Friday, May 6, 2011

The 2011 Kentucky Derby Field

Interest of full disclosure: I have a terrible record on Kentucky Derby day. How terrible? Well, here's what I wrote about Mine That Bird two years ago:

"Mine That Bird might be the worst entry I've seen in the Derby; he's definitely worse than any entry from the past two years. After winning a series of ungraded stakes and beating a weak field in the Grade 3 Grey Stakes at Woodbine, Mine That Bird regressed terribly in the BC Juvenile, finishing last out of 12 entries. He failed to hit the board last out in the Sunland Derby, a race still waiting for graded status. His highest Beyer rating is 81, well below some of the poor efforts put out by top horses such as I Want Revenge, Friesan Fire and Pioneerof the Nile. He may go off the board at triple digits to one."

Mine That Bird won the 2009 Kentucky Derby by the greatest margin of any horse in six decades.

In fairness, the only people I've met that wagered on Mine That Bird had the same birthday as his silk number, but still, I whiffed badly. I missed Super Saver last year (thought he'd burn up in the hot pace, and was almost right) and I "missed" Big Brown (tried to play against, and it backfired). So, caveat emptor on these selections. So the first Saturday in May hasn’t been my most profitable weekend recently.

Making things even worse, this is the most closely-matched Derby field I've seen. Usually, you can toss five or so horses within a few minutes of looking at the form, but because this group is so undistinguished, the most mediocre entries look like plausible longshots if you hold them in the right light and squint at them long enough. Some tosses for me are contenders for others. I’ll give you my reasoning; you can go from there.

I'll give my plays Saturday before I make them, but first a look at the field in the order they were drawn on Wednesday afternoon.

1.) Archarcharch: Cruel, cruel chance. Archarcharch wasn't going to be the morning line favorite regardless of where he was placed, but the one post killed his chances of being the favorite when the race began as well. Wins in the Arkansas Derby and the Rebel Stakes were sandwiched (breaded?) around a loss in the Rebel that was nonetheless a strong effort on some speed figures. He's improving, seems to have a sound sense of his own pace limitations, including placement flexibility, and the slop is not a concern.

Yet no horse has won from the one post since 1986. This isn't just superstition or coincidence. There are real problems from the very inside, not the least of which is that because of the strange placement of the gate. The unlucky inside horse actually start a little bit inside of where the rail begins, meaning that their first few steps are more focused on getting placed than getting a good jump. Lookin' at Lucky was easily the best three year old last year, but even he could not overcome the placement. Aracharcharch isn't that much better than the field, if he's better at all. I'd toss completely, especially since so much money will come in on him despite the placement, but you perhaps may want to protect yourself underneath on exotics. (WARNING: with Uncle Mo’s defection, I’m not sure if the outside horses will slide inward, or if the inside horses will slide out. If it’s the latter, upgrade Archarcharch considerably).

2.) Brilliant Speed: Ironically, Brilliant Speed doesn't have much brilliant speed at all, instead doing what most turf and poly horses do: taking it slow early and making up ground late. At least Brilliant Speed, unlike some of the turfers in the race, was pointed at the dirt early on in his career, but those efforts were pretty bad, and, like Pink Floyd, there was immediate improvement once he hit the grass.

The effort in the Bluegrass at Lexington is impressive on paper--a hard close into a molasses-slow pace--but it's the sort of result that handicappers have learned to ignore on the poly. These sorts of weird things happen on rubber, and I don't think Brilliant Speed is the type of closer that can overcome crawling paces on dirt. Of course, the Derby’s pace will be decent at minimum, so he has that working for him. His works on the slop have been not all that good, and I think the 30-1 given to him on the morning line was a little kind; I think he's a 50-1 shot even ignoring the less-than-optimal post placement.

3.) Twice the Appeal: Borel! Borel, borel, borel. Borel borel, borel borelled borel borelingly borel. Borel borel borel borel borelling borel? Borel borel borel borel.

