LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Front runners and speed could make for a contentious Kentucky Derby (search). Twenty horses will break from the starting gate at Churchill Downs on Saturday, and "there are eight to 10 horses who can win," three-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert said.
With so many young horses crowding each other and jockeys with varying levels of experience on their backs, expect some bumping going into the first turn.
The outcome for the top contenders, who share similar running styles, could be decided early if they get caught in speed duels or traffic jams going 1 1/4 miles.
Spanish Chestnut is the race's acknowledged rabbit, entered by Bandini's owners with hopes of softening up Bellamy Road, who should be right there with him. Spanish Chestnut (search) will dictate what is expected to be a sizzling early pace and dare the rest of the field to challenge him.
"Spanish Chestnut is the only thing that could interfere with that horse," Baffert said, referring to the favorite.
Crowd noise can be a major factor for inexperienced 3-year-old horses running in front of the biggest audience in their careers. Last year, about 140,000 people jammed Churchill Downs on a rainy day to watch Smarty Jones win. Saturday's forecast called for sunny skies and highs in the upper 70s, meaning an even bigger crowd is likely.
The race, which goes off at 6:04 p.m. EDT, could go something like this:
Just after the gates spring open and the field runs by the sprawling, refurbished grandstand for the first time, Bandini, a stalker trained by Todd Pletcher, will be close to Bellamy Road.
Going Wild, trained by four-time Derby winner D. Wayne Lukas, could be up near the lead along with Greeley's Galaxy, High Limit, High Fly and Afleet Alex — all helping to set a fast pace.
The next pack should include Andromeda's Hero and Sun King, two of trainer Nick Zito's five entries; Baffert's 50-1 long shot Sort It Out; and Pletcher's duo of Coin Silver and Flower Alley.
Add one more to that group: Buzzards Bay, who needs to break strongly from the No. 20 post to get any kind of position going into the first turn.
"There seems to be enough speed inside him that he can follow them across and then drop in behind the first flight going to the first turn," trainer Jeff Mullins said.
Jockeys get busy settling their horses into position along the backstretch. A lot of trainers leave specific race strategy up to their riders, who make split-second decisions as the race unfolds.
Check the clock for the half-mile split, which could be critical. If the leaders run a time of 45 seconds and change, some likely will have problems sustaining that kind of speed. If they're going at a more moderate pace, say 46 or 47 seconds, and are in good position, the closers could have problems catching them.
Pace is very important. If the leaders are going too fast, there's a good chance they'll fade and set up a victory for late-closing colts like Greater Good, Noble Causeway and Sun King.
"We are just hoping for a fast pace and hopefully they back up," said John McKee, who will ride Greater Good. "I know my horse is going to give a big kick at the end."
Bellamy Road could take the lead on the far turn, when Spanish Chestnut starts to fade along with High Fly and Going Wild. High Limit should be near the front, with Afleet Alex in fourth or fifth. Andromeda's Hero and Noble Causeway will be among those trying to make moves.
In the stretch, with the crowd at its most raucous, Bellamy Road could still be in front based on his two most recent victories by a combined 33 lengths.
Afleet Alex and Greeley's Galaxy may be looming, with Bandini, Noble Causeway and High Limit coming on strong.
"You hope at the eighth pole we got a shot to win with somebody," Zito said, referring to his five entries.
Afleet Alex's trainer Tim Ritchey may have said it best.