04/21/2010 11:00PM

Seven Derby answers you need

DRF Illustration

1. What prep race is most likely to be misinterpreted?

Brad Free: The Santa Anita Derby was a ruse. The sluggish pace - 48.50 seconds and 1:12.33 - matched the approximate par for 3-year-old maidens. This is no knock on Sidney's Candy, who won by 4 1/2 lengths, but the tepid Santa Anita fractions were nowhere close to the likely uptempo of the Kentucky Derby. Perhaps Sidney's Candy could reproduce his 100 Beyer if handed another easy lead in Kentucky. But the expected Kentucky Derby field includes a host of front-runners; the pace will be swift. Sidney's Candy has not shown the ability to cope with true fractions, nor has he won a route race rallying from behind. Despite his runaway win in the Santa Anita Derby, Sidney's Candy has yet to prove he is as good setting or chasing true fractions. His win in the Santa Anita Derby was good but ultimately overrated because he will not get the same trip in Kentucky.

Dan Illman: I think the Arkansas Derby may be overrated, since the top finishers - Line of David, Super Saver, Dublin - ran 1-2-3 around the track. Line of David shook loose on an easy lead when Super Saver took back at the start. It's unlikely that Line of David will be three clear down the backstretch at Churchill Downs. Dublin may have some distance issues. I know Noble's Promise, the fourth-place finisher, had the worst trip, but he just doesn't seem to want 1 1/8 miles, let alone the 1 1/4 miles of the Derby.

Dave Litfin: This is a toss-up between the Santa Anita Derby and the Blue Grass, simply because no one has a fool-proof method of evaluating the switch from synthetic surfaces to conventional dirt tracks.

Figuring out what to do with Sidney's Candy could be a big key; his pedigree and running style indicate a horse who should handle the switch, but then again, he hasn't had another horse so much as breathe on him in three races as a 3-year-old. How he'll react to pressure is anyone's guess.

Meanwhile, what do you do with Lookin At Lucky, who was supposed to have an uneventful prep in the Santa Anita Derby but got sawed in half on the far turn?

As for the Blue Grass, the fact that four fairly well-regarded 5-1 shots finished in the last four spots - behind a 40-1 winner - tells me the race was not a true measure of anyone's ability.

2. Which horse didn't win a prep race but can still win the Derby?

Byron King: If he makes the field, Jackson Bend. He didn't win a Derby prep at 3 after being bought for big bucks last year, but one word explains why: Eskendereya. He had the misfortune of facing Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial, and though he was in a different zip code from him at the finish in both races, he outperformed the rest, finishing second both times. He also was second to Winslow Homer in the Holy Bull to kick off the year.

If, by chance, Eskendereya does not run back to his last two starts, Jackson Bend has a fighting chance. He has never been out of the exacta in nine starts and gamely repelled Awesome Act for the place in the Wood Memorial. His stalking style also figures to put him in a good position.

Dave Litfin: Noble's Promise is the first horse who comes to mind, though as this is written he was only "50-50" to run, according to his connections.

That leaves Jackson Bend, Dublin, Super Saver, Pleasant Prince and Setsuko, though as this is written the latter two seemed unlikely to make the field because of insufficient graded-stakes earnings.

So we're down to Dublin and Super Saver, who were necks apart in the Arkansas Derby, and Jackson Bend, a plucky little colt who has never been worse than second but has never won a graded stakes. Super Saver has never won without the lead, so I just can't see him surviving 10 pressure-packed furlongs.

Final answer: It's between Jackson Bend and Dublin.

Mike Welsch: Only a handful of horses even fit this category, but it's a strong group that includes Dublin, Noble's Promise, Jackson Bend, and Super Saver. Of that quartet, I think Super Saver may be coming up to his best effort in the Derby. He looked like a horse in need of a race when he returned from a 3 1/2-month vacation and finished third after setting the pace in the Tampa Bay Derby, but he showed the requisite improvement when outgamed by Line of David in Arkansas. He appears to be ready for a breakthrough performance in the third start of his 3-year-old form cycle, but he will have to find a way to alter his favored running style and try to rate and make a run from off the pace in the Derby.

