The Folly in Playing Favorites

Crazy upsets sometimes happen at Churchill Downs. Can an outsider take down Eskendereya to win the Kentucky Derby?

April 16, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

Here's a basic truth that most people in horse racing can agree on: The best horse in the field doesn't always win the Kentucky Derby.

That doesn't mean Eskendereya, who will head to Churchill Downs as the biggest favorite in years, has any built-in excuses if he gets beat in the first leg of the 2010 Triple Crown.

Right now, the Todd Pletcher-trained chestnut colt looks so talented, he should be able to overcome some of pitfalls that tend to take down Derby favorites. He should go off as the shortest priced Derby favorite since Point Given was 9-to-5 in 2001.

But the pitfalls can't be ignored either. The Kentucky Derby isn't unlike any race in the country because the field is so crowded – at 20 horses, it's almost twice as big as a normal field – and any bumping or blocking can unsettle even the fastest horse.

"In all Derbys, there's so many horses going everywhere, so you have to overcome that," said jockey John Velasquez, who will ride Eskendereya. "In the Derby you have to get lucky. You have to get a trip that will be not in trouble. And hopefully, you have the horse respond to a little bit of trouble, which you always have."

There is also the crowd factor. The Derby is such a circus that it's hard to predict how a horse will react on race day. Sometimes the energy and buzz from the fans gets a horse so excited, it refuses to lay off the non-contenders with early speed, and down the backstretch, it has nothing left.

When Mine That Bird won the Derby last year as a 50-to-1 long shot, it marked the 11th time in the last 15 years that the pre-race favorite came up short in the Run for the Roses. Silver Charm (1997), Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), Smarty Jones (2004) and Big Brown (2008) all lived up to the pre-race hype as the horse to beat, but long shots like Giacamo (50-to-1), Charismatic (30-to-1), Thunder Gulch (25-to-1) and Mine That Bird have been just as successful in the race's recent history.

What's required is a delicate mix of speed, stamina and poise, and that's a tough thing to judge, even by watching Derby prep races. Mine That Bird finished fourth in New Mexico's Sunland Derby prior to coming to Kentucky and winning.

"I think if you looked at Mind That Bird physically, I think 95 out of 100 horsemen would say that's not a mile and a quarter horse," said Ken McPeek, trainer of Derby hopeful Noble's Promise. "But last May he looked pretty good."

Some trainers find the race to be so unpredictable, they think the only handicapper with the inside scoop is a higher power.

"I think the Kentucky Derby is pre-ordained by the horse racing god," said trainer Tom Amoss. "I truly believe that and I think that fate has a huge hand in [the winner].

So what horses have a chance to stun the field this year? Outside of Eskendereya, Lookin' at Lucky and Sidney's Candy – three horses expected to contend -- the potential field is as murky as its been in years thanks to some recent upsets in the Derby prep races.

Ice Box, who is trained by Nick Zito, stunned the field at the Florida Derby with a late charge and won despite 20-to-1 odds. Stately Victor, despite only one win in seven career races, finished first in the Blue Grass Stakes even though he went off as a 40-to-1 long shot. Line of David won the Arkansas Derby even though it was his first time ever running on dirt.

Things could get even more interesting if Noble's Promise and Interactif, two horses with enough graded stakes earning to automatically qualify for the Derby, have to withdraw with injuries. That would open up a spot for Jackson Bend, a Zito-trained horse ridden by Calvin Borel, who won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes last year.

The Derby field is shaping up to have a lot of early speed. American Lion, Conveyance, Discreetly Mine, Line of David, Paddy O'Prado, Sidney's Candy, Super Saver and Rule are all horses who have a reputation of preferring to get out early. That could either open the door for a major upset, or allow one of the more talented horses like Eskendereya or Lookin' at Lucky to emerge from the pack.

Pletcher, who is 0-for-24 in previous trips to the Kentucky Derby, feels like his horse is good enough to overcome whatever trouble tends to trip up favorites.

"The things that's exciting about [Eskendereya] is the one thing we've been very confident all along is that he wants to run the distances of you know the classic races," Pletcher said. He just has tremendous natural stamina. He has all the right tools."

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