It may very well be the least talented Kentucky Derby field I have seen, but it’s still the Derby and there is still money to be made come Saturday afternoon.

There has been a mess made of the 3-year-old contenders this year as at least six horses many felt had a good shot at winning will not be in the gate at 3:57 p.m. PDT, when the Derby is scheduled to start.

Some are out because of injuries, while others opted for other races, including the Pat Day Mile, a race taking place earlier on the Derby undercard at Churchill Downs.

As per my tradition, I will go through the entire field, breaking the runners into five different categories. Afterwards I will give you my plays!

Of course, the unknown factors in the Derby that playout on normal years are multiplied this year. There will be more fans on site than in most of their other races and it is impossible to know how the horses will handle a 19-horse field.

Good luck and enjoy!

The Favorites

Essential Quality (Brad Cox, Luis Saez, 2-1): Easily the deserving favorite coming into the race as last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Champion has appeared to lose no form in his sophomore campaign.

There has been five starts and five wins with Saez in the irons for the last four. Look at the two starts this year as a testament to the horse’s versatility. The first came off a layoff in the Southwest in late February at Oaklawn Park. He came out poorly from the gate, composed himself and ended up winning by over four lengths.

Five weeks later he was back in the Blue Grass at Keeneland. There, he got out good but hooked in a duel with Highly Motivated around the track. In the lane, the two bumped and it could have been the end of Essential Quality. The horse dug in and was able to fight back and get the close win.

There has been races where he has been on the pace, then others where he was content to sit off the pace and charge late. Both styles can work at the Derby.

Rock Your World (John Sadler, Joel Rosario, 5-1) has come on the seen lately with a convincing win in the Santa Anita Derby on April 3.

The was the third win in as many starts, but with the SA Derby being the lone big stakes race, it could go one of two ways. One, the horse is only going to get better and stronger, or, two, the horse has not as deep a field before and may not react well.

Usually it lies with the former, and the fact he has speed may keep him out of trouble in the middle of the pack, but as is the case when they get a big race for the first time, they can get excited and take off. It’s happened in the Derby before and will happen again at some point.

Hot Rod Charlie (Doug O’Neill, Flavian Prat, 8-1) is another horse that has come on to the scene recently as a contender. He has only two wins in seven career starts and has risen to contender status off his front running win in the Louisiana Derby.

We first caught wind of Hot Road Charlie when he was second behind Essential Quality in the BC Juvenile at 94-1. He has had two runs since then, finishing third in the Lewis at Santa Anita after a troubled start, then winning in Louisiana. His best starts have come when he’s within contact of the leaders, so he figures to be a pace factor.

Known Agenda (Todd Pletcher, Irad Ortiz, 6-1) saw his chances take a hit before he even stepped on the track on race day as he drew the rail for his post. In six career starts he has never started from the rail so there should be adjustments to be made.

His running style has been shown to be running from off the pace, which may force him to show more speed out of the gate to keep from falling behind 19 horses.

In addition, position is vital for late run where ideally you don’t have the entire field to work through. In the end it’s hard to argue with the connections.

Other contenders

Mandaloun (Brad Cox, Florent Geroux, 15-1) was one mentioned among the favorites following his impressive win in the Risen Star in mid-February at the Fair Grounds.

That stock went out the window when he came back and laid an egg, running a well-beaten 6th in the Louisiana Derby.  He’s gone from being the favorite in his five starts to possibly being an also ran here.

How then do I have him listed as a contender when so many have thrown him away? I look at it this way – he has one bad race in five career starts. On March 19, the day before the Louisiana Derby, he was on the first page of possible Derby champs, but 24 hours later he was on the trash heap.

Who know what happened in Louisiana? Maybe the horse was just off that day, or maybe he is not a Derby runner. Either way, I will have to see another dismal performance before banishment to lesser stakes.

I do like the work tab for this, and he has had plenty of time to get rested and ready.

Highly Motivated (Chad Brown, Javier Castellano, 10-1) is a horse that I am a fan of for this spot. He fought tooth and nail with Essential Quality in the Blue Grass, getting passed late after a bump, falling by a nose.

If you like Essential Quality, I don’t see how you can overlook this runner. He stared down the juvenile champ for an entire race and barely got beat. This will be his third start off a lay-off and he has shown improvement. Great value here.

Got a shot at a price 

Medina Spirit (Bob Baffert, John Velazquez, 15-1) has had five starts and never been worse than second. He beat Hot Rod Charlie in a three-horse blanket finish to win the Lewis. He then got walloped by Life is Good in the San Felipe, finishing second, but eight lengths back.

I am not sure he can win the race but his resume gives him every reason to be part of your ticket. Oh, he is also Baffert’s only horse in the race.

Will be one that figures to be a pace factor.

