Twenty horses will go to the post on Saturday, but only five or six are serious contenders. Most of the field is there so their owners can say they ran in the world’s greatest horse race for three-year-olds. What makes the Derby special is that it requires young horses to negotiate the longest distance any will have ever run before a bigger and louder crowd that these nervous thoroughbreds have ever seen. To pick the winner, one must find the horse with a trainer and jockey who have done it before—plus a horse that has the pedigree and training to handle the extraordinary distance and circumstances.
Here are my picks:
1. Pioneer of the Nile, #16. The nation’s top jockey, Garrett Gomez, passed on another strong contender, Dunkirk, to jump on this $290,000 son of Empire Maker, who finished second in the Derby in 2003. Who are we to disagree? The trainer, Bob Baffert, has won the Kentucky Derby and knows how to get a horse ready. Pioneer has won his last four races, including the Santa Anita Derby, and seems to be improving as he goes longer. In a race that seems to be packed with come-from-behind horses, Pioneer of the Nile has shown a remarkable ability either to come from behind or to run on the lead, which should make Gomez’s job easy on Saturday. He has already beaten several of the other top choices in this race, including Papa Clem and I Want Revenge. I see no reason why he shouldn’t beat them again on Saturday.
2. Friesan Fire, #6. Last year, Larry Jones, trainer of Friesan Fire, sent out the filly Eight Belles, who ran a gallant second but died moments after crossing the finish line. This year he’s back with his top colt, who won the Louisiana Derby on a sloppy track in March. Friesan Fire has not run since then and comes into the Kentucky Derby fresh and off a three-race winning streak. If the track is wet—and it looks like it may be—this son of the amazing A.P. Indy could take it all. On a dry dirt track, second is likely.
3. Dunkirk, #15. Although Dunkirk loses the service of Garrett Gomez, who guided him to a second place finish in the Florida Derby, he gets former Maryland jockey Edgar Prado, who has ridden his way into the Racing Hall of Fame at Saratoga. With only three career starts, Dunkirk, who sold at auction for $3.7 million, is still green but clearly talented. He should improve off his second-place finish in only his fourth career race, but his lack of experience will cause him to come up just short of the winner.
Quick comments on other contenders:
I Want Revenge, #13. Got off to a horrible start in his last race but caught the field going away. Look for the colt to regress after such a strenuous effort, and trainer Jeff Mullins is being closely monitored by track officials.
Chocolate Candy, #11. Second to Pioneer of the Nile in Santa Anita Derby but was not getting closer at the end.
Desert Party, #19, and Regal Ransom, #10. Both of these very expensive, well-bred horses are owned and trained by the same Dubai sheik, who has been racing them in the United Arab Emirates. The trip back to the United States takes too big of a toll.
Papa Clem, #7. Didn’t beat much in the Arkansas Derby and was beaten by Friesan Fire in Louisiana.
Hold Me Back, #5. Another closer who came up short in the Blue Grass Stakes. Seems a cut below the rest here.
Advice, #4. Would have to come from too far back and won’t have Gomez, who rode him to victory last time.
Musket Man, #2. Has feasted on lesser competition but moves now to the big leagues.