LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- "I think we have a shot," Norman Casse, the assistant to his father, trainer Mark Casse, said about Danzig Moon and the 141st Kentucky Derby. "Of course, we have to beat Baffert."
That's the consensus in the stable area at Churchill Downs: If you can beat the two horses from the stable of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, you can smell the roses and pop the champagne. That just as easily could be the bettors' mantra, too: Beat Baffert and cash a ticket that could be worth a new suit, a new vehicle or a new lifestyle.
But who can beat the Baffert duo, and how?
American Pharoah and Dortmund, the two horses Baffert will saddle for the Kentucky Derby, indeed look formidable. And any hopes some might have had that they were over the top or not taking to the Churchill surface were dashed this week. They both have trained well -- spectacularly so, in the case of American Pharoah -- and have made favorable impressions.
But this is the Derby. Its crowded field and unique circumstances can create a surreal atmosphere where strangeness prevails. And if you can claw your way out from beneath the mountain of accolades -- all of them deserved, by the way -- that have piled up in honor of American Pharoah and Dortmund, you might discover a few reasons to suspect they're vulnerable.
First the obvious: None of these horses ever have experienced anything like the Kentucky Derby. They've never run this classic distance of 1¼ miles or performed before an audience of 160,000. Most of them never have raced at Churchill Downs.
The size of the field, with its inherent traffic and potential for trouble, is a challenge for all the Derby horses, but it could be especially so for American Pharoah. No Kentucky Derby winner since at least World War II has entered the race without having some experience in a large field of 10 or more starters. American Pharoah never has been part of a field of more than nine horses.
Nor has he been in a fight, a circumstance that more than anything is a testament to his extraordinary talent. He won Oaklawn Park's Rebel Stakes by more than six lengths and the Arkansas Derby by eight while being pulled up at the wire. They were the easiest sort of victories, but were they too easy? They didn't demand American Pharoah to reach down for his best; they didn't test his resolve or question his determination. Did they adequately prepare him for the Derby?
Fewer questions accompany Dortmund. Unbeaten in six races, he romped in the recent Santa Anita Derby when he was able to control the pace. But he could feel additional pace pressure with the long run to the first turn at Churchill Downs. A giant colt, Dortmund possesses an athleticism that belies his size. Still, he doesn't run the turn as well as some of his Derby rivals. And the Derby is often won with a dynamic run around the second turn.
And so, despite their conspicuous and sometimes dazzling talent, American Pharoah and Dortmund could be vulnerable. After all, it is the Derby.
But who, if anybody, can beat them?
The list isn't long. From here, Frosted, Materiality, Upstart, Firing Line and Danzig Moon look to have the best chance to upset. In the Fountain of Youth Stakes, at the head of the Gulfstream Park stretch, Frosted appeared ready to join the Baffert duo atop the division. He had cruised to the lead without encouragement. But then he suddenly tossed his head and retreated, finishing fourth. How could a horse that seemed to be running so comfortably falter so badly?
A reasonable assumption was that he displaced his palate, which blocked his breathing. After minor throat surgery and with a new rider, Joel Rosario, Frosted ran like a different horse when he made his next start, at Aqueduct. Rallying powerfully into a slow pace and running the fourth quarter-mile around the second turn in 24.05 seconds, he won the Wood Memorial by two lengths.
"Gulfstream was a deep, tiring and demanding track," his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, said. "So we changed his racetrack and changed his training. Then we did a procedure to cut the [throat] muscles back so he doesn't displace his palate so easily. It's not a big deal; it's done in his stall. It's quick and easy. With all the changes, it all came together, and he couldn't be doing any better."
Like McLaughlin, Mark Casse anticipates a fast and contentious pace. Or at least the trainers are hoping for a fast and contentious pace. Like Frosted, Danzig Moon relies on a late kick. And like Frosted, Danzig Moon has moved forward since a setback. He spiked a temperature and became ill after the Tampa Bay Derby, where he finished fourth but uninterested. Then he bounced back to finish second in the Blue Grass despite a wide trip, and he has radiated energy all week here at Churchill.
Materiality also appears to be training extremely well here. Since his maiden win in January, he has made astounding progress, stretching out from six to nine furlongs to win a stakes race in his second start and then winning the Florida Derby in only his third. So lightly raced, he's still something of a mystery. Does he have sufficient speed to challenge for the early lead? Having never raced anywhere but Gulfstream Park, can he duplicate those performances here? And can he overcome his inexperience to become the first Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 that didn't race as a 2-year-old? This much is clear: He's enormously talented, and having accomplished so much in such a short time, he's arguably as special in his own way as the Baffert duo.
Upstart has been somewhat forgotten in the Derby excitement, so forgotten that he's 32-1 after Friday's early wagering. But he hasn't run a poor race this year, winning the Holy Bull Stakes, finishing first but being disqualified in the Fountain of Youth and running second in the Florida Derby. And he, too, has looked very strong in his early-morning preparation.
"He's trained well," his trainer, Richard Violette, said. "He's eating well; he's held his weight; he's sound and happy. ... He thinks he's King Kong."
And his outside post position doesn't have to be a problem. Like American Pharoah, he has enough early speed to secure a place just behind the early leaders.
After Firing Line galloped 1½ miles Friday morning, his trainer, Simon Callaghan, pronounced the handsome colt "ready" for the rematch. He twice has lost to Dortmund by a head in a photo finish. But what happens if Dortmund doesn't leave the gate alertly and if Materiality doesn't have enough speed to go with the early leaders? Firing Line could be rolling on the lead, that's what.
As a horseplayer, of course, you can bet on the probability or the vulnerability. You can accept what's most obvious about this Derby, the overwhelming talent of the Baffert duo, or you can reach skeptically beyond that for something that's less conspicuous but more profitable. And of course, with a little imagination, you might do both. After all, this is the Derby.