3. Which horses qualifying on earnings really don't belong?

Mike Welsch: Homeboykris is the most obvious earnings qualifier who really shouldn't have a spot in this field, considering he made the bulk of that money nearly seven months ago by winning a relatively weak Grade 1 Champagne. He hasn't won in three subsequent starts or shown any ability beyond a one-turn mile.

Dean's Kitten is also a bit suspect despite having won the Grade 2 Lane's End in his last start. All of his graded earnings have either come on turf or over artificial surfaces.

Marcus Hersh: Stately Victor is among the top earners because he won the Blue Grass (at 40-1). Here's a list of recent Blue Grass winners and their Derby finish: General Quarters, 17th in '09. Monba 20th in '08. Dominican 11th in '07. Sinister Minister 16th in '06. Bandini 19th in '05. Ugh. He was also seventh and fifth in his dirt starts.

Lane's End winner Dean's Kitten is by turf horse Kitten's Joy and has earned his way in through synthetic and turf races. File under "If it walks like a duck . . . "

At this point, Homeboykris stands as a posterboy for upgrading the sophistication of Derby qualification rules. He squeaks into the field with $14,000 in 2010 earnings and hasn't sniffed the winner's circle since his perfect-trip, one-turn-mile win in the Oct. 10 Champagne at Belmont.

Mike Watchmaker: Homeboykris, who lost both of his starts this year and will enter the Derby without a race since late February, doesn't belong. He is in only because he won a soft renewal of the Champagne last year. That underscores something that should be amended in the graded earnings rule: Two-year-old graded earnings should not count as much as 3-year-old graded earnings. What these horses did eight months ago is not as important as what they did in the last month or two.

Paddy O'Prado, whose only win came in a Grade 3 stakes on turf, also doesn't belong. Turf earnings should not count as much as dirt earnings, because the Derby is run on dirt. For the same reason, I don't think synthetic surface graded earnings should count as much as graded earnings on dirt.

4. Which horse won a prep race but is still underrated?

Marcus Hersh: American Lion. Minutes before the Illinois Derby, Eskendereya did his thing in the Wood. Moments afterward, Sidney's Candy crushed the Santa Anita Derby. Illinois got lost in the shuffle, and so has its winner, American Lion. Did you read a word about American Lion's splashy bullet half-mile workout (46.80 seconds) April 14 at Keeneland? Didn't think so.

I give American Lion a chance at a big price. His physical prowess impressed me - like his daddy, Tiznow, he's a big, strong colt - and while not dazzling, his Hawthorne performance had substance. Here's a colt who showed talent from his debut, won a graded stakes at 2 while getting a solid foundation, has gotten in three solid runs in 2010, and has ironed out kinks (blinkers on, blinkers off) in the course of those races.

Dan Illman: Mission Impazible showed he could pass horses at 1 1/8 miles in the Louisiana Derby. Considering the hot pace expected for the Kentucky Derby, he could work out a nice trip in midpack. He was always highly regarded by trainer Todd Pletcher. He won his maiden first out going 4 1/2 furlongs last spring at Keeneland and has had three solid preps for the Derby. It's possible he was a bit short in his season debut at Gulfstream, and then he chased wide against gate-to-wire winner Conveyance over a speed-favoring Oaklawn strip. His Beyers are still a bit light, but Mission Impazible may still have some upside.

Mike Welsch: Mission Impazible continues to improve with experience, and it appears the farther he goes, the better. I liked the way he rallied from midpack turning for home to win going 1 1/8 miles in the Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds. It is a running style that should serve him well with all the speed in this year's Derby lineup. He got the better of stablemate and fellow Derby contender Rule when they worked in company last weekend at Palm Meadows, edging away from him through the final sixteenth of a mile while well in hand. A son of Unbridled's Song, Mission Impazible has the looks of a 3-year-old peaking at just the right time.

