1. Strong Mandate (Tiznow - Clear Mandate, by Deputy Minister) D.Wayne Lukas - I’ve actually enjoyed watching a lot of former believers of Strong Mandate jump ship after his second place finish in the Southwest Stakes. Cowards! I, on the other hand, will not be doing that. Call me crazy, or stubborn, if you must, but I still see him as the most likely winner of the 2014 Kentucky Derby. Remember that colt that ran so big in two races last summer at Saratoga? Remember that colt that ran a pretty amazing race in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (very wide, way too fast, and still coming on again late.) So what that he got a little leg weary in his first race of the new year. That is what preps are for; it was a worse trip then it looks on paper, by the way. D. Wayne is building a foundation with this big strong colt bred to stay the trip. He already bounced back with a strong workout, and should be tough to beat against a strong Rebel field. But remember, it’s all about the first Saturday in May, and I expect this one to be more than ready.
2. Candy Boy (Candy Ride - She’s An Eleven, by In Excess) John Sadler – I was looking forward to seeing the fifty something, Gary Stevens, in the saddle of this one at Churchill Downs, but now I am not so sure. It seems that the Hall of Famer is pretty smitten with the up and comer, Bayern. That’s OK, he’s allowed to be excited about a young horse that wins by 15. I just think that when things all shake out, this is the one that will give him a much better shot to win at ten furlongs. The powerful son of Candy Ride tipped off what he could become, with an explosive backstretch move in December’s CashCall Futurity when second to Shared Belief, and then he displayed a much more professional look with a methodical win in the Robert B. Lewis. I look forward to seeing more of the same in the nine furlong Santa Anita Derby, and I’m convinced that distance will prove to be no problem for Candy Boy when he heads East.
3. Top Billing (Curlin - Parade Queen, by A.P. Indy) Shug McGaughey – This is a colt that I loved ever since I saw his maiden race at Laurel Park, and I have not seen anything yet to sway my positive vibes on the son of Curlin. Even in his losses, he looks good. Keep in mind, the high majority of Kentucky Derby winners did not go in undefeated. The Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park was supposed to be his acid test. In some ways it was, but in many ways it didn’t prove a darn thing, and I mean that in only a good way. His rally from way back could only carry him to third, but watching every race on the card, as I did, and you begin to realize just how good the performance was. If he can make up that kind of ground at 8 ½ furlongs on the speed favoring track of Gulfstream, imagine what he could do at ten furlongs at Churchill Downs, with the leaders wilting to all the pressure that comes along with the Derby. I have, and I like his chances.
4. Honor Code (A.P. Indy - Serena’s Cat, by Storm Cat) Shug McGaughey – The long lost winter book favorite for the Run for the Roses has been conspicuous in his absence, but it seems that his juvenile races have only been flattered by what has happened so far this year, especially by the emergence of Cairo Prince. His recent works seem to say that he is feeling good again. I guess all we have now is to trust in the training ability of one of the best in the business. It’s certainly not too late. He does not need to win the Rebel, nor does he have to win the one after that, but if Shug can get in two solid efforts before May, there is no reason to believe that he can’t have him at his very best by the time we get to May. All we have to do is think back to the last furlong of the Remsen, against none other than Cairo Prince, to realize that would be a very scary proposition for the rest of the Kentucky Derby field.
5. Cairo Prince (Pioneerof The Nile - Holy Bubbette, by Holy Bull) Kiaran McLaughlin – Apparently this is a toy that Sheikh Mo just had to have, and I certainly cannot blame him. His ability to make a sudden burst on the turn reminds me of one of my all-time favorites - Sunday Silence. I realize that is a bold statement, but it is the kind of move that wins horses the money time and time again. Of course, Sunday Silence did it at a classic distance many times over, and Cairo Prince is still a question mark going a route of ground (See the Remsen.) Having said that, he only looked better in the Holy Bull. Now there is a long gap between that big effort and the Florida Derby. I’m not completely sure what to make of it, but he is working well, and I would not bet against him in Gulfstream’s biggest prep. He was flattered by Intense Holiday’s Risen Star win, and I expect him to get flattered once again by Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby.
6. Conquest Titan (Birdstone – Miner’s Secret, by Mineshaft) Mark Casse – It’s a long way both literally and figuratively from Tampa Bay Downs to Louisville, but Conquest Titan has all the makings of a colt ready to give it a good run for the roses. When we last saw the son of a Belmont winner, he was gobbling up ground when way wide in the Holy Bull. In retrospect, I believe the second to Cairo Prince at Gulfstream was probably even better that I first realized. Nevermind that Intense Holiday came back to win the Risen Star; Conquest Titan was crunched at the start, and ran a lot farther than the perfect trip winner. I like that Casse is getting him out of town to run on the opposite coast on Saturday. A nice late running win should give his charge plenty of confidence as we inch closer to Kentucky.
7. California Chrome (Lucky Pulpit - Love The Chase by Not For Love) Art Sherman – Statebred - Schmatebred, and you can quote me on that. When he destroyed the field in the late season King Glorious, I thought he looked good, but at least partially chalked it up to a weak field. After the California Cup Derby, though, I had no choice but to admit what we are dealing with here - a really talented horse. That a Cal-bred (Tamarando) came out of that race to impressively run down the El Camino Real Derby field, only validates the fact to anyone who saw what they saw in the California Cup Derby. Many look at Saturday’s San Felipe as a real test, because it comes in open company. I see it a little differently. I only want to see if he can run like he does last time, because if he does, I believe the other runners are in deep doo-doo. Ten furlongs does remain a question that does need to be answered, though.
