Favorites have ruled the Kentucky Derby since the implementation of the points-based qualifying system five years ago, winning every Run for the Roses during that time. A variety of theories have circulated in effort to explain the run of short prices, none of which can be proven at this time. What is known is that the horse who will shoulder the burden of carrying on that winning streak into 2018 is the undefeated colt Justify, the 3-1 favorite on the morning line.
While the Bob Baffert-trained son of Scat Daddy is the clear choice of the public, this is a Kentucky Derby that features a high concentration of talent at the top. Seven of the 20 runners are listed at 12-1 or lower on the morning line, highlighting the deep pool of worthy win candidates in this race. Justify has indeed captured a great deal of attention, but others also bring noteworthy credentials: Good Magic was last year’s two-year-old champion; Bolt d’Oro was a two-time Grade 1 winner as a juvenile; Audible won his pair of Florida preps by a combined 8 1/2 lengths; Mendelssohn was an 18-length winner of the UAE Derby in historically fast time; and Magnum Moon is just like Justify – undefeated and untested.
The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting a fast early pace, with Promises Fulfilled (#3) and Justify (#7) likely to head out towards the front of the pack soon after the start. While Justify is obviously fast enough to secure the lead, it’s generally accepted that Promises Fulfilled will edge ahead of the favorite in the early going. It’s unlikely that either will be able to slow things down much as a number of chasers should be in hot pursuit. Flameaway (#4), Bolt d’Oro (#11), Enticed (#12), Magnum Moon (#16), and Noble Indy (#19) all possess some early speed and will be vying for ideal position in behind these front-runners. One additional wild card in this pace scenario is Mendelssohn (#14), for whom we have limited pace data, given that he’s run the majority of his races overseas. He, too, could be up close in the opening furlongs.
Horses like Audible (#5), Good Magic (#6), Solomini (#17), and Vino Rosso (#18) should be looking to attain early position in mid-pack, but mid-pack position in this race could be as far back as 13th or 14th given the massive field of runners. Deep closers Hofburg (#9), My Boy Jack (#10), and Combatant (#20) – none of which are shown in the Pace Projector – are likely to bring up the rear.
Let’s make our way through the entire 20-horse field:
#1, FIRENZE FIRE (50-1): At least a horse with no realistic chance drew the dreaded rail slot. This colt just doesn’t want to go this far, and he’s not nearly fast enough anyway. Pass.
#2, FREE DROP BILLY (30-1): The two Dale Romans trainees will break from side-by-side stalls in the gate. While Promises Fulfilled is generally regarded as the runner who will have more influence on the outcome given his ample early speed, Free Drop Billy figures to be the Romans colt that makes the most noise at the finish. His three-year-old season has been somewhat disappointing, but he has had excuses. He worked out an uncomfortable trip in the Gotham, as he was always out of position while attempting to close over a speed-favoring track. Looking for redemption in the Blue Grass, he got sideswiped by a rival while in the midst of his stretch-run, costing him any chance of overtaking the leaders. Realistically, Free Drop Billy is unlikely to win the Kentucky Derby off those performances, but he does have a chance to pick up some pieces late. I appreciate his willingness to run through traffic, which he did seamlessly around the far turn in the Blue Grass. From this inside post position, Robby Albarado can guide him to the back of the pack and hope that some holes open up. He’s going to need a few top contenders to falter in order to make the trifecta, but that’s never out of the question in this grueling race. An exotics possibility.
#3, PROMISES FULFILLED (30-1): His two preps in Florida could not be more dichotomous. He was allowed to set his own comfortable pace in the Fountain of Youth, and capitalized on that favorable setup with a win over two-year-old champion Good Magic. However, in the Florida Derby, he and pace rival Strike Power incinerated after blazing through the first half-mile in unreasonably fast time. While the early pace of the Kentucky Derby is unlikely to be quite that fast, this front-runner is highly unlikely to get another free ride on the lead. Pass.
#4, FLAMEAWAY (30-1): I’ve been wrong about his colt throughout the prep season, having underestimated his talent each time he ran. None of his competitors have visited the winner’s circle on as many occasions as this 5-time victor, and he’s accomplished those wins under a variety of circumstances. Dirt has been the focus recently as he’s been pushed towards this race, and he’s welcomed each successive challenge. Unfortunately, I once again will afford him little respect, as I just do not believe he’s suited to this race. He’ll be forced to deal with a much swifter early tempo than he’s encountered in any of his prep races and would need to produce the fastest race of his career. Pass.
