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Undercard as interesting as Derby itself
While there is money to be made along with bragging rights for correctly selecting the winner of the Kentucky Derby, there will be plenty of consolation prizes up for grabs on the stakes-filled Derby Day card at Churchill Downs on Saturday.
The Derby Day pick four and pick six that lead into the Kentucky Derby usually offer considerable profit potential, even if you believe there are a half-dozen possible winners of America's most famous race.
To facilitate such plays, along with single-race exotics - which often pay more than they should because so many casual players tend to discover horse racing on Derby Day - here is my annual look at primary contenders and preferred longshots in each of the Derby Day graded stakes.
$100,000 Eight Belles, a Grade 3 at seven furlongs on the main track for 3-year-old fillies, replaces the La Troienne stakes to honor Eight Belles, the filly who broke down after her second-place finish in the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Probables include Auspicious, C.S. Silk, Dave's Revenge, Diamond Tags, Four Gifts, Gatorette, Just Jenda, Lady's Laughter, Luster, and Warrior Maid.
Although Four Gifts decisively beat Just Jenda for second money in the 1 1/16-mile Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds in February and both fillies were trounced by Oaks favorite Rachel Alexandra in separate Grade 2 route stakes, I will use both in multi-race exotics. That said, the Larry Jones-trained Just Jenda may benefit the most from the class relief and a cut back to a one-turn sprint. Jones is a master with young fillies and this will be Just Jenda's first sprint since she won twice at six furlongs in her first two career starts.
$200,000 Churchill Downs Distaff Turf Mile, a Grade 2 for fillies and mares, 3-year-olds and up, with no 3-year-olds in the field. Probables include Ballymore Lady, Elusive Lady, Flibberjibit, Lady Carlock, Lemon Chiffon, Rustic Flame, Sugar Mint, Sweeter Still, and Tizaqueena
Elusive Lady, a front-running second in three straight stakes in Florida this winter, will be the one to catch as the probable wagering favorite. Lemon Chiffon, winner of her return to competition in a 6 1/2-furlong turf sprint at Santa Anita on April 9, was competitive in good turf routes last year and could prove the main late threat at okay odds. Lady Carlock also deserves a close look, especially in the exotics. Trained by Carl Nafzger, Lady Carlock has somewhat erratic form, but did win the Suwannee River Handicap at Gulfstream this winter and woke up last year with a pair of sharp seconds at this distance on this course.
$250,000 Churchill Downs Handicap, a Grade 2 at seven furlongs on the main track for 4-year-olds and up. Probables include Fabulous Strike, Ide Like a Double, Kodiak Kowboy, My Pal Charlie, Paul's Hope, Riley Tucker, Silver Edition, Sok Sok, Spotsgone, and The Roundhouse
Fabulous Strike, a very fast-breaking horse, will be the one to catch at a distance that is slightly beyond his preferred best. Kodiak Kowboy certainly took advantage of this when he caught Fabulous Strike in the final strides of Aqueduct's Grade 1 Carter Handicap at this seven-furlong distance April 4. Beyond those two, there isn't anything wrong with the form of Sok Sok, who caught Kodiak Kowboy in the six-furlong Duncan F. Kenner at the Fair Grounds on March 14. Fact is, multi-race players may have to go very deep in this race that has no throwouts.
$300,000 Humana Distaff, a Grade 1 at seven furlongs on the main track for fillies and mares, 4-year-olds and up. Probables include Likely betting favorite and two -time Eclipse Award winner Indian Blessing, plus Grade 1 stakes winner Informed Decision, and Game Face, Royale Michele, Secret Gypsy, Sugar Mint, and Tiz to Dream.
Indian Blessing, one of the most reliable sprinters in the world, regardless of sex, ran a courageous second against male rivals in the $2 million Dubai Golden Shaheen at about six furlongs March 28. Has maintained excellent overall form for three seasons, handles the distance, and could be ready to show off in her first start since her return from Dubai. Her main rival would appear to be Informed Decision, a seven-furlong specialist who outgamed Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint winner Ventura in Keeneland's Grade 1 Madison at this distance April 9. But the Todd Pletcher-trained Game Face has almost as much appeal. A four-time graded stakes winner, Game Face is 2 for 2 at this distance on this track and will deserve a very close look at reasonable odds.
$500,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, a Grade 1 at 1 1/8 miles on the turf for 3-year-olds and up, with no 3-year-olds in the field. Probables include betting favorite and highly versatile Einstein, as well as experienced graded stakes turf pros Artiste Royal, Court Vision, Cowboy Cal, Furthest Land, Just As Well, Proudinsky, Yate's Black Cat, and Zambezi Sun.
Obviously, Einstein will be the one to beat as he attempts a repeat score in this race after winning the Santa Anita Handicap on Pro-Ride in his last outing March 7. Two horses that deserve a close look are Proudinsky and Zambezi Sun, both trained by Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel.
Zambezi Sun, who will be a good price in this race, tired after making a bid in the Santa Anita Handicap, but is much stronger on turf and has worked sharply for trainer Bobby Frankel.
Proudinsky, winner of Grade 2 stakes at Santa Anita and Fair Grounds since December, also has trained forwardly for this formidable assignment against the top older horse in America.
The Friday Kentucky Oaks Day card also will be loaded with high-quality stakes, and the $350,000 Louisville Distaff at 1o1/16 miles on the main track will command almost as much interest as the Oaks. The reason? Undefeated 2008 Eclipse champion female Zenyatta returns to competition against a moderate field that includes Bear Now, Dawn After Dawn, Miss Isella, One Caroline, Stealin' Kisses, Sugar Mint, Swift Temper, Unbridled Belle, and Unforgotten.
As for the $2 million Kentucky Derby, with talented Quality Road forced to the sidelines with hoof issues, we are left with several potential winners and another handful that could crack the superfecta.
Pioneerof the Nile could certainly put an exclamation point on Bob Baffert's Hall of Fame election and would give him his fourth Kentucky Derby winner. Pioneerof the Nile is a very good, very game horse bred to handle dirt. Moreover, he should be in a stalking position under Garrett Gomez in a race that figures to have a moderate pace, not the strength-sapping pace that would help lightly raced Dunkirk, Win Willy, Hold Me Back, Mr. Hot Stuff, Chocolate Candy and other deep closers in the field. Even I Want Revenge may break behind most after his awkward beginning in his remarkable Wood Memorial.
Regarding some intriguing longshots, I am going to use Godolphin's Desert Party and Regal Ransom on several exotic tickets. Both have been brought into this race better than any of Godolphin's prior Derby prospects and both have trained very well over the track. So have Pioneerof the Nile and I Want Revenge, while Louisiana Derby winner Friesan Fire has worked well at Keeneland. Positive reports also have come in about Dunkirk from his secluded Palm Meadows training track and Hold Me Back's Blue Grass stakes at Keeneland seemed a near perfect prep for this.
The bottom line is I slightly prefer Pioneerof the Nile over I Want Revenge, Dunkirk, Desert Party, Hold Me Back, Friesan Fire, and Regal Ransom. But realistically, in the 20-horse Derby it even might make sense to box five, six, seven, or even eight horses in the exotics to cash some nice tickets.