LOUISVILLE, Ky. --- As the 137th running of the Kentucky Derby approaches, a preseason marked by inconsistency has experienced handicappers scratching their heads as their search for the winner hits high gear.
The quest has been fraught with frustration, as few of this year's contenders have managed to put impressive performances back-to-back. A potential favorite one day has become a long shot the next, and vice versa.
For example, 2-year-old champion Uncle Mo was touted all winter as another Seattle Slew because of his undefeated three-race campaign last year and a victory in his sophomore debut in Florida. In that race, the Timely Writer Stakes, the son of Indian Charlie galloped along at a slow pace before firing a 22.8-second final quarter.
Poised to be the shortest-priced Derby favorite at least since Point Given went off at 9-5 a decade ago, Uncle Mo stubbed his toe big time in the Wood Memorial, his final tuneup. Backed down to prohibitive favoritism at 1-10 and again facing unspectacular opponents, Uncle Mo looked pretty slow while being passed by Toby's Corner and Arthur's Tale in the stretch run.
Uncle Mo's abdication followed the devaluation of Soldat, a sharp-looking winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes in front-running style. Denied the lead in the Florida Derby, Soldat lagged home fifth, beaten by more than 10 lengths. Like Uncle Mo, Soldat will now test the handicapping theory requiring that a horse's last race be disregarded -- or thrown out in the parlance of the track -- to merit consideration.
This theory rewarded backers of Archarcharch in the Arkansas Derby to the tune of a 25-1 payoff. The colt had won the Southwest Stakes in Hot Springs, making him a prime contender for Oaklawn Park's seasonal feature. However, he was a well-beaten third in the Rebel Stakes in his next start, explaining the long odds in the Arkansas Derby.
There's also the case of Mucho Macho Man, winner of the Risen Star Stakes in New Orleans but a fading third as a favorite in the Louisiana Derby. Had he prevailed, the Man might have been second or third choice Saturday, but under the actual circumstances, his odds figure to be double-digit. It should be noted that Mucho Macho Man threw a shoe at the start of the Fair Grounds feature, possibly a legitimate excuse for his failure to finish strongly.
With no more preps to run, it appears the Nick Zito-trained Dialed In will inherit the favorite's role for this Derby. Another of Zito's dead closers like last year's runner-up Ice Box, Dialed In accounted for the Holy Bull Stakes and the Florida Derby this spring and has a record of three wins in four career starts.
The role of second choice might fall on Nehro, runner-up in the Louisiana Derby and in Arkansas.
The popularity contest will continue until the Derby's post time at 6:24 p.m. Saturday. Regardless of where favoritism ultimately settles, the winner is anybody's guess.