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With legitimate skepticism around Derby favorites, pick might be Upstart

Kentucky Derby hopeful Upstart, ridden by exercise rider Vicki King, gallops at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. (Garry Jones/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Racing fans annually lament the low quality of the horses in the Kentucky Derby, and often their assessment proves to be correct. But few such opinions are being voiced before Saturday's running of America's greatest horse race. This is the strongest, deepest, fastest Derby field since at least 2007 (the year of Street Sense and Curlin), and it could be the best since the great years of the 1980s.

The favorite, American Pharoah, is the defending
2-year-old champion
and the winner of four straight races by a combined 22 lengths. Two of his rivals are undefeated: Dortmund (6 for 6) and Materiality (3 for 3). Carpe Diem has won 4 of 5 and finished second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The speed figures earned by most of the top contenders confirm the quality of the field; eight starters have recorded triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, and Materiality recorded the highest number in any Derby prep race since 2006.

Nevertheless, handicappers should examine the horses in the 141st Derby just as they do in an ordinary race: with a healthy measure of skepticism. Bettors should always look for vulnerability in favorites (as well as hidden merit in long shots). And the skepticism should begin with American Pharoah.

Yes, he has crushed his competition. He won his last start, the Arkansas Derby, by eight lengths while his jockey was applying a hammerlock. (Steve Haskin wrote in the Blood-Horse that he could have won by 15 if jockey Victor Espinoza had let him run.) Fans and horsemen have started using the “superhorse” word. A clocker at Churchill Downs, after observing the colt’s last workout, said this might be the best racehorse he has seen in 35 years.

Whoa! In his three victories on dirt, American Pharoah has had a perfect setup each time. Twice he took the lead against fields devoid of significant speed and set an easy pace. In the Arkansas Derby, he sat second behind a 38-1 speedster and shot past him when the front-runner tired. This was the only time in his career American Pharoah has passed another horse.

He can certainly win the Derby, but he doesn’t deserve to be a short-priced favorite in a field of 20 in which he will have to cope with other high-quality speed horses for the first time.

While I have doubts about American Pharoah, I strongly dislike the chances of three other well-regarded Derby contenders.

● Carpe Diem has had a lofty reputation since he was sold at auction for $1.6 million, but all three of his stakes victories have come at the expense of weak fields. He has never run fast enough to suggest he can finish in the money Saturday.

● Materiality, a stablemate of Carpe Diem, delivered a stunning performance to win the Florida Derby with a Beyer Speed Figure of 110. But the history of the Kentucky Derby suggests he doesn't have enough seasoning to win such a demanding race. He never ran as a 2-year-old, and he has made only three starts at 3. Trainer Todd Pletcher's horses rarely deliver a peak effort in the Kentucky Derby, accounting for his 1-for-40 record in the event.

Mubtaahij excited many bettors who watched his eight-length runaway in the $2 million United Emirates Derby, and he attracted considerable support in future wagering on the Kentucky Derby. But his winning time was slow, and horses coming from Dubai have had no success on the first Saturday in May.

In addition to American Pharoah, two colts in the field have never done anything wrong and come into the Derby well prepared. Dortmund and Upstart both offer significantly better value than the favorite.

Trainer Bob Baffert talks about American Pharoah in more glowing terms than his stablemate Dortmund, but the latter has proved himself under fire, while the favorite has not. In two of his races, Dortmund was engaged in tough, head-and-head stretch duels with a formidable foe, Firing Line, and prevailed both times. The merit of these efforts was confirmed when Firing Line subsequently won the Sunland Derby by 14 lengths.

Although Upstart has won just three of his seven starts, he has run well in every one of them. Once he was disqualified from a victory. In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he had a tough trip (wide, contesting a hot pace) before finishing a commendable third. Twice in Grade I stakes he has finished a close second behind a winner who delivered a monster performance. That is what happened in the Florida Derby, where Materiality beat him, fair and square, by 1


lengths. Upstart finished a dozen lengths ahead of the rest of the field, but the loss caused his Derby stock to drop. However, he is much more likely to fire his best shot at Churchill Downs than the lightly raced Materiality. Upstart’s speed figure of 108 in the Florida Derby and his 105 in the Holy Bull Stakes indicate he is as least as good as American Pharoah and Dortmund.

My Derby picks:

1. Upstart

2. Dortmund

3. American Pharoah

4. Frosted.

For more by Andrew Beyer, visit

More Kentucky Derby coverage:

Field, odds and Andrew Beyer’s analysis

No races as a 2-year-old: Does it matter?

Front-runners in the Kentucky Derby

Todd Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby failures

Evaluating an enigma: Mubtaahij

Kaleem Shah and Dortmund are an American success story

More columns by Andrew Beyer