Updated on 09/16/2011 7:18AM

Kentucky Derby analysis

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The imperfections of Harlan's Holiday are obvious. He has not run particularly fast this spring, he has been beating the same horse, and a mediocre workout Tuesday fueled speculation the favorite is vulnerable. So be it.

Truth is, Harlan's Holiday is fully qualified. Class and seasoning transcend speed figures in Derby handicapping, and Harlan's Holiday has both - six wins and four seconds from 10 starts, including consecutive Grade 1's. His pattern of descending figures were the result of altered strategy last out, when he raced closer to the lead than usual. Over a Keeneland track that favored the inside, Harlan's Holiday raced wide throughout. Speed figures be damned, he ran super winning his final prep by more than four.

This Ohio-bred gives every indication he will stay 1 1/4 miles, his accomplishments outshine the field, and handicappers who fault the workouts have already forgotten last year, when the Derby-week training of Monarchos was widely second-guessed. Harlan's Holiday is not perfect - who is? - but enters with much in his favor. Tractable and well drawn, he can mow them down from midpack.

Longshot Request for Parole is legit - seasoned (10 starts), class-qualified (in the money his last three graded stakes), and fresh off a terrific third in the Spiral. Removed from his typical strategy to press the pace in that race, he battled gamely to finish in a three-way photo. He is better from behind, his six-week break was pre-planned, and he enters as a fresh horse prepared for the race of his life. At a giant price, he may be the best gamble in the Derby.

Castle Gandolfo was a top-class 2-year-old in Europe, missing by only a length in a Grade 1 at 1 1/4 miles He may be more seasoned than his one-start campaign suggests, and his form was flattered when a horse he drilled last out (Dupont) won a Group in Italy on Wednesday.

Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro are short on experience (four starts), long on talent, and the fastest horses in the race (the only starters who enter off successive triple-digit Beyers). Buddha overcame a compromising trip in the Wood. He was in tight early, went head-and-head, and refused to be passed. He can win the Derby if he does not bounce. Same with Medaglia d'Oro, who won the year's best 3-year-old prep (the San Felipe at Santa Anita). The up-front styles of both should lead to comfortable trips just off the pace.

Perfect Drift is a fresh horse exiting the fast Spiral. Private Emblem looked good beating nobody in Arkansas. Came Home and Johannesburg are top milers likely to be less effective at 10 furlongs. Saarland is bred to stay, but slow. Proud Citizen's Lexington romp was primarily owed to a soft trip. Late-runners Essence of Dubai, Blue Burner, and Lusty Latin fall short on class. Likely pacesetter War Emblem runs best at Sportsman's. Easy Grades was flattered by circumstance at Santa Anita. Ocean Sound, Danthebluegrassman, Wild Horses, and It'sallinthechase appear overmatched.

Harlan's Holiday is solid enough from a classical standpoint but takes a backseat on speed figures to many others, which makes him a vulnerable favorite.

"Fast" horses like War Emblem, Came Home, Buddha, and Medaglia d'Oro are suspect because of either perfect prep setups, questionable 1 1/4-mile pedigree, or minimal preparation.

Throw in juvenile champ Johannesburg off one sprint in Ireland; Essence of Dubai, Godolphin's most serious threat to date; fringe contenders Perfect Drift, Private Emblem and Request for Parole; and Lexington winner Proud Citizen, trained by Wayne (Mr. Charismatic) Lukas, and all the ingredients for maximum confusion are in place.

Suggestion: Avail yourself of a betting line and let the tote board be your guide. My top contenders and their bettable odds are: Buddha (6-1), Medaglia d'Oro (6-1), Harlan's Holiday (8-1), Came Home (10-1), Saarland (10-1), Essence of Dubai (12-1), War Emblem (15-1). That adds up to roughly 71 percent of the line, which means that if this Derby was run 100 times the winner should come from this group well over two-thirds of the time.

I made Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro co-favorites, with the caveat that no Derby winner since Exterminator (1918) has had only four career starts. Of the two I slightly prefer Buddha, whose gallop-out after the Wood was much stronger than that of Medaglia d'Oro.

Pace and final-time figures point to the Wood Memorial (which has produced the last two Derby winners) as being the most strongly run prep yet again. If the race was too much too soon for the one-two finishers, then Saarland, who built a solid foundation at 2, may be capable of turning the tables despite only two preps.

The two races served their purpose. In the Gotham, Saarland showed surprising positional speed racing close up to fast fractions, and his sneaky-good come-home time in the Wood was accomplished into a headwind, and despite losing ground on both turns.

Saarland needs to make up 3 1/2 lengths on Buddha and Medaglia d'Oro, but he is fast enough already to contend with the rest of the main contenders, and the third start of a form cycle is statistically strong to produce a peak effort.

By a Kentucky Derby winner and out of an Alabama winner, Saarland certainly has the pedigree to improve at a classic distance, and he has trained very well since undergoing minor throat surgery to alleviate a breathing problem after the Wood.

