LOUISVILLE, Ky. - I could take the easy way out here by taking a $116,280 advance on the expense account, ensuring I hit tomorrow's Kentucky Derby superfecta. That's the number it would take to cover all the possibilities (20x19x18x17).
This superfecta appears so complicated, it really could pay more than that, but what fun would it be if I knew I would hit? Really, where is the suspense in that?
Remember a few years ago when they had that free contest where you tried to pick the Derby in exact order from 1 to 20? Now, that's hard. I did the math of trying to cover all bases and the digits ran off the page. It looked like 19 to me, and I really don't know what happens after you get to a trillion.
Anyway, back to the matter at hand.
Trust me on this. I have done the work. I have watched the prep races over and over. I have watched workout tapes. I spent Wednesday morning watching all the contenders on the track. I have studied the past performances. In the end, there simply is no right answer to the eternal "Who do you like" question.
I know which horses can't win. I even have a pretty good handle of which horses have no chance to hit the super. What I can't be confident about is picking one horse to win.
When I sit down to structure a wager - by the way, it is un-American not to bet this race, even if you have no opinion - I will not be able to do as I did the last 2 years, when I felt certain Afleet Alex and then Barbaro was going to win. Being confident about the top of the ticket makes life much less complicated.
After going back and forth about a zillion times, I am picking Circular Quay to win the Derby. He has just enough of what I am looking for - top trainer (Todd Pletcher is going to win the Derby, probably many of them), top rider (John Velazquez), 2-year-old form, the kind of move that wins big races, instant acceleration and the kind of price (maybe 8-1) that makes him appealing in a race where you have to demand value.
Like so many others, Circular Quay is bucking historical Derby trends. I think the game has changed so much, I don't care so much about the trends anymore, but Circular Quay has only two preps (when history strongly suggests you need three) and has not raced in 8 weeks, when history says that's too long.
Pletcher originally planned to run Circular Quay in the Wood Memorial, but changed his mind because his speed-figure data showed the colt would run his best race that day and probably would not come back to that effort in his next race. Thinking it's not about the rehearsal dinner, but the wedding, Pletcher chose to wait. It is a very modern way of running horses in major stakes. This is a test to see if that applies to the Derby.
Although he's certainly not as accomplished and not as talented, Circular Quay reminds me a bit of Afleet Alex - very good early 2-year-old, kept his form as the races got longer and maintained it in his 3-year-old season.
Street Sense is the most likely winner of this race. A veteran clocker described his final work as the best he's ever seen. His trainer, Carl Nafzger, is an absolute master at pointing a horse for an objective and hitting the mark perfectly. The only thing I object to on Street Sense is the price. He might go favored, and I just don't want to go there in a 20-horse field.
I am in the Curlin camp. With only three races, he is bucking so many trends that there is no sense in listing them all. This colt will have to be a freak to win. And he might be. Watching the tapes of this horse, you get the sense he can produce speed on demand, while, at the same time, never fighting his jockey. That is a rare exacta, and one you see only in great horses.
But this is not Arkansas. These horses will not yield as easily as those horses. Like Street Sense, Curlin likely will be no bargain at the windows. Still, he might be this good.
As for the Pennsylvania-breds, I like Great Hunter more than Hard Spun.
The 20 post really does not bother me for Great Hunter. He is coming from the back anyway. He should get the pace scenario he did not get at Keeneland. He will need some luck, as any horse coming from the back needs, but has the move to win it.
My bigger question about Great Hunter is whether Doug O'Neill, a Derby rookie, has done enough with his horse to get him ready for this brutal final examination. We shall see.
If I were instructing Hard Spun's jockey, Mario Pino, I would tell him to try to make the lead. I really think that is his best chance. This race is not laden with early speed, and intentions are hard to discern. If nobody wants the front, Pino should be aggressive early and take it.
Bad scenarios for Hard Spun would be if there is unexpected speed to his inside and/or the speed outside him keeps him locked inside on the first turn. In every one of his races, Hard Spun has had clear sailing. Without it, he could get very confused and not respond well.
I did not like Monday's workout. I like to see horses finishing. And Hard Spun did not finish.
My super key, like 2 years ago, is a California closer. Then, it was Giacomo. Now, it is Giacomo's half-brother, Tiago.
I watched all his races over and over. I am convinced he was ridden the wrong way in his first three starts. The rider was too aggressive too early. Last out, the blinkers came off, Mike Smith (Giacomo's jockey) went on and everything changed.
Smith took Tiago to the back, let him settle into stride and made a winning run in the Santa Anita Derby. Unlike Giacomo, a plodder, Tiago has legitimate speed and acceleration.
Tiago won't be 50-1 like Giacomo, but he will be 20-1, and if he does hit the super, it could help light up the toteboard.
Scat Daddy, Nobiz Like Shobiz and Any Given Saturday are far from impossible. If I didn't mention a horse, I do not think that horse can win. A review shows I have mentioned nine horses. Which again tells you how hard this really is. My 1-2-3-4 is Circular Quay, Street Sense, Tiago and Great Hunter. That's 16-7-15-20 for those playing along at home.
My super tickets obviously will have a few more numbers than that - not 116,280, but a lot of them. *