#5, AUDIBLE (8-1): I had been a skeptic earlier in the year, but this New York-bred has turned me into a believer with two resounding victories in Florida this winter. While he doesn’t possess the classic pedigree of a Derby winner, neither did recent champions American Pharoah or Nyquist. That just hasn’t mattered as much over the last decade or so. Besides, Audible already outran his sprint-oriented damside pedigree by winning the Florida Derby, and he gives every impression that more distance will not be a major hindrance. It’s the way he finishes off his races that makes him so appealing. In all of his wins, just as he appears to have exhausted all of his gears, he turns it up one more notch for the stretch drive. He basically sprinted through the final quarter mile of the Holy Bull, as he left Free Drop Billy in his wake. In the Florida Derby, he was forced to make a longer, sustained run from the back of the pack after losing position on the backstretch. Yet, reliably, he was still reaching for the wire with vigor in deep stretch, putting even greater distance between himself and fellow closer Hofburg. Javier Castellano takes over the reins from John Velazquez, which is of little concern given the tough choices that both riders were faced with heading into the Derby. At least Castellano knows this horse well, and is aware of his propensity to lose focus mid-race. If he’s able to keep Audible in the bridle and has him within two lengths of the lead at the quarter pole, his rivals will be hard-pressed to withstand his finishing power. A top contender for victory.
#6, GOOD MAGIC (12-1): The results have been mixed for last year’s two-year-old champion so far this season. Any way you slice it, his Fountain of Youth was a disappointment. Despite the slow early pace and speed-favoring Gulfstream surface, he was still supposed to be making up some ground at the end of that race. He rebounded admirably in the Blue Grass, grinding out a win over Flameaway and Free Drop Billy. However, those two are hardly among the elite contenders in this field, and Good Magic didn’t exactly assert his dominance in victory. At the end of the day, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile remains the most impressive race he’s ever run. I have the utmost respect for his trainer, who is arguably the best in the country, but he needs to get Good Magic to improve on his Blue Grass by about 4 or 5 lengths in order to win the Derby. Chad Brown insists that he’s doing better than ever heading into the race, but do I really want to take a mediocre price on a horse that has yet to improve upon his two-year-old form? I know there’s been some recent buzz around his morning workouts, but he’s always gone about his business enthusiastically in the mornings, so that hardly sways me. It’s also possible that he may find himself as far back as mid-field in the early stages of this race, which would be a new experience for him. I appreciate his overall resume and am grateful to have last year’s champion in the field, but I’m just not sold on his chances to take back the crown. A win seems just out of reach.
#7, JUSTIFY (3-1): Handicappers that are concerned about value almost always need to be careful around horses like Justify. After all, he’s competed in just a single stakes race and he’s already been anointed as the new leader of this division. Moreover, he got an absolutely perfect trip in that Santa Anita Derby win, setting a moderate early pace while his lone major rival was at a distinct disadvantage. So why is everyone already proclaiming him to be a Triple Crown threat before he’s even won the first leg? Probably because he might just be that good. Justify is not your ordinary Derby favorite. Despite his lack of seasoning, this is an exceptionally gifted three-year-old, the likes of which we haven’t seen in a number of years. The fact that he is considered to be such a clear-cut choice in a field with so much depth at the top speaks to his brilliance. He’s earned speed figures that most elite horses don’t achieve until their four-year-old seasons, and he’s been doing it right from the start, beginning with his dazzling February debut. Clearly, given that late start to his career, he lacks foundation. Is it worth paying attention to the dreaded curse of Apollo? Horses can make up for a lack of seasoning with talent, and Justify may indeed be that kind of thoroughbred – one that clears each successive hurdle on his first attempt. Yet, how short of a price are you really willing to take on a horse that will be trying a number of things for the first time? A top contender despite the lack of value.
#8, LONE SAILOR (50-1): The top three-year-olds were not located in New Orleans this season, and he was hardly the best of that group. He hung badly at the end of the Louisiana Derby after working out a perfect trip, raising concerns about his stamina. Pass.
#9, HOFBURG (20-1): Why am I supposed to prefer him to Audible, who defeated him so convincingly in the Florida Derby? Both benefitted from the swift early pace, and I would argue that Hofburg had a less taxing trip. He did not even attempt to get involved in that suicidal first quarter whereas Audible tried to hold a chasing position around the clubhouse turn before losing focus. Not only does Audible possess better tactical speed than Hofburg, but he has a significant experience edge over this lightly-raced colt. One might argue that Hofburg has greater upside in just his fourth career start, but since when is a lack of seasoning a positive in this particular race? One advantage that Hofburg does appear to have is an ample amount of stamina. He’s by Tapit, who has sired a couple of Belmont Stakes winners, and is out of a Touch Gold mare that has produced 10-furlong Grade 1 winner Emollient. If things really fall apart at the end of this race, perhaps he can make a dent, but I’m still somewhat skeptical. Chance for a small slice.
