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Mitch Rupert on horse racing: It actually feels like Kentucky Derby week this year

It finally feels like Kentucky Derby week. Last year’s Triple Crown races just didn’t carry the same weight after they were postponed by almost six months and then run out of order.

But this feels like Kentucky Derby week. It feels like it’s sneaking up on the national consciousness because the first Saturday in May just happens to be the first day of May this year, and it’s coming on the heels of the NFL Draft.

But come Saturday evening, expect big ratings for the annual Run for the Roses from Churchill Downs. There are some similarities between the draft taking place this weekend and the Kentucky Derby. Those of us who watch either of them are going to find a way to react viscerally to horses or football players we’ve either never heard of or are only familiar with in passing.

What makes both so much fun is that despite being spectator events, they’re also participation events. What football fan in the last week hasn’t been asked by a friend who they want their favorite team to pick? And what Eagles fan hasn’t felt the existential dread which comes with relying on Howie Roseman to not try to prove he’s the smartest man in the room with some off-the-wall pick?

The gambling aspect of horse racing allows us as fans, or casual observers, to also participate. Have you watched every prep race leading to Saturday’s Daytona 500 of horse racing? Have you studied speed charts and quarter-mile splits, pedigrees and jockey success? Well you have the same opportunity to win money Saturday as the person picking a winner based on the best name (FYI, my pick for that this year is Bourbonic) or the prettiest horse.

As we look at this year’s Kentucky Derby field, we’re going to examine all those factors in making picks. The betting favorite has won the Kentucky Derby in six of the last seven years, which is no fun at all. It’s hard to make money when the favorite wins.

This year, though, it appears the favorites are a few steps ahead of the rest of the field. That’s not to say there aren’t long shots who can win. Bourbonic won the Wood Memorial as a 72-to-1 long shot, and as the son of Preakness winner Bernardini and the grandson of Preakness and Belmont winner Afleet Alex, there’s plenty of reason to think he can finish in the money.

But what do I know? I’m the only handicapper in the country who managed to lose money three weeks in a row on Triple Crown winner American Pharoah.

Here’s a closer look at Saturday’s Kentucky Derby field:

FAVORITE TO WIN

Rock Your World,

Gate 15, 5-1

There’s a good chance by the time you check his odds at noon Saturday, he’s going to be closer to the betting favorite, Essential Quality, than any other horse. Essential Quality checks all the boxes to make him the betting favorite, but what Rock Your World did to win the Santa Anita Derby was more impressive than anything Essential Quality has done during the prep races.

The John Sadler-trained horse went wire-to-wire at Santa Anita, running a 22 2/5 opening quarter mile, a 23 3/5 second quarter, and a 24 2/5 third quarter. He ran with speed early and still pulled away from the field down the stretch. From 1989 to 2011, no Santa Anita Derby winner won the Kentucky Derby. But since 2012, three have gone on to win the Derby, including a personal favorite of mine, I’ll Have Another, and the most recent Triple Crown winner, Justify.

FAVORITE TO BE WARY OF

Known Agenda,

Gate 1, 6-1

Trainer Todd Pletcher made a jockey change after a disappointing fifth-place finish at the Sam Davis Stakes and Irad Ortiz Jr. rode Known Agenda to a win at the Florida Derby. This is a horse which is going to need a clean start in order to get in the position he wants to be for the race, and coming from the farthest inside starting position doesn’t lend itself to that. This is a horse which likes to settle into the middle of the pack during the course of the race in order to make a push down the stretch.

But in a race where there is expected to be above average pace early, Known Agenda will have to expend a lot of energy just to get into the clean running position in which he wants to be. Also, he hasn’t shown that extra gear down the stretch other horses have. He’s not going to throw it in reverse, but he’s not going to pick off other horses Pac-Man style, either.

LONGSHOT TO KEEP

IN MIND

Super Stock,

Gate 18, 30-1

Super Stock has had a top-3 finish in each prominent race he’s run leading up to the Derby. But he’s never had to run from an outside gate before. On top of that, like every other horse in the field, he’s never had to run with 19 other horses around him. But what Super Stock has shown is he’s a strong late runner and has the ability to pick off other horses down the stretch. Does that mean he’s capable of finishing in the money? Who knows. But this is probably a top-half-of-the-field horse who, with a clean run, can be in the running for a money finish.