5. Of the horses who've raced primarily on synthetics, which can improve the most on dirt?

Brad Free: The synthetic question includes horses who have been racing on Pro-Ride at Santa Anita. Beyond footing preference, a second dilemma is pace. Two-turn speed is blunted on Pro-Ride. The surface has transformed main-track racing into slow-early, fast-late racing. The slow fractions complicate pace handicapping; deep closers have little chance when the front-runners dawdle. For that reason, Santa Anita Derby runner-up Setsuko (if he gets into the Kentucky Derby) would benefit switching to a dirt surface on which the pace will be legitimate. Dirt races are more "truly run" compared to the slow fractions Setsuko closed against on synthetic at Santa Anita. Conversely, the steady front-running performances in slow-pace synthetic routes such as the Santa Anita Derby are less likely to be repeated when the pace is swift. In the Kentucky Derby, Sidney's Candy will face genuine two-turn heat for the first time.

Marcus Hersh: I'd argue Lookin At Lucky's Rebel Stakes was a career-best performance. Mere coincidence the Rebel is Lookin At Lucky's only dirt start? His 4-year-old brother Kensei - the only other foal to race from this dam - is a multiple graded stakes winner on dirt.

American Lion ran his most complete two-turn race in the Illinois Derby, his dirt debut. He has spent pretty much his entire racetrack life on synthetics. What if a dirt horse was waiting to come out all along?

Sidney's Candy is one of the all-synthetic horses most likely to regress simply because he has more room to go down than up switching surfaces. Moreover, his routes have been slow early, fast late, the opposite of what will happen Derby Day.

Byron King: Juvenile champ Lookin At Lucky has the most room for improvement. His lone start on dirt resulted in the highest Beyer Speed Figure of his career, a 98, and came despite a challenging trip in which he clipped heels on the backstretch. His success on synthetics seems to have been the result of raw talent more so than a particular fondness for the all-weather surfaces.

On the flipside, Sidney's Candy could regress with the move from synthetic to dirt in the Derby. He is by a leading synthetic stallion in Candy Ride, who gets winners on dirt but not to the extent that he does on the synthetic. Also, in his two triumphs going two turns, Sidney's Candy won after setting soft fractions, an improbable scenario in a speed-laden Derby.

Dean's Kitten and Stately Victor also give the impression of synthetic specialists who appear unlikely to relish dirt racing in a large Derby field.

6. Which horses can't you wait to bet against in the Derby?

Dan Illman: Can I bet against them all? Other than Eskendereya and Lookin At Lucky, the other contenders have major question marks. How will the expected quick pace affect speed horses such as Rule, Sidney's Candy, Line of David, Endorsement, Conveyance, American Lion, Super Saver, etc.? Which horses will be compromised by this demanding distance? I guess if you put a gun to my head, I'd say Eskendereya. He's going to be a short price, and his lead changes haven't exactly been the smoothest in his last two races. I understand that's just nitpicking, and it's possible that he's simply been bored because of the lack of competition. Don't hold me to this. As the Derby nears, I may dislike Eskendereya less than I dislike the others, and voila, he's my Derby pick!

Byron King: Of the most accomplished runners, Sidney's Candy is the least appealing. He was a perfect-trip winner in the Santa Anita Derby, enjoying soft fractions on the lead. The Derby, in contrast, is top-heavy with speed horses, which probably will force him to set or press demanding splits. Toss in a surface that is unfamiliar to him, dirt, and there is a good chance he will be backpedaling in the stretch.

Second on the bet-against list would be Dublin, who figures to be overbet with four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas in his corner. Lukas hasn't won the Derby since 1999 and has been winning at a low percentage in graded stakes in recent years. Dublin also seems to lack the stretch determination that distinguishes a top-class horse. He has been outfinished in the final furlong in his two Derby preps going beyond than a mile.

Mike Watchmaker: Horses to bet against in the Derby are not horses like Dean's Kitten. I don't think he has any chance to win, but at probable odds of 50-1, it's not much of a stand, or an edge, to go against a horse like that.