#10, MY BOY JACK (30-1): If you like him, you’re hoping for a pace collapse. While he’s run well in each of his last few starts, he would need some help to defeat the elite contenders in this field, since his speed figures are just a cut below the threshold. I’m also not enamored with the path he’s taken to this race, as he’ll be running for the third time in just 6 weeks after having to squeeze in a start in the Lexington in order to accrue the necessary points. A superfecta chance.
#11, BOLT D’ORO (8-1): In the Kentucky Derby, typically 2 or 3 horses among the 20 perform at their optimum level, either by matching their previous peak effort or exploding with a new top performance. The other 85 to 90 percent of the field usually regress. The Derby is a taxing race on these young three-year-olds, and the vast majority of them are simply not up to the task. So, if I have to choose one horse in this year’s race who will show up when the chips are down, it’s this colt. The fact of Bolt d’Oro’s career is that he’s never run a bad race. He handled sprint distances in his early starts despite not really being a sprinter, and he’s been basically unstoppable since stretching out around two turns. Some might argue that he has failed to repeat his stellar 7-length triumph in last year’s FrontRunner, but those people would be wrong. He has run just as well in each of his subsequent starts, despite encountering varying degrees of adversity in all of those races. Perhaps he hasn’t surpassed that peak two-year-old effort, but he hasn’t exactly needed to do so to retain his position at the top of this division. Assuming that Bolt d’Oro runs as well as I expect him to, the only question that remains is: Can he beat Justify? I certainly think he’s more likely to adapt to whatever pace scenario the Derby presents, given his versatile running style and valuable experience in difficult situations. Defeating Justify is still no small challenge, but given a price that figures to be twice as high as that of the favorite, I’m willing to wager that Bolt d’Oro is up to the task. The selection.
#12, ENTICED (30-1): I’m not quite sold on the quality of those New York races despite the fact that both the Gotham and Wood Memorial earned respectable speed figures. Of greater concern for Enticed is the distance, since he just doesn’t seem to want to go much farther than a mile. While he was soundly bumped a couple of times in upper stretch of the Wood, I still would have liked to see him put up more of a fight in the final furlong. I don’t see the path to success for him in this race. Pass.
#13, BRAVAZO (50-1): He’s one of the few runners that truly doesn’t belong here. He took advantage of a half-baked Noble Indy in the Risen Star two back, but then was no match for a number of today’s rivals in a subpar edition of the Louisiana Derby. Pass.
#14, MENDELSSOHN (5-1): Perhaps I’ll look back foolishly on my dismissal of this colt when he pulls a Johannesburg and beats the best Americans in their premier race. While I would never bet him in this spot, I do acknowledge that it’s possible he may be a special talent, not dissimilar to Justify. The major issue is that you have to base that opinion primarily on his UAE Derby performance, and that’s problematic. The classic Meydan dirt bias reared its ugly head on Dubai World Cup night, wildly exaggerating the performances of horses that showed speed and rode the rail, and Mendelssohn was indeed one of those. Certainly all of those 18 1/2 lengths were not attributable to the track bias, but how many were? Besides, looking beyond concerns about the actual merits of his Dubai performance, do you really trust a horse to ship all the way back from Dubai and win the Derby just 6 weeks later? Horses often need some time to recover from such a trip, and he’s getting no serious break. This is not a move that’s worked when Godolphin has tried it in the past, so why should I believe that Aidan O’Brien can pull it off, especially given his generally poor recent record with American starters shipping in from overseas? Pass.
#15, INSTILLED REGARD (50-1): The change of tactics didn’t work out in the Santa Anita Derby, since that wasn’t a race that was conducive to closers. Unfortunately, his prior efforts aren’t quite good enough either. He seems to have plateaued since early season success. Pass.
#16, MAGNUM MOON (6-1): Whereas Justify has maintained his unblemished record through sheer brilliance and towering ability, Magnum Moon has achieved the same through expert management and racing luck. I don’t believe that Magnum Moon is significantly more gifted than his stablemate Audible, or even Vino Rosso. However, many will perceive that this is the case due to the air of invincibility that surrounds any undefeated horse. When you dissect Magnum Moon’s two stakes wins at Oaklawn, they don’t stand up to intense scrutiny. He got a perfect trip in the Rebel, stalking a moderate pace while racing in the clear throughout. I don’t think Solomini was ever going to win that race, but he did lose significant momentum when forced to steady at the quarter pole, opening the way for Magnum Moon to register a decisive win. Magnum Moon was even more visually impressive in the Arkansas Derby, but this was once again due to his trip. With little speed signed on, Luis Saez was able to set a slow early pace (indicated by blue color-coded pace figures). Magnum Moon possesses an excellent turn of foot and he used it to put his rivals away in a race where main rival Solomini was again compromised. Magnum Moon drifted badly through the stretch, which is never a great sign. However, what concerns me more is that he will probably have to overcome adversity in this race, the likes of which he has never seen before. A fringe player.
