LOUISVILLE, Ky. _ For a record fourth straight year the Kentucky Derby will have a full field of 20.
The 134th running is especially tough to handicap because this is a subpar crop that's not particularly fast and is inconsistent in performance.
Continuing a trend, the field is lightly raced, too, with 14 of the 20 starters having gone to the post just seven times or less in their racing careers, and two horses have raced four times or less.
Big Brown is the field's only undefeated horse. He earned the top Beyer speed figure (106) run by a 3-year-old in a 11/8-mile race, and is the morning-line favorite, but he appears vulnerable.
Let's get started handicapping this evenly matched field, by taking a look at each horse's strengths and weaknesses, in post-position order:
1. Cool Coal Man (20-1)
Why he'll win: Won two races on the dirt at 11/8 miles as a 3-year-old, including the Fountain of Youth. Has won four of eight lifetime starts as a stalker who stays close to the pace.
Why he won't: Marginal Beyer speed figure of 98 in the Fountain of Youth, where he benefited from the bias of an inside post. Ran ninth in his last start.
2. Tale of Ekati (15-1)
Why he'll win: Won Wood Memorial in last start, chasing a fast early pace, and closed with a rush on the rail. Was graded stakes winner in New York as a 2-year-old, second in earnings in the field.
Why he won't: His win in the Wood Memorial was the slowest time since 1952. Not quite fast enough, never run a Beyer speed figure over 95 in six lifetime starts. Too lightly raced this year. Bucking history to win the Derby off just two 3-year-old races.
3. Anak Nakal (30-1)
Why he'll win: Won Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last November and has worked a sharp :463/5 here recently. Showed progress coming from way back in last start.
Why he won't: Too slow. No wins as a 3-year-old.
4. Court Vision (20-1)
Why he'll win: Ascending Beyer speed figures as 3-year-old in two starts at 11/8 miles. Won 1-mile Iroquois as 2-year-old at Churchill, and 11/8-mile Remsen at Aqueduct. Black bullet workout (:461/5) at Churchill. Blinkers on will keep him focused.
Why he won't: Should have closed better on slow last quarter of Wood Memorial. Has not won since Nov. 24, 2007.
5. Eight Belles (20-1)
Why she'll win: On four-race winning streak. Is one of only five horses in the field to post a triple-digit Beyer speed figure in a race at a mile or longer as a 3-year-old. Off-the-pace win in Fantasy at Oaklawn in last start. Seasoned, her nine career starts are the most in the field, and consistent, with five wins (three in stakes).
Why she won't: Never raced beyond 11/16 miles. This is no Winning Colors, who toyed with the boys in winning the 1988 Santa Anita Derby, and wired a 17-horse field in the 114th Kentucky Derby. Call me a traditionalist. She probably would win the Kentucky Oaks easily.
6. Z Fortune (15-1)
Why he'll win: Came from 18 lengths off the pace to finish second in last start at 11/8 miles in Arkansas Derby, running 102 Beyer speed figure, which puts him in the hunt.
Why he won't: Has never won beyond a mile and 70 yards distance. No over-the-winter break, has been racing steadily since last fall.
7. Big Truck (50-1)
Why he'll win: Won Tampa Bay Derby at 11/16 miles, defeating 2007 juvenile champion War Pass. Off-the-pace running style is made for this race.
Why he won't: Lacks class and speed. No wins at 11/8 miles, and two of three lifetime wins in restricted state-bred races at sprint distances. Gets no respect from track handicapper, longest morning-line odds in the field.
8. Visionaire (20-1)
Why he'll win: Deceptively good race in last start, 11/8-mile Blue Grass at Keeneland, where he broke from the 12 hole, raced 10 wide, and finished fifth, beaten just 61/4 lengths. Won 11/16-mile Gotham and finished third to Pyro in the Risen Star.
Why he won't: Has never won beyond 11/16, and two of his three career wins were at a mile.
9. Pyro (6-1)
Why he'll win: Class, speed and obvious talent. Chased juvenile champion War Pass last year, finishing second in two Grade I stakes, earning high Beyer speed figures. Won two graded stakes as a 3-year-old on dirt, including the Louisiana Derby.
Why he won't: Has never won beyond 11/16 miles. Dismal effort in last start, beaten 111/2 lengths while finishing 10th in the Blue Grass. Form seems to be going downhill.
