The early favorites and long shots on ''American Idol'': After the first week of Hollywood auditions, we handicap who's going to win a place in the show
Simon Cowell, American Idol

”American Idol”: Early favorites and long shots

As a horse-racing fanatic, I always find it interesting how American Idol‘s season coincides with the run-up to the Kentucky Derby. In both cases, thousands of hopefuls begin their auditions in January, but only a handful make the big dance. Early front-runners lose steam (poor rainbow girl Briana Davis!); weak contenders crack under the pressure (good riddance, Marlea Stroman); and others never get out of the starting gate (how did St. Louis ”rocker” Aaron Kelly get past security, anyway?).

Still, with only a minute or two of airtime logged for most contestants, taking a firm stance on this week’s postaudition rounds from Hollywood is akin to playing the exacta without first perusing the Racing Form. But since I’ve been known to bet on races between two birds flying to a telephone pole, I’m going ahead and handicapping the race, assigning my feelings of love, sympathy, and shame to a bunch of wannabes I barely know anything about. So let’s call it the way it’s done at the track:

Sitting Midpack

1. There’s no denying Mario Vasquez’s silky voice and smooth delivery, but it’s a tad troubling that he’s already exhibiting early symptoms of Guarini-Caldwell Syndrome — you know, a chronic swelling of the ego that can lead to sudden career death among initially appealing AI contestants.

2. Mikalah Gordon’s only 16, so it’s hard not to be impressed by her smoky tone, her keen fashion sense (jaunty cap!), and outsize confidence. But for the love of all that’s holy, she needs to tone down her postperformance yapping, or she’ll suffer the fate of too-precious Idol also-rans like Matthew Rogers and Vanessa Olivarez.

3. Twin sensation Jamar Jefferson may exhibit vocal power and control, but honestly, my 5-year-old nephew Sam, who likes to break-dance to Hank Williams records (don’t ask), has a far superior sense of rhythm.

4. Glamorous Nadia Turner brought some Beyonciliciousness to the mix with her ”You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” but did I detect a few ”pitchy” notes, as Paula would say?

5. And while there’s no doubt hefty, drawling Scott Savol can sing, he’s going to have to do better than his ”just aiight for me” group audition to make voters overlook his irritating personality and ridiculous ”I’m about to blaze this thing” posturing.

Out in Front

1. Farm-dwelling Carrie Underwood is like Kelly Clarkson with twice the innocence and sex appeal. She’s the surest bet to make the top 12, although . . .

2. . . . quirkily beautiful (and surprisingly humble) Lindsey Cardinale, who praised the depth of competition she overheard during her Hollywood audition, may have the more interesting voice.

3. Justin Timberlake, beware. Dancin’ machine Travis Tucker is so ludicrously handsome and exudes so much star wattage, you almost forget he’s got pitch-perfect vocals to complete the package.

4. A big ”Huzzah!” to Shunta Warthen, who literally lived through that nightmare we’ve all had, the one where you get on the wrong bus and end up miles away from your big job interview, big test, or, oh, big American Idol audition. The unflappable Warthen, however, served a nerves-free rendition of the soul chestnut ”Young Hearts” and earned bonus points for exceptional song selection.

5. They haven’t shown her sing since her initial audition, so you know big-boned homemaker Jennifer Todd must be living up to her ample early promise. Could the show’s producers be keeping her talent under wraps, so viewers won’t declare this season’s champ a foregone conclusion by March?

6. Sure, he’s working a hairstyle made popular by Brandy back in the early ’90s, but David Brown comes across as a genuine soul with genuine talent. He’s this season’s George Huff.

7. A friend of mine once noted that Clay Aiken was born to play the candlestick in a touring production of Beauty and the Beast — and he didn’t mean it in a good way. That said, I am inexplicably finding myself drawn to the sounds of Anthony ”Clay 2.0” Fedorov, the skinny blond whose childhood illness almost kept him from speaking, let alone singing. While thoroughly enjoying 2.0’s soaring rendition of ”When You Tell Me That You Love Me,” I felt alternately excited and ashamed.

Lagging Behind

1. Anybody who’s moved to tears by a visit to the O.C. soundstage will never hold up to the rigors of this competition. Yes, Jaclyn Crum, that means you.

2. Sure, Rashida Johnson had a cold, but she couldn’t hit a note with a sledgehammer during her group audition. Now let’s think about Diana Ross’s electrifying Central Park concert in the early ’80s, the one where she tried to perform in gale-force winds and sheets of rain. What’s the lesson? Legends do not make excuses.

3. When does a serious rock & roller like Constantine Maroulis get caught up in the jazz-hands choreography of Dezmond Meeks? Maybe when he’s a 98 Degrees reject masquerading as a rocker?

4 and 5. Carrie Zaruba and Rachel Leslie. Let’s recap: Carrie and Rachel had to do their group audition with Elizabeth Pha, who wouldn?t be able to remember the words to ”Happy Birthday” if an Idol crown depended on it. So why was I rooting for the memory-impaired Pha over the Mean Girls she-beasts who couldn’t wait to get in front of the cameras and trash their poor teammate?

It’s a shame, really, that the show’s producers can’t go back and boot Zaruba or Leslie, then give the slot to Regina Brooks, the woman who pawned her wedding ring to make the auditions. Watching her sob while explaining the devastation she felt over her Idol rejection was almost as sad as watching Briana Davis, with her Goth makeup, wildly mismatched clothes, and operatic riffs, botch her rendition of ”The Letter.” Alas, the song’s lyrics proved all too prescient for Davis, as she did get a ticket for an airplane — headed back to her hometown.

Who’s your early pick to take home the Idol crown? Who will you root against with every last bone in your body? And should the Hollywood rejects get a free copy of Diana DeGarmo’s new CD as a parting gift?

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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