It’s time for the 144th Run for the Roses. The Kentucky Derby is Saturday at Churchill Downs, and as usual, a contentious field of 20 has been assembled to go 10 furlongs for a spot in the history books.
It’s been a notable prep season, with pace and race shapes had a defining impact on the results, which, of course, shapes our analysis of the Derby itself.
Before we go through the field, let’s look at the prep races, where five of the six were unquestionably defined by the race flows.
(Site note – we’ll have plays on both the Oaks and Derby cards coming over the next couple of days, including a pick-4 play into the Derby itself.)
The Preps – Fast Paces
Louisiana Derby– Noble Indy ran huge to win on the fast pace, which aided My Boy Jack and Lone Sailor.
Florida Derby– Audible and Hofburg capitalized on one of the fastest first quarters (21.9) in Florida Derby history.
Wood Memorial– Vino Rosso capitalized, as did Enticed, though the latter was closer to the pace.
The Preps – Slow Paces
Arkansas Derby– This was one of the slowest paces in race history and the race was handed to Magnum Moon on a silver platter. Quip (pointing to the Preakness) tracked the pace and was second while Solomini and Combatant had no chance behind the tepid fractions.
Santa Anita Derby– Justify set the slow pace while Bolt d’Oro had to chase him around the track.
These paces and race flows help shape our opinions of the horses that emerged from the preps and into the Derby on Saturday.
Let’s take a look at the field:
#1 Firenze Fire (50-1) – A G1 winning two-year old for trainer Jason Servis, he hasn’t really progressed at three as the distances have gotten longer. He simply doesn’t finish his races as strongly around two-turns and is clearly better suited to one-turn racing. Hopefully the Derby and the Derby trail don’t ruin the horse, because he can definitely be a player in one-turn sprints later in the year.
#2 Free Drop Billy (30-1) – He’s another G1 winning two year old that seemingly hasn’t progressed figure-wise at three. We thought he’d win the one-turn Gotham and while he got bumped at the break, he was mostly flat down the lane. In the Blue Grass, though, he was rallying well late when he was bumped by Sporting Chance (who also bumped him in the Hopeful last year). That was definitely his best race of the year. It’s still not good enough, but if things fall apart late, he should be coming and could be an interesting superfecta use.
#3 Promises Fulfilled (30-1) – The second straight Dale Romans trainee comes out of the Florida Derby where he was cooked in a speed duel, fading to ninth beaten 35. Romans has all but guaranteed this horse is going to the front and while there is a scenario where he is left alone, like the Fountain of Youth, it’s very hard to see him lasting while being pressed by a strong group of contenders. He’s an easy toss.
#4 Flameaway (20-1) – We haven’t liked him in any of his dirt races this year, but he is a tough son-of-a-gun. He was a determined winner of the Sam Davis, albeit against a week field three back. He kept trying against Quip two-back in the Tampa Bay Derby. Those two races, however, both featured moderate paces which worked to his advantage. Then in the Blue Grass, it looked like Good Magic was going to run on by at the top of the lane, but Flameaway was very tenacious. This brings us to the key question coming out of that race. Was Flameaway just really tough? Or did Good Magic flatten a bit like he didn’t want to go much farther? Or both? I think probably a little of both, and ultimately Flameaway is overmatched here, where he will deal with a far more difficult pace scenario than he’s accustomed to.
#5 Audible (8-1) – Todd Pletcher has four in here and of the group, this one has the best shot. Audible comes out of the Florida Derby, a three-length win five weeks back. That race featured a supersonic pace that fell apart and he easily bested Hofburg. He did, however, track early before settling and making his run. It was, for the most part, a trip that was optimal and he won’t be able to repeat here, so we can’t play him on top. That being said, his Holy Bull was also very good too, so he has two races that give him a big shot. We’re a little skeptical of these Pletchers horses that freak in Florida and then leave town, but he’ll be in our play.
#6 Good Magic (12-1) –He caught the eye last year in his first two starts when he chased wide off a gold rail on the Travers undercard and then tracked a fast pace in the Champagne in his second start. The two-year old champion then beat Bold d’Oro in the Breeders Cup Juvenile but his two races this year have been just OK. His Fountain of Youth was a bit flat, though he was probably hurt by the moderate pace. In the Blue Grass, he looked like he was going to go by Flameaway and win by five, but it was more of a grinding effort that didn’t feature a fast finishing time. He somewhat gives the impression that he does not want the 10thfurlong, but reportedly has been working very well. He’s a tough read. We’ll use him a little but do not love him.
