Hot pace will deliver Kentucky Derby to Wicked Strong

The Kentucky Derby is the one race that makes everybody a horse racing fan for a day. And if you’re lucky enough to pick the winner, it’s a boast you can live off for the next 51 weeks.

The Derby is also the hardest race to handicap. It starts with a 20-horse field, the largest we’ll ever see in this country. And because of the many traffic jams that will occur, a lot of horses will have troubled trips.

The early pace of the Derby is generally fast, too. Last year, the first half-mile was run in a sizzling 45 1/5, which caused a meltdown of the early speed horses.

The elements are in place again for another fast pace Saturday. Horses such as the favorite, California Chrome (5-2), Chitu (20-1), Wildcat Red (15-1), General a Rod (15-1), Uncle Sigh (30-1) and Harry’s Holiday (50-1) like to race on, or near, the lead.

With that in mind, the horses I like will rally from midpack or from even farther behind.

My choice to win the Kentucky Derby is Wicked Strong (6-1). He won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct by sitting far back and making one big rally under Rajiv Maragh. The Jim Jerkens-trained colt broke through with a career-best race, one which I believe he can repeat. He has the 19 post, but since he has no early speed, it shouldn’t hinder him much.

Next I like Intense Holiday (8-1) to come grinding late under John Velazquez. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, has a miserable 1-for-36 record in the Derby. Super Saver (2010) was his one winner. However, Pletcher has a Derby history for his favored horses to run poorly and his long-shot horses to outrun their high odds.

Danza (8-1) was a last-out winner of the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park at 40-1 odds. He rated kindly along the rail and exploded in the stretch to win going away under Joe Bravo. He has a chance for a similar trip because most of the horses around him have early speed. If Bravo remains patient, a nice pocket could open up down on the inside, giving him another rail run.

My final pick is Medal Count (20-1), who figures to get overlooked because his best races have come on turf and synthetic surfaces. The key for me is his bloodlines, by Dynaformer, among the best distance pedigrees in the field. This Dale Romans-trained colt will be a natural stayer for the 1½-mile Belmont Stakes.

I left out big favorite California Chrome for a few reasons. First, he’s too short a price for my liking. His pedigree suggests he doesn’t want to go the 1¼-mile distance. Finally, his running style will put him close to an anticipated hot early pace.

■ CHURCHILL AGREEMENT — Churchill Downs and the Nevada Parimutuel Association agreed on a new simulcast contract Thursday morning.

“Nevada was prepared to ‘book’ the races at Churchill Downs, as we had all the necessary approvals to do so, but we came to an agreement at the 11th hour,” said John Avello, Wynn Las Vegas race and sports book director and a member of the NMPA negotiating committee. “Let’s all now concentrate on a fun weekend of racing.”

Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @richeng4propick.