The Derby: Who do you like? Who do you like?

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Horse racing is a game of opinions, always has been, always will be. Who do you like? A simple, four-word question that means everything in racing; whether it’s at the sales ring, the betting window or the starting gate. Who do you like?

This year’s Kentucky Derby provokes that one question and elicits a thousand answers. It’s a state of confusion.

Many don’t think last year’s champion juvenile Uncle Mo will compete in the race. I’m in that camp. The once-beaten son of Indian Charlie trained well Thursday morning; he galloped long and strong like he’s been doing since he was a 2-year-old. He’s sound, that I can see from the outside rail. Is he sound inside? That I can’t see. Owner Mike Repole has called a press conference in the morning to announce plans, that’s a bad sign in of itself.

As perplexed as the next guy, I asked one of my trusted comrades in the handicapping realm who he likes; he rolled his eyes, threw up his hands and sheepishly admitted something he’s never admitted before.

“For the first time in my life, I’m picking friends, colors, cool names and hunches. I’m not going to handicap, I tried, I came up with nothing. I’m still betting the race, because it’s the best betting race of the year, but I’m not handicapping. I will come up with five horses and go from there.”

By the way, he’s keying Soldat on top because he’s friends with trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and Ron Anderson, agent of jockey Alan Garcia. He’ll use Shackleford because he likes trainer Dale Romans. The rest, he’s still searching for friends, I guess.

It’s about as good an idea as anybody else’s in a crazy collection of horses, opinions and stories.

I asked Todd Pletcher and he shrugged his shoulders, “I’ve never seen a year like this. Who do you like?”

See what I mean?

As for morning opinions, well, I have a problem. I’ve only been here one morning, forgoing Derby week for a trip to Atlantic City to run Under Shirt in the nightcap Tuesday night. He finished third. So with just one morning at Churchill Downs stored in my binoculars, I’m not feeling the heat of the engine room. But, still, I have opinions.

In post position order: Arkansas Derby winner Archarcharch looked fair, not as engaging as I hoped. Turf horse Brilliant Speed traveled smoothly over the dirt this morning, better than last week. Sunland Derby winner Twice The Appeal made no impression. Stay Thirsty looked steady this morning, no problems, no fireworks. I think I missed 30-1 shots Decisive Moment and Comma To The Top, perhaps on purpose. Pants On Fire galloped smoothly, long stride, not bad. Dialed In went out early without a Derby saddle towel and looked fine, no goose bumps. Mike Maker’s pair of non-dirt winners Derby Kitten and Twinspired galloped OK on the dirt. Master Of Hounds cantered on the inside rail, the Irish invader sports a belly like bouncer. Risen Star runner-up Santiva stood at the gap like a pony and galloped with his head on the floor. Risen Star winner Mucho Macho Man galloped straight and true. Florida Derby-second Shackleford is all brawn. Midnight Interlude looks a little soft to me. Two-time synthetic winner Animal Kingdom galloped fine on the dirt, but didn’t make me rush to the window. Soldat looked light to me. Uncle Mo, as I said earlier, galloped great but I’m not worried about his gallop. Nehro doesn’t flick his feet at the jog but galloped adequately. Watch Me Go looks like a horse, just a horse.

Did that clear it up for you?

Time to start betting your friends and your hunches. Jon Court and Jinks Fires are good guys, Archarcharch is on the ticket. I like Dynaformer, so Brilliant Speed is included. Anna Napravnik rode pony races at Far Hills, Pants On Fire is a must use. I always root for Graham Motion, Animal Kingdom that makes four. Superfecta: 1, 2, 7, 16. Morning line odds of 10-1, 30-1, 20-1 and 30-1. IRS Window, here I come.