Friday, May 04, 2007

“Handicapping” the Derby

I put handicapping in quotes because I’m not anywhere close to being a handicapper, or even a good horse player at that. I’ve been trying to pick the Derby winner for several years now; ask Harlan’s Holiday, Ten Most Wanted, High Limit, and Lawyer Ron how that turned out (although I did get the favorite, Smarty Jones, in 2004).

Usual disclaimers aside, I see this shaping up to be a pretty exciting race. You’ll see stuff out there about how people think this field is weak in comparison with others; I don’t see that at all. There are about seven colts who I really, really like, and wouldn’t be surprised at all to seen in the winner’s circle.

I will go over my top ten in reverse order; obviously I’m not really picking these ten to run in this order, but I am ranking them by my guess at their probability of winning the race. Number Ten is, reluctantly, Hard Spun. I’m not encouraged by his very fast work this week, nor am I impressed with the fields he’s run against. However, I can’t overlook the potential that he’s really as good as his record. Next is Zanjero, who has become one of the trendy longshot picks, and for good reason. He has been third in three straight races, but big races against good fields (beaten by would-be Derby starter Notional in the Risen Star, after attacking from the outside; by Circular Quay in the Louisiana, and by Dominican and Street Sense in the Blue Grass).

At #8 I have a horse I don’t really like, but whose wins have to be given their due in Scat Daddy. Personally, I see him as this year’s Lawyer Ron, and I learned my lesson the first time. At #7 I have Cowtown Cat, the first of three consecutive Todd Pletcher trainees on my list (Scat Daddy is his as well). He looked good in winning the Illinois Derby. Any Given Saturday is a tough horse to fault for his two recent losses, as they were to Street Sense in quite a battle (although it was Street Sense’s first start since the Breeder’s Cup) and Nobiz Like Shobiz. Distorted Humor has already won the Derby with Funny Cide and AGS could make it two; my only regret is that his juvenile rival Tiz Wonderful is sidelined.

At #5 is Circular Quay, who has never run more then 8.5 furlongs, and would therefore is trying to buck one of the trends (as an aside, the devotion that some horse players show to trends mystifies me. I’ll talk about this more with Street Sense). I have to admit to being a fan of his as his sire Thunder Gulch won one of the first Derbys of my memory and went on to add the Belmont and the Travers, which to me is a truly legendary performance. He also sired the even greater Point Given.

At #4 is the likely favorite, Curlin. I do think that Curlin has great talent and potential; I’d be a fool to deny that. For me, it’s not just that he only has three lifetime starts or didn’t race at all at two, it’s that he has never faced a field anywhere comparable to this one before. One pick I saw said that he could be impossible to beat if he gets a perfect trip. Obviously, “impossible” is hyperbole, but I agree with the general sentiment. The problem is, I don’t see him having much of a shot at winning if he doesn’t get a great trip. With a twenty horse field, you can get stuck in a hard place, and then have to beat a bunch of horses vastly superior to any you’ve faced before. However, if he wins, then he just may be a superhorse, and the Triple Crown buzz machine will be out in full force.

Great Hunter at #3 is another horse whose bloodlines I’m a sucker for, as he is out of Aptitude out of AP Indy. He has only started twice this year, winning the Robert Lewis and finishing fifth in the bizarre race that was the Blue Grass.

At #2 I have the juvenile champion Street Sense, who is looking to become the first Breeder’s Cup Juvenile winner to take the Kentucky Derby. This is the kind of trend that really annoys me when it gets mentioned. There is no reason to believe that there is some grand design of the universe that prevents the BC Juvy winner from wearing the roses. There are some good reasons why winning the BC Juvy may not be that great of a thing when assessing Derby prospects; a horse that wins that race may already be near their peak, they may be overrun as a two-year old which hurts their development, etc. There are any number of reasons why you shouldn’t place your Derby future bet the minute the BC is over. But once a horse has overcome these obstacles, it’s silly to look back on a race last October or November as a reason they won’t win in May.

Consider how close, within the last five years, fine horses like Point Given and Afleet Alex came to winning the Juvenile. Granted, they didn’t win the Derby either, but they went on to take the three year old title. Also keep in mind that many Juvenile winners never make it to Lousiville, or do so after lackluster campaigns that provide a reason to think they won’t win. 2002 champ Vindication and 2005 Stevie Wonderboy were injured. 2004 champ Wilko was an underdog BC winner to begin with, and demonstrated why that was the case.

Anyway, if Street Sense doesn’t cross the wire first, it won’t be because he crossed the wire first on this track in November. Street Sense is the horse, along with Curlin, who would get some legitimate TC buzz going with a win.

But my pick, and I will admit that I have grown to love this horse, one of the favorites of my time as a fan, is Nobiz Like Shobiz. I couldn’t pick the next Secretariat from the next Zippy Chippy if they bit my fingers off, but those in the know say that Nobiz is a beautiful specimen of a colt. I am amused by his apparent aversion to big crowds (they stuff cotton in his ears) and big fields (he now wears blinkers). My affection aside, he’s a darn good horse. He had to hold off Any Given Saturday and the surprising Sightseeing in the Wood, his first start with the blinkers. He was a closely beaten third to his nemesis Scat Daddy in the Fountain of Youth in a race in which he was out wide almost the entire trip. In his first start of the year, he beat Scat Daddy and Drums of Thunder fairly soundly in the Holy Bull, although he didn’t show the kind of explosion you’d like to see; then again, he didn’t need to.

I just feel that he is sitting on a huge race, and the second start with blinkers would be a great time to find it. And he is my pick.

I will comment on why a few horses who many hold in high regard did not make my list. Tiago’s coming out party in the Santa Anita Derby was against a weak field. Much is made of the fact that he is Giacomo’s maternal half-brother, but Giacomo needed the suicidal pace of Spanish Chestnut and co. to win in 2005; it’s tough to forecast that happening again, even if they are the same horse. Liquidity is one of my favorites, as he is a son of Tiznow, and may help set the pace on Saturday; I would be thrilled to see him run well, but I don’t see it. Dominican was not really on a lot of people’s radars before the Blue Grass, and that race is real easy to throw out.

In review:
1. Nobiz Like Shobiz
2. Street Sense
3. Great Hunter
4. Curlin
5. Circular Quay
6. Any Given Saturday
7. Cowtown Cat
8. Scat Daddy
9. Zanjero
10. Hard Spun

NOTE: I wrote this before the post positions were assigned; the only big change is that Great Hunter starting in post 20 has to slide down the list a little bit. Also, given the odds you can get, my trifecta would be to take Nobiz to win and box Cowtown Cat and Circular Quay. I don’t think that’s the most likely outcome, but it would certainly have a bigger potential payoff then taking the top three, yet it is still within the realm of possibility.

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