and Street Sense).
While the consistency hasn't been there for Wicked Strong, especially compared to California Chrome, he seems to be building toward something big. He finished ninth at the Holy Bull Stakes in January, fourth at the Allowance Optional Claiming event in February and first at the Wood Memorial in April.
If that trajectory continues, Wicked Strong will give California Chrome a run for his money Saturday.
Finally, we arrive at the horse named after Tony Danza. There's a large sector of the population, mostly children of the '80s, who will be rooting for Danza just to read all the subsequent "Who's The Boss?" headlines that follow.
Oh yeah, Danza can also run. There's a reason he's shot up the favorites list, galloping into a tie with Wicked Strong for the second-best odds. His victory at the Arkansas Derby was an eye-opener.
Oddsmaker Mike Diliberto told Jeff Duncan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune that Danza's finish at Arkansas was huge leading into the Kentucky Derby:
Danza ran a fantastic race in the Arkansas Derby. His time was only a fifth of a second off what Will Take Charge ran in the previous race. And Danza finished the last quarter (of a mile) in 12 and 2/5th seconds. If he can improve, I think he'll be tough to beat.
Diliberto also said that he handicaps races by looking at "a horse that can accelerate in the Derby because it can help them avoid trouble with so many horses in the field."
Danza has proved himself in that regard, so any separation he's able to get early is only going to give him a leg up heading into the final stretch. He also closes well, as Diliberto mentioned, which is necessary for winning at Churchill Downs.
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