Kentucky Derby horses arrived early at Churchill Downs this year. By Monday, 12 days out from the May 4 event, 21 of the 24 current prospects were on the grounds and 10 have already recorded a workout over the track.
Trainers Todd Pletcher and D. Wayne Lukas both worked multiple contenders in recent mornings and there will be a slew of activity this weekend as horsemen put the finishing touches on a Derby bid.
As far as the horses not present, Goldencents and Itsmyluckyday are still preparing at their respective California and Florida bases and both ship in this Saturday. International invader Lines of Battle won't arrive from Ireland until next Wednesday, the last day Derby horses can report.
The top 20 point-earners in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by TwinSpires.com" qualify for the Derby field and the cut-off currently resides at 20, with an overflow of four horses sharing that mark (No. 19-22 on the Leaderboard). Unrestricted stakes earnings serves as the tiebreaker, so Charming Kitten and Winning Cause are in the main body of the field (No. 19 and 20th), and Code West and Tiz a Minister (21st and 22nd) need defections.
Titletown Five can join the mix if he wins Saturday's Derby Trial, but he would need help as well. The "wildcard" race offers 20 points to the winner but that would put Titletown Five only 22nd (splitting Code West and Tiz a Minister), barring any withdrawals.
I will take a look at the pros and cons of the Leaderboard horses:
1. Orb (150 points)
Pros: Orb possesses ideal pedigree and powerful turn of foot for the 1 1/4-mile race. A winner of four straight, including victories over outstanding competition in the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth, the colt can adapt to any pace scenario and will be tough to beat if he keeps moving forward for trainer Shug McGaughey. Runs from off pace but isn't a one-dimensional closer; could be well-situated near midpack for the run down the backstretch.
Cons: Is he fast enough? His BRIS Speed rating profile is unflattering, failing to register a triple-digit number in the Florida Derby (97) as well as an 89 and 86 in his last four starts (102 from Fountain of Youth is lone respectable figure). Jockey John Velazquez chose Verrazano over Orb and the Derby isn't a forte for his Hall of Fame conditioner (zero-for-six).
2. Verrazano (150 points)
Pros: Verrazano stretched his undefeated mark to four with a gritty Wood Memorial win, fending off serious challenges from quality foes in a potential key Derby prep, and talented colt defeated the eventual Blue Grass winner when capturing the Tampa Bay Derby two back. Last two weren't flashy but comfortable wins nonetheless as Todd Pletcher laid the groundwork for a peak performance on Derby Day. Verrazano should be in prime position turning for home with his cruising speed and won't be easy to run down if he gets the trip.
Cons: Distance limitations? Questions surround his effectiveness at 1 1/4 miles -- Verrazano is by speed sire More Than Ready and brilliantly captured his first two starts at one turn by a combined 24 lengths. His last two at a route weren't as impressive (Speed ratings decreased to a 100 for both Wood and Tampa Bay Derby) and he would be the first unraced two-year-old to win Derby in more than 100 years.
3. Goldencents (129)
Pros: Goldencents will bring top last-race BRIS Speed rating (106) into Derby and has captured three of his last four starts against stakes rivals. Lone setback came when he got caught in a wicked pace duel, but bay colt showed willingness to rate along front end in Santa Anita Derby, a quality that would serve him well at Churchill Downs. Trainer Doug O'Neill brings confidence to the equation, winning last year's Derby with I'll Have Another, and Goldencents could put his speed to good use if able to relax during early stages.
Cons: Speed-favoring Santa Anita strip probably served him well last time and hasn't been facing the stiffest competition, or large fields in California. His breeding (speed on top and bottom of his pedigree) is a potential liability for the Derby distance.
4. Java's War (122)
Pros: Finished up strongly for second when making first start of year in Tampa Bay Derby and kicked for home impressively in Blue Grass, earning a 110 BRIS Late Pace rating when closing from last to first in final three-eighths of a mile. Julien Leparoux retains mount on dynamic late runner and Kenny McPeek-trained colt could be set for another strong showing in final furlongs of Derby.
Cons: Slow-starting nature -- he practically walked out of the starting gate in both starts this year -- makes for an uphill climb in a 20-horse field, especially given that this year's field isn't loaded with early speed. All his wins have come on either synthetic or turf and supporters must worry that he will be left with too much to do in latter stages.