Yes, Calvin Borel is riding Twice the Appeal. You're going to be reminded of that a few dozen times on Saturday, and you'll also be told "Bo-Rail!" and yes, Twice the Appeal will probably be sitting pretty close to the rail for as much of the race as possible. There are obvious benefits to this--it's the shortest path around the course, for one thing, and biases tend to reside there if they reside at all--but there is usually heavy traffic along the rail as well. Sometimes the seas part, and Borel has been known to play Moses at Churchill Downs, but sometimes you get stuck behind a wall of horse ass and a colt that's otherwise full of run can't make it through.

Jockeys aren't as important as you might think, and they are almost all good ones in the Kentucky Derby, with Borel only one among many quality riders (and believe it or not, he's not some mythical super-jockey outside of the Kentucky Derby; just a quality journeyman). Let’s focus on the horse for a moment or two: Twice the Appeal undoubtedly took a step forward in the Sunland Derby six weeks ago, though there is some concern about the "six weeks ago" part of that, since that's a while to go without a race before the big one. This was also a horse that was in a maiden claimer in January--you, gentle reader, could have purchased Twice the Appeal for $30,000 and had yourself a 1000% rate of return over four months, along with a horse in America's biggest race--and maiden claimer to Grade 1 isn't a move often made, at least not in four months.

I think Twice the Appeal is plausible, but he would have been plausible with Mike Smith or Kent Desormeaux or any other reasonable jockey. With Borel, he's going to get bet down by all the people like your cousin who has this hot tip about a jockey that never loses, and I don't like him enough to get only 10-1. The good news? That cousin of yours isn't going to be playing exactas and trifectas. The return on these plays with Twice the Appeal is going to be more generous than your average 10-1 (or whatever) horse because of the Borel Bettors. Great value in the exotics and a must use there IMO. If you were going to bet $20 to win on him, box him for $1 over the other 18 horses and buy yourself a soda with the other $2. Chances are you’ll thank me later if he wins.

4.) Stay Thirsty: This is the horse that your douchebag friend who you don't really like but you met him in high school and he hangs around with you sometimes is going to bet on. I know this because he's going to spend the three hours after he makes his bet saying "stay thirsty, my friends," thus wringing whatever humor still remains deep within the already body-dry cloth of those Dos Equis commercials.

Stay Thirsty was the lesser Todd Pletcher entry, but with Uncle Mo's defection he is now the trainer’s only hope for back-to-back Kentucky Derby wins. His Gotham Stakes win two races ago was by three lengths, yet was visually unimpressive; the speed figures back up the negative visual impression. Last time out he did nothing in the Florida Derby despite sitting comfortably off the hot pace. All horses are entitled to an off race, but there hadn't been any spectacular efforts before then either. 20-1 feels generous, and I don't think he'd get that low if he hadn't won a stakes race in New York. Meh. I'll probably pass, though I might use him on the bottom of exotics if I'm feeling bold, adventurous, and interesting.

5.) Decisive Moment: Yet to win a graded stakes race yet, though he's placed in two of his three attempts. It's tough to take Decisive Moment's Spiral Stakes effort at face value since it didn't come on dirt, though in fairness it was a strong effort for what it was, and Turfway's polytrack tends to translate to dirt reasonably well. Still, he has never been more than a length off the lead at the first call, including into some harsh paces, and distance is a concern. If you want speed, others are more plausible.

6.) Comma to the Top: At some point during the broadcast, and perhaps several points, unclear references to "demons" and "battles" will be made. That's because jockey Pat Valenzuela has had substance abuse problems and somewhat serious legal issues. He is on the straight and narrow now, and maybe you'll get the whole misty-camera story, but I kind of doubt it.

