The key factors surrounding Saturday's Santa Anita Derby will be the pace scenario and the enticing overlays awaiting bettors. If you go by the morning line, Domestic Dispute at 15-1, Ministers Wild Cat at 10-1, and even Kafwain as third choice at 4-1 look awfully appealing.
With the absence of a pure speed horse to take the field along at a solid clip, we could be looking at relatively slow pace, resulting in a bunched up field. There are
fast horses in there who have been on the pace through fast fractions, but those horses -- Ocean Terrace, Buddy Gil, and Ministers Wild Cat -- have moved on from those early tactics and now are more comfortable as stalkers who prefer to sit anywhere from two to four lengths off the lead.
That leaves us with Indian Express. Because this former Panamanian horse is trained by Bob Baffert, who has two other horses in the race, and is coming off three sprints in his brief career, there are some who feel he's in there to assure a solid pace for Kafwain and Domestic Dispute. But, even though Indian Express won his two races in Panama in front-end routs, he has the physique of a distance horse, and the way Baffert gloated over him as he displayed him outside his barn Wednesday morning indicates he truly believes this is a serious horse who belongs in the race on his own merits.
So, who will set the pace? With Ocean Terrace breaking from the rail, Kent Desormeaux is going to have to hustle him a little to get position, and that could very well put him on the lead going into the first turn. To what extent Desormeaux is able to take hold of him after that likely will dictate what kind of pace we'll have. Ocean Terrace has never run a an opening half slower than :45 4/5, but he is much more ratable now, so we probably won't see anything quite that fast unless Indian Express, breaking from past 2, puts pressure on him right from the start.
With the field likely to be fairly well bunched, everyone should get their shot to kick on. If that's the case, we'll finally have an idea after the race who the true Derby horses are.
As for the morning line, Domestic Dispute looks high at 15-1 after going off as the 2-1 favorite in the San Felipe. Remember, that race was run over a drying out track labeled good, and Domestic Dispute was beaten only three lengths despite Jerry Bailey just sitting on him in the final furlong. If he had been driven to the wire and simply couldn't run with these horses, that's one thing, but he was not being asked at all by Bailey and still was only three lengths back at the wire. He did make a bold move nearing the quarter pole, but never seemed comfortable after turning for home. He raced a bit erratically and had his path taken away a couple of times. It's possible he's a horse who needs everything to go his way. His sire was pretty high strung and threw a fit in the post parade of the Kentucky Derby. Baffert has really tightened the screws on him since the race, working him 5 furlongs in :58 4/5 and :58 3/5. With the outside post on Saturday and a fast track, he sure looks a lot better than 15-1.
Ministers Wild Cat could very well run better than his 10-1 odds. As we have already mentioned, he is a May 21 foal and still has a lot of room for physical improvement. It's hard to tell when he's going to catch up to these horses, most of whom are three or four months older than him. But considering he already seems to be pretty close to them, he could begin taking huge leaps forward at any time. It might be worth 10-1 to find out if that time is now.
Regardless of whether you feel nine furlongs in beyond Kafwain's best distance, his proven class over a long period of time, his second to Vindication in the nine-furlong Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and the quality of the horses he's been running against say he should not be third choice in this field. Even if you think others are ready to pass him, he still is a horse who must played in all exactas and trifectas. For a horse who has never finished worse than second in four two-turn starts, all in grade I and II company, he really hasn't been given the respect he deserves.
The horse most people will be focused on is Atswhatimtalknbout. Watching him school in the paddock on Wednesday, this is a handsome, classy colt with powerful quarters and a good-sized girth. But he has a nice long back and is well proportioned, with the look of a distance horse. He's gotten a lot hype since his career debut, especially with his recent 10-percent sale to Steven Spielberg and the other "Seabiscuit" bigwigs, and trainer Ron Ellis agrees it's now time for him to deliver. While it's certainly not imperative he win the Santa Anita Derby, he has not won a stakes yet, so he does have something to prove to all those who feel he is a truly gifted horse.
In the San Felipe, we really liked Flirt with Fortune as a live longshot, coming off the Baldwin Stakes on the grass. But it was Buddy Gil, coming out of the same race, who won at almost 10-1, with Flirt With Fortune fading badly. Now, Flirt With Fortune comes back as a 30-1 longshot, while Buddy Gil is the 5-2 second choice. The question is whether Buddy Gil, who was razor-sharp going into the San Felipe, can back and do it again. It's difficult to tell just how good the son of Eastern Echo really is.
We also have an undefeaated horse in Ocean Terrace, and that always adds a bit more mystique to any horse's reputation. The one thing we do know about him is that if he does have the lead turning for home, he's not going to be an easy horse to pass. Several have had dead aim at him, but so far no one has been to get by him.
The bottom line is that the Santa Anita Derby is an intriguing race, with lots of questions to answer and a half-dozen horses looking to break out and assert themselves as top Kentucky Derby contenders.