5. Overanalyze (110)
Pros: Two-for-two at 1 1/8 miles, Overanalyze will be among the most accomplished horses in Derby field with stakes victories in the Arkansas Derby, Remsen and Futurity, posting BRIS Speed ratings as high as 104. He didn't run well when making first appearance this year in Gotham, falling out favor with most analysts, but rebounded nicely to post 4 1/4-length score in Arkansas Derby and that could be an indication of better things to come. Todd Pletcher colt figures to be overlooked in wagering and rates as a sleeper with further improvement.
Cons: Inconsistent performer benefited from slowly run race in final prep and has never been able to string together two wins. He didn't run well in lone appearance at Churchill Downs last fall when finishing a well-beaten third as the favorite in the Iroquois Stakes.
6. Revolutionary (110)
Pros: It's not always pretty but Revolutionary gets the job done. And the winner's circle is a very possible destination on Derby Day if he has his head on straight. Overcame a nightmarish journey to capture the Withers two back, but prefer to focus on his maiden and Louisiana Derby victories where he earned BRIS Speed ratings of 105 and 103. Those numbers are extremely formidable this year and the addition of three-time Derby winner Calvin Borel could help him break better in the main event. Love the mix of speed and stamina in his pedigree and the talent is there.
Cons: Bad behavior could cost him. Revolutionary has lacked focus, breaking poorly and running in spots both times this year, and he faces a 20-horse field and the need to keep himself together in the saddling ring and post parade before a 150,000+ crowd. He's got the potential to win a number of major races, but his immaturity and tendency for slow starts, which creates concerns for possible traffic problems, are drawbacks. Javier Castellano opted to ride Normandy Invasion over him.
7. Lines of Battle (100)
Pros: Earned Derby berth with a 1 1/2-length victory in 1 3/16-mile U.A.E. Derby and endurance should be no concern. Trainer Aidan O'Brien did not send the right horse over last year (Daddy Long Legs wound up last when eased in the stretch), but Lines of Battle is a much different colt with plenty of stamina in his bloodlines -- dam is a half-sister to Dynaformer (sire of Barbaro) and is a daughter of Arch, the damsire of I'll Have Another. Connections have a much better understanding what to expect this time around.
Cons: Lacks dirt experience and this year's U.A.E. Derby was arguably not a strong race. Since 1937, no horse has won the Derby in only his second start of the year, so Lines of Battle faces an extremely tall task.
8. Vyjack (70)
Pros: After winning his first three starts in front-running fashion, Vyjack displayed a new dimension when rallying to capture the Gotham in an outstanding effort. He continued to perform admirably while sustaining first setback in deep Wood Memorial, exiting his close third with a minor throat infection, and appears back on track physically. Gutsy gelding has outrun his pedigree so far and his form/BRIS numbers is easy to admire; if he can get himself in position, Vyjack will battle to the wire.
Cons: The 1 1/4-mile trip looms a major obstacle. His pedigree is definitely slanted toward shorter distances and a recent infirmity raises red flags for any Derby contender. Vyjack also will be making his first start outside the friendly confines of Aqueduct.
9. Will Take Charge (60)
Pros: Well-built colt eats up ground with his massive strides and jumped forward with a nice win in the March 16 Rebel, netting a career-best 101 Speed rating. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas is a four-time Derby winner and is excited about his charge's potential at longer distances; Will Take Charge is a closer to consider at expected long odds.
Cons: Unlike every Derby winner of modern times, Will Take Charge has never raced at 1 1/8 miles and his inconsistent form, as well as a dislike for wet tracks, raises legitimate questions. A seven-week freshening is typically less-than-ideal and certainly isn't the modus operandi for Lukas, who likes to run his horses and could wheel Titletown Five back off a one-week rest if he wins Saturday.
10. Itsmyluckyday (50)
Pros: Opened his three-year-old campaign with a pair of smashing wins, registering BRIS Speed ratings of 111 and 106, and exits respectable runner-up finish to Orb in Florida Derby following a two-month layoff. If he can reproduce his performances from earlier this season, Itsmyluckyday should be in the mix, with a big chance to win, in stretch run of the Derby.