#7 Justify (3-1) – The favorite comes into the race off just three career starts with the “Apollo Curse” in danger of falling (no horse has won the Derby without a start at two since Apollo in 1882). He hadn’t started on Valentine’s Day but has had three smashing starts this year. Let’s focus on the Santa Anita Derby. He was clear on the lead with Bolt d’Oro chasing him. Clear advantage for Justify. We will say the fractions look slow on paper but played faster because of the relatively slow track (1:49.72 still netted a 107 Beyer), but he still put Bold d’Oro in an uncomfortable position while racing alone on the lead. Further, this is a race where seasoning is always paramount, and while some horse is going to break the Apollo curse, do you want to take 5-2 on him doing so? Plus, he’ll be forwardly placed in a race that should feature a pretty strong pace. We’re using because any horse of his talent should be used, but we’re betting someone else.
#8 Lone Sailor (50-1) – His first two races of the year made it seem that he hadn’t yet taken a step forward as a three year old, but he ran pretty well last time in the Louisiana Derby and maybe even made the lead too soon after being shuffled moderately on the turn. We’re not 100% sold he’s a 10 furlong horse, but he’s also 50-1 so you could do worse than throwing him in for third in a trifecta.
#9 Hofburg (20-1) – Bill Mott is not one to push along a horse into the Derby with only three starts, but he sends out Hofburg in here. We’ve been fans of his since his slow start/wide rush debut at Saratoga on Labor Day weekend and had him when he broke his maiden from post 11 going 1 1/16that Gulfstream two back. Last time, he capitalized on the fast pace in the Florida Derby. He’s been reportedly training extremely well too. Our issue with Hofburg is this: how is he going to make up all the ground on Audible, who beat him by three lengths last time when Hofburg had an easier trip (Audible was closer to the pace early on before setting off the pace)? We could use him underneath, but can’t get him into the exacta here, though he certainly has a chance to be very good as he gains more experience.
#10 My Boy Jack (30-1) – Keith Desormeaux trains and brother Kent rides this one, who we think wants to go a little shorter. He flattened late in the Louisiana Derby and his Southwest win three-back was solely because he got to ride the goldest of gold rails. He won the Lexington three weeks ago but that was a much weaker field. He’s a toss, though he does have the best name among ownership groups – Don’t Tell My Wife Stables.
#11 Bold d’Oro (8-1) –Bolt d’Oro came off a Breeders Cup layoff to run a huge race against then-Derby frontrunner McKinzie in the San Felipe and was put up to first via DQ before chasing Justify around the track last time in the Santa Anita Derby. Both races earned triple-digit Beyer figures for a runner that hit 103 last year. Cycling back forward, making his third start off the layoff, and coming out of a good race where he was compromised by the pace scenario points us in his direction. There is one concern – he was pointing to the seven-furlong San Vicente in February when he suffered a little setback, causing him to miss that race. Normally, we’d hate to back any horse that has a setback into the Derby, but he bounced back very well. If he can take a step forward – and he’s third off the bench here with a big number to get to from his two-year old year – he’ll be very tough. Plus, while Justify is arguably more talented, Bolt d’Oro is more seasoned, figures to benefit from the pace scenario, and will be 2 ½ to 3 times the price here today. The pick.
#12 Enticed (30-1) – We were big fans of this horse’s dam, It’s Tricky, a G1 caliber 8-9 furlong horse for these connections. Enticed caught the eye when he was a good third while pressing a fast pace in the G1 Champagne in October. His first race this year, the Holy Bull at Gulfstream, was not good. Maybe he didn’t like the track. He did pick up a nice win, albeit with a perfect trip, in the Gotham, stalking the pace on the outside at a one-turn mile that might well be his best distance. In the Wood, He was much closer to the collapsing pace than the eventual winner, Vino Rosso, and while he wasn’t beating that one (even had he not been bumped) he did a lot more of the dirty work early. Considering he’ll be a much bigger price than that rival, we prefer Enticed. Still, he will need to take a major step forward to get in the exacta.
#13 Bravazo (50-1) – We always root for D Wayne Lukas, but he’s overmatched here. Bravazo earned his way in to the Derby by winning the Risen Star pressing a very slow pace and then had nothing in the Louisiana Derby. He’s a pace factor at best. But let’s repeat a great D Wayne Lukas quote. Asked what he looks for in a filly, he said “They need a mind like Einstein, a butt like Berishnikov, and walk like a hooker.”
#14 Mendelssohn (5-1) – This is a great Derby to handicap and here is the ultimate wild card. Trained by Aidan O’Brien, arguably the best trainer in the world, a half-brother to top sire Into Mischief and future Hall of Famer Beholder, winner of the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf last year. Can he handle dirt? Well, he won the UAE Derby in Dubai by 18 lengths, earning a 106 Beyer. He would have won anyway, but it should be noted he was aided by a very strong rail in that race. Will it matter? As the second choice, we want him to beat us. He’ll have to sit up close to a fast pace, probably take some dirt in his face for the first time, and this is a pretty good field.
#15 Instilled Regard (50-1) – We’re the idiots that have him at less than 20-1 in the Derby Futures and he’ll be 50-1 in here, but nonetheless, here we are. His Lecomte win was good, and then you could make the case that he was hurt by pace in each of his last two starts. The problem is, he should have been third last time and just didn’t finish that strongly. He had no chance behind Justify and Bolt d’Oro, but he should have beaten Core Beliefs for third. We might use him underneath but mostly he won’t be on our tickets.
