I love a lot of sports, but none more than horse racing. It has everything – drama, speed, emotion, challenge, intrigue, and more puzzles than a guy could solve in a lifetime. The Kentucky Derby is, in my humble but strong opinion, the best sporting event in existence. Winning it is so hard that it’s virtually impossible, yet everyone who has ever owned a horse dreams of winning it. I’ll be heading to my second Kentucky Derby in May (I saw Grindstone win in 1996), and taking my wife to her first. In anticipation of that spectacular trip I will periodically check in with the five horses that are pointed at the Derby that have me most excited. The road from here to there is long and winding, so it is entirely possible that the horse I like best in the race in May is one I have never heard of. Curlin didn’t hit the track for the first time until later than this.
1. Pioneerof The Nile – No, that’s not a spelling mistake. The horse has a terrible name, but he sure can run. He’s a son of Empire Maker, the Derby favorite in 2003 who couldn’t get past Funny Cide in the big race. His trainer is Bob Baffert, the most entertaining trainer there is, and one of the very best. The horse had a solid win this weekend in the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita. He had a troubled trip and looked like he was in trouble with a furlong to go, but he kicked it into a new gear and caught a 17/1longshot just before the wire. Garrett Gomez, the best active jockey there is, was on board for that performance, and he should stay on the rest of the way. There’s the concern with the horse that there is with every horse out of California – we don’t know if he can run on dirt – but so far there is a whole lot to like about this colt. We likely won’t have an answer to the dirt question before the Derby because he is likely to stay in California for the Santa Anita Derby.
2. Stardom Bound – Winning Colors was the last filly to win the Derby, though Eight Belles came close last year. It’s way too early to make comparisons, but this might be the next filly to take a shot at the biggest race. She was very convincing against the girls in the Las Virgenes this weekend. That probably earned her a spot in the Santa Anita Derby against the boys. Winning Colors won that one en route to the Derby. She’s a big filly who almost looks like a ghost because of her colors. She won the Juvenile Fillies at the Breeders’ Cup last year, so she has already shone on a big stage. Her campaign is a very long shot, but the potential drama makes it very worth cheering for.
3. Friesan Fire – He’s a son of A.P. Indy, so he certainly has good genes. He’s also in very good form – he has won two straight graded stakes at FairGrounds in New Orleans. There are fears that he could be peaking too soon, but he’s certainly looking good right now. And he’s doing it on dirt, too. The most recent win was the Risen Star on Saturday. What was striking about that performance was the maturity he showed. He settled off the pace, stalked the leaders throughout, made his move at the top of the stretch, and pulled away to an impressively effortless two stroke victory. That confident, settled type of race doesn’t typically come this early in a horse’s career. That’s a good sign.
4. Chocolate Candy – This is kind of funny – this isn’t the name you would expect from a horse bred and owned by Jenny Craig. Yes, that Jenny Craig. He has a long road to travel because he is based in northern California – not a hotbed of racing. He’s trained by Jerry Hollendorfer , though – an absolute training machine and a legend. His last race was in northern California, but before that he finished a solid third to Pioneerof The Nile at Hollywood Park. He has a lot of growing up to do, but he has an impressive body to grow into, and he looks like he has infinite potential. There’s a bit of a concern in that he has had different jockeys for each of his last four races – good jockeys stick like glue to good horses. Still, at this point in the process he’s one I’m cheering for.
5. Bear’s Rocket – You have to have a longshot, and it’s my patriotic duty to make this one mine. He’s been based at Woodbine until recently, and he’s done fine there, though he hasn’t been dominant. He showed that he’s a live one in his first trip south, though. He went to Gulfstream for the Holy Bull, and he wound up a strong second. He set a fairly rapid early pace and he was able to hold on to it. Or at least he almost was – he finished a strong second, beating the three well regarded favorites in the field. He’s still the definition of alongshot , but his performance will earn him another shot or two at the big boys in Florida. Trainer Reade Baker is very good, and he’s going to break through in the big game sooner or later.