Cons: Sire Lawyer Ron was at his best at 1 1/8 miles and female pedigree offers little encouragement for longer distances. An undistinguished juvenile performer, Itsmyluckyday really took to the Gulfstream oval when making his first two starts this year at shorter distances but his ability to carry that form to Churchill Downs, coupled with the added distance, is a legitimate worry.
Continued: Pros and cons of the contenders
11. Govenor Charlie (50)
Pros: Improving colt established a new track record when capturing his stakes debut, the March 24 Sunland Derby. Bob Baffert trainee owns promising BRIS numbers and his speed should ensure a favorable trip, right off the early leaders. There's no telling how good Govenor Charlie really is.
Cons: He was unraced at two and is very light on experience, making only one stakes attempt. By comparison, the Baffert-trained Bodemeister, who was also unraced at two and broke his maiden in February like Govenor Charlie, received two stakes attempts, against much deeper competition in the San Felipe and Arkansas Derby, prior to his Derby runner-up last year. Govenor Charlie is also recovering from a recent hoof setback, which calls into questioning his fitness for a 1 1/4-mile race.
12. Black Onyx (50)
Pros: Spiral stakes winner is two-for-two since switching to the barn of Kelly Breen, who upset the 2011 Belmont Stakes, and Black Onyx has proved to be a versatile sort, winning on dirt, turf and synthetic. Improving colt could sit good trip with his natural speed, possesses a suitable pedigree for distance and there will be worse longshot candidates in Derby field.
Cons: Quality concerns. Looks like a better turf prospect than dirt and hasn't run fast enough to rate as a serious contender.
13. Palace Malice (50)
Pros: Returned from a lengthy layoff with a couple of solid showings this year, including a close third in the Risen Star, before losing all chance due to an extremely rough trip in the Louisiana Derby. Rebounded nicely in the Blue Grass off a two-week rest for Todd Pletcher, striking the front between calls before being nailed by a head on the wire. Palace Malice is a hard-trying colt with plenty of stamina in his bloodlines and a favorable running style for the Derby. Expect him to race up close, in the first flight behind early leaders, before offering his move.
Cons: Only a maiden winner and arguably his best race this year came on synthetics which, coupled with his breeding, could possibly indicate that he has a future on turf. His BRIS Speed ratings have also decreased in each of his last four starts, never a positive sign for a Derby contender.
14. Normandy Invasion (44)
Pros: Ended 2012 on an extremely positive note, just missing by a nose to Overanalyze when making his first start against winners in the Remsen, but Normandy Invasion returned this year with a disappointing fifth in the Risen Star after a tardy start. He put that performance behind him in the Wood Memorial, overcoming a slow pace to rally boldly into contention in the latter stages, and should be set for another strong showing following the runner-up effort. Tapit colt rates as a major player for up-and-coming trainer Chad Brown.
Cons: Owns only a maiden special weight victory and Giacomo, a 50-1 upsetter in 2005, is the only Derby winner since 1960 that failed to finish first in every previous start against winners. Must rely on his sire for stamina because he comes from a speed-oriented mare and late runner could have to navigate through plenty of traffic for the first time in his career.
15. Frac Daddy (44)
Pros: Frac Daddy is a horse for the course, breaking his maiden by 9 3/4 lengths before just missing in Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last fall. Gray colt did not come to hand quickly this season for Kenny McPeek, recording unplaced finishing his first two outings, but Arkansas Derby runner-up suggests he's finally headed in the right direction.
Cons: His recent Speed ratings (86-77-92) won't get it done at this level and he was an unthreatening second in a slow race last time. Considering the promise he displayed at two, Frac Daddy has been disappointing this year.
16. Mylute (42)
Pros: Offered a big late run to finish a neck second to Revolutionary in Louisiana Derby and brings a favorable Speed rating pattern into the Run for the Roses, with increasing numbers in every start since his maiden win (87-90-91-94-95-105). Gray colt is based at Churchill Downs and shows several quick works in preparation. He adds the services of Rosie Napravnik and could prove to be a serious stretch-running threat.
Cons: Mylute has run well at two turns but 1 1/4 miles could be a different ballgame considering his pedigree looks better suited toward middle distances (out of a Valid Expectations mare). Received an ideal set-up last time, with blistering early fractions to set up his late move, but his prior performances offer little encouragement for winning races at this level.
