LOUISVILLE, Ky. -– There are two kinds of horses at the Derby –- speed horses and closers. This is a grotesque generalization, of course, but then, that’s what predicting the Kentucky Derby is all about. Grotesque generalizations. There are 160,000 people pouring into Churchill Downs on Saturday, and they all think they have some idea what’s going to happen when 19 3-year-old thoroughbreds run a 1 1/4-mile race for the first time. They don’t. Nobody knows.
Let’s repeat: Nobody knows. One of the most remarkable statistics in sports is that just five of the last 34 favorites at the Kentucky Derby -- FIVE OF THE LAST THIRTY FOUR -- won the race. Walking around Churchill Downs Saturday morning, I saw some suits and dresses that seemed to glow, I saw hats roughly the size of merry go rounds, I saw people stumbling drunk at 10 a.m. More, I heard a whole lot of nonsense about why Wicked Strong or Danza was going to win, why Medal Count was the play, why California Chrome’s adjustment to Kentucky dirt had someone “concerned.”
They don’t know. I don’t know. Nobody knows.
So let’s talk for a minute about speed horses and closers.
Much of the talk this week has been about how there will be a lot of “early pace” at the Derby. This means that there are several horses that are expected to race up to the front and force all the others to at least somewhat keep pace. This is what happened at last year’s derby when Palace Malice took off at the start and ran the first half-mile in 45.1 seconds -- a supersonic pace, one of the fastest in the history of the Kentucky Derby.
This year, there are several horses, including Uncle Sigh (Sigh will be wearing blinkers, like Palace Malice did last year), Vicar’s In Trouble, Wildcat Red and Genreral A Rod who are seen as speed horses capable of setting that kind of Palace Malice pace.
The thing about speed horses at the Derby is … they almost always burn out. The last wire-to-wire winner at the Derby was War Emblem a dozen years ago, but the truth is that War Emblem didn’t struggle to gain the lead. He ran at a very comfortable pace and nobody pushed him so he had plenty left coming down the stretch. The race almost never goes like that. And it probably won’t go like that today.
So what happens then? The faster the pace, the better the chance for the closers. Last year’s breakneck pace on a muddy track set up brilliantly for the favorite, Orb, who was 15th going into the turn and then stormed back past all the tiring horses and won going away. If the pace had been slower, it’s quite possible that Orb would not have been able to come all the way back. It’s also possible that some of the speed horses would have had a bit more left for the stretch run.
In other words -- with the obvious caveat that nobody knows anything when it comes to the Derby -- one good thing to look for today is what the time is at a half-mile. If it’s anywhere close to 45 seconds, you might look for some of the closer horses. If it’s closer to 47 seconds, though, it could give a chance to some of those speed horses in the front of the pack to stay up there.
Here are a few things interesting about the 19 horses:
No. 1: Vicar’s In Trouble
What’s interesting: Wire-to-wire winner at the Louisiana Derby. … Jockey Rosie Napravnik is trying again to become the first woman jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. Drawing the rail position, though, could make it tough. I’m told speed horses on the inside often find themselves either (1) having to set too fast a pace and burning out or (2) Getting stuck in lots of traffic.
No. 2: Harry’s Holiday
What’s interesting: Not a lot. Finished thirteenth at the Blue Grass Stakes, 28 lengths off the lead. People around the horse say it was just an off-day, but that’s some kind of bad off-day. Corey Lanarie -- who is the most successful Churchill Downs jockey and brings a lot of local knowledge -- rides in his first Derby, so that’s something.
No. 3: Uncle Sigh
What’s interesting: The inside horse-racing talk seems to be about the blinkers Uncle Sigh will wear and whether that will be make him bolt to the front like Palace Malice did last year. … Named for Uncle Si Robertson of Duck Dynasty. Ten percent of his earnings go to Wounded Warriors, who help injured veterans. … Jockey Irad Ortiz is riding in his first Derby and becomes one of the first set of brothers to race in a Derby (his brother Jose is on Samraat).
No. 4: Danza
What’s interesting: He was not viewed as a Derby horse until his shocking upset victory at the Arkansas Derby by four lengths. A complete wildcard, early betting suggests that fans like him. Then again, it could be the name. His sire was named “Street Boss,” which inspired the owners to name the horse after “Who’s the Boss” star Tony Danza (who is expected to be there to walk in with the horse).
No. 5: California Chrome
What’s interesting: There’s nothing BUT interesting things about Chrome. By far the most accomplished horse entering the Derby, he’s also the only horse who has shown an ability to win from in front (led wire to wire at the San Felipe) and from behind. Reminds many of I’ll Have Another, who also two years ago won at Santa Anita before winning the Derby. … But remember: Favorites almost never win.
