The 2016 Kentucky Derby seems unlikely to showcase another American Pharoah, or anything like him, but that is part of its allure. Yes, Nyquist has the mystique of the undefeated horse, and if a superstar is going to emerge from this race, we would certainly expect it to be Nyquist, but this race puts us in mind of a puzzle in which all of the pieces are, in one way or another, imperfect. And to us, that adds to the fascination. Last year, we had American Pharoah. This year, despite (or because of) the apparent shortcomings in the field, we have a betting race. A superb one. And that is considerable consolation.
In what may come as a surprise to some, the TimeformUS Pace Projector is projecting that the 2016 Kentucky Derby will be run at a fast pace. #20 Danzing Candy is projected to be on a clear lead after the opening half-mile. #15 Outwork is a stalking second. And #13 Nyquist is shown in the clear in third. Then there’s a gap back to #5 Gun Runner and #16 Shagaf.
The fastest Late Pace rating in the field, a 117, belongs to #4 Mo Tom.
Let’s take a look at the field, in post position order, for the Kentucky Derby:
#1 Trojan Nation (50-1): Few things would give us more pleasure than picking a maiden to win the Kentucky Derby. Alas, we can’t get there with Trojan Nation. Yes, he is beautifully bred. More distance should suit him. He has improved his speed figure in every start. And he enters off a narrow defeat, at 81-1, in the Wood. However, the Wood was his first try on a muddy track. He received an excellent pace setup (note pace figures color-coded in red). He saved all the ground. His speed figure of 105 represents a nine-point top and yet still leaves him 13 points shy of Exaggerator. And anyway, we do not believe that he ran anywhere as well as Outwork in the Wood. Where does that leave him? At huge odds, the chances that he can go forward one more time can justify leaving him in the superfecta mix.
#2 Suddenbreakingnews (20-1):
This deep-closing son of Mineshaft did not earn his best speed figure in the Southwest in February. Indeed, he earned only a 105. But visually, that was the race of his that impressed us most. To us he looked like a potential Kentucky Derby winner on that day. He returned to receive a troubled trip in the Rebel. And then he recorded his lifetime best speed figure, a 112, in the Arkansas Derby, despite a wide trip. He has reportedly looked very good in the mornings at Churchill. The projected fast pace would flatter his running style. We expect him to handle the distance. He always runs well, and we expect him to run well again in the Derby. In fact, we would nominate him as the horse most likely to land in the superfecta. But if he is to win this race, he would be well-advised to bring his Southwest run with him.
#3 Creator (10-1): This deep-closing Asmussen colt came into his own in Arkansas in his last two starts, recording speed figures of 103 and 111 while running third in the Rebel and winning the Arkansas Derby. The projected fast pace plays in his favor. So does this post, which should allow him to save ground around the first turn. His breeding for the extra furlong is not ideal, but he certainly acts as if it will give him no trouble. Creator is one more round of improvement away from being a match for any horse in this field. We’ll see if it materializes.
#4 Mo Tom (20-1): Trouble-prone Amoss colt has flat speed figures as a three-year-old. This would not be a problem if they were faster, but they aren’t and it is. However, it is exceedingly unlikely that his figures do him justice—owing to the recent trips he has received. When he hasn’t been hitting the gate, he has been checking or racing wide. And his trip in the Louisiana Derby was hellish. He’s a plodder who will need a lively pace to get involved late.
#5 Gun Runner (10-1):
He has a gorgeous pattern of speed figures: 89 94 106 108 111. He has a pleasing style that could see him setting up just off the early leaders. He has impressed us with his professionalism. This is a racehorse. Yes, he has received some soft trips, but that is in part his own doing. He has improved as the distances have gotten longer. Throw out his race in the slop and he has done everything right. To date, he is not the fastest horse in this field, but if he can carve out another sweet trip, he may not have to be. A contender at a decent price.
