When 20 horses load into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby next Saturday, the Happy Handicapper's money probably will ride on three of them. Scat Daddy and Nobiz Like Shobiz look like logical contenders. Liquidity is the long-shot special to complete his exacta and trifecta boxes.
Picking Scat Daddy to win the 1 1/4 -mile Derby isn't rocket science. The dark bay son of Johannesburg (the champion 2-year-old male of 2001) is No. 1 in the national media poll after winning both of Gulfstream Park's premier races for 3-year-olds -- the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby.
Scat Daddy (he's named for part-owner James Scatuorchio) covered the 1 1/8 miles of both those races in faster time (1:49) than any of his Kentucky Derby rivals have run the crucial distance in 2007 prep races. That's important because in eight of the last 10 Derbies, the horse in front after 1 1/8 miles has held on to win the roses.
Scat Daddy, ridden by Edgar Prado for trainer Todd Pletcher, has done little wrong this year and if he goes off at anywhere near the 11-1 odds that he closed at in the final round of futures betting on April 15, he will be a nice, logical investment.
Nobiz Like Shobiz (10-1) also looks nice and logical. With Cornelio Velasquez aboard for trainer Barclay Tagg, he's run the 1 1/8 miles in almost-as-fast times, finishing a half-length behind Scat Daddy in the Fountain of Youth and then winning the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. In fact, as a 2-year-old last November, he blitzed the distance in 1:48 4/5 to take the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.
But "Nobiz" has had a little problem keeping in a straight line. In both the one-mile Holy Bull (which he won in excellent time) and the Fountain of Youth, he had a tendency to "drift in" in the stretch.
Tagg -- who attributed the problem to the colt's immaturity -- seemed to have solved the problem by equipping the colt with blinkers for the Wood, where he kept a straight path while winning in 1:49 2/5 .
"Blinkers on" (which usually makes a horse more speedy and aggressive) are important, but over the years, the H.H. has learned that sometimes the subtraction of blinkers -- which can get a high-strung horse to relax -- can be a powerful long-shot angle.
This year's road to the Derby produced three monster examples of the power of "blinkers off."
*Trainer Jamie Sanders removed the blinkers from Teuflesberg before he won the Southwest Stakes (paying $48.80) at Oaklawn Park on Feb. 19.
*John Shirreffs took the blinkers off Tiago before he won the Santa Anita Derby (at $60.60).
*Greg Fox said the removal of blinkers helped Slew's Tizzy relax and win the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland ($83) last Saturday.
All three of those horses entered their "blinkers off" races after disappointing finishes in which they ran 8 3/4 , 9 3/4 and 11 1/2 lengths back. All three were also getting a jockey change.
Which brings us to Liquidity, currently at 48-1.
Liquidity has been a problem child for trainer Doug O'Neill. He's finished out of the money in his last two starts -- sixth in the Louisiana Derby and fourth in the Santa Anita Derby -- while losing ground in the stretch. He's won only once in seven starts, but he's still earned enough money to get into the Derby field.
"He's just kind of like Baby Huey," Dennis O'Neill, assistant trainer to his brother, told reporters a few days before the Santa Anita Derby (where he finished fourth after leading briefly in the stretch). "He just needs a wake-up call, and when he figures it out, you know, he's going to be something."
"Liquidity has been an enigma for O'Neill," Daily Racing Form reporter Jay Privman wrote a few days ago. "He is convinced Liquidity has more talent than he has shown in his last couple of starts."
Privman then reported that O'Neill, who is switching jockeys from Corey Nakatani to David Flores, also is removing blinkers and adding a new type of bridle for the Derby.
"When you keep his head in the bridle, he's fine. But in his last couple of races, when you turn him loose, he goes into neutral," Doug O'Neill said. "This keeps the bit up in his mouth, as if the rider is restraining him. And with the blinkers off, he should be a little less aggressive early on."
As tradition has it, it's probably not a good idea to be making equipment experiments in a $1 million race. As Jon White, Horse Racing TV commentator put it, "If a horse is good enough to win the Derby, the trainer is not searching for answers so late in the game."
But based on what's already happened on this year's Derby trail, Liquidity might be an exception, especially if you're on the trail of a juicy payoff.