This is it.
The First Saturday in May (yes, in this case upper-case is not just allowable, but required!) is here and it’s time for the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby! It’s called the most exciting two minutes in sports and it’s hard to argue.
Set for a 3:50 p.m. post time PDT, this is the one race where even non-horse racing fans will turn on the TV and watch.
It’s a polarizing event and one where there is always money to be made. With a 20-horse field, it’s the last time you will get such tasty odds on some of these horses.
When your favorites are 3-1 and 5-1, even a simple win bet offers a good return. Throw in there are only five of the 20 horses under 12-1 and you can see why horse players love to get in on the action.
There are many ways to analyze the Derby field, but I have found over the years, the way that works best for me is to break it down to four categories. Contenders, Great Value Play, Longshots, Stay Out of the Way
Justify (3-1): Simply, there is every reason to love this horse and crow about his favorite status. The Bob Baffert runner ridden by Mike Smith has been sensational in all three starts, all wins and all earning 100-plus Beyer figures. In the Santa Anita Derby he drifted out in the lane and still beat a very good Bolt d’Oro by three lengths. A versatile running style allows Smith to put him wherever he wants. I just am not 100 percent sold at this point. For starters, no horse that did not run as a 2-year-old has won the Derby since 1882 when Apollo won. What’s come to be known as the “Apollo Curse” will be broken at some point and it could be this year. There are other things to be concerned about. His three career starts have had fields of 5, 5 and 7 horses, fields where he could pretty much have his way. Now he breaks seventh in a field of 20 where who knows how horses are going to react when the gates open. On the flip side, this is very likely the last spot you have a chance to get 3-1 on this horse. Obviously, a major player.
Mendelssohn (5-1): Ah, the 18-length winner of the UAE Derby and the favorite of many. Not me. Yes, it was a very impressive margin of victory, but against who? The runner-up was a filly that is entered in the Kentucky Oaks on Friday. The horse is set to see by far the toughest field of his career for trainer Aidan O’Brien and jockey Ryan Moore. One knock against the horses that win the UAE Derby, then ship to Kentucky is that the trip takes it out of them. I can’t use that here as Mendelssohn shipped all the way to California for the Breeders’ Cup, winning the Juvenile Turf in the process. Yes, the horse was bred in Kentucky and yes, he is a half-brother to Beholder, but I just have a feeling we may be looking at a superstar on the turf and an average runner on the main track. At some point, going against the UAE winner is going to get me, but it until it does, I will continue to look elsewhere. Watch how Rayya runs Friday in the Oaks as to a hint as to what to expect.
Audible (5-1): I have been a fan for while and I am not going back on my feelings here. Todd Pletcher trains and Javier Castellano rides the horse that was third in his debut, then has run off four straight wins. I have always found success with horses that come out of the Florida prep races and in Audible, you have the winner of the Holy Bull and the Florida Derby. Some question whether the horse will handle the distance, but I think it’s a non-issue as he has been adding distance at the end of his wins and he closed in his debut. To me, the horse has improved in every start and I think he’s sitting on a big one.
Magnum Moon (6-1): The other favorite without a start as a 2-year-old, Magnum Moon has done nothing wrong thus far for Pletcher and jockey Luis Saez, winning all four of his starts. The last race was a four-length win over what I thought was a weaker than usual Arkansas Derby field. The running style will keep the horse close to the lead I think, and he could get first run on what figures to be the tiring leaders.
Bolt d’Oro (8-1): Another horse I have been a fan of for a while now. He came into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile for owner and trainer Mick Ruis as the big favorite, then ran third in the race. In fact, he has yet to cross the line first in a race this year. He was second in the San Felipe but was moved up when winner McKinzie was disqualified. He turned in a valiant effort running second to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby and has shown to a battler throughout his races. Heart can win the Kentucky Derby as it can be an intimidating race for the young horses and this guy has the intangibles. Victor Espinoza has the mount for this first time. At times this could be construed as a bd thing, but face it, Espinoza knows how to ride in the Triple Crown races and I have every reason to expect a great trip.