#6 My Man Sam (20-1): After four starts, this Chad Brown colt is still eligible for a NW allowance, but he does belong in the Kentucky Derby. He has twice earned speed figures of 110. He received a wide trip while running second in the Blue Grass. His breeding for this distance, top and bottom, is promising. He did capitalize on a fast pace in the Blue Grass. He also capitalized on a racetrack that was favoring closers (note Race Rating box color-coded dark blue). The fact that he was able to get back to the 110 he ran in his second start gives him an auspicious speed figure pattern (a “re-top” in the vernacular). Although Chad Brown has not done his best work at Churchill Downs (rating of 53 on a scanty sample), we can’t help but see him as a big plus as he brings this lightly raced colt along. If the Pace Projector turns out to be correct in its rather adversarial prediction that this Derby will have a fast pace, My Man Sam can be a player underneath at a big price.
#7 Oscar Nominated (50-1): Broke his maiden in a maiden claimer. Michael Maker took him from Bill Mott for $75,000. Enters off wins in a minor grass stake at Fair Grounds and in the Spiral. He makes his dirt debut today. His breeding for dirt is comparable to his grass and synthetic breeding. His lifetime top speed figure is a 96.Maker gets only a 52 rating with first-time dirt. Supplemented to the Kentucky Derby, Oscar Nominated is a complete toss for us.
#8 Lani (30-1): Idiosyncratic colt has provided a lot of entertainment for workout-watchers at Churchill Downs. But sticking with his race record for the moment: He got good in Japan as a two-year-old. He enters off a win in the Group 2 UAE Derby. In that race he bobbled badly at the start, to be away slowly. After relaxing in the clear, he made an early move, raced three-wide around the far turn, and produced a late surge to be up by less than a length. We see it as a distinctly bad sign that he had three horses relatively close to him as he crossed the line. His speed figure, a 104, will not cut it against these. UAE shippers have had no success in the Kentucky Derby. We do not see that changing this year. And for good measure, our colleagues at Timeform London, who know him better than we do, say that “the chances are he’ll be run off his feet.”
#9 Destin (15-1): Although he is one of only two trainers in this race who have already won the Kentucky Derby, Todd Pletcher has struggled a bit in this race, and those struggles have received a good amount of attention. Pletcher is taking a different approach with Destin. He is bringing him in on 56 days of rest. This strategy is not part of any backfitting “How to win the Kentucky Derby” model. Rather, it is quite the opposite. But we like it. And Destin has supposedly been thriving in his training. In his races, well, he comes in off wins in a Grade 3 and a Grade 2 at Tampa. His speed figures for those wins, 109 and 111, are not out of place in here. Destin is pointed in the right direction. He has a pleasing style and may be able to outrun the Pace Projector and carve out a stalking trip today. Derby frustrations notwithstanding, Pletcher gets a 90 rating at Churchill. Moreover, he gets a 93 off this sort of spacing between starts. We adore Giant’s Causeway as a sire. Destin gets a TimeformUS Breeding Rating of 95, which is the third best in the field. We see Destin as a genuine threat to win this race at a fat price.
#10 Whitmore (20-1): We are quite fond of this gelding and have followed him closely during his preps. Athletic and nimble, he can be counted on to run his race. He has improved his speed figure in each start as a three-year-old. The 108 he ran while finishing third in the Arkansas Derby does not do him justice. He took a bad step early on. He lost considerable ground racing wide. Albeit aided by a fast pace (note race fractions and pace figures color-coded red), he made a huge run into the stretch, a run he could not sustain. He will be ridden by a superb distance rider who is looking for his third straight Kentucky Derby win. The only race in which he did not fire his shot came in the mud. We expect Whitmore to fire again today. He has reportedly been doing well in Kentucky. The predicted fast pace would flatter him. Our only knock on Whitmore can be read as praise as well: He gives us the impression of being a gelding who has squeezed everything out of his talent to date, and we have serious doubts about whether his talent is sufficient to get it done against this competition.
