Updated on 09/16/2011 8:18AM

This Derby's axiom: It pays to shop


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Imagine if the ninth race on Saturday at Churchill Downs were just any old race. Imagine if there were a horse who had won six times and finished second four times in 10 races, had won his last two starts, both key prep races, by a combined eight lengths, and had the benefit of two previous races at Churchill Downs, in which he ran first and second.

He would be an overwhelming favorite, right? But this happens to be the first Saturday in May, and the ninth race is the 128th running of the Kentucky Derby. And, the horse, with that impressive resume, Harlan's Holiday, seems to have a target on the back of his silks, instead of the "JL" insignia of owners Jack and Laurie Wolf.

Harlan's Holiday is the tepid 4-1 favorite on the early line set by Mike Watchmaker of Daily Racing Form. If that holds, Harlan's Holiday will go off at his largest price since October. There is the chance he will be the highest-priced favorite in Derby history, a record held by the entry of Excellent Meeting and General Challenge, which went off at 4.80-1 in 1999.

The concern with Harlan's Holiday is that his Beyer Speed Figures have declined in his last two starts, and he had a below-average workout this week. Is this a horse who has peaked too soon? Ken McPeek, the trainer of Harlan's Holiday, thinks such speculation is a bunch of silliness.

"I've got a whole lot of horse left, in my view," McPeek said.

Harlan's Holiday is not alone. All the top contenders have significant questions to answer, and this race is perceived as being wide open. The Derby is like one big shopping spree. There are 20 individual betting interests and several accomplished runners who will be giant prices.

Once-beaten Johannesburg, who won last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile and was named this country's champion 2-year-old colt, has been favored in seven of his eight previous starts, and has been the odds-on choice six times. Yet he is 10-1 on Watchmaker's line because of concern that he can handle the Derby's 1 1/4 miles.

The consistent and resolute Came Home, the Santa Anita Derby winner, has been favored six times in seven starts, and has won all six of those races. He never has been higher than 5-1 in his life, yet he figures to be the highest price of his career, because, like Johannesburg, there are questions of whether the Derby's distance suits him. He is 8-1 on Watchmaker's line.

Castle Gandolfo, Johannesburg's Aidan O'Brien-trained stablemate, has been favored in all five of his previous races - in which he has three wins and two seconds - and never has been higher than even-money. He will be a huge price in this race, because, like Johannesburg, he is flying over from Ireland with just one prep race this year. Watchmaker has him at 30-1.

And the list goes on. Conventional wisdom holds that Essence of Dubai, like Castle Gandolfo and Johannesburg, cannot win because he does not have a prep race in this country this year. Perfect Drift has been training at the Trackside training center, not Churchill Downs. Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro are too lightly raced. Proud Citizen and War Emblem have to have the lead to do their best. Each will be a square price.

A crowd of 140,000 is expected to pack historic Churchill Downs. Fans attending the race would be wise to arrive early, because of increased security procedures at the track. Millions more will watch the race on NBC's 90-minute telecast, beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern time. The Derby post time is 6:04 p.m.

The Derby's purse is $1,205,000, with $905,000 going to the winner if all 20 start. Both the total purse, and winner's share, are Derby records.

The National Weather Service forecast for Saturday calls for morning showers, then clearing, with a high in the mid-70's. Churchill's main track dries quickly, and often is tightened down on Derby Day, so the track should be fast regardless.

The pace of the race should be fast, too. Last-minute entrant Danthebluegrassman adds speed to a line-up that includes Proud Citizen and the race's likely front-runner, War Emblem. Buddha, Came Home, Medaglia d'Oro, Johannesburg, and Request for Parole also should be fairly prominent early, just behind the pacesetters.

Harlan's Holiday, who comes off victories in the Florida Derby and Blue Grass, figures to be racing in mid-pack during the early going, along with Easy Grades, Ocean Sound, Perfect Drift, Private Emblem, and Wild Horses. Edgar Prado, who rides Harlan's Holiday, has a colt who is adaptable to the demands of a huge field, McPeek believes.

"The big advantage to this horse is that he has the ability to put himself in a position to strike," McPeek said.

Farther back should be Blue Burner, Castle Gandolfo, Essence of Dubai, It'sallinthechase, Lusty Latin, and Saarland.

Saarland, the fourth-place finisher in the Wood Memorial, is coming off recent throat surgery. He races for Cynthia Phipps, whose father, racing legend Ogden Phipps, died less than two weeks ago.

Essence of Dubai races for Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin Racing, the Dubai-based outfit that has been unwavering in recent years in its quest to win the Derby. This colt has a habit of getting sweaty before a race, and bucking and kicking, so watch him in the paddock and post parade.

Private Emblem, the Arkansas Derby winner, could provide a satisfying denouement for trainer Steve Asmussen, whose other Derby contender, Windward Passage, was bumped from the field on Wednesday because of the last-minute entry of the rank outsider Danthebluegrassman. Private Emblem has had trouble in the starting gate in the past. When he arrives at the starting gate, he will have a blanket placed over his hind end, so that he does not feel the cold steel on his rump while standing in the gate. The blanket will fall away when the gate opens, and be retrieved immediately by the starting gate crew.

Trainer Bill Mott, who has the outsider Blue Burner, saw his best runner, Cigar, voted into the Hall of Fame this year. In recent years, trainers Neil Drysdale and D. Wayne Lukas, as well as jockey Gary Stevens, won the Derby the years they went into the Hall of Fame. Mott might have good karma on his side.

Perfect Drift will be ridden by Eddie Delahoussaye, who is riding in great form now that the sinusitis that plagued him in the 1990's has been alleviated. A 50-year-old Hall of Famer, he has won the Derby twice, the first time in 1982 with Gato Del Sol. This is the 20-year anniversary of that race.

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