Anyway, Comma to the Top is a pure speedball without a ton of speed. He'll want the front, but he probably won't get it; on pure early speed alone, Shackleford should pass him, and Decisive Moment might be quicker as well. If the pace is soft, the others will be better placed, and if the pace is quick, he'll fry. The scenario for his big Santa Anita Derby effort was just about perfect, and he still got nipped by Midnight Interlude. If that was the best case, tough to see how he wins here.

7.) Pants on Fire: Before we get to the horse, here's one human interest story worth watching. Pants on Fire will be ridden by Rosie Napravnik (lucky horse). As you could perhaps guess, Ms. Napravnik is female, and female jockeys have not had much luck in the Kentucky Derby. Napravnik more than held her own at the winter meets in the south this winter and deserves to be in the Derby every bit as much as the male jockeys in this race. This isn't a contrived battle-of-the-sexes feel good story, and this won't be her last Kentucky Derby.

I mention all that because I generally bet against these sorts of human interest stories, just because they attract money for reasons other than the quality of the horses. I don't begrudge people for wanting to bet on a female jockey to succeed, and I certainly wish her luck, but if it means getting 15-1 when I need 20-1, I'll pass. Root for, bet against, as the saying goes.

That being said: Pants on Fire is at the very least plausible, especially in this bad field. He'll want to be placed forwardly but I don't think he needs the lead; he rated gamely in the Louisiana Derby and battled through a reasonable pace. He'll need to set even further back here--sixth or seventh rather than second or third--but that seems reasonable. Given the post and the likely pace, everything works.

I have a few concerns though. First, he hasn't raced in six weeks, which is a mite long. Second, that Risen Star effort was quite better than any previous effort. Improvement over the three year old campaign is expected, but there could be some regression to the mean awaiting this horse. He hasn't trained as well over a sloppy track as some others, and we may very well get slop on Saturday. He has faltered badly in the two races he has not been near the front; psychologically, this horse might not want to sit further back, but if he doesn't, I don't think he's fast enough to set the pace. Last, and least, not many horses have had success in the Derby coming out of the Fair Grounds in Louisiana, but I regard that as a historical fluke more than anything.

That's a lot of negatives, but a few of those—especially the pace concerns—also applied to Super Saver last year, and that worked out OK. Uncle Mo's defection is a help as well. Not a toss, but demand some value, and if the jockey angle gets bet down hard, avoid up top.

8.) Dialed In: The early favorite by default. The Florida Derby has been perhaps the premiere Kentucky Derby prep race for a while now, and by winning the Florida Derby alone Dialed In should be considered one of the primary contenders. That he figures to sit a ways off the pace while so many of his top rivals will be competing up front early is an added bonus.

But both of those putative positives can be spun the other way. The 2011 Florida Derby is difficult to read. The quality was there: four horses made the Kentucky Derby field, and two others were legitimate contenders all spring. But Dialed In may have gotten the absolutely best possible pace setup, with several horses battling at a ferocious pace up front while Dialed In took his time several lengths back. Decent colts, such as Soldat, wilted after getting caught too close to the pace, leaving the final furlongs for the taking. Then again, how fast could the pace have been, considering that the 68-1 longshot Shackleford set the pace and hung on for a very game second. Is Shackleford that good? Or is Dialed In not as solid as he seems?

As an added question mark, this is only Dialed In's fifth start, a very light schedule even by the standards of modern horse racing. Dead closers are apt to find more traffic trouble in the Kentucky Derby than others, and they tend to have a rougher go of things in the mud (should it rain) when dirt gets flung back into their faces. All of this is to say that Dialed In is plenty plausible, but I would ask for more than the 4-1 the linesmaker is projecting. I'm going to let Dialed In beat me, and if he does, oh well.

9.) Derby Kitten: The last horse into the Derby, which isn't always the kiss of death; Denis of Cork needed a defection in 2008 to make it, and he hit the board to round out the trifecta. This is also the horse your grandmother will bet on, because he has both the words "derby" and "kitten" in his name. She'll only bet $2 though, and that will only be to show, because your grandmother only looking for a little fun. She's not a junky like her nephew Joe, who used to lose thousands at the track every weekend and then go home and drink a fifth of bourbon. No, $2 to show is just fine, thanks, and hopefully all the horses have a good time.