#11 Exaggerator (8-1):
With nine career starts, Exaggerator has experience that is matched by only Tom’s Ready. He also has four wins to his credit. One of them is the Santa Anita Derby, and that is the effort that he’ll need to repeat (or improve on) if he is to win this race. Yes, he got a wonderful pace setup. Yes, he enjoyed a clean trip over a sloppy track. But his performance was legitimate, and it did not come out of nowhere. He was running triple-digit speed figures as a two-year-old. On several occasions he displayed a nice turn of foot. He has traveled well. He has shown striking versatility. He has a trainer who brings his horses along patiently, and in the Santa Anita Derby, we saw a colt who has the talent to win the Kentucky Derby. His speed figure, a 118, was the fastest number any horse in this field has ever run. We do not anticipate that this son of Curlin will have trouble with the distance. Rider Kent Desormeaux, always quirky, has again been making some inspired moves on the racetrack. We see Exaggerator as a strong contender.
#12 Tom’s Ready (30-1): This colt has received extra longshot discussion because of trainer Dallas Stewart’s recent record in Triple Crown races. Broke his maiden at Churchill in his third start, receiving a speed figure of 92. Made his three-year-old debut in the LeComte, where he ran second to Mo Tom after receiving a wide trip. He earned a 98 for that effort, though he reportedly exited the race with a foot problem. After a dull effort in the Risen Star, he got back on track in the Louisiana Derby, finishing second to Gun Runner and recording a lifetime top figure of 106. That still leaves him considerably short against the best of these, and he is not particularly well bred for the added distance.
#13 Nyquist (3-1):
7 for 7 lifetime, a winner at five different distances and on four different racetracks, four times a Grade 1 winner, Nyquist has answered every question in the affirmative, and in this game, a game in which so many things can go wrong, there is more than a little to be said for that. Nyquist is going to be the favorite in the Kentucky Derby, and it is hard to quarrel with that. But we feel that the questions he will have to answer in the Derby make it worth taking a shot against him at short odds. On our speed figures, he is not the fastest horse in this field. His breeding for this distance is questionable. His running style may leave him too close to a hot pace. He has shown us more lugging than we want to see. Respect him though we do, we are going to try to beat Nyquist today. And if he beats us, we will be the first to salute him—because you have to love a racehorse who can put together a record like his.
#14 Mohaymen (10-1): Everything looked perfect going into the Florida Derby. One doesn’t know what to think coming out of the Florida Derby. Yes, he had a difficult trip, as our Chief Figure-maker, Craig Milkowski, points out in his companion piece in the Kentucky Derby Weekend Package. We grant that. Indeed, we insist on it. But he didn’t look right in that race, and his trainer seemed at a loss for answers. Nothing wrong with that. This is a game that often refuses to provide answers. Sometimes it is best to simply forget about playing detective, and instead simply draw a line through a race when a top trainer puts his horse back on the track on schedule. Before the Florida Derby, Mohaymen ran off four straight Grade 2 victories. He accomplished his wins in impressive style. He has a top speed figure of 114. Often he has been able to make his own trip. He is a contender, and because of the Florida Derby, he will be a contender at something of a price.
#15 Outwork (15-1):
The other Pletcher entrant, he has been wowing them in the mornings in Kentucky. He lost some time as a two-year-old and accordingly had to jam a lot of development into a short period. He has improved his speed figure in every start. He had a rough trip in the Wood, forcing a fast pace while three-wide. On our figures he is the third-fastest horse in the race. However, his breeding for this distance is debatable, and it is unclear whether he will prove capable of rating today. Plus the perceived Pletcher cold streak in the Derby hangs in the air. One can go either way here.
#16 Shagaf (20-1): Chad Brown colt showed talent right off the blocks, debuting at a mile as a two-year-old, winning in a romp, and earning a speed figure of 96. He returned at age three and immediately paired the 96 going a mile at Gulfstream. Returning in the Grade 3 Gotham, he stalked a fast pace, and closed for the win—over a track that was strongly favoring speed (note Race Rating box color-coded in red) and the rail. However, Shagaf did benefit from racing on the golden rail much of the way. Returned in the Wood, over a muddy track, and disappointed at 9-5 despite getting a good pace setup. His speed figure regressed four points to a 102. Has the pedigree to handle the 10F, but, mud or no mud, we are having a hard time getting the taste of his Wood effort out of our mouth. For that reason, we are going to relegate him to the ranks of marginal contender for the bottom half of superfectas.