To me, the horses to bet against are ones who will be relatively short prices but have significant questions about them that make them vulnerable. Lookin At Lucky and Sidney's Candy are prime examples. I wouldn't be surprised if either won the Derby, but they are horses to bet against because they are likely to be the second and third choices in the betting, and we still don't know important things about them. We don't know whether Lookin At Lucky is even fast enough to win, and we don't know whether Sidney's Candy can handle dirt or win when he doesn't control a very soft pace.

7. Which horses have the best chance to beat Eskendereya?

Brad Free: Lookin At Lucky, 2009 champion 2-year-old male, began the year as the early favorite for the 2010 Kentucky Derby. It is a testament to his sustained form that, months later, he remains one of the choices. Despite compromising trips in three of his last four starts, Lookin At Lucky has stayed at the top of his division. Runner-up with a wide trip in the Breeders' Cup, winner of the Rebel despite clipping heels, and third in the Santa Anita Derby after checking on the far turn, he continues to hold form. He enters the Derby as the most seasoned of the leading contenders. The truth is, Lookin at Lucky has no knocks. He ran the fastest race of his career in his only start on dirt, earning a 98 Beyer. But he is not the only one with credentials to upset the Derby chalk.

Dublin has not won since September, but past victories are not requisite for a Kentucky Derby victory. Dublin this year has repeatedly battled in top races, and his closing style is suited to the likely Derby pace. Setsuko, if he gets in, will appreciate a fast pace and the 1 1/4-mile distance. Rule ran well against the "race shape" in the Florida Derby. In a race dominated by closers, he was the only front-runner to stick around, finishing third. Stately Victor jumped up with the race of his career last out. Was it due to Keeneland's synthetic surface, or has he gotten good? If it was the latter, he could stun the Derby.

Dave Litfin: Eskendereya is a textbook "double fig," his last two Beyer Figures superior to anyone else. On figures alone, not much distinguishes roughly a dozen of his closest pursuers who recorded at least one figure in the 97-101 range in one of their last two starts.

Pace may be a better tool for whittling away at things, because so many horses can be classified as "E" (early pace) horses: Rule, Sidney's Candy, Line of David, Conveyance, and American Lion all fit that description; and an "E/P" designation (early presser) applies to Endorsement, Super Saver, and Discreetly Mine.

Eskendereya is a "P" (presser) based on his Fountain of Youth and Wood. The issue, or X-factor, is whether he'll adapt to being farther back off a faster pace and consequently in a different kind of early position. If he is positioned close up to a fast pace, the issue then becomes whether he can still deliver a winning punch turning for home.

From the perspective of pace analysis, the chief beneficiaries will probably be the "S" (sustained pace) horses, a.k.a. the stretch runners: Ice Box and Stately Victor; and perhaps as well the "S/P" (sustained presser) horses: Awesome Act and Dublin.

I would use those four in intra-race exotics keyed around Eskendereya, and hope a strong pace takes a toll on all the other first-flight horses.

In terms of trying to beat the favorite with a win bet, I'd probably forsake Stately Victor (too slow, only decent race on Polytrack) and focus on the other three.

Mike Watchmaker: Not to be a wise guy, but the only horse who can beat Eskendereya is Eskendereya. If he runs his race and gets a fair slice of racing luck, he'll win because he is clearly the best horse going in.

The Beyer Figures Eskendereya earned in his romps in the Fountain of Youth and Wood Memorial were significantly better than those of his opponents. He looked like he had plenty left when he won the Fountain of Youth and especially the Wood, suggesting he is capable of even better.

Eskendereya appears handy enough to be placed anywhere in the early stages, meaning it seems he would be comfortable sitting eighth or ninth early should he, as everyone expects, encounter a faster early pace in the Derby than he has in his recent starts. He also looks like he will truly love the stretchout to 10 furlongs in the Derby.

Should Eskendereya be under the weather on Derby Day or be impossibly compromised by a nightmare trip, I think Awesome Act and Ice Box have the potential to upset. Both were humbled by Eskendereya this year, but both are also capable of finishing well into strong paces, which they demonstrated in their respective Gotham and Florida Derby victories.

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