Great Value Plays
Good Magic (12-1): The winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year and thus the early favorite for the Derby, the Chad Brown runner fell a bit out of favor after running third in the Fountain of Youth in early March. He did get back in people’s good graces after winning the Blue Grass with a solid run in the lane. Jose Ortiz has ridden the horse the last four starts and is back up for the Derby. I will give him a long look as I fully expect a great trip.
Vino Rosso (12-1): There are certainly plenty of people lining up in his corner, but I am not one of them. It was an impressive, late running win in the Wood, but at the same time, it was a win in the Wood. I have not been a fan of the New York prep races for a long time and that’s not changing here. Granted Vino Rosso, trained and ridden by the formidable duo of Pletcher and Johnny Velazquez, is not a New York horse as he was in Florida before the Wood, but he was third and fourth in two preps at Tampa Bay Downs. It took him to ship north before he could win a prep and that sticks with me. He has had a sizzling work over the Churchill surface and he Pletcher/Velazquez win at 31 percent, but I will go elsewhere.
Hofburg (20-1): The wise guy horse is getting to be the popular pick with the TVG talking heads. Second to Audible in the Florida Derby, the race was only his third start. The feeling is the Bill Mott runner has tremendous room for improvement and has looked better in each of the three starts. There are a lot of reasons to throw some support behind a 20-1 horse and I couldn’t fault you if that’s where you went. Irad Ortiz, who rode Hofburg in his debut, is back up for the race. My thoughts are the horse is lightly raced – two maiden races, as well as the Florida Derby – and may be a few races away from finding his stride. He may be one to watch in the Belmont if he takes off the Preakness.
My Boy Jack (30-1): Must be given a punchers chance for his big closing kick, given the length of the Derby and that front runners will be tiring in the long stretch run. Trained by Keith Desormeaux and ridden by Kent Desormeaux, he is coming off a win in the Lexington in mid-April. He’s run in five straight graded races and has been no worse than third in the last four. Here is something to consider if you are playing trifectas or superfectas – late runners often pick off tiring horses or horses that are not being ridden because the jockey realizes they have no shot to win. My Boy Jack is the type that could get up for third or fourth with a late run. Let that sink in.
Enticed (30-1): Another horse that has spent recent prep races in New York. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and ridden by Junior Alvarado, he was second to Vino Rosso in the Wood and won the Gotham before that. As much as I would like to make a case for the horse given the odds, I can’t.
Flameaway (30-1): Will be one of the pace factors as the Mark Casse runner loves to go to the front out of the gate. Jose Lezcano has been up for the last three mounts – a win in the Sam Davis (Tampa), followed by second-place finishes in both the Tampa Bay Derby and the Blue Grass. For a front runner to win the Derby, they need an early lead and not one where they are pressured from the beginning. That won’t be the case here and I just don’t see the early speed holding with the wealth of talented closers.
Solomini (30-1): Another Baffert horse and one I have liked since his second-place finish to Good Magic in the BC Juvenile. Since then he finished first in the Los Alamitos Futurity (he was disqualified and placed third), then was second and third behind Magnum Moon in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. He’s another that prefers to come from off the pace.
Noble Indy (30-1): Has won three of four starts for Pletcher and has been favored in three of his four starts, but this one has the feel of the fourth bullet in the Pletcher arsenal. He prepped in Louisiana, running third in the Risen Star before coming back to win the Louisiana Derby. He has improved in each of his four starts and you could make a case the best is yet to come. However, I just think the other three Pletcher runners are a notch above. Florent Geroux gets the call.
Instilled Regard (50-1): I would like nothing more than to be able to make a case of this Jerry Hollendorfer horse and after he won the LeComte at the Fair Grounds back in January, there seemed to be some steam building. But since then, a fourth in the Risen Star and the Santa Anita Derby has greatly tempered expectations. Drayden Van Dyke -who rode the horse in the Los Al Futurity in December – gets the mount on a horse that wasn’t original 20-horse field, gaining entrance to the race with a scratch.