Derby Kitten's win in the Lexington just two weeks ago was the colt's only graded stakes start, though he did just miss in a couple of overnight stakes. The Lexington used to be really important, back when horses regularly ran two weeks before a major race, and back before the Keeneland surface was made of pulverized rubber pellets. The polytrack prep races have had very little predictive value for the Derby (which is run, of course, on dirt). In fact, Derby Kitten has only run once on dirt, a poor effort at Belmont last October. Young horses aren't committed to the turf in America unless they show real disinterest in dirt racing, and you'd have to think the entry on Saturday is nothing more than a legacy play for the owners. I don't blame them, but they shouldn't blame me for tossing their horse from my picks.

10.) Twinspired: Get it?!? Churchill Downs is famous for its twin spires above the clubhouse, and his name is Twinspired, and surely it's kismet (though Derby Kitten is pretty f’ing kismet too, so who knows?)

Twinspired missed just out in his last at Keeneland, but the Keeneland preps have been screwy since they put in an artificial surface, so it’s unclear whether that near-miss was a sign of legitimate growth. He has one start on dirt, and it sticks out like a, uh, spire: a well-beaten eighth at Remington Park. This is another horse that looked like he was being pointed at only the turf and plastic until he happened to get the necessary graded stakes earnings to make the field, so now he's giving it a go. The works have been mediocre, and his figures, with the exception of his last, have been blah. I'll pass.

11.) Master of Hounds: The reason I've been humming "Master of the House" all week, and am now humming it again. An intriguing European import that could one-up Johnny Cash, because he's been everywhere, man. In his past four races he's been to three different continents and four different islands, moving from Ireland to Britain to Kentucky to Dubai. He's never run on dirt, and his only effort in America was just OK, but his effort in Dubai last out was pretty darn solid. He’s just a second-stringer for trainer Aidan O'Brien, so his win would be a pretty severe indictment of the American stock this season.

I was inclined to take a close look at him on the strength of the Dubai effort alone, but better horses have fared terribly after making grueling trip across the world. Reports on track are that Master of Hounds has looked sluggish and perhaps has taken poorly to the dirt/mud (all of Master of Hounds races have come on grass or plastic). Shippers are always a shot in the dark, but I'm going to take a stand against.

12.) Santiva: A bit of a wise guy horse, based more I think on the lack of incriminating evidence than anything positive in his form. Put a line through the Bluegrass effort; he may have disliked the polytrack and a poor effort there shouldn't be held against him. But if you put a line through that one, you get only one start this year, a reasonable effort in the Risen Star to place. He's still eligible for a non-winners of one allowance, though he did break his maiden in a Grade II race, which not many horses can say (neigh?).

I don't think he's going to be all that close to the front; when he has been near the lead early, it has been because the fractions have been sluggish, and that is never the case in the Derby. That could be a help, because he doesn't seem like the sort that is bothered by horses in front of him. Still, I don't see the reason for optimism. As a 30-1 shot, he's a reasonable chance, but nothing more than that. I'll take my chances against.

13.) Mucho Macho Man: The sympathy pick after his trainer recently received a heart transplant. There’s likely to be several glossy stories on Mucho Macho Man over the weekend, and some extra money bet on him accordingly. Be forewarned.

That being said, he’s as plausible as any in the race, and with the exception of Dialed In, none of the other top contenders got a post draw as favorable as his. All speed figures I’ve seen have him as a consistently solid horse, though his top figures (with the exception of the Remsen as a two year old) would fall below the efforts of a few. Distance is a concern, and he seemed to tire with no good explanation in the Louisiana Derby. He’s also an underdeveloped colt: all horses in the Derby are “three years old,” but all that means is that they were born in 2008.
Mucho Macho Man has not yet celebrated his actual third birthday, which comes in June. This could mean that he is due to get better, since he has more developing still to do than the rest, but he might be at a disadvantage against his elders. There’s also a concern coming off the six week layoff, though he’s trained vigorously in the interim.

