Avoiding the Bluegrass Blues in This Year’s Kentucky Derby

With California Chrome a heavy favorite and Hoppertunity out, the Run for the Roses is up for grabs

Photo by Brian Spurlock | USA Today Sports

Photo by Brian Spurlock | USA Today Sports

It’s the Kentucky Derby! The Run for the Roses! The … thing where the horses go in a circle for a couple of minutes and everyone pretends to care, because it gives them a fantastic excuse to slug down straight bourbon with a couple of mint leaves shoved in the glass under the pretense that this is a “fancy cocktail” and not “the same drinking behavior as the parking lot before a Mötley Crüe concert.”

This year’s Derby prep races have revealed a very important truth about the 20 hopefuls lining up May 3 at the Churchill Downs gate: This crop of 3-year-olds isn’t wildly impressive. Will that stop me from studiously handicapping the sport of kings’ most significant two minutes of the year? Of course not. I shoved a few Altoids in a bottle of Early Times, and I’m in a Derbying mood. (Note: Post positions, which were determined after press time, were not considered in the following analysis.)

California Chrome: Your Derby favorite. The King Joffrey of horses: If he wins, you’ll stand to gain little. Best-case scenario, he chokes. Pass.

Vicar’s in Trouble: Fairly sure that’s a Smiths song and not a Kentucky Derby entrant. Pass.

Dance With Fate: Blue Grass Stakes winner appears to be a specialist for synthetics surfaces. With Lexington, Kentucky, track Keeneland removing its synthetic surface in favor of old-fashioned dirt this fall, expect Fate to be positioned at the Flamingo and I-15 off-ramp come September holding a “Will sprint over Polytrack for food” sign. Pass.

Wicked Strong: Named for Boston, a provincial town whose chief exports are David Ortiz beard-stencils and crippling insecurity. Despite that, could make noise.

Samraat: The only other New York-bred to win the Derby was Funny Cide in 2003, and he was notoriously proud of that fact. Note found in Samraat’s barn that read, “Awfully nice apples you’ve got here. Shame if something happened to them” was signed with a horseshoe print. Pass.

Danza: The Arkansas Derby winner is not actually a horse. It’s actually Danny Pintauro and Judith Light sharing a horse costume. Everyone knows Light is a turf sprinter. Pass.

Hoppertunity: Second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby. Used to rent VHS tapes every weekend and never rewind them, but also once gave $20 to a ragtag busker doing a credible cover of “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” Intriguing.

Intense Holiday: Traded blows with Vicar’s in Trouble in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, winning the former and finishing second in the latter. If you can’t consistently beat a Smiths song, you’re either unfit to win the Derby or you’re Andy Rourke.

Wildcat Red: Believes the Earth was created 8,000 years ago by Egyptian horse god Resheph. Pass.

We Miss Artie: Frequent poster of YouTube comments. Pass.

Ride on Curlin: Ridden by voodoo priest Calvin Borel, whose back-to-back Derby wins in 2009 and 2010 will earn Ride on Curlin undue consideration, even though Borel is actually made of gumbo and held together with old New Orleans Saints jerseys. Pass.

Chitu: Gesundheit. Pass.

Tapiture: Also not a horse. Actually Usain Bolt wearing one of those rubber horse masks. Feisty … but pass.

General a Rod: Increased distance in each of his last two races … and kept finishing worse. He’s the neighbor kid who got straight A’s all through school, but was still barbacking at the seedy dive you always frequented when you went home for the summer. Pass.

Medal Count: Another horse that favors artificial Polytrack—the Guy Fieri appetizer of racing surfaces. Pass.

Candy Boy: His OKCupid profile picture is from when he was still a yearling. Not without merits, but pass.

Uncle Sigh: Continuously finishing behind Samraat. Used to hang out in front of the 7-Eleven and ask retired horses to buy him beer. Just enough initiative to get your attention, but ultimately lacks serious character. Pass.

Vinceremos: Only made the Derby field because other horses opted out/were injured. Spotted tipping over a bag of marbles in front of the now-injured Constitution during a workout. Clearly, a horse of low moral character. Pass.

Harry’s Holiday: Spotted in the backstretch paying off Vinceremos to spill the marbles. A horse of villainous intent. Pass.

Commanding Curve: Needed a horse named Ring Weekend to run a fever in order to get off the bubble and to the gate. Impressive that Curve could hire Courtney Love to go cough on RW on such short notice then. Both those horses are owned by West Point Thoroughbreds Partnerships, though there are different partners involved in each horse. Skullduggery is possibly afoot. Consider.

So where does that leave us? This is a pedestrian crop of 3-year-olds led by California Chrome, who’s the only horse here that looks scary. But if you’re going to take him, you’re going to have to live with odds of 3-to-1 or worse, and in a 20-horse field, it doesn’t seem worthwhile to lean into that kind of chalk. Plus, his front-running style rarely wins the Derby—the last was War Emblem in 2002, and California Chrome isn’t nearly that good.

Hoppertunity’s Santa Anita run reveals a horse with closing ability that may have been easing off the throttle and saving something for Churchill Downs. But the drawback here is that he never raced as a 2-year-old, and no horse that skipped their juvenile campaign has won the Derby since 1882. So there’s that. Wicked Strong, likewise, used tactical speed to outlast Social Inclusion in the Wood Memorial, a race that ran similarly to what the pace figures to be in the Derby. But the Wood competition wasn’t as compelling as the Santa Anita, even with Samraat’s game effort and Social Inclusion’s scamper on the lead. Intense Holiday and Commanding Curve are both interesting cases that can each close, but between Curve showing steady improvement and the potential of craftiness in Curve’s connections, I’ll err on the side of paranoia.

Update, 5/1: Well that went south quickly. In light of recent developments—Hoppertunity’s scratch with a bruised foot this morning—the Derby picture looks a bit different than it did 24 hours ago.

California Chrome’s favorable post sets him up well, but his odds are going to be even worse with Hoppertunity out of the picture. He’s still your most likely winner, and still not worth making a win bet on. If you want to start getting fancy with your exotics and key him up top, mazel tov. If that sentence looked entirely like Yiddish, and not just the part at the end, let’s keep looking here. (And yes, that means tempting fate by going against the horse with Nevada connections. Yes, hexes are absolutely a thing in horse racing. Be advised.)

There are speed horses who will by vying for the lead all over the gate, from Vicar’s in Trouble on the rail to Wildcat Red in the middle newcomer Pablo del Monte on the outside. It still lines up well for closers, and of those, Wicked Strong, Intense Holiday, Danza, Candy Boy and Commanding Curve all have redeeming qualities.

Wicked Strong got a bit of help from Hoppertunity’s defection, sliding over to post 19 from 20. It’s still an uphill battle from there, but his Wood just looked better than Danza’s Arkansas. The improving Commanding Curve still looks tempting to show.

Win: Wicked Strong
Place: Danza
Show: Commanding Curve
Screw it, waste some money on the superfecta while you’re at it: Candy Boy

Got your wide-brimmed hat and mint julep ready? Read our roundup of the best places in Vegas to watch the Kentucky Derby at VegasSeven.com/DerbyParties.

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