Stretching out for roses

So who's going to win the Derby? The last few months have focused on the question of who's going to run in the most famous of races and who'll acquire sufficient points to qualify for a reservation in the starting gate. Well, the reservations have been made, the points acquired, and so the time has come to address more telling questions. Actually, though, to begin, the most applicable question might not be who will but who can win the 140th Kentucky Derby, with an emphasis on the "can."

Most Derby winners run the best race and give the best performance of their career when they take the roses. That's one of their most telling but subtle qualities: Their 3-year-old campaigns are all about development and improvement, culminating with an optimum performance that strikes the moment solidly and perfectly. That's why the Derby is an extravagant and ceremonious coming-out party. The confluence of unique circumstances -- the distance, the frenetic run to the turn, the turbulence of the moment -- challenges horses to reach new levels of performance and, in a few instances, greatness.

Over the last 20 years, only Fusaichi Pegasus won the Derby despite regressing in any meaningful way.

Barbaro, everyone knew, was talented and gifted, but the Derby challenged him to reach beyond that. The Derby made him great. Based on speed figures, nine of the last 10 Derby winners gave the best performance of their careers, to that point anyway, while winning at Churchill Downs. The exception, Smarty Jones, virtually duplicated his winning performance in the Arkansas Derby.

But when it comes to rising to the moment, one horse rises up like a sequoia: Mine That Bird. He, quite obviously, made the biggest improvement and took the largest leap forward among recent Derby winners. From his fourth at Sunland Park, he suddenly improved about 15 lengths to win the 2009 Derby. Truly remarkable stuff, his victory would have seemed like a ridiculous contrivance if it were the final happy scene in a Hollywood movie. But, of course, it happened, and so his story has become a movie that's immune, because of its factual origins, from accusations of manipulating the plot for sentimental effect. But aside from his astounding improvement, and his last-to-first rally along the rail and his winning margin of 6¾ lengths, another remarkable aspect of his Derby was that he was the only horse that did indeed step forward. Every other horse in the field regressed.

Over the last 20 years, only Fusaichi Pegasus won the Derby despite regressing in any meaningful way. And he regressed only about two lengths from his victory in the Wood Memorial, where Aptitude finished more than five back. His level of performance slipping slightly, Fusaichi Pegasus still won the 2000 Derby by 1½ lengths over Aptitude. The negative trend continued, however, into the Preakness. And in Baltimore, Fusaichi Pegasus finished second to Red Bullet, the runner-up from the Wood.

The typical Derby winner improves four lengths from his most recent outing, or about 2.5 lengths from his previous best. So who can win the 140th Derby? Who's within two to four lengths of reaching the level of performance, the sort of effort, that's typically necessary to win the roses?

Most likely to win

Well, California Chrome is already there. Again, based on speed figures, he's already performing at a level that would have sufficed to win six of the last 10 Kentucky Derbies.

Bodemeister was in a similar position two years ago, the only horse in the field who already had reached a Derby-winning performance level. But it wasn't meant to be. In the Derby, Trinniberg pushed Bodemeister through some of the fastest splits in the race's history -- 45.39 seconds for the opening half-mile and 1:09.80 for three quarters. After putting away Trinniberg and spurting clear, Bodemeister finally faltered in deep stretch, losing to I'll Have Another. Trinniberg, who would go on to win the Breeders' Cup Sprint and who probably wouldn't have been in the Derby if today's qualifying points were used to determine the field, faded to 17th.

At this point, California Chrome is the most likely Derby winner simply because he's already there, not in Kentucky but at the winning level of performance. If he can duplicate his Santa Anita Derby effort, he'll probably win on May 3. But could circumstances -- distance, pace, trip, surface, whatever -- compromise him? Well, it's the Derby.

Afleet Alex was superior by probably three or more lengths in the 2005 Kentucky Derby. But he had a rough trip, was forced down inside on the slower part of the surface and finished third. The race is not always to the swift, as Solomon pointed out, and that's especially true of the Derby.

Most likely to threaten

Even if California Chrome duplicates his Santa Anita Derby effort, somebody could take a major step forward on May 3 and surpass him. That's why it's so important to watch horses closely in the days leading up to the race. But who are those horses who are two to four lengths away from the necessary performance level?

Chitu is one of them. But when he won the Sunland Derby, he ran the final three-eighths of a mile in 38.28 seconds, compared, for example, to California Chrome's 36.71 at Santa Anita. And it's difficult to envision the speedy Chitu moving forward at 1¼ miles. Wildcat Red is another. But when he ran second in the Florida Derby, he got away with some of the slowest fractions of the day and still couldn't hang on at speed-favoring Gulfstream Park. So is he really going to step forward at 1¼ miles, at Churchill Downs?

That leaves Wicked Strong, Hoppertunity, General A Rod, Danza and Constitution as the horses that are within reach of a winning effort if they step forward significantly on May 3. And each comes with a caveat.

Hoppertunity and Constitution didn't race as juveniles, and, as you've probably heard, no Kentucky winner in 132 years was unraced as a 2-year-old. Wicked Strong never has raced on a one-mile oval, and he typically does his best work in the stretch. The Derby is usually won in the second turn. General A Rod still hasn't found his most effective running style, and Danza has raced only four times in his career. True, Big Brown had only three starts before winning the 2008 Derby, but he had made all of his starts at a mile or farther. Danza has raced beyond seven-eighths of a mile only once, while winning Saturday's Arkansas Derby.

Three others who are within reach, although not so comfortably, are Cairo Prince, Candy Boy and Intense Holliday. They're intriguing Derby possibilities, worthy of close scrutiny in the coming weeks. They will all enter the Derby after disappointing, but the same could have been said of Super Saver, Thunder Gulch, Silver Charm, Giacomo and, of course Mine That Bird, who all arrived at Churchill Downs following a loss.

But like those past winners, Cairo Prince, Intense Holliday and Candy Boy can threaten if they rediscover their best form and take that big and essential step forward. And they might. Cairo Prince raced wide on a speed-favoring surface when he ran fourth as the favorite in the Florida Derby, his first outing in nine weeks. He's poised to step up. Intense Holliday got bumped around and then ducked in, almost hitting the fence, when second in the Louisiana Derby. And Candy Boy apparently had a sugar crash in the Santa Anita Derby. But they're all capable.

So who's going to win the Derby? Amazing, isn't it, how years of planning and months of preparation pile up the possibilities and the variables and the questions until they're all distilled, in just two minutes, down to an answer.