All that being said, 12-1 is a very fair price. I’m skeptical you’ll actually get that, but I’d take it in a transplanted heartbeat.

14.) Shackleford: Speedball with some staying power. I have little doubt that Shackleford will set the pace. Usually that’s dangerous to a horse’s chances of winning the Derby, but I have an inkling that there’s not quite as much pure speed in this race as there appears at a glance. Turned in monster fractions in the Florida Derby and almost held on to win, while the three closest horses faded badly. Rumors are that he has been training well.

He’ll need the front and he’ll need to get there without burning himself out. The pace the rest of the field sets will matter just as much as his own ability in this one. If you told me the opening half mile today I’d tell you how much I like him. Andrew Beyer’s Derby pick, and I’m leaning in his direction as well at the moment. That could change in an hour.

15.) Midnight Interlude: Lightly raced horse with only four starts, Midnight Interlude didn’t break his maiden (i.e., win his first race) until March 20th. By way of comparison, several horses in the field haven’t raced since March 26th. Midnight Interlude followed up his big maiden victory with a win in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, which is not a bad step forward by any standards. He’s been running bullets at every workout but there’s been some disagreement as to whether he’s enjoyed the track; he seemed to be OK when the track was full-on sloppy but not when it was just moist. Trainer Bob Baffert has been here before, and you have to take this one seriously for no other reason.

Still, 10-1 (which he is given on the morning line) seems pricey considering that Mucho Macho Man is only 12-1. I’d swap those, and I’d expect at least 12-1 (and maybe closer to 15-1) to bet Midnight Interlude.

16.) Animal Kingdom: Another horse making his first start on dirt, though his last out on the Turfway artificial surface was pretty strong. He did get a perfect pace setup, however, so take that into consideration. There's very little to go off here; even apart from the absence of dirt starts, Animal Kingdom will be making only his fifth start total on Saturday. He has even been training on the turf and poly, putting in only one published workout on dirt this year (it was fine, but nothing special).

Graham Motion is known as a bit of a turf specialist, and he has given off "I don't really care" vibes all week long, though that could all be a ploy. I think I'd toss Animal Kingdom if it's muddy Saturday and keep him in if the dirt is dry. Still haven't completely made up my mind, however.

17.) Soldat: This horse is a bit of an enigma. I have three questions, none of which are answerable until after the race:
First, what the hell happened in the Florida Derby? The pace was hot, and he was forwardly-placed, but he was sitting in almost a perfect position and he seemed to tire before even those in front of him. The problem couldn't just be the distance, because he was tapped going into the first turn. Was the pace really that hot? If so, why did Shackleford survive and nearly win? And can Soldat expect any better, especially considering that Shackleford will be setting the pace again?

Second, will the track be muddy? Soldat's biggest effort came in the mud, and he's really the only horse in this race that has demonstrated ability in the mud in real conditions, and not just in training. Was that slop race a fluke? Or does he relish the mud? If the figures are legit, and no other horses take big steps forward in the slop, Soldat looks like the favorite (if we can ignore distance concerns as well). Instead, you'll get something in the teens to one, most likely.

Third, will the post draw be a problem? I'm going to guess no. Soldat will be forwardly placed, and most of the horses around him will not. He'll have some space to operate early and chances to get over before the turn begins, and he won't have to worry about a horse from the outside coming over and throwing mud in his face. He's a possible play in the slop, but watch for overreaction; I'd still demand double digits even if they are running in soup just because 10 furlongs might be asking too much.

