Kentucky Derby Top Ten
by Trevor Whenham - 4/2/2009
With the arrival of April we are now just a month away from the best single day in sports, the Kentucky Derby. I'm always very excited by this time of year, but especially this year as I am going to be attending my second Derby in person. The first was in 1996 when Grindstone came from pretty much nowhere to become one of the least heralded champs in modern times. This year is shaping up to be even better than that first time, with a deep field full of impressive three-year-olds aiming towards Louisville.
Though we are less than five weeks away from post time there is still a lot of racing to be done. The Florida Derby was run last weekend, but five major prep races are still left to go: the Wood Memorial, Illinois Derby, and Santa Anita Derby next weekend, and the Blue Grass and Arkansas Derby the week after. What happens in those races will have a big impact on who is in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
Because of that, the horses I like now are very likely not the ones I will be betting on at Churchill. Still, it's never too early to pick favorites. Here, then, is my current Derby Top Ten:
1. I Want Revenge - I'm typically not very high on California horses but this class isn't typical. I Want Revenge is a California-based runner but he has been proving he can travel and that he can run on dirt. He won the Gotham at Aqueduct last time out and he will make the Wood Memorial, at the same track, his final prep. I like how he's working, I like how he looks on dirt, and I like how seasoned he is.
2. Quality Road - He was incredibly impressive as the winner of the Florida Derby. After seizing the lead he got caught by the previously unbeaten Dunkirk, who was making a powerful move. Quality Road looked him in the eye as Dunkirk briefly took the lead and then he exploded for a solid win. That takes class. He'll now train up to the Derby just as Barbaro and Big Brown did after winning in Florida.
3. Pioneerof The Nile - I love this horse despite the ridiculous spelling of his name. He's proven himself time and again, including two wins over I Want Revenge. Bob Baffert, the mast of winning the Derby, trains him. He's close to the whole package. The only knock against him, and it's a big one in my mind, is that he will go from the Santa Anita Derby to Kentucky having never run on dirt. We don't know how he will handle that, so we have to be more hesitant with him than I would like to be.
4. The Pamplemousse - Three California horses in the top four - I'm getting soft. This horse is headed for a showdown in the Santa Anita Derby with Pioneerof The Nile. The winner is going to be hard to ignore. He also will have never run on dirt, and we can't be sure that he can handle the Derby distance. He likes running at the front, though, and that's a good place to avoid the chaos of the 20-horse Derby field.
5. Friesian Fire - The impressive winner of the Louisiana Derby has been as good as a horse can be this spring. He clearly loves the dirt, too. He would be much higher on this list if it weren't for one poor decision by his connections - he'll have seven weeks off between Louisiana and Kentucky. Training a horse that long without a race at this stage of their development is ridiculous, and not running him past 1 1/16 miles seems too risky. He's classy, but this moves scares me.
6. Dunkirk - Some people are scared away from Dunkirk by how Quality Road pulled away from him. I look at it another way: he made a monster move from the back of the pack, most of it at least three wide, to get up to challenge for the lead, and he was clearly second best. It wasn't perfect, but it was still impressive - especially considering it was his stakes debut and just his third career race. The trick now will be for him to make the field - the Top 20 by stakes earnings make it, so it could be tight.
7. Old Fashioned - He was at the top of a lot of list until the Rebel Stakes. That's where, as a heavy favorite, he was beaten by an unknown named Win Willy. I'm willing to give him a pass on that one. These horses are still so young and inexperienced, and I don't think that this horse would let himself get caught like that again. He's a beast to look at, and his gait is ridiculously smooth. I'd like him even better if I was sure he could handle the distance. He's headed to the Arkansas Derby next. A win there puts him in very good position - Curlin, Afleet Alex, Lawyer Ron and Smarty Jones all won that race.
8. Imperial Council - He was second to I Want Revenge in the Gotham last time out in his stakes debut, and he'll take another shot at him in the Wood Memorial. He's ridiculously raw and inexperienced, but his breeding is scary good. He needs to learn a lot in a hurry but a good showing in the Wood will move him well up my list.
9. Chocolate Candy - Yet another California horse who will take a shot at the Santa Anita Derby. He's raced in both Northern and Southern California He's trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, the legendary trainer who is on a long list of guys who deserve a Derby win. He's incredibly consistent and very well bred. The lack of dirt experience again looms large.
10. Desert Party - I only half-heartedly include this runner. He's been based in Dubai and was second in the UAE Derby on Dubai World Cup Day. Despite losing to stable mate Regal Ransom, I think he's the class of the group owned by Sheik Maktoum. The strategy of prepping against lesser competition in Dubai seems like a bad one, but I have to include this horse because sooner or later the Sheik is going to get the Derby win he desperately wants. He spends more money than anyone in the world on horses, and on paper he has a pretty good one here.