NON-FAVORITES WITH

TOP-3 POTENTIAL

Medina Spirit,

Gate 8, 15-1

The combination of Bob Baffert as a trainer and John Velazquez as a jockey should be enticing enough to get some of your money. He may not be good enough to win, but he should probably be in most of your exotic bets. Velazquez is a three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby and a two-time winner of the Belmont Stakes, and Baffert has trained the last two Triple Crown winners. Medina Spirit set the pace in the Robert Lewis Stakes, running a 22-second quarter mile and a 46-second half-mile, and was still strong down the stretch. Coming from the eighth gate, he could be one of the early pace-setters in the race. He may not have that extra gear at the end, but he’s not going to give ground either.

Helium, Gate 12, 50-1

He got his name in part because he looks like he runs light on his feet. His performance at the Tampa Bay Derby was impressive. The problem with Helium is his run at the Tampa Bay Derby was his only race since October. Helium’s speed figure from Tampa Bay wasn’t particularly eye-opening, but his performance was, especially when you consider he defeated fellow Derby runner Hidden Stash down the stretch. He’s such a long shot because we really have no idea who this horse truly is. But he’s won the three races he’s run in his 3-year-old career, and that has to count for something.

Highly Motivated,

Gate 17, 10-1

This is an impressive horse, but he has two very important things working against him: He’s been terrible out of the gate in his last two races, and he’s coming out of the 17th post. Running out of an outside gate requires horses to expend a ton of energy early to keep from getting caught in the back of the pack, which isn’t an ideal scenario for a horse which is about as quick out of the gates as the Titanic. But … he also went nose-to-nose with betting favorite Essential Quality down the stretch of the Blue Grass Stakes, and had the race won until the final 100 yards. He has yet to run a race with a fast pace, so a quick opening quarter mile could make his ability to be strong down the stretch moot.

SENTIMENTAL PICK

O Besos, Gate 6, 20-1

I can still picture in my mind the run his father, Orb, made in 2013 to win the Kentucky Derby. He was in 17th place going into the final turn and the massive bay colt hit the afterburners and left the field in his muddy back splash on his way to a win. The ‘O’ in O Besos is in honor of Orb, and like his dad, he’s a solid stalwart down the stretch. He’s not going to overwhelm you with giant strides like Orb, but he’s going to run hard and not back down, and his past results point to him liking longer distances more. Running 1 1/4 miles Saturday might be right in his wheelhouse.

PRETTIEST HORSE PICK

Soup and Sandwich, Gate 19, 30-1

The bay and chestnut colts are a dime a dozen. So I tend to gravitate toward the gray horses. Soup and Sandwich is one of two gray horses in this field, along with betting favorite Essential Quality, but there’s a vibrance to Soup and Sandwich’s coloring. Oh yeah, he can run a little bit too. He posted a 108 speed figure in his runner-up finish at the Florida Derby and will want to get out and set his own pace, which is good, because there should be no kicking of mud on this beautiful horse.

SLEEPER PICK TO WIN

Hot Rod Charlie,

Gate 9, 8-1

OK, he’s nothing close to a sleeper. Of the six experts on KentuckyDerby.com to post predictions, two selected Hot Rod Charlie to win, and another picked him to place. He’s not an unknown commodity, he’s the fourth favorite. Jockey Flavien Prat won the 2019 Run for the Roses after Maximum Security was disqualified, and trainer Doug O’Neill has won the Derby twice with I’ll Have Another and Nyquist. Starting inside of the best horses, if Hot Rod Charlie can get out front, watch out.

Mitch Rupert pretends to know something about horse racing three Saturdays a year. He can be reached at 570-326-1551, ext. 3129, or by email at mrupert@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Mitch_Rupert.

MITCH RUPERTS SUPERFECTA PICK:

1. Rock Your World; 2, Essential Quality; 3, Hot Rod Charlie; 4, Medina Spirit.

JON GERARDI’S SUPERFECTA PICK:

1. Known Agenda; 2. Essential Quality; 3. Hot Rod Charlie; 4. O Besos

CHRIS MASSE’S SUPERFECTA PICK:

1. Hot Rod Charlie; 2. Essential Quality; 3. Rock Your World; 4. Known Agenda

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