Since Big Brown captured the Run for the Roses in 2008, the average Kentucky Derby winner has paid more than $47 for a two dollar win ticket. The 139th running at Churchill Downs features a balanced field. While undefeated Verrazano seems like the only potential super horse, what we seem to have for the first time in years is a group of solid if not spectacular contenders. The recent crops of three-year olds have not been strong. While finding a winner in this year's field is not easy, it seems likely that there are a number of horses who will go on to good careers.
Verrazano may not go off as the favorite, but Todd Pletcher's most heralded of five horses will be short odds. As the favorite in each of his last three races, Verrazano has sat just off the pace in the early going, taken the lead on the backstretch or as they approach the turn for home, and won rather easily in each victory. His top Beyer speed figure is 105, and he posted a 101 in the Tampa Bay Derby March 9. His Wood Memorial victory over Normandy Invasion and Vyjack was a professional outing from gate to wire. John Velazquez, winner of the Derby two years ago aboard Animal Kingdom, will ride. There is some question about whether he wants to run a mile and a quarter. He father, More Than Ready, did not like the added distance.
If Verrazano does not go off as the favorite, that label will probably belong to Orb. A winner of four straight, Shug McGaughey's colt has run back-to-back 97 Beyer figures winning the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park. He's the only horse in the race that has won three times around two turns and is bred to like the increased distance. Orb's come from behind style fits well in a race that often produces horses that storm out to fast fractions. While Velazquez rode him to victory in each of his last two wins, since Johnny V has elected to ride Verrazano, that leaves the red hot Joel Rosario to pick up the mount. Orb has the feel of an improving horse as the Derby looms.
The third choice in the betting seems likely to be Goldencents. After a prolonged drought, California based horses race well in last year's Derby with I'll Have Another winning, and Creative Cause running well. First time Derby rider Kevin Krigger rides for Doug O'Neil who trained I'll Have Another last year. Goldencents has won four of six lifetime races and three out of his last four. He ran a 105 Beyer figure winning the Santa Anita Derby against a somewhat questionable field. He should be near the lead early and gives a good effort just about every time on the track.
After negotiating a ton of traffic to win the Withers Stakes in February, Revolutionary returned to win the Louisiana Derby for Pletcher. Javier Castellano elected to ride Normandy Invasion, and that means three time Derby winner Calvin Borel gets his opportunity to ride the horse. Borel is known for his patient approach and ability to guide a horse along the rail late at Churchill Downs. Revolutionary fits that mode, a late kick in the final quarter of a mile, especially at a track with a very long stretch might fit him well. Revolutionary posted a 102 Beyer number in a maiden win before recording an 85 in the Withers and a 93 at Fair Grounds.
The horse that Castellano chose, Normandy Invasion, finished second in the Wood Memorial to Verrazano, and ran late while experiencing trouble in the Risen Star Stakes. He was nosed in November's Remsen Stakes by Overanalyze. That means his only win came as a maiden more than six months ago. There is no doubt that the talent is there. Chad Brown's colt has run three Beyer figures in the 90's including a 99 in the Remsen. It is somewhat discouraging he lost in the Risen Star. He experienced problems at the gate, and was very wide around the second turn, but still couldn't get up to beat a horse that paid $272 to win as the 3/2 favorite. With a good trip, he will be running late, and that may be the style to have.
Java's War is stuck out in the 19 post position, but three of the last five Derby winners have been in posts 16 or higher including I'll Have Another who won from the 19 gate last year. After hesitating from the gate in the Blue Grass, Java's War came from 14 lengths back to beat Palace Malice and Charming Kitten at the wire. On March 9 he was he clearly the second best in losing to Verrazano at 33-1 in the Tampa Bay Derby. However, unlike Verrazano, it appears Java's War wants more distance, and if he can avoid getting out of the gate poorly, he should be running late. However, it has been more than 20 years since a Blue Grass winner won the Derby, and Java's War has never won on dirt. His career best Beyer figure is 96, but it appears he is improving, and sitting on a big race if he finds running room with Julian Leparoux.
The controversial and perhaps crooked Rudy Rodriguez saddles Vyjack. After winning his first four races, Vyjack lost by a length to Verrazano and finished a neck behind Normandy Invasion in the Wood Memorial. The gelding had an opportunity to win at Aqueduct, but didn't have the finishing punch to get by. He earned a 96 Beyer last year and back-to-back 93's this year. Garrett Gomez gets the riding assignment with his regular jockey Rosario up on Orb.
Overanalyze is another Pletcher runner who burst onto the scene with a 99 Beyer last year winning the Remsen over Normandy Invasion. After getting beaten badly by Vyjak in the Gothem Stakes, he rallied to dominate the Arkansas Derby. The horse is well bred and classy but inconsistent. With Rafael Bejarano aboard, he is certainly capable.
It is unclear whether Itsmyluckyday wants to run a mile and a quarter. He won back-to-back races in Florida convincingly with Beyer figures of 102 and 104 in January at a mile and a mile and a sixteenth. Going a mile and an eighth in March, he lost by more than two lengths to Orb. He should be well positioned just off the lead group and ready to pounce when things kick into gear.
Palace Malice was edged by Java's War in the Blue Grass, but may not have loved the synthetic track. He was bottled up at the Louisiana Derby and never had an opportunity to run down the stretch. A winner of only one race, when allowed to lengthen stride, he possesses an impressive kick. A career high Beyer figure of 93 must be improved upon. Riding in his 20th Derby Mike Smith is very capable, of course so too is Pletcher.
Finally, if you're looking for an absolute hail marry, why not Lines of Battle? Aidan O'Brien is one of the best trainers in the world, and it seems like until he wins it, he will continue to send horses here to try and win big American races. Lines of Battle was a non factor in his only U.S. Start, at last year's Breeders Cup. Meanwhile, he has won in Ireland twice and Dubai once, and appears to have tactical speed and an ability to run the distance. It's a shot in the dark, so too was Mine that Bird, and Giacomo.
I like Orb and Java's War best, but in an event that frequently pays big prices, I'm not going to settle for a horse at three or four to one. Java's War is the call with exacta wagers with him Orb, and Verrazano. I'll flirt with Itsmyluckyday and Revolutionary as value picks.