In the weeks leading up to the first Saturday in May, the most common question I get asked is: Who do you like in the Kentucky Derby?
It makes sense. Covering the horse racing industry is my job, after all.
Usually, I have some kind of answer. I may not have my final pick, but I have waded through the probables and have found the few contenders I find worthy.
Not this year.
We feel like we belong with them, but there's going to be a horse that runs 15th that's a very good horse.
”-- Larry Jones, Mark Valeski's trainer
At this moment in time, I have to admit that about half of the prospective field could win this year, and I would not bat an eye.
Which has made the "who do you like" question a bit of a dreaded one.
On the plus side, my hesitation to declare the next Derby winner is because there are so many nice horses. Sometimes I think half the field can win, but it is because it features a mediocre crop of runners or a vulnerable favorite.
In those years, I try to find a long shot that can bring home the roses. Cashing win tickets on the likes of War Emblem, Giacomo and Mine That Bird has validated that philosophy. This year, though, I just don't see a crazy long shot crossing the wire first.
A decision by trainer Larry Jones on Tuesday morning to withdraw outsider Mark Valeski from contention echoed my sentiments.
"This is a very deep field," Jones said. "We feel like we belong with them, but there's going to be a horse that runs 15th that's a very good horse. It's not like you just go out there and hope that if Union Rags gets a bad trip then we win. What with Gemologist, Bodemeister, Alpha, Take Charge Indy, somebody's going to get a good trip other than just, say, Mark Valeski."
The post position draw is always important when it comes to the Kentucky Derby, but this year I will be paying extra attention. A bad draw on Wednesday evening could be the difference I need to separate one horse from another.
With all that said, at this moment in time, I am most drawn to the California horses I'll Have Another and Creative Cause, the 1-2 finishers of the Santa Anita Derby, respectively.
Creative Cause caught my eye last fall prior to his third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, which took place at Churchill Downs. His pedigree says that he should enjoy the 1¼-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby, and he has already shown he can perform over the surface.
Furthermore, he is a classy colt who has never been worse than third in eight career starts. He has the seasoning, pedigree and grit it takes to win the Derby. And if I like him, I have to like I'll Have Another, who bested him by a slight nose in the Santa Anita Derby.
Union Rags and Hansen finished ahead of Creative Cause last November in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but I am not convinced either of them is going to enjoy the distance of the Kentucky Derby. That final furlong has bested many a nice horse.
The horse I am most curious about is Bodemeister. If he reprises his eye-popping performance in the Arkansas Derby on Saturday, no one is going to catch him. However, he seems vulnerable to "bouncing" after such a massive performance, and it also doesn't help that history isn't on his side.
Should Bodemeister win on Saturday, he will be the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old.
The colt did not make his racing debut until Jan. 16 of this year. Should Bodemeister win on Saturday, he will be the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old.
Of course, in recent years horses that have had history against them have had no problem collecting roses. In 2003, Funny Cide became the first gelding to win since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929. In 2009, Mine That Bird followed in his hoofprints.
Clyde Van Dusen also held the record of being the only horse from post position 20 to win the Derby, until Big Brown came along in 2008. A year before that, Street Sense broke the Juvenile/Derby jinx by becoming the only horse to win both contests. Even last year featured an oddity when Animal Kingdom crossed the wire in front in what was his first career start on dirt.
In other words, a good enough horse can overcome the shadows of history. Stats like those give us writers something to write about, but I am pretty confident Bodemeister is not aware that it has been 130 years since a horse has done what he is trying to do.
One thing for sure is that Saturday's race should be a heck of a contest. Hopefully in the next few days, as horses blossom or wilt under the powerful Twin Spires of Churchill Downs, the picture will become clearer.
But don't count on it.
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Write to her at email@example.com.