Not many of the 19 horses in today's 128th Kentucky Derby can be completely dismissed, and none can be selected with any real confidence.
Morning line favorite Harlan's Holiday (No. 14), has won two major prep races while turning in moderate clockings that give him no apparent edge over several evenly matched rivals.
Juvenile champion Johannesburg (1) has had only one prep, a seven-furlong turf race in Ireland in which he was caught from behind. Santa Anita Derby winner Came Home (15) has small flaws in his pedigree and slow finishing times to fuel debate over possible distance limitations.
Medaglia d'Oro (9) finished a sharp second to Buddha (scratched yesterday morning) in the 1 1/8 -mile Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 13 and is well bred for the Derby distance. But few horses with only four career races have managed to withstand the rigors of the 1 1/4 -mile Kentucky Derby so early in their careers.
Saarland (16), bred royally for the distance, is a stretch runner with a fighting chance to improve suddenly - or disappoint greatly. Fourth in the Wood, Saarland's stretch punch was stymied by a breathing problem subsequently corrected with a minor throat operation. But Saarland has not sustained his patented rally in four of five stakes appearances.
Arabian-based Essence of Dubai (8) won the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita last fall and the Dubai Derby in March to enter this difficult race with a rare victory at 1 1/4 miles. Yet no Dubai-based horse has managed to finish in the top four since Godolphin stable began its Derby quest four years ago.
Castle Gondolfo (12), stablemate to Johannesburg, comes from Ireland with ample stamina, having finished second at 1 1/4 miles as a 2-year-old in 2001. But if his lone prep race in England proves sufficient, that will set Derby training on its ear. The same is nearly true for Perfect Drift (3), strong winner of the Spiral Stakes March 23. Perfect Drift has not raced in six weeks, a gap that exceeds the preparation for every Derby winner of modern times.
Indeed, there are many possible outcomes, but with speedy War Emblem (5), Proud Citizen (13) and Danthebluegrassman (17) all likely to break into the clear for a relatively brisk but not suicidal pace, I lean toward the few with a definitive late punch, plus some tactical speed.
Medaglia D'Oro might fit the bill but will be among the wagering favorites, and his light racing record leads me deeper into the race for a long shot: Private Emblem (No. 11).
Winner of the Arkansas Derby with a flourish from slightly off the pace, Private Emblem made a strong impression in his Churchill training moves and is 15-1 in the morning line.
Essence of Dubai just might use his 1 1/4 -mile winning experience as a trump card. Came Home has to be respected for his resiliency and proven class but might be best used as an exacta or trifecta companion, along with others in my top 10:
1. Private Emblem (11); 2. Essence of Dubai (8); 3. Medalgia D'Oro (9); 4: Came Home (15); 5: Saarland (16); 6: Perfect Drift (3); 7: Harlan's Holiday (14); 8: Castle Gondolfo (12); 9: Wild Horses (2); 10: Blue Burner (20).
With some juicy prices likely, I begin this year's Triple Crown with my usual $100 mythical Derby wager, played as follows:
$14 win and $14 place on No. 11 Private Emblem at about 15-1 odds, maybe higher ($28). $3 Exactas: No. 11 over Nos. 8, 9, 15, 16, 3 ($20). $2 Exactas: No. 8 over Nos. 1, 9, 15, 16, 3 ($10). $2 Exactas: No. 9 over Nos. 11, 8, 15, 16, 3($10). $1 Trifecta: No. 11 in the win position with Nos. 8, 9, 15, 16 in the second position, and 8, 9, 15, 16, 3, 14, 12, 2 and 20 in third position ($32).
Steve Davidowitz is author of "Betting Thoroughbreds" and editor of the "American Racing Manual-2002."