Midnight Bourbon (Steve Asmussen, Mike Smith, 20-1) is another perplexing horse here. Seven races and he has hit the board in all seven races. He has also never been worse than 7-1 in any of his races.

Red flag perhaps for his second in the Louisiana Derby when Hot Rod Charlie pulled away from him late and now, he must deal with the added distance in the Derby.

The truth is he has faded in all but one start, but if you are thinking about going deep on your ticket he can certainly be one to find the top four.

Dynamic One (Todd Pletcher/Jose Ortiz, 20-1) took four starts to break his maiden, then came back after that race and ran second in the Wood.

Not a big fan of the New York Triple Crown runners, but the question must be asked if the light went off after the maiden score?

I am leaning towards no, but given the connections mixed in the April 24 work over the Churchill surface certainly gives you reason to be a fan.

Could screw up your ticket

By no means do I think any of these horses can win the Derby but they are the type that make the race interesting. There are always horses that pick off tired horses in the lane or surprise speed horses that hang on to finish in the top four.

It is always these that leave you shaking your head at the end.

Soup and Sandwich (Mark Casse, Tyler Gaffalione, 30-1) is a speed horse that might get loose early and then fade, but only as far as third or fourth.

Realistically I see him among the leaders through the halfway, then fade to finish 10-12 if not further down the line.

Bourbonic (Todd Pletcher, Kendrick Carmouche, 30-1) drew the No. 20 post and was your shocking 72-1 winner of the Wood after closing from the clouds.

In all but one of his six starts he has shown some late run. This is exactly one of those horses you find impossible to add to your ticket, then cringe as be came charging to finish a well-beaten third or fourth, but that is good enough to end your exotics.

Super Stock (Steve Asmussen, Ricardo Santana, 30-1) is a horse that a few of my friends like but I just can’t get behind. He was impressive in winning the Arkansas Derby, but that race set up perfectly for him.

In this spot I feel there are too many horses that have similar running styles and are better horses. I need to have him on this list to be fair to you all, but I will not be including on my ticket, so he fits this category perfectly.

Helium (Mark Casse, Julien Leparoux, 50-1) you must have on this list for one simple reason – three starts, three wins.

Granted they have not been world-beating races, winning a pair at Woodbine before shipping south to take the Tampa Bay Derby. He did show some guts in Tampa, overcoming a poor start to come back, take the lead in the lane and then battle to hold on for the win.

Sainthood (Todd Pletcher, Corey Lanerie, 50-1) had trouble throughout the Jeff Ruby, but still managed to run second behind Like the King.

I left Like the King off the list because Sainthood appears to have more upside and could be due for even greater improvement. It is entirely possible he sits in the top 10, then decides he wants to run and shock the world.

Stay out of the way

Every year I have this group to wrap up the field, but it is usually 2-3 horses. This year because of all the defections I have six that make up this group. This year I would have loved to see only 14 start, but here we are with 19 again.

Could one of these horses hit the board and even win the race? Sure, anything is possible as evidenced by Mine that Bird winning the 2009 Derby at 50-1.

Realistic? Not a chance, but it can happen. Following are the five runners I wish were staying at home Saturday. I am not going into depth on these.

Like the King, Brooklyn Strong, Keepmeinmind, O Besos, and Hidden Stash, are the five runners I just hope they stay out of the way and not influence a race they should not be in to begin worth.

Could I get stung by my words? Without a doubt and if I do, I will be the first to praise the horse. At the same time, they would be the type of horse I where I would go back in the form, take another look, and still not see where that run can from!

My plays

I have never been one to jump on a win bet in the Derby unless I find a horse like Thunder Gulch in 1995 when he was 25-1 but I was sold on him being the best horse in the race.

That leaves me with the exotics, with maybe one win bet on a horse with a decent price.

I really like Essential Quality as the one to beat here. He’s done everything that has been asked of him and won every start, showing different running styles.

But at a 2-1 morning line, there will be little value and going with deep exotics and hope for some bigger priced horses completing the ticket is the way I have cashed some big tickets over the years.

Hear are the horses I am going to put together in exacta, trifecta and superfecta boxes: Essential Quality, Rock Your World, Highly Motivated, Medina Spirit, and Midnight Bourbon.

I will likely lose money on my exacta if its Essential Quality and Rock Your World first and second, but any deviation and the dollar signs begin to grow!

For a $2 bet the following are your totals: 5-horse exacta box = $40; 5-horse trifecta box = $120; 5-horse, $1 Superfecta box = $96. That’s a total of $256 for the race. Hit the tri or the super, or have the one of the favorites do not finish in the top two with one of my three other choices and we have cash coming our way!

If I can get at least 10-1 on Highly Motivated towards post time, there’s a good chance I may drop in a win wager on the horse!

Good luck everyone Saturday!

By Dennis Miller

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