#16 Magnum Moon (6-1) –The chatter about him coming out of Louisville is that there is no chatter. This Todd Pletcher trainee won the Arkansas Derby by setting a very slow pace and he drifted way out in the lane. It was not visually impressive, and the fractions made it not that impressive on paper either. His Rebel was fine but he had a great trip in there too, pressing a somewhat moderate pace. He looks like a pace factor perhaps, but at a very short price, off the easiest of trips, we’re against.
#17 Solomini (30-1) – Magnum Moon benefitted from the very slow pace in the Arkansas Derby, the same slow pace that gave Magnum Moon a comfortable win. However, Solomini has not really progressed from two to three and we didn’t like his Rebel Stakes in which he was inside most of the way but didn’t have much in the lane. He’s a grinder that should get the distance, but it’s hard to get him into the exacta in here.
#18 Vino Rosso (12-1) –He’s a tricky read and has run one race remotely good enough to win here, his Wood Memorial win. But in that race, he sat back off a very fast pace, angled out into the lane, and swept by Enticed, while bumping that rival. His Tampa races were not great, especially his Davis where he re-rallied after pressing a moderate pace in a good spot. As we noted above, Enticed was closer to that fast pace and will be a much better price. We prefer that one, but both will have to improve substantially.
#19 Noble Indy (30-1) –This Todd Pletcher did not draw very well and is going to have to be used a bit early on to avoid being hung out 4-5 wide on the first turn. But he’s pretty quick and ran well in the context of the Louisiana Derby, pressing a very fast pace that seemed to fall apart in the late stages. While that race was strong considering the pace, he still has to improve a lot to get on the board here, and coupled with the bad draw, we won’t be using him. He’s a pace factor, however.
#20 Combatant (50-1) –We’ve always been a fan of this Steve Asmussen horse. He was compromised by a slow pace in the Smarty Jones, then was hung out wide against a gold rail in the Southwest. In the Rebel, he ran OK behind Magnum Moon but didn’t finish all that strong and gave the distinct impression he’d be better going one-turn. He ran OK considering the moderate pace last time in the Arkansas Derby, but again, we were hoping he finished a little stronger. That said, he’s 50-1 and hasn’t gotten a fair pace to attack all spring. We’re skeptical of him winning, but won’t want to see him get on the board and not have anything. He’s a live longshot we’re using underneath.
Promises Fulfilled is sure to go from the inside and is the favorite to be in front when they cross the wire for the first time. We would expect Noble Indy up close to him along with Justify and Mendelssohn. Flameaway and Audible won’t be too far back either. The pace should be pretty solid, maybe not fast enough for a total collapse a la Giacomo in 2005, but fast enough for a mid-pack runner.
Justify will be favored, as he should be. The buzz horses this week seem to be Good Magic and Hofburg, who will probably be a little shorter than they probably should priced. Mendelssohn, based on future prices in Vegas, we expect to be the second choice in the 9-2 / 5-1 range. The horse that figured to take money but has no buzz is Magnum Moon. If you like him (we don’t), you should get a decent price.
Of all the top contenders, BOLD D’ORO was the one that did not benefit from a pristine pace scenario in his last start as he was taken out of his game to chase Justify around the track in the Santa Anita Derby. A mid-pack trip behind an expected solid pace seems likely and the price should be fair. He’s the pick.
JUSTIFY is the deserving favorite and if someone breaks the Apollo curse, Bob Baffert seems like a likely candidate. He won’t be able to wire the field, but showed in his allowance race he can sit and stalk as needed. He’s obviously talented, but we’ll see if the lack of seasoning catches up to him.
ENTICED ran ok in the Wood Memorial tracking the fast pace, and while he might not necessarily improve stretching out, he has ability and his last race was better than it looks on paper. He’ll get lost in the betting and can take a step forward from a few lengths off the lead.
Finally, GOOD MAGIC comes into this race looking to duplicate his Breeders Cup Juvenile performance last year, which, like this one, was his third start of the form cycle. He looked to us like he was tiring in the late stages of the Blue Grass, but he’s been reportedly training very well and we’d hate to get knocked out by a horse we’ve liked since his debut and the Champagne last fall.
We’ll bet Bolt d’Oro to win provided he is at least 8-1, which we expect, and play him in the exacta with Justify (the heaviest play), Good Magic (second heaviest) Audible, and a little bit with longshots Enticed and Combatant.
A suggested trifecta play forces Bolt d’Oro to finish 1stor 2nd. 50-cent tickets:
11 / 5, 6, 7, 12 / 2, 5, 6, 7, 12, 14, 17, 20 ($14)
5, 6, 7, 12 / 11 / 2, 5, 6, 7, 12, 14, 17, 20 ($14)