18.) Uncle Mo: SCRATCHED--Every year, impressive two year old colts fail to develop and are passed by others in their generation during the Kentucky Derby prep races. But sometimes you get a horse that appears on the scene as a two year old just as good as his elders. Uncle Mo ran his maiden race in August at Saratoga on Travers Day and ran a faster final time at the same distance as a graded stakes race for older females. He ran the prestigious Champagne Stakes later in the fall as quickly as any horse since Seattle Slew. He then ran away with the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, defeating his next-closest rival by over four lengths. Every horse in the Derby that also ran in the BC Juvenile lost to Uncle Mo by more than ten lengths. Even if Mo didn't develop, he might not have to get any better; his form last year wins the Derby by three lengths.

Of course, things didn’t work that way. His first race out was lackluster but workmanlike, and they don't give extra points or purse money for winning more quickly, so no serious concerns were raised. The second trip out in the Wood Memorial was a disaster, hampered perhaps by a gastrointestinal infection. Or perhaps he couldn't handle the distance. Or perhaps he wasn't conditioned properly, with a two-prep schedule being, at the very least, on the light side. They may have been training with the Triple Crown in mind, but his connections failed to get him even to the starting gate at Churchill Downs.

Uncle Mo's defection helps a few horses. There are several that want to race up front, but only a few have shown they can turn in lightning quarters at the beginning and hold on. Since the fractions likely got a little slower without Uncle Mo, those speed types will benefit. Soldat's chances in particular are a bit better, since he won't have a horse on his outside looking to get on top of him early.

19.) Nehro: This was the wise guy horse up until the moment he drew the 19 post, at which point support dried up a bit. The outside posts aren't fatal (Big Brown won from the 20 spot three years ago), but you're left with only two options. The first option is to gun to the front and cut off the field before the first turn, but that's not going to happen with a deep closer like Nehro. The second option is to do what Calvin Borel did with closer Denis of Cork in 2008 and make a kamikaze run to the rail straight out of the gate. I don't trust Corey Nakatani to show that single-mindedness of purpose, and so I get the feeling Nehro will run an extra seven lengths or so around the first turn alone (besides, that technique is risky at best).

The reason for the optimism, at least pre-draw, is that Nehro has just missed the his two times out against solid opposition and at shorter distances. Surely, so the theory goes, if those races were just a little bit longer, Nehro might have won. And since the Derby is as long as any of these horses have ever gone, that makes him a plausible contender.
The problem is that the "closer needs more space to run" theory doesn't work all that well in practice; those closers tend to just come up a little short at longer distances too, since the early fractions slow down a little and the closers are left having to do more. And the traffic is going to create problems of their own for Nehro (even apart from the outside post), such as they did for Ice Box last year.

I'm going to toss him completely. You may not feel so bold, and I could see him picking off a few horses at the end and making third or even second, but this feels to me like the easiest major contender to ignore.

20.) Watch Me Go: I know, way up at the top, I quoted my dismissal of Mine That Bird in 2009. Has no chance, worst entrant in years, and so on. People still debate just how good Mine That Bird was--he never won another race, but he did run a very game second behind Rachel Alexandra and also hit the board in the Belmont--even with his Derby win.

We won't have that debate over Watch Me Go, because he isn't going to win the Derby, or hit the board. The winner of the Tampa Bay Derby (which came up quite soft this year), Watch Me Go finished a very well-beaten sixth in the Illinois Derby, which was perhaps the weakest prep race this season. Whatever chance WMG had evaporated when he drew the twenty spot, which is fatal unless you take the Big Brown approach of gunning the field and getting closer to the rail (which even Big Brown was only somewhat successful doing; the Derby winner still had to go several paths wide on the first turn. He was just good enough to run further and still win.) Watch Me Go would not only have to be best, but given the wide trip he'll almost certainly get, he'll have to be best by several lengths. Automatic toss.

As I wrote above, I’m still structuring my tickets and making some final decisions, so I’m not sure how I’ll be wagering tomorrow. I’ll post my plays before the race.