Stay Out of the Way
Promises Fulfilled (30-1): How are people still lining up to support this Dale Romans horse? In the beginning of March, I could have seen it as he had three, front running wins in four starts, including the Fountain of Youth. But in his last start, the Florida Derby, he set the early pace, then stopped after a fast, early pace, finishing ninth by 35 lengths. Now just a touch over a month later, he can’t be expected to survive a front-running pace dual like the Derby will produce. My hope is he stays out of the way of the contenders when he is going backwards in the lane. Corey Lanerie is the jockey.
Free Drop Billy (30-1): Can’t endorse a horse that has shipped to run three different states for Romans and didn’t win one of those races. I can’t help but feel the connections kept searching for a spot the horse could win and couldn’t do it. A second in the Holy Bull and a third in the Gotham was followed by a fourth in the Blue Grass in his most recent start. Will be back in the pack – hopefully he stays there. Robby Albarado gets the call.
Firenze Fire (50-1): Drew the rail and here’s hoping he goes backwards out of the gate and stays there. There was reason for optimism early in the year when he won the Jerome for Jason Service, and maybe a bit when he was second in the Withers. But uninspired efforts finishing fourth in both the Gotham and the Wood leave little reason for hope.
Lone Sailor (50-1): Was totally undistinguished until running second in the Louisiana Derby at almost 10-1. In his other two starts for this year for trainer Thomas Amoss he was ninth in the LeComte and second in an optional claimer, also both at the Fair Grounds. He did run second in the Street Sense last October at Churchill Downs, so there has been some success over the track.
Bravazo (50-1): The winner of the Risen Star at 21-1, then came back as one of the favorites in the Louisiana Derby and ran like a 21-1 shot, finishing a badly beaten ninth. The legendary trainer D Wayne Lukas is the trainer but expecting this horse to have a shot is a huge reach. He could have an impact in the race as one of the early pace setters, helping to guarantee a fast, early pace that will set it up for the closers.
Combatant (50-1): Drew the No. 20 post and comes to the race after prepping in Arkansas. The Steve Asmussen horse appears to be going backwards as a second in the Southwest was followed by a third in the Rebel and a fourth in the Arkansas Derby. There’s a lot of work to do for a favored runner from the No. 20 post and for a long shot, no chance.
Blended Citizen (50-1): The horse on the also eligible list, I would love to see him to get into the race for jockey Kyle Frey, who has spent plenty of time riding in Northern California could get a Derby mount. He was fifth for Doug O’Neill in the Blue Grass and needs someone to drop out to get a spot.
On the win end, I will go with Audible, doubling my win bet with a place bet – a regular practice of mine. Been a fan of Audible since the beginning and there’s no reason to change now. Having your top pick win the Derby is nice, but the money is in the exotics, so we must load up on the exacta and trifecta, bets that pay much more in the Derby than they do the rest of the year.
I will use five horses in box for both the exacta and trifecta, spreading between some of the favorites and some value priced horses. You must take a stand against some horses that others love, and I will do that here.
The five horses I will use on my ticket are: Audible, Justify, Bolt d’Oro, Good Magic and My Boy Jack. Audible is my top choice, so obviously he is on my ticket. Even though I am not sold 100 percent on Justify, the horse may be a monster and it would scare me to leave him off my ticket. Bolt d’Oro is a horse I like from California and I think is getting overlooked in large part to the early excellence of Justify. Good Magic is a horse that needed the start in the Fountain of Youth, then turned in a nice win in the Blue Grass. Third start off the break may be the key. Finally, My Boy Jack is going to be picking off horses in the lane and as mentioned above, it is entirely plausible he could finish as high as second or third at a heck of a price.
By Dennis Miller