17. Oxbow (36)
Pros: He will show speed and could be the pacesetter in the Derby. Grade 3 winner just missed in the Risen Star and Rebel following wide trips, but draw a line through his Arkansas Derby last out; the colt broke a step slowly and resented the kickback when racing at the back of the pack during the early stages. Potent combination with D. Wayne Lukas/Gary Stevens -- they've won a total of seven Derbys, including two together with horses who possessed tactical foot (Winning Colors and Thunder Gulch). Stevens will look to slow down the pace up front and Oxbow is a threat to steal it.
Cons: Oxbow surged to a narrow lead in the stretch of the Risen Star and Rebel but was caught late both times; you don't see that happening in previous starts for most Derby winners. Athletic colt possesses a royal pedigree but performs like he may prefer less ground than the Derby distance.
18. Falling Sky (30)
Pros: Falling Sky will be forwardly-placed and has not run a bad race this year, winning the Sam F. Davis at Tampa before recording a third in the Tampa Bay Derby and a fourth in the Arkansas Derby. He appears to be training forwardly at Churchill Downs for John Terranova.
Cons: Not fast enough on paper, with BRIS Speed ratings of 92-92-91 in last three starts, and colt may want no part of added distance against this competition.
19. Charming Kitten (20)
Pros: Turf stakes winner rallied to be a close third in Blue Grass and is part of a six-horse Todd Pletcher armada. Horses with turf prowess sometimes take to the main track at Churchill Downs (Animal Kingdom and Barbaro both won Derby; Dullahan and Paddy O'Prado placed in recent years) and Charming Kitten registered a 104 BRIS Late Pace rating while displaying a nice finishing kick last time.
Cons: Arguably a cut below Derby competition. Lack of dirt experience is a major drawback and even his turf/synthetic form isn't that strong.
20. Winning Cause (20)
Pros: Would enter on the upswing for Todd Pletcher, winning last two starts, including graded stakes bow in recent Lexington. His breeding -- by Giant's Causeway and out a Kingmambo mare - is promising for the distance.
Cons: All his wins have come on Polytrack and last dirt start was ugly, a well-beaten fifth versus listed stakes rivals at Aqueduct in February. His last three Speed ratings (88-80-86) will be among the worst in the field and he's never raced past 1 1/16 miles.
21. Code West (20)
Pros: Does his best running close to the action and that could translate nicely in Derby field that lacks an abundance of early speed. Got burned on swift Louisiana Derby pace last time but performed well in two previous attempts this year; colt owns a nice pedigree, commendable BRIS numbers and has three-time Derby winner Bob Baffert in his corner. Grinder would be an intriguing longshot, probably more likely for a minor award if he makes the field.
Cons: His best races may come down the road, not on May 4. Late-developing colt owns only a maiden victory (no winning attitude with three seconds and two thirds to his credit) and didn't record a workout for more than three weeks after Louisiana Derby. Fact that connections have been on the fence surrounding his participation sends mixed signals as well.
22. Tiz a Minister (20)
Pros: West Coast-based colt does his best running late and offered a fine finishing kick when finishing third in the March 9 San Felipe, registering a 118 BRIS Late Pace rating. Didn't fire in Santa Anita Derby last time and will run against California-bred rivals in the Snow Chief Stakes at Hollywood Park this Saturday. Connections are leaving the option open for wheeling the late runner back a week later if Tiz a Minister can make the main body of the field.
Cons: Probably needs a softer spot to be competitive. He's a longshot to just make the trip and is no lock to win the Snow Chief.
23. Golden Soul (14)
Pros: Packs a late punch, rallying for second in the Lecomte and fourth in the Louisiana Derby this year. Dallas Stewart-trained colt would have no issues with the 1 1/4-mile distance given his pedigree.
Cons: Plodder wasn't a serious factor in all three stakes starts since breaking his maiden and probably won't receive the wicked pace needed to have any chance of clunking up for a minor award.
24. Power Broker (10)
Pros: Grade 1 winner at two had to need his last start when finishing fifth in Santa Anita Derby in first appearance this year. Power Broker is a candidate to keep improving for Bob Baffert.
Cons: Could find the competition and 1 1/4-mile distance too taxing in Derby.