No. 6: Samraat
What’s interesting: Owned by Leonard Riggio, chairman of Barnes and Noble, and the name is a different spelling of Samrat, which is Sanskrit for emperor. … Another horse a lot of people like because he’s a gamer and if the pace blows out all the frontrunning horses, Samraat is just the type to come take the victory at the end.
No. 7: We Miss Artie
What’s interesting: Not much. Hasn’t won on dirt. Is clearly the second horse entered by Ken and Sarah Ramsey -- they seem to be pinning their hopes on Vicar’s In Trouble. People I’ve talked with are finding it hard to come up with a winning formula for We Miss Artie, who finished eighth in the Fountain of Youth. … The horse is named for an actual man named Artie, a friend of the Ramseys.
No. 8: General A Rod
What’s interesting: Not named for Alex Rodrguez but, instead, original owner J. Armando Rodriguez. It would be cooler if he was named for Alex Rodriguez. … Ran gamely at the Fountain of Youth, where he stayed with Wildcat Red down the stretch and lost by a head. Some really like him if the pace is slow enough so that he doesn’t tire out.
No. 9: Vinceremos
What’s interesting: He’s trained by super-trainer Todd Pletcher and looked like an interesting choice until his disastrous performance at the Blue Grass Stakes, where he finished 14th. … Owned by Twins Creeks Racing, and Terry Bradshaw has a stake in it. His name means “We Shall Overcome,” which should be the slogan for those who bet him.
No. 10: Wildcat Red
What’s interesting: The name alone will draw some action in Kentucky, as will his connections with three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith, who won the Derby on Giacomo in 2005…. Here’s another speed horse who will need a comfortable pace to have enough at the end.
No. 11: Hoppertunity: Scratched.
No. 12: Dance With Fate
What’s interesting: This will be jockey Corey Nakatani’s 17th Derby -- he’s 0-for-16 so far, the most losses for any jockey without a victory. He will need a blistering pace to give Dance With Fate a chance to run down the leaders, but stranger things have happened.
No. 13: Chitu
What’s interesting: Has won three of four races and flashed a lot of speed his last time out, but few seem to think he has the stamina to hold on -- especially in a fast race -- and early bettors have stayed away. … Chitu was the name of the horse ridden by Lu Bu in the historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms.”
No. 14: Medal Count
What’s interesting: Good days and bad days. Medal Count was good when finishing second at the Blue Grass and when winning an earlier race at Keeneland but was dreadful when finishing fifth at the Fountain of Youth and 11th in a juvenile race at Santa Anita. He also has been heavily raced coming in, which could hurt. On the other hand, he comes from Dynaformer, who sired 2006 Derby winner Barbaro and multi-million winner Perfect Drift.
No. 15: Tapiture
What’s interesting: This is the horse many are watching because trainer, Steve Asmussen, was part of a recent investigation by PETA that alleges mistreatment of horses. Asmussen proclaims innocence and believes Tapiture is ready to peak. His last run -- a distant fourth at the Arkansas Derby -- does not promise great things.
No. 16: Intense Holiday
What’s interesting: Another Todd Pletcher horse, ridden by 2011 Kentucky Derby winner John Velazquez (on Animal Kingdom) … Another late closer who wants a lot of early pace and wants a clear line to the finish.
No. 17: Commanding Curve
What’s interesting: Not sure. Has won just once in last six races but trainer Dallas Stewart seems to believe there’s talent there that is yet unseen. “We’re just waiting,” he says. Early bettors were waiting on him too.
No. 18: Candy Boy
What’s interesting: Ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who is trying to become the first 50-year-old rider to win the Kentucky Derby since the great Willie Shoemaker. It would be his fourth victory. … Trainer John Sadler, who is one of the most respected in horse racing, is trying to win his first Kentucky Derby.
No. 19: Ride on Curlin
What’s interesting: Being ridden by Derby genius Calvin Borel -- often called Calvin Bo-Rail in Louisville because of his penchant for hugging the rail all the way through packs of horses -- so that gives him a chance. He also has shown signs of being both a speed horse and closer, like California Chrome. But unlike Chrome, he has only shown signs … Curlin finished a distant second to Danza at the Arkansas Derby.
No. 20: Wicked Strong
What’s interesting: There’s a lot here. The horse was named in honor of the Boston Marathon victims and a part of his earnings goes to One Fund that supports those victims. He ran a brilliant race at the Wood Memorial and won by three lengths, leading many to believe he’s peaking. The outside post position doesn’t help him but trainer Jimmy Jerkens says it won’t hurt him much either because it will allow the early speed to get out in front and Wicked Strong to find a comfortable place.
Prediction: 1. California Chrome; 2. Wicked Strong; 3. Danza.
Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski