The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in recent memory.
Trainer Bob Baffert, a four-time Derby winner who won the Triple Crown in 2015 with American Pharoah, is back with two horses, Solomini and the favorite, Justify. Todd Pletcher will saddle Florida Derby winner Audible, Arkansas Derby winner Magnum Moon, Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso and Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy. Chad Brown’s colt Good Magic, who won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, is coming off a win in the Blue Grass. Plus, there’s Mendelssohn, who destroyed the competition in Dubai by 18 1/2 lengths.
As always, experience matters. It’s been 135 years since a horse won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old (Apollo in 1882). The only horses to even place or show since then were Hampden (third in 1946), Coaltown (second in 1948), Agitate (third in 1974), Reinvested (third in 1982), Strodes Creek (second in 1994), Curlin (third in 2007), Bodemeister (second in 2012) and Battle of Midway (third in 2017). Just three of the past 49 Derby winners — Fusaichi Pegasus (2000), Monarchos (2001) and Always Dreaming (2017) — did not win a race during their 2-year-old campaign.
That’s bad news for Justify, Magnum Moon and Hofburg.
Justify, unraced at 2, is an impressive 3 for 3 in 2018 but has never run outside of Santa Anita. Plus, one of those races was seven furlongs and another was a mile in the mud, making it harder to trust him even though he is the favorite. Magnum Moon broke his maiden at Gulfstream in January and Hofburg ran just one race in 2017, earning a fourth-place finish against maidens.
“It seems like everything that we used to fear in Kentucky Derby history has gone down, so why not that?” trainer Dale Romans told Jason Frakes of the Louisville Courier Journal. “But if Curlin couldn’t do it, it’s going to be hard for anybody to do it.”
It also matters how a horse is running before the Derby gets underway. The past seven Derby winners entered the Run for the Roses off a victory and 41 of the past 42 winners were sharp in their last prep race (top-three finish or within four lengths of the victor), with the past 67 winners having all raced at 1 1/8 miles before trying the classic 1 1/4-mile distance at Churchill Downs. That bodes poorly for Bravazo (eighth in Louisiana Derby), Promises Fulfilled (ninth in Florida Derby), Firenze Fire (fourth in Wood Memorial), Combatant (fourth in Arkansas Derby) and Instilled Regard (fourth in Santa Anita Derby). My Boy Jack’s last race was a victory in the Lexington Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race at Keeneland. He finished third in the Louisiana Derby, a 1 1/8-mile Grade 2 stakes race.
And how a horse finishes in its final prep is important, especially over the last three-eighths of a mile. Each of the past six Kentucky Derby winners — and 16 of the last 20 — ran the last three-eighths of its final Derby prep race in less than 38 seconds. Good Magic, Noble Indy, Enticed, Flameaway, Bravazo, Promises Fulfilled, Free Drop Billy, Lone Sailor, Firenze Fire and Instilled Regard all fail this test.
Mendelssohn, the UAE Derby winner, is a freak. He has victories in four countries (United Arab Emirates, Britain, Ireland and the United States) over three surfaces (dirt, synthetic and turf) in seven lifetime starts. His win in the UAE Derby was in 1:55.18, more than a second faster than the previous record of 1:56.61, set by Mizbah in January 2017. In addition, Daily Racing Form awarded Mendelssohn a 106 Beyer Speed Figure for that effort, the highest figure awarded to a winner on the Road to the 2018 Triple Crown.
Unfortunately, horses exiting the UAE Derby are 0 for 13 in the Run for the Roses with Master of Hounds’s fifth-place finish in 2011 the high-water mark. Other horses who recently won the UAE only to falter in the Kentucky Derby include Mubtaahij (eighth in 2015), Lani (ninth in 2016) and Thunder Snow (did not finish at all in 2017). Mendelssohn might indeed be great, but he won’t be at the top of my ticket.
No Blue Grass Stakes winner has won the Derby since Strike the Gold in 1991; the last horse to compete in the Blue Grass and win the Derby was Street Sense in 2007. That puts a knock on Good Magic, Flameaway and Free Drop Billy. Since 2003, only two horses — Empire Maker and Funny Cide — finished in the top three of the Wood Memorial before doing the same in the Derby, so Vino Rosso and Enticed can also be discounted. And no horse since 1970 has won the Kentucky Derby when the Louisiana Derby has been its final prep. Noble Indy, Lone Sailor and Bravazo all last ran at the Fair Grounds before Saturday’s race.
Speed is also important. Since Andrew Beyer debuted his speed figures 26 years ago, 24 Derby winners earned a Beyer figure of at least 95 or better before the first leg of the Triple Crown. Horses that haven’t shown enough giddy-up include Hofburg (94), Combatant (94), Flameaway (93), Solomini (93), Bravazo (93), Instilled Regard (92), My Boy Jack (90), Free Drop Billy (90) and Firenze Fire (90).
That leaves just two horses out of the field of 20 without a strike against them: Audible and Bolt d’Oro.
Audible seems to get better with each distance conquered and he has the speed to be a contender here, too. He posted a 99 Beyer figure in both the 1 1/16-mile Holy Bull Stakes and the 1 1/8-mile Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. Yet there might be too much speed in his pedigree and not enough stamina. His sire, Into Mischief, has yet to sire a horse that’s won stakes races of more than nine furlongs. Audible’s dam, Blue Devil Bel, won seven times but none of those victories was past six furlongs. Her dam’s stakes-winning progeny didn’t win past nine furlongs, either.
Bolt d’Oro, on the other hand, appears to have enough speed in addition to the stamina needed to carry it the classic distance. His sire, Medaglia d’Oro, led all stallions in North America by producing seven Grade 1 winners in 2017 and his broodmare sire, A.P. Indy, the Belmont Stakes winner in 1992, has 14 winners at classic distances. Bolt d’Oro also won last year’s FrontRunner Stakes as a 2-year-old; two out of the past three winners from that race, American Pharoah and Nyquist, went on to win the Kentucky Derby.
With morning line odds of 8-1, Bolt d’Oro looks like a great horse at a great price.