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Kentucky Derby 2015: Highlighting Early Contenders Ahead of Triple Crown Race

Kenny DeJohn@@kennydejohnAnalyst IIIApril 22, 2015

Exercise rider Jorge Alvarez gallops Kentucky Derby hopeful American Pharoah at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Saturday, April 18, 2015.  (AP Photo/Garry Jones)
Garry Jones/Associated Press

All it takes is a win at the storied Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs to make a horse a household name. Who will be this year's rendition of California Chrome?

Chrome, of course, won the first two Triple Crown races before coming up short in the Belmont Stakes. Still, his story was one that even casual horse racing fans followed from the start. It happens every year when a new Triple Crown hopeful begins its journey with a win at the Run for the Roses.

There are three contenders that stand out with a little less than two weeks to go before the running of the 141st Kentucky Derby. The beauty of horse racing is that even the horse with the best odds can still fall short during a two-minute sprint to the finish line, but these are the three that have the most going for them heading into the crucial last stretch before the race.

Familiarize yourself with them below.

American Pharoah

Danny Johnston/Associated Press
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The consensus favorite at this point is American Pharoah, and for good reason. The three-year-old's last win came at the Arkansas Derby, a run that saw him sprint to an early lead before coasting somewhat down the stretch to a victory by eight lengths.

Churchill Downs' oddsmaker Mike Battaglia thinks highly enough of Pharoah after his performance during his last race to put him as the favorite, as he told Jennie Rees of The Courier-Journal: "If that Arkansas Derby wasn't so impressive, then maybe Dortmund would have jumped in front. But it was just too impressive. It just blew everybody away."

The lesser competition made things easy on American Pharoah, but that doesn't undermine the way the race was executed:

Pharoah should be considered the favorite both because of this run and the fact that he'll be jockeyed by Victor Espinoza—yes, the same man who rode California Chrome to wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes a year ago. He knows how to ride a winning horse.

Pharoah also has the pedigree that enthusiasts like to see in a potential winner. He was sired by Pioneer of the Nile, second-place finisher of the 2009 Kentucky Derby. That horse was sired by Empire Maker, which makes Pharoah the great-grandson of Unbridled, the champ of the 1990 Derby, according to Alex Risen of WTVQ.com.

When looking for the total package—a successful last run, a winning jockey and a storied pedigree—look no further than American Pharoah.

Dortmund

Uncredited/Associated Press

Dortmund, undefeated in four graded stakes races, comes from a successful background. He was sired by Big Brown, the winner of the Derby and Preakness in 2008.

Several horse racing professionals have conflicting views of which horse belongs on top of their big boards heading into the race. Some favor American Pharoah. Others favor Dortmund. There are even some who favor others.

But Dave Grening of Daily Racing Form explains why Dortmund simply isn't strong enough to contend with Pharoah, via The Courier-Journal:

After having Dortmund on top since the first week of this poll, I have now replaced him with American Pharoah. Watching the replays of both horses, I just find Pharoah to be flawless. He's good away from the gate, he's got an amazing, fluid stride and last week he showed he had no problem conceding the lead. This is more about being enamored with American Pharoah than knocking Dortmund.

This should give you an idea about how competitive this race should be. If analysts are only going to bump Dortmund down because of the incredible exploits of another horse without a fault of his own, then we should continue to expect some flip-flopping both leading up to and during the race.

A two-horse race down the final stretch of the Derby would be incredibly exciting for the fans, and given the way both of these horses have trained and competed heading into the race, it's not unbelievable to think they'll be the two to steal the show.

For Dortmund, it's simply a matter of overcoming a horse that seemingly has no weakness.

Carpe Diem

Garry Jones/Associated Press

Carpe Diem is a popular choice as the No. 3 finisher in the Kentucky Derby, though in other years he might be the horse chosen to win. The field for the 2015 Derby is deeper than it has been in some time.

Carpe Diem isn't as strong as either of the aforementioned horses, but there are plenty of strengths that make him a tough horse to beat. HorseRacingNation.com highlighted those strengths back in November:

Besides the excellent racing record and pedigree already mentioned, Carpe Diem has already accomplished a few things that most juveniles never do. He has run well from three different early race positions; on the lead, close to the pace, and way back early. This tactical nature, and ability to adapt, should suit him well on the trail, as well as in a difficult race like the Kentucky Derby.

John Velazquez will man the horse in the Derby, and the experienced jockey should be able to keep Carpe Diem running steady throughout. There's no doubt he'll play catch-up with faster horses like Pharoah and Dortmund sprinting out early, but it'll be his resilience and comfort level on the horse that will determine how close he comes to catching either (or both).

Of course, Velazquez knows how to get the most from the horses he jockeys, having won three Triple Crown and 11 Breeders' Cup races in his incredible career.

Will Carpe Diem have what it takes to add yet another layer to what has already been a historic career? Of the horses outside of the powerful duo at the top, this horse has the best chance of an upset.

Kenny DeJohn is a Breaking News Team Featured Columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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