There are just a few days a year when horse racing is front and center in the mainstream media, and Kentucky Derby day is clearly the grandest of those days.
I’ve been to 15 Derbies, but I get the same butterflies thinking about it here in Las Vegas as I would if I were on the backside of Churchill Downs.
This year’s 20-horse Derby field is the first shaped by the new point system. Prep races run in March and April offered the most points. Those run earlier were rendered insignificant. And sprint races? They offered no points at all.
What this did was eliminate cheap speed and sprinter types from the Derby. In past years, a sub-46 second first half-mile would be the norm. I doubt if we’ll see it that fast on Saturday.
However, one thing that cheap speed did was stretch out the field. When the field gets stretched out, it creates open spaces for horses to find their spot going into the first turn.
I believe the elements are in place for a roughly run Derby. I predict the first half-mile will be closer to 47 seconds than 45. Many horses possess the same running style, stalking the pace, and they all can’t occupy the same space.
Thus, it’s no revelation that the Derby winner will need racing luck to stay out of trouble.
With that idea in mind, my pick to win the Kentucky Derby is Goldencents (5-1). The Santa Anita Derby winner has speed to either lead or sit very close to the early pace.
Trainer Doug O’Neill won the Derby last year with I’ll Have Another, and Goldencents may be a more talented colt. If the first half-mile is run in 47 seconds and Goldencents is with the pace, I would love his chances.
My next choice is Normandy Invasion (12-1), runner-up in the Wood Memorial to the undefeated Verrazano. Normandy Invasion looks like a colt who keeps improving as the distances get longer. He figures be flying fast at the finish under Javier Castellano.
My third pick is Orb (7/2), the morning line favorite. He earned that role off wins in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, both at Gulfstream Park. Trainer Shug McGaughey was in this position in 1989 with favored Easy Goer, who ran second to Sunday Silence.
Finally, my fourth choice is Itsmyluckyday (15-1) for trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. This colt gets no respect despite winning the Holy Bull and finishing second to Orb in the Florida Derby. All he does is run one big race after another.
You likely noticed that none of the five Todd Pletcher horses are in my mix. One reason is Pletcher’s 1–for-31 win record in the Derby. Of his five, I think Revolutionary (10-1) has the best chance to run a big race under three-time Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel.
■ BOULDER STATION — In last week’s column I forgot to mention one Derby weekend seminar — this one is at 6 tonight at Boulder Station, featuring Gordon Jones and Tony Vega.
Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.