#17 Mor Spirit (12-1): A quintessential grinder, Mor Spirit has none of the flash that we associate with Baffert’s top horses, let alone the magnificence of American Pharoah, but he is solid. He shipped to Churchill in November and ran a 108 in the slop, establishing a strong two-year-old top. He paired his top in his three-year-old debut. In between he won a Grade 1 at Los Alamitos. He enters off a lifetime top of 113 in the Santa Anita Derby, where he stayed fairly close to the fast pace, only to be decisively whipped by Exaggerator. One can argue that Mor Spirit was harmed by the sloppy track, but that is an exceedingly difficult position to defend on our speed figures. Anyway, Baffert has won this race four times. Mor Spirit has improved his speed figure in three straight races. His training at Churchill has received mixed reviews, but we have seen Baffert flummox the clockers a million times. Pace Projector shows Mor Spirit coming from mid-pack today, though one could argue that the eagerness he has been showing in the mornings will translate into more early speed. We see Mor Spirit as a contender. We do not see him as a horse we want to build our bet around.
#18 Majesto (30-1): He has improved consistently as a three-year-old, culminating in the 110 he ran in the Florida Derby while finishing a distant second to Nyquist. Son of Tiznow would seem to have a good shot at handling the distance. But he had a fairly easy trip in the Florida Derby, and we have concerns about his ability to stack more improvement on top of the 13-point jump he made in the Florida Derby. We would not rule this ridgling out of the bottom half of superfectas, but that is about as far as we’d want to go with him.
#19 Brody’s Cause (12-1): Broke his maiden at Churchill in his second start, earning a speed figure of 95. Came right back to take a Grade 1 in the Keeneland mud, improving to a 102. Then he regressed, took four months off, and regressed again off the layoff. But he turned things around with style in the Blue Grass. Taking advantage of a closer-favoring track and a fast pace, he made a powerful wide move and won going away, recording a lifetime top speed figure of 112. That represents a 10-point top. Such jumps often produce bounces. But they don’t have to, especially in spring three-year-olds, who are prone to pairing strong efforts. Brody’s Cause is deliciously bred for this assignment. He would benefit from a fast pace. We see him as a strong contender at a price.
#20 Danzing Candy (15-1):
Broke his maiden in his second start at two, earning a speed figure of 104. Two starts later, in the San Felipe at Santa Anita, he ran the race of his life: setting a solid pace and then coming away from Mor Spirit and Exaggerator in the final 1/8.That earned him a lifetime top speed figure of 114, and the fact that it came in the longest race of his career was promising. But he disappointed in the Santa Anita Derby, run over a sloppy surface. He acted up in the gate. He was headstrong during the race, running crazy pace figures of 162 and 156 before fading away. Pace Projector shows him on a clear early lead again today, albeit a hot one. But we question his breeding for this distance. As longshots go, though, we feel that one could do worse. The case for him getting back on track does not have a lot of moving parts. All one needs to do is draw a line through his sloppy Santa Anita Derby and take the leap of faith that he can handle the 10 furlongs. After all, in the past he has proven capable of rating on the lead in gentle fractions. This colt has a puncher’s chance at a big price.
#21 A/E: Laoban (50-1): Eric Guillot maiden fits well enough on our speed figures, which are adjusted for pace. If he gets in, Pace Projector will show him in the early lead, though blinkers off could cloud that read a bit. In any event, he’ll have Danzing Candy to his inside, and we have a hard time seeing him making any noise against the likes of these. He would be a toss for us, though he is one talented maiden.
#22 A/E Cherry Wine (30-1): Outside post practically guarantees significant groundloss, and anyway, he comes in off a big jump and is still way too slow. He, too, would be a toss for us.
As we said at the beginning, it’s a superb betting race, making it worthy of the sublime energy surrounding it. At anywhere near the morning line odds, our play in the 142nd Kentucky Derby is #2 Suddenbreakingnews.
To see how we’re going to play the race–including the tickets we plan to bet–get the TimeformUS Kentucky Derby Weekend Package: