As a handicapping puzzle, the Kentucky Derby can be simply impossible, as it was in 2009 when Mine That Bird sneaked in from New Mexico to win at 50-1 odds, or it can be impossibly simple, as it was last year when anyone who blindly boxed the four major prep-race winners in the trifecta collected $3,065 on an investment of just $48.
Bettors should be confident Saturday's Kentucky Derby puzzle is solvable. The points system Churchill Downs used for the first time to select the 20 entrants has eliminated the cheap speedsters and out-of-form horses who get in the way some years. The fundamentals of speed, current form and pace should dictate who wins.
Orb is the horse to beat - and Goldencents can beat him.
Goldencents, the lone California-based horse in the race, is getting attention for several reasons. His owners include University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino. His trainer, Doug O'Neill, won the Derby last year with I'll Have Another. His jockey, Kevin Krigger, would be the first African-American jockey to win the Derby in more than a century.
More relevant to handicappers, Goldencents' victory in the Santa Anita Derby was as good as any 3-year-old has run this season. Speed figure-makers rate it the fastest prep race of the year. The colt has been getting faster as distances increase, a tentative retort to pedigree analysis that questions his suitability for the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4 miles.
The Santa Anita performance was especially impressive because Goldencents ran close to a faster-than-normal early pace but had something left at the end of the 1 1/8 miles.
Although early speed usually is not an advantage in the Kentucky Derby, it might be this year in a field heavier with come-from-behinders. This helps Goldencents and Verrazano.
Verrazano (4-1 on the morning line) is the most vulnerable of the favorites. He's 4 for 4, but his Wood Memorial victory earned a second straight declining speed figure. He stalked a slow pace that day and won by less than a length. The horse to watch out of the Wood is runner-up Normandy Invasion (12-1).
The four straight victories by Florida Derby winner Orb (7-2) are more impressive. Itsmyluckyday (15-1), outrun down the stretch to finish second in Florida, can last longer in his second start after layoff.
But they all might have to catch Goldencents (5-1).
The picks: 1. Goldencents, 2. Orb, 3. Itsmyluckyday, 4. Normandy Invasion