Commentary

Derby has no room for long shots

Updated: May 1, 2009, 4:52 PM ET
By Bill Finley | Special to ESPN.com

The key to picking the Kentucky Derby is not in figuring who the best horse has been in February, March and April but who will be the best horse on the first Saturday in May. I want a horse who has yet to hit his peak, who hasn't emptied his tank in the long series of prep races before the Derby and has the ability to beat the best 3-year-olds of his generation.

In Dunkirk, Friesan Fire, I Want Revenge and Pioneerof the Nile, you have four horses with strong credentials and one of them should win.

Among the 20 horses entered in this year's Derby, one fits the bill beautifully. Dunkirk has been outstanding in each of his three career starts, while getting better each time. Already a proven talent, his best is yet to come -- and that makes him the horse to beat Saturday at Churchill Downs.

Dunkirk has come a long way in a short time. A $3.7 million yearling purchase at the 2007 Keeneland September yearling sales, he debuted Jan. 24 at Gulfstream and overcame a slow start and traffic problems to break his maiden. Twenty-six days later, he raced very wide yet still demolished a field of allowance rivals to win by 4 lengths. His first real test came in the Florida Derby, in which he finished second behind Quality Road, who would come down with a foot problem and bow out of the Kentucky Derby.

That Dunkirk never started as a 2-year-old will undoubtedly cause many handicappers to look elsewhere. No horse has won the Derby without having started as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882. But that's a highly misleading statistic. Not only have only a handful of serious contenders started in the Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old, but the sport has changed so dramatically in recent years that what happened 20 years or so ago is meaningless.

With trainers now treating their horses so cautiously, most of the Derby starters have had only a handful of career races. Dunkirk isn't that different than most of his rivals, the majority of whom are hardly grizzled veterans. The average number of career starts among the 20 entered is 6.9.

Dunkirk's career path into the Derby closely resembles that of 2008 winner Big Brown, another that many thought was too lightly raced to win. Like Dunkirk, Big Brown had had only three career starts before the Derby, won an allowance at Gulfstream Park and then had his final prep in the Florida Derby. The only difference between the two is that Big Brown raced once as a 2-year-old, in a maiden turf race at Saratoga.

In the end, Big Brown's lack of seasoning didn't matter. He was the best horse, and that's why he won the Kentucky Derby. Dunkirk certainly hasn't proved yet that he's better than horses like Pioneerof the Nile, I Want Revenge and Friesan Fire, but he's certainly in their league, and is the one among that group of favorites most likely to take his game to another level Saturday.

I see Friesan Fire as his biggest threat. He, too, is trying to buck tradition. He hasn't run in seven weeks, which makes his path to the Kentucky Derby highly unusual. But he flourished this winter in Louisiana and is coming off a 7-length win in the Louisiana Derby, in which he earned a Beyer speed figure of 104. He's fast enough and he's good enough, and a blazing five-furlong workout this week at Churchill Downs in :57 4/5 indicates that he is on edge for a top effort.

I Want Revenge will likely be the favorite by the time the horses head to the gate Saturday, and with good reason. After getting off the synthetic tracks in Southern California, he has been nothing short of brilliant. He destroyed eight others in the Gotham while earning a 113 Beyer, the best figure among any of the 20 Derby starters, and then overcame a nightmarish trip to win the Wood Memorial.

He is a talented horse, but the question with him is whether or not he can stay on this level for at least one more race. I Want Revenge is due to bounce.

Pioneerof the Nile is another horse who presents the handicapper with challenges. Among the four favorites for the race, he is easily the slowest. His top Beyer figure is a 96, which makes him slower than Summer Bird, who is 50-1 in the morning line.

But Pioneerof the Nile beat I Want Revenge twice and also finished ahead of Papa Clem, who went on to win the Arkansas Derby. Does that make Pioneerof the Nile better than I Want Revenge and Papa Clem? It depends upon how you look at it. Pioneerof the Nile beat Papa Clem in California on synthetic surfaces. The other two flourished when they headed east to race on the dirt. It appears that neither I Want Revenge nor Papa Clem were able to run their best on synthetic tracks. If so, you're right back to where you started: with Pioneerof the Nile being too slow to win the Derby.

This doesn't look like a race in which long shots will prevail. In Dunkirk, Friesan Fire, I Want Revenge and Pioneerof the Nile, you have four horses with strong credentials, and one of them should win. Dunkirk looks best among the group. He's the pick.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact Bill at wnfinley@aol.com.

• Bill Finley is an award-winning horse racing writer whose work has also appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated.
• To contact Bill, email him at wnfinley@aol.com