Assuming Saarland is at least 10-1, my plan is to make a win bet and to key him in exactas and trifectas with any other fair-odds propositions from the above betting line.

Buddha is undefeated this year. He graduated convincingly in a seven-furlong maiden special at Gulfstream on Feb. 9, then dominated allowance N1X company when he stretched out to 1 1/16 miles. He dueled through a faster-than-par pace and held on gamely to beat Medaglia d'Oro by a head in the 1 1/8-mile Wood.

Buddha won't be able to set the pace or duel through that kind of fast pace and hope to win the Kentucky Derby. But it is very easy to envision him winning the roses with an off-the-pace trip. If Pat Day can rate Buddha about six lengths behind the leaders early, he can make his move into contention on the backstretch, and can bid for the lead at the top of the lane. From that point on, I'll trust Day to have saved enough energy to enable Buddha to hold the closers safe during the final furlong.

Medaglia d'Oro ran almost as well as Buddha did in the Wood, and might be underbet in relation to that rival. He would benefit greatly from rating tactics, and would be no surprise. He would be a value in the win pool at 7-1 or higher. Use him liberally in the exotics.

Perfect Drift's off-the-pace style makes him my top longshot. He earned a contending Beyer in the Spiral, and will be right there today at overlaid, double-digit odds if he continues to move forward. His tactical speed will give him advantadge over the deep closers.

War Emblem dominated his opponents at Sportsman's, earning a flashy 112 Beyer in his comfortable triumph in the Illinois Derby. A similar number would probably win this race, but it should be noted that he was allowed to grab a clear lead through a slow 48.20 and 1:13 pace, and won't enjoy that luxury here. He may simply be a horse for the Sportsman's course. Nevertheless, at odds in the neighborhood of 20-1, he is probably worth at least a saver bet.

Saarland hasn't yet earned his first triple-digit Beyer. But he did manage to finish fourth in the Wood. If his recent minor throat surgery gives him a boost, he will be a realistic contender.

Harlan's Holiday shows 10 career starts, and deserves respect for his consistency with six wins and four second-place finishes. He also has an off-the-pace running style that figures to give him every opportunity to capitalize on what will probably be an unreasonably fast early pace. But he will enter the starting gate with two straight declining Beyers, a 101 from the Florida Derby and the 98 he earned for his win over a very soft field in the Blue Grass. The slow come-home time of that race gave Harlan's Holiday his second straight perfect pace set-up. With that in mind, shouldn't he have run faster than he did in those races? He'll be a serious underlay at 7-2 or 4-1 in a 20-horse field. I'll try to beat him.

Horses with only four career starts aren't supposed to win the Kentucky Derby, but Medaglia d'Oro isn't an average horse. He showed me a lot in March when he stepped up off a six-furlong maiden victory at Oaklawn to win the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita decisively, leaving then-Derby-favorite Siphonic well back in third.

Medaglia d'Oro's San Felipe was also revealing in another respect. After dropping back around the far turn as though finished, he re-rallied to win going away, which suggests to me he can be effective coming from off the pace. That is no small point. The Derby is a closer's race, and the dimension Medaglia d'Oro displayed in the San Felipe strongly suggests he can adapt to the situation Saturday.

Medaglia d'Oro backed up his strong San Felipe with a sharp, narrowly beaten second in the Wood Memorial in his last start, an effort I believe will actually toughen him up. Moreover, Medaglia d'Oro earned his third consecutive triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure in the Wood. The only other Derby entrant who can claim three straight triple-digit Beyer Figures is Harlan's Holiday. Before dipping to a 98 Beyer winning the Blue Grass last time out, Harlan's Holiday posted a 100, 103, and 101. Medaglia d'Oro's Beyers this year are actually a little better: 101, 107, and 105.

Look for Medaglia d'Oro to settle some six to eight lengths off the early pace, and make his move around the far turn. And, at odds that may be close to twice those of Harlan's Holiday, I'll wager that move is a winning one.

Private Emblem may be overlooked in the Derby betting, going off in the neighborhood of 20-1, and that will be because he didn't beat much winning the Arkansas Derby in his last race. But Private Emblem is 3 for 3 this year since the addition of Lasix, and the Arkansas Derby was his best performance to date. He finished powerfully, tripling his lead in the final furlong to score by 4 1/2 lengths. Private Emblem looks like he has another step forward in him, and that makes him dangerous.

For a colt who won the Blue Grass and Florida Derby by open lengths, and has never been worse than second in 10 career starts, Harlan's Holiday still seems underappreciated. He has the right off-the-pace running style, he is admirably consistent, and it would certainly be no surprise if he won this. But, in terms of betting, it's hard to take Harlan's Holiday at around 4-1. His margin of error is very small given that he didn't run particularly fast in either the Blue Grass or the Florida Derby.

Buddha was determined when he beat Medaglia d'Oro by a head in the Wood, and, like Private Emblem, he is also 3 for 3 this year since getting Lasix. But the Wood was Buddha's first start in a stakes race, and because of that I feel he may be susceptible to a step backward, unlike Medaglia d'Oro.