(My main man, Ryan Dickey. He’s sitting on a big score. I can feel it.)

By Ryan Dickey:

Following what is shaping up to be an epic day of horse racing from Fair Grounds on Louisiana Derby day, the Sunland Derby is slated for Sunday with an approximate post time of 7:30 pm ET.

Contested at a mile and an eighth, the winner of the biggest race in New Mexico will receive 50 points in the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” which will be enough to get a gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May. Second place receives 20 points in the series, third place 10, and the fourth-best finisher will receive five points.

While there will be a deserved heavy favorite in the race, there are some intriguing storylines, angles, and a chance to beat the chalk.

The Favorite:

#1 MUCHO GUSTO drew the rail, and was installed as the 8/5 morning line favorite for trainer Bob Baffert. The Mucho Macho Man colt out of a Giant’s Causeway mare named Itsagiantcauseway will be ridden by Joe Talamo–the same rider that has guided Mucho Gusto to victory in three of his four career starts.

On paper and in class, Mucho Gusto appears to be much the best here. For those unfamiliar with the Sunland main track, being the horse at the rail is statistically advantageous at the distance, and is not a hindrance.

But if the two Rebel Stakes divisions run at Oaklawn Park last Saturday are any indication, there’s room to debate that the Santa Anita-based Baffert runners may have been hampered by the continuing problems with the main track there. Both Baffert-trained race favorites were beaten (though not by much), so it’s fair to assume there COULD be a chink in the armor for Mucho Gusto.

My feeling here is that he can (and most likely will) still beat this bunch even without an A+ effort.

So, that’s it, huh? Just bet the chalk? Not so fast.

The Value:

Yes, I’m stating that more often than not, Mucho Gusto SHOULD be the winner of this race against nine others vying for the Grade III victory, the lion’s share of the $800,000 purse, and the automatic Derby gate.

But a funny thing happens in horse racing–the “best” horse doesn’t always win. And although Mucho Gusto has the class and the speed figures to be a deserving favorite, the horse I’m going to back is #5 CUTTING HUMOR.

At 8-1 on the morning line for trainer Todd Pletcher, this First Samurai colt has only won a maiden race in five career starts, and was last seen finishing a disappointing seventh in the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn last month.

So why would I pick a maiden winner over the multiple graded stakes winning favorite? Well, for one, Mucho Gusto will be heavily bet and represents no real value. But, more importantly, I’m betting the TRAINER here. Todd Pletcher is no stranger to getting the most out of his young horses this time of year. And guess what? He’s heating up. His charges have won eight of sixteen races from March 15 to March 21. The horses that did NOT win have hit the board in all but three of those races.

Baffert and Pletcher are heading in different directions with their three year olds at this particular point in time.

There’s a chance one of his horses, Spinoff, could pull the upset and beat War of Will in the Louisiana Derby on Saturday–if that happens (and I’m also betting on Spinoff), you’ll get much less than the 8-1 morning line here on Cutting Humor. As of Friday, Pletcher has ZERO Kentucky Derby-bound horses by way of the current Road to the Kentucky Derby point standings. It’s my contention that by Sunday night he will have TWO.

For that to happen, Cutting Humor and jockey John Velazquez will need some help up front in the form of a very fast contentious pace. And by looking at the past performances of the ten runners, there’s a VERY GOOD chance that’s what we’ll get.

If you look at the local prep for this race–the Mine That Bird stakes–it looked more like a boat race than a horse race. The winner, #3 HUSTLE UP (who we will touch upon a little more later) got to the front in a very moderate pace and stayed the course. The third place finisher #6 WALKER STALKER  was never worse than in third place through every call. Only the place horse, #4 WICKED INDEED, made up any ground in the race–finishing second after being as far back as sixth.

But this pace will be much quicker. El Camino Real winner #2 ANOTHERTWISTOFFATE, #9 DIAMOND BLITZ, Hustle Up and Mucho Gusto ALL have a propensity to get to an early lead, and only one can do it here–hence a contentious pace. Expect the first quarter mile of this race to be significantly faster than the Mine That Bird.

This sets it up for a horse coming off the pace–and Cutting Humor won his only race doing just that. So Johnny V has to sit back, let the early pacesetters tire, then make a big move late to get the jump on the frontrunners. He’s done that before, once or twice.

Pretty cool story, huh? Not as cool as this….

The Story

Hustle Up is 4-for-4 racing on the Sunland strip. He gave trainer Todd Fincher his 1,000th career victory in taking the Mine That Bird. He’s a NEW MEXICO bred gelding.

How cool would it be to see a New Mexico bred gelding winning the biggest race in the state of New Mexico and then go on to the Kentucky Derby? This is the stuff dreams are made of.

Can he go 5-for-5 at Sunland and get a shot at the “run for the roses?” Probably not–but if he has the endurance to run at a very high level for nine furlongs, and the experience (and high altitude at Sunland) are on his side, with a little help from racing luck, Hustle Up could be Louisville-bound by Sunday night.

I’ll let you bet on that.