LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Kentucky Derby evokes more over-the-top emotion than any wedding. Derby fever makes shrewd businessmen delusional about their seriously overmatched horses. Billionaires get weepy when they see their silks in the post parade as the band plays "My Old Kentucky Home."
Wicked Strong is the first horse that trainer Jimmy Jerkens has brought to this circus. In 1992, he assisted his father, Allen, with Devil His Due.
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"It just seems there's a lot on top of you,'' Jimmy Jerkens said. "The walk from the backstretch to the paddock is a canopy of people. I'd never seen anything like that in my life. The Derby buzz is really something.''
The world's most famous race is also the most compulsively overanalyzed. For months, handicappers obsess over speed figures, workouts and pedigrees, second-guessing themselves constantly. They ignore the wisdom of "Think long, think wrong.''
Treating the 11/4-mile Derby like any other race, even though it is unique, works best for me. Identify the no-hopers, the ones in the gray area and the real contenders. It's made me look brilliant a few times -- future bets on Monarchos (17-1) and Orb (13-1) -- and like an idiot often. What do forgotten failures Vernon Castle, Bull Inthe Heather and Stephen Got Even have in common? All were my Derby picks.
So, you may say, enough with the song and dance, alleged expert. What about Saturday?
Start by throwing out Vinceremos, We Miss Artie, Harry's Holiday, Commanding Curve, Ride On Curlin, Dance With Fate, Medal Count and Pablo Del Monte. If I were a bookmaker, I'd take unlimited action on all of them. Of course, I also reviled Giacomo and Mine That Bird, and both paid more than $100. Well, no system is perfect.
On paper, the pace shapes up as quite fast, which should cook Wildcat Red, Vicar's in Trouble, Chitu and Uncle Sigh, all of whose bloodlines say 1¼ miles is too far. But they're running on dirt, not paper.
"You don't know what's going to happen,'' trainer Bob Baffert said. "The speed horses, you don't know who's going to break, and who's going to go. What if the pace isn't fast and they keep going? We're all assuming a lot of stuff.''
I think 15-1 shots General a Rod and Samraat are gritty stalkers who can stay strong until the eighth pole if the fractions aren't too hot. Tapiture and Candy Boy appear a cut below top class. Danza is training well for Todd Pletcher, but I doubt he'll repeat his perfect trip in that Arkansas Derby upset.
Then come the best closers, Wicked Strong and Intense Holiday. Weaving through a 20-horse field requires luck and timing. Hall of Famer John Velazquez is more likely to pull it off with Intense Holiday than Rajiv Maragh is on Wicked Strong.
Stalker California Chrome, the 5-2 favorite, is the most logical winner. Yet the price is short, and will he handle a 20-horse field on Churchill's quirky surface in his debut outside California? As Pletcher said, "Funny things can happen on this surface,'' and a clocker said "Chromie'' looked "just OK'' galloping Thursday. Is he the next Big Brown, who should have won the 2008 Triple Crown, or another Bellamy Road, a flop as the 2005 favorite?
I'm picking Intense Holiday to give longtime collaborators Velazquez and Pletcher their second Derby victory and their first together. His last two races have been his best, he's been a workout star, and he still has upside. Then it will be California Chrome second, Samraat third and Wicked Strong fourth. And I'm just hopeful, not confident.