8. Tapiture (Tapit - Free Spin, by Olympio) Steve Asmussen – OK, so he walloped my #1 in the Southwest Stakes. Clearly I must have gone straitjacket crazy to have him seven spots lower than Strong Mandate. I am not going to argue my sanity here, but I will remind all that what goes down in the Southwest is night and day from the first Saturday in May. And speaking of night and day, that was the difference in trips enjoyed by the top two that day. Listen, this one is a very nice colt who I suspect will enjoy a highly successful career, but as much as anyone on this list, I fear that 1 1/16 miles is more his game than true classic distances. If I’m wrong, I will eat some fricasseed crow when the time comes. Having said that, he sure appears to be getting better, and he does already own a nice win over the Churchill Downs main track.
9. Mexikoma (Birdstone – Toccet Over, by Toccet) Rick Mettee – I can picture Dean Wormer saying now, “Third in an allowance race is no way for a Kentucky Derby to go through the winter.” Maybe, but then again maybe not. My top dark horse remains my top dark horse, because basically I liked what I saw when rallying for third against a pair of talented colts, while well wide, and fighting the speed favoring surface the whole way. With a little cough since, things only get tougher from here, but I believe all he needs is one good prep to gain both some points and some confidence. Team Valor has found success before in Turfway Park’s Spiral Stakes, so I am guessing that is where he shows up next. I have little doubt that this one will make some noise before it is all said and done. It’s just a question whether it will turn out to be on the first Saturday in May.
10. In Trouble (Tiz Wonderful - Ballpark Butterfly, by Grand Slam) Anthony Dutrow – My Gotham pick did not win, but how resolute was he on the rail after the two topnotch New York-breds collared him at the top of the Aqueduct lane? In what was his first start after having a knee chip removed, and a subsequent sizable layoff, he demonstrated that he fits with quality horses as a three-year-old. By fighting back strongly from the rail, I believe he also proved that he is more than the good sprinter he showed us at two. As a grandson of Tiznow, this should come as no surprise. If indeed the three main players from the Gotham do all come back to take the stage in the Wood Memorial, it would be easy to see this one reversing his fortune, which should set him up very well for a Kentucky Derby run.
11. Bayern (Offlee Wild - Alittlebitearly, by Thunder Gulch) Bob Baffert – He won his second career start by 15 lengths, so despite never having run in a stakes race before, I expect him to go favored in the San Felipe. You already know my pick in the race (see #7), but where does that leave this one? First of all, forget the 15 lengths. Unless your name is Secretariat, margin of victory means next to nothing. His win, while certainly impressive, should be tempered with the fact that he got away with less than quick early fractions. Having said, I actually do think I saw him sprout wings for a stride or two. Listen, a horse like this is why the phrase, “could be any kind”, was originally turned. In another start or two, he could become a Kentucky Derby favorite, or he could be another talented horse unable to live up to the massive hype. Time will tell, but I need to see more.
12. Samraat (Noble Causeway - Little Indian Girl, by Indian Charlie) Rick Violette – Undefeated in five starts, I am not going to insult your intelligence by saying this one has done anything wrong. Fact is, he has done everything very right. New York breeders should be taking great pride in this one, as well as, his main foil, Uncle Sigh. Clearly, Rick Violette has a colt who knows his way to the finish line. Unfortunately, horses like this rarely, if ever, get draped in roses in early May. Compare him to Funny Cide all you want, but I think that one had a little more bottom to his bloodlines, as well as, a bit more talent. Don’t get me wrong, I love horses like this, but I just honestly see at least eleven horses more likely to win this year’s Kentucky Derby.
13. Tamarando (Bertrando - Tamarack Bay, by Dehere) Jerry Hollendorfer – I may be showing some bias here, but I always tend to like a horse with a good closing kick for the Derby. They don’t always win, but generally speaking, they cash many more checks in the big one than the speedier types. And if you are looking for one that closes fast with great consistency, then look no farther than the second California-bred on the list. I’ve seen many call him a synthetics horse, but to tell you the truth, I like his performances on the speed favoring main track of Santa Anita. Despite not winning, it looks like he does just fine on a traditional dirt track. I am more worried that his rally may be a little more muted as the distance increases, but I still see the likelihood of this one passing many late under the famed twin spires, as a good one.
14. Schoolofhardrocks (Rock Hard Ten - Royal Chapin, by Royal Academy) David Hofmans – Who remembers Touch Gold? Trained by David Hofmans the talented son of Deputy Minister came back as a three-year-old impossibly late to prudently enter the Kentucky Derby, but two weeks later, he was unlucky not to win the Preakness, and then came back to end Silver Charm’s Triple Crown bid with a late thrust in the Belmont. OK, the history lesson is over, but you can see why I am thinking about Touch Gold with this one for the same trainer, right? In only one race at two, Schoolofhardrocks was as impressive as he was green in winning a maiden at Del Mar. A physical setback has kept him on the shelf until now, but after a series of good looking works, he returns in the San Felipe. Is it too late for a fair chance at the Derby? Probably, but then again, talent goes a long way.
15. Intense Holiday (Harlan’s Holiday - Intensify, by Unbridled’s Song) Todd Pletcher– I have seen a few smarter people than me, speak the praises of this one after his relentless Risen Star rally got there in the very final jump of the Fair Grounds feature. I instead ask, who did he beat? Albano is his name, and just how good that one is, remains a question in my eyes. Intense Holiday ran a good Holy Bull, but not as good as that of Conquest Titan, in my opinion. So, I guess an optimist would say that he is improving and that he is tailor made for the stretch run at Churchill Downs. It is possible, but I still lean toward the, he found an easier field last time, theory.