By Andrew Beyer
Friday, April 30, 2010; D01
When Eskendereya was sidelined by an injury, Lookin At Lucky justifiably inherited the role as the favorite in the 136th Kentucky Derby.
But he's a different kind of favorite.
Eskendereya had demolished his rivals in two major prep races; his speed figures indicated he was at least five lengths superior to any of his rivals in this otherwise sub-par field. Lookin At Lucky is an accomplished colt, too. He has won six of eight career starts, and he had valid excuses for both losses. He was the 2-year-old champion last season, running exclusively on synthetic surfaces in California. This spring he showed that he is equally effective on dirt when he overcame traffic trouble to win the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
In that race, however, Lookin At Lucky didn't rout his rivals in the manner of Eskendereya. He won the Rebel in a photo finish, earning a moderate Beyer Speed Figure of 98. Taking into account the trouble he encountered, he might have run a couple of points higher. But on the basis of that performance, he has no edge over his opponents in the Derby. Nine other members of the field have recently earned in the 97-to-100 range. Neither Lookin At Lucky nor anybody else in Saturday's 20-horse field possesses a significant advantage in talent.
Unless some horse improves sharply and unexpectedly, as Mine That Bird did last year, the Derby isn't going to be decided because one horse is better than the other 19. The outcome will be determined by the dynamics of the race: who saves ground, who goes wide, who encounters traffic, who has a clean trip -- and, especially, who is helped and hurt by the early pace.
In the Kentucky Derby, more than any other race, pace is often a crucial determinant. When the pace is moderate -- if, say, the first half-mile is run in 47 seconds or thereabouts -- the early leaders often seize a tactical advantage. But every time the first half-mile of the Derby has been run in 45.4 seconds or faster, the pace has taken a destructive toll on all of the early pacesetters. After a 45.38 half-mile in 2005, the leaders collapsed, and the horses running 18-6-11-19 at the four-furlong mark wound up finishing 1-2-3-4, with Giacomo winning at 50 to 1. In 2001, when the pace was 44.86, the three early leaders wound up finishing 13th, 14th and 16th in the field of 17 as Monarchos and other stretch-runners dominated the race.
The composition of the 2010 field appears made to order for a similar pace meltdown. At least three of the entrants -- Conveyance, American Lion and Sidney's Candy -- have the raw speed of stakes-quality sprinters. Of the others, Line of David, Discreetly Mine and Super Saver regularly race on or near the lead in route races. One of the speedsters, Sidney's Candy, is expected to be second choice in the wagering, but he has scored his major victories after getting an uncontested lead on California's synthetic tracks, and a fast-paced dirt race will be a new and difficult experience for him. Even if the speed collapses, there are relatively few credible stretch-running threats in the Derby field. Many of the other contenders -- such as Dublin, Noble's Promise and Jackson Bend -- have rarely passed another horse in the stretch run of a route race.
And some of the come-from-behind runners may not fire their best shots. Stately Victor rallied strongly to win the Blue Grass Stakes over Keeneland's Polytrack, but he beat a weak field and has never won a race on dirt. The filly Devil May Care bypassed the Kentucky Oaks to run in the Derby, with trainer Todd Pletcher saying she is ideally suited to the 1 1/4 -mile distance. The filly's main claim to fame is a stakes win at Gulfstream Park with an easy trip in a field of six -- a far cry from what she will encounter Saturday. Moreover, she hasn't raced in six weeks and has had only two starts as a 3-year-old, so she may not have the seasoning for this tough test.
There are only two colts I am confident will be accelerating strongly in the Churchill Downs stretch: Lookin At Lucky and Ice Box.
Lookin At Lucky is obvious: He fires every time. He rallied strongly to win the Rebel Stakes; he came from 10th place to lose in a photo finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall. While his speed figures may be unimposing, his consistency and his finishing ability set him apart from most of the others in the field.
Ice Box finished out of the money in the first three races of his career and didn't win a stakes race until his seventh and most recent start, the Florida Derby. He had a perfect setup that day, sitting in last place while the leaders set a fast pace, then rallying furiously to win by a nose.
It would be reasonable to view his 20-to-1 upset as a perfect-trip fluke. But 3-year-olds sometimes do improve suddenly in the spring. Trainer Nick Zito says that Ice Box reminds him of another late bloomer, Strike the Gold, who came to life in his final prep race and gave Zito his first Derby win in 1991.
In a field in which it is hard to muster an ironclad conviction, Ice Box offers the best betting value. Based on the assumption that all the speed horses in the Derby will collapse, my play will be an exacta box of Ice Box and Lookin At Lucky.