10. Colonel John (4-1)
Why he'll win: Won two 11/8-mile races as a 3-year-old, including the Santa Anita Derby in his last start with a burst of acceleration at the wire. Bred for the distance. His sire, Tiznow, won four Grade 1 stakes at 11/4 miles, including the 2000 Breeders' Cup Classic here. Sharp workout, black bullet :574/5 proves he's not just a synthetic-track wonder. Look out.
Why he won't: Horses for courses -- three of his four career wins came at Santa Anita, and he hasn't raced outside California. All six career starts have come on synthetic surfaces.
11. Z Humor (30-1)
Why he'll win: Third in Illinois Derby in last start. Ascending Beyer speed figures, with two races at 11/8 miles as a 3-year-old.
Why he won't: Too slow. Has not won as a 3-year-old, and has only two career wins in eight starts.
12. Smooth Air (20-1)
Why he'll win: Came from off the pace to finish second in Florida Derby in last start. Very consistent, having never finished off the board in seven career starts.
Why he won't: Five of his seven races have come at sprint distances. No quality wins beyond 7 furlongs. Illness issue.
13. Bob Black Jack (20-1)
Why he'll win: Finished second in the 11/8-mile Santa Anita Derby in his last start. Fast. Ran a 1:062/5 at 6 furlongs. On the board in all seven lifetime starts.
Why he won't: Sprint pedigree. Will probably set fast early fractions and fade in the stretch.
14. Monba (15-1)
Why he'll win: Won the Blue Grass at Keeneland in his last start, and as a 2-year-old won mile allowance race at Churchill in 1:352/5. Dangerous stalker.
Why he won't: Too lightly raced (only five career starts), and not battle-tough. If he doesn't break well he seems to lose interest.
15. Adriano (30-1)
Why he'll win: Won Lane's End at Turfway at 11/8 miles in his last start. Looks focused in morning workouts at Churchill. Edgar Prado in the saddle.
Why he won't: Two of his three career wins have come on grass, the third on Polytrack.
16. Denis of Cork (20-1)
Why he'll win: Has won three of his four lifetime starts. Came from 18 lengths back to take the 1-mile, Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Looking sharp in the mornings here, with black-bullet 5-furlong work in 1:00 on April 21.
Why he won't: Lost his mojo, and suffered first loss, when owner decided to run in the Illinois Derby rather than the Arkansas Derby. Tactical error since horses that run well at Oaklawn seem to relish the Churchill strip.
17. Cowboy Cal (20-1)
Why he'll win: Consistent beyond a mile, with three wins and two seconds, including a win and a second at 11/8 miles as a 3-year-old. A game second in Blue Grass, his most recent start.
Why he won't: Turf specialist that took to Keeneland's Polytrack. Finished seventh in his only start on dirt, beaten 111/4 lengths.
18. Recapturetheglory (20-1)
Why he'll win: Impressive win in Illinois Derby in last start, earning 102 Beyer speed figure in the process, which puts him in the hunt. Sentimental 20-year reunion for owner and trainer who brought Risen Star to Louisville in 1988, and later won Preakness and Belmont.
Why he won't: Sprint pedigree and on-the-lead running style are liabilities here, especially when he'll be looking Big Brown in the eye. Could get interesting in the opening half-mile.
19. Gayego (15-1)
Why he'll win: Won Arkansas Derby in last start, with 103 Beyer speed figure, second-best at 11/8 miles in this field. Game and consistent, never worse than second in five career starts.
Why he won't: Has a sprint pedigree. Plus, two of his three career wins have come on synthetic surfaces. Perhaps not experienced enough for this start on the outside in a big field.
20. Big Brown (3-1)
Why he'll win: Fast, undefeated in three starts. Won the Florida Derby from the 12 hole in last start, wiring the field easily and earning a 106 Beyer speed figure. Has won three career starts by a combined 29 lengths. Confident trainer telling media his horse is a lock.
Why he won't: Let me count the ways. Only one horse has ever won from the 20-hole in 15 attempts (Clyde Van Dusen in 1929). Speed horses to his inside will make it difficult to take the lead as he obviously prefers. But the big knock is history. Open the record book and turn to 1918. No horse has won the Derby with fewer than five career starts since Exterminator. Curlin couldn't do it last year. I'm betting Big Brown can't do it Saturday.