#17, SOLOMINI (30-1): While Magnum Moon enjoyed all the best of it in his Arkansas stakes wins, Solomini got the short end of the stick on each occasion. After stalking the pace along the rail through the early stages of the Rebel, he was shut off and forced to alter course just as he was commencing a rally. Solomini is not a horse with a quick turn of foot, so that interruption in his momentum was especially detrimental. He did get to make a sustained run in the Arkansas Derby next time out, but his overall trip was not in synchronization with the flow of the race. The early pace was slow, and Solomini was reserved in mid-pack while racing extremely wide around both turns. Considering overall ground loss, I thought he ran on well to be third, turning away a challenge from Combatant in deep stretch. The most frustrating part about Solomini is that he has not improved on his excellent two-year-old form so far in 2018. For that reason, it’s easy to forget just how good he was last year. He defeated McKinzie in the Los Alamitos Futurity at a time when that rival was near the top of this division, and finished second to Good Magic and Bolt d’Oro in a pair of Grade 1 races. It’s taken a while – perhaps too long – for Solomini to figure things out this year. He’s not the most professional runner, and he typically needs vigorous encouragement from his rider to stay in contention. On the other hand, he’s bred to get this distance, and his preference for making a long, grinding run may actually be well-suited to the expected dynamics in this Kentucky Derby. You could draw some comparisons between him and 1998 Kentucky Derby winner Real Quiet, who also was flying under the radar of a highly regarded Baffert stablemate coming into the Run for the Roses. If you’re looking for a Derby longshot, you could do a lot worse than this colt. A top contender at a price.
#18, VINO ROSSO (12-1): He is one of the few horses in this year’s race who is undoubtedly bred to relish the mile and a quarter distance of the Derby. He is by Curlin, a runner-up in the Belmont Stakes and sire of Belmont winner Palace Malice, and out of a half-sister to Commissioner, who finished second in the 2014 Belmont Stakes. Regardless of this chestnut colt’s performance on Saturday, he is sure to return in 5 weeks for the 12-furlong Test of the Champion, a race that his trainer typically targets. While all of that is far off in the future, I’m compelled to focus more on his overall development because I feel that he may not be well-suited to the circumstances he will encounter on Saturday. Vino Rosso has struggled when faced with even minor adversity. He got discouraged when placed in behind horses in both of his starts at Tampa, sulking around the far turn of the Tampa Bay Derby as he dropped out of contention. The major difference in the Wood Memorial was that he broke from the outside post position in a field of manageable size, and John Velazquez was able to keep him outside of horses throughout. He ran by a stamina-challenged Enticed in the stretch, and registered a convincing win. However, it’s unlikely that everything will go quite as perfectly this time. He’s not a horse with much early speed, despite the fact that he sat relatively close to moderate paces in a few preps. The Pace Projector indicates that he could be as far back as 13th or 14th in the early going of this race, and I don’t view him as the kind of horse that can run through traffic and overcome such a deficit. Expect him to be running on well through the lane, but I worry he’ll be left with too much to do. Another one on the fringes.
#19, NOBLE INDY (30-1): Within the context of the Louisiana Derby, he ran quite well, surviving a fast pace and gamely turning away late bids from Lone Sailor and My Boy Jack. Based on that performance, it’s reasonable to prefer him to that pair. However, the best three-year-olds in the nation were not at the Fair Grounds this winter. Moreover, his running style may not be suited to the pace dynamics of this race. He’s not quite as fast as speeds like Promises Fulfilled and Justify. Breaking from this far outside post position, he may need to tuck in behind horses in the second flight of runners. How will he react to rating farther off the pace than he ever has before? It’s not an ideal situation, especially considering that he would probably have to run the best race of his career to even make it into the superfecta. Pass.
#20, COMBATANT (50-1): He’s as honest as they come, but he clearly lacks the ability of the top contenders in this field. In some ways, he’s similar to My Boy Jack, in that his only hope is to take back in the early going and hope to pass as many stragglers as possible. My Boy Jack is generally regarded as the more talented closer, but you could make the argument that Combatant has been hindered by poor trips and unfavorable pace dynamics in more of his races. If I’m using my Boy Jack in superfectas, I have to throw in this colt as well.Possible for a small slice.
#21, BLENDED CITIZEN (50-1): He’d be a hopeless long shot if he were to draw into this race, since nearly every other late runner is more talented than him. Pass.