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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The best way to understand a race is to envision how it will be run. I have decided that Goldencents is fast enough to clear Saturday's Kentucky Derby field in the first few hundred yards, set moderate fractions and be in front from start to finish.
Whenever you can find a quality horse that possesses an attribute that is different from the other logical contenders, you have a live play. Unlike many Derbies, this one just does not have much early speed. Other than Goldencents, Falling Sky is the only other horse that regularly runs from in front. And I think Goldencents is inherently faster than Falling Sky.
If Goldencents comes out of the first turn with a clear lead and isn't going too fast, I give him a 50-50 chance to win. So, he has to be my pick, especially since he is likely to be 6-1 or so at post time.
If Goldencents does not make the front, the good news is that he is a two-way horse who does not need the lead to win. He can rate off another horse, as he did in the Santa Anita Derby, and still have a strong punch in the stretch.
"If they are in front of me, they are going too fast," Goldencents' rider, Kevin Krigger, told me.
The other big edge Goldencents has over every contender but one is that all of them have similar running styles. The traffic in this Derby is very likely to be 5 to 8 lengths or so off the early pace. Terrific horses like Normandy Invasion, Itsmyluckyday, Orb and Vyjack could get caught in the middle of that maelstrom and find bad luck.
There is less chance for bad luck when 18 or 19 horses are behind than when a horse is in the midst of a large pack vying for the same spot on a crowded track, with a large group in front and a large group behind.
Unbeaten Verrazano is the other contender who figures to get a great trip from the 14 post. I envision him no worse than third coming out of the first turn and making a strong run at Goldencents around the far turn. That could be a key moment in the race. Verrazano may be good enough to run by Goldencents, but he has never chased a horse with the talent of Goldencents.
If Verrazano does not get by, it comes down to one of the quality closers. That group would include Normandy Invasion, Revolutionary, Mylute, Overanalyze, Itsmyluckyday, Orb and Vyjack. And, if you are looking for a long-shot closer that could hit the superfecta, consider Frac Daddy, a colt that has been very unlucky in 2013 after running two great races at Churchill Downs last November.
If it's not Goldencents, Orb is the most likely winner. He turned in an amazing workout on Monday. He has been brilliant all year. The colt's trainer, Shug McGaughey, the best in his profession (along with Bill Mott) never to have to won the Derby, is very confident and also amazed.
If you had told Shug a few months ago that Orb would be in the Derby, much less the Derby favorite, he would have laughed. The horse has exceeded all expectations.
"I'd love to be the favorite, because the favorite's going to have something under his name that makes him the favorite," the Hall of Fame trainer said. "I wish every one of my horses was favorite. They're not all going to win, I understand that, but I'm on board with that."
McGaughey had the horse that could not lose for the 1989 Derby. Easy Goer finished second to Sunday Silence, starting one of the great Triple Crowns in history.
"I think I have a lot more confidence in myself than at that time, not that I didn't have confidence," McGaughey said. "When Easy Goer came here, he couldn't lose, so I had to go up against that. I knew who I was going up against. I was 37 or something, and he [Sunday Silence's legendary trainer, Charlie Whittingham] probably already won that many Grade I's that year. I feel good where we are and am glad we're here and hope down the road we're here a lot more times."
The trainer also gets the services of Joel Rosario, the hottest rider on the planet. He just won a Keeneland spring meet-record 38 races and is riding in the form of his life.
Owners don't win races, but it is interesting to note that Orb is co-owned by two of America's great racing families, neither of which has won a Derby. The Phipps family owned Easy Goer. They were also on the losing side of the historic coin flip that determined the ownership of Secretariat. The Janney family owned Ruffian, the brilliant filly who never lost a race until she was fatally injured in that match race with Foolish Pleasure.
Itsmyluckyday is fascinating because he is likely to get overlooked in the betting. He finished second to Orb in the Florida Derby, but it was his first race in 2 months, a race clearly designed to get him to this race. If Itsmyluckyday can duplicate the form he showed in January, he is a serious threat.
Six months ago, they held the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park. Just to demonstrate how much this sport has changed in recent years and how it is about current form and not long-term foundation, there is not a single horse from the Breeders' Cup in the Derby.
Goldencents was not nominated to the Breeders' Cup, so trainer Doug O'Neill sent the colt to run in a Louisiana stakes race 2 weeks later. He had something bigger in mind even then. That would be the Kentucky Derby.