-- This weekend's race: Saturday, May 3
The Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs
Kentucky Derby is Candy Land for a handicapper. Each year, America's Most Famous race offers the kind of wagering value that appears only once or twice in the career of a great racehorse.
Remember 1973? The immortal Secretariat actually went off at 3-2 in the Run for the Roses, while racing in an entry with the Wood Memorial winner, no less. He was never higher than 1-2 on the tote board -- and that was in a turf race.
Thanks to the combination of a large, star-studded field and the uncertainty of how any of them will fare at a mile and a quarter, you'll see once-in-a-lifetime prices such as 3-1 on Sunday Silence, 4-1 on Smarty Jones and 8-1 on Alysheba.
Even the $12.80 some folks collected on Orb seemed like a gift minutes after last year's race became official.
Soon we'll know if California Chrome will be added to that list of overlays. A 5-2 morning-line favorite in Saturday's $2 million Kentucky Derby, the grueling opening leg of the Triple Crown will serve as the acid test that will paint the sensational California-bred as either a champion in the making or just another tease.
Chances are we'll see a champion.
California Chrome's dazzling victory in the Santa Anita Derby earned him an A under the Hot List team's rating formula, and even at 5-2 or 2-1 odds in a race loaded with double-digit prices, he's the choice to reel off a fifth straight win. He might have to work harder than he has been lately -- his smallest margin of victory in that streak was his 5 ¼-length score in the Santa Anita Derby -- but he should prevail and ignite a media frenzy over his chances of authoring the first Triple Crown sweep in 36 years.
While some horses who win as impressively as California Chrome did in his final prep bounce when it matters more in the Derby, California Chrome's latest win merely continues a stretch of brilliant efforts, diminishing the chance of a negative reaction to that effort. Being an animal and not a machine, California Chrome figures to a have a bad day at some point, but there's no reason to believe that's on the horizon for Saturday.
Blessed with tactical speed, California Chrome should be able stalk the early leaders, surge to the front on the turn and draw off to victory in the stretch.
For second, we'll take Wicked Strong, who received an A for his win the Wood Memorial. Wicked Strong can be temperamental, which is never a positive quality in a jammed, frenzied environment like the Derby, and he drew post 20 (which will now be post 19 after the scratch of Hoppertunity). But the strong, late kick and impressive final time we saw at Aqueduct bodes well for his chances of handling the 10-furlong distance and makes him an ideal candidate to complete the exacta as the main stretch threat. We just wish Hoppertunity was in the field so it wouldn't be the chalk exacta.
Candy Boy, who earned a B in the Santa Anita Derby, gets the nod for third. While the defection of Hoppertunity sent some handicappers scrambling, the Hot List liked Candy Boy more than him. Candy Boy looked like a horse that could handle the mile and a quarter distance in the Robert B. Lewis, but then was given two months off. He might have been too fresh and showed uncharacteristic early speed while tiring and finishing third in the Santa Anita Derby. The California-based runner should benefit from the conditioning he received in that race, and if he saves his best running for the end, he could inflate the mutuel payoffs.
For the final spot in the superfecta, it was a tough decision between Ride On Curlin, who received a B in the Arkansas Derby, and Samraat, who registered an A in the Wood from the Hot List's New York observer. In the end, Ride On Curlin got a weak nod. He doesn't seem to like to have his picture taken in the winner's circle. Yet his overall consistency, a second and three thirds in four graded-stakes appearances, plus a wide trip when third in the Arkansas Derby and the prospect of odds in the 20-1 range make him an attractive choice for the triples and superfectas. Also, having Calvin Bo-Rail in the saddle offsets having post 18. Samraat, who lost for the first time in six career starts in the Wood, cannot be ignored. Horses that have a win streak snapped, though, often need a few starts to regroup and build another one, so we'll pencil him in for a minor share of the purse.
Hot List Derby Selections
1. # 5 California Chrome
2. # 20 Wicked Strong
3. #18 Candy Boy
4. #19 Ride On Curlin
5. #6 Samraat
For daily Hot List selections, click here.
Hot List Key
A List: A preferred horse to watch
B List: Secondary horse to watch
*C List: Went down 2 or more betting notches and finished 1st through 3rd
*D List: Went down 2 or more betting notches and finished 4th or worse
* - 4 or more betting notches if 11-1 or more.
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