Pharoah or No Pharoah?

Ok, the time has finally come to try to answer the burning questions that make Kentucky Derby 141 one of the most intriguing Thoroughbred events seen in a very long time.

Is American Pharoah the superstar many feel he is, some comparing him to Seattle Slew, or is this field actually much more even in talent? Or perhaps the undefeated Dortmund is the budding superstar, or the undefeated Materiality, or Carpe Diem, or even the mystery horse, Mubtaahij.

That is what we’re going to find out on Saturday.

As for this quiet little space in the grand scope of Derby 141, I will attempt to put some of the pieces together and come up with some interesting scenarios and betting strategies.

Let me first get one thing out of the way. I have had American Pharoah as my No. 1 horse on Derby Dozen for most of the year, well before he made his first start in the Rebel Stakes, and based on what he’s done since in the mornings and afternoons I would have to be out of my mind to pick against him. Notice I said pick, not bet. American Pharoah is my selection and should be included in most or all exotic bets. But betting the Kentucky Derby favorite, especially one at 5-2, is something that is against my nature, especially in a 20-horse field and with my pathetic little bankroll. For all those betting thousands of dollars feel free to go for the $7 payoff.

The only reason I had American Pharoah on top so early is my belief that he indeed did have the potential to be a superstar, based on his speed, class, and an amazing stride that you rarely see. He had the proverbial look of eagles. I normally would never have a frontrunning horse with a questionable pedigree as my Derby horse, but the feeling was that he could rate if asked, and his pedigree was good enough to get him as far as he needed to go. So when he showed he could rate in the Arkansas Derby and continued demolishing his opposition going 1 1/8 miles, there was little doubt that the mile and a quarter would be within his scope.

But this is not your ordinary Derby field, in that there is such strength and depth, it lures you into believing that maybe there is a possible overlay in there, lost in the American Pharoah frenzy. After all, his stablemate Dortmund is right there behind him as the 3-1 second choice, and then a fairly big gap to several extremely talented horses.

Based purely on handicapping, and looking for value and those possible overlays, I have made a strong case over the past month for Frosted and his unusual journey from the Fountain of Youth to the Kentucky Derby by way of the Wood Memorial. Unfortunately, he didn’t ship in until Tuesday evening and was seen for only one true gallop. What I did see was a drop dead gorgeous colt who moved beautifully over the track, and so based 95 percent on handicapping and speed figures, I believe he is sitting on a huge race and is a totally different horse from the one we saw last fall and early this winter.

While you can pick apart certain horses and question whether a 17.1-hand horse like Dortmund can handle traffic jams in a 20-horse field or whether Carpe Diem can handle the pre-race craziness, based on his past escapades, or whether Materiality is seasoned enough with three starts to buck history, or whether Mubtaahij can handle all that is being asked of him and facing much better horses than he has been in Dubai, or whether deep closers International Star, Far Right, and several others are fast enough, I have no questions regarding Frosted, who turned in a flawless performance in the Wood Memorial and appears to have all the qualities you look for in a Derby horse. Speaking of Far Right, he is one of those who could sneak into the exotics at a huge price.

As everyone knows by now, Dortmund will be saddled in the tunnel because he did not do very well in his paddock schooling, cramped in those saddling stalls. Will he handle being saddled in the tunnel any better? Who knows?

Now, we come to the horses who have made a big impression in the week I’ve been here. The two that stand out are the California shippers Firing Line and Bolo. I believe firing Line has been the overlooked horse, who also has the talent and record to be a star himself. This is one classy-looking horse with a beautifully chiseled head and alert eye who carries himself like a classy horse. His gallops have been strong, his coat looks great, and he just looks like a horse who could be that big overlay.

As for Bolo, I had him ranked No. 8 in my very first Derby Dozen before his ever stepped foot on dirt, based on his pedigree, his style of running, and his push-button acceleration. Also, Churchill Downs is conducive to grass horses, as we’ve seen in a number of Kentucky Derby finishes. He kept hopping on and off the Derby trail and I kept putting him on and taking him off based on what his connections were saying about him as a Derby horse. Once he was confirmed for the Derby, he went right back on. I love what I’ve seen from him. He handles this track beautifully, and his exercise rider says he is a totally different horse on this surface in that his higher knee action at Santa Anita is now much lower, and his gallops have been as strong as any of them, especially his two-minute lick on Thursday.

The other horse I have to play in one form or another, despite the question marks, is Mubtaahij. I have been on his bandwagon for several months and feel he is the real deal, especially trained by Mike de Kock. I would like to see him better at changing leads, however. But that said, if I bet Mubtaahij and he doesn’t run well, I can live with that, knowing he was a gamble. However, if I don’t bet him and he wins, that would make me feel like an idiot for quite a while.

Just to quickly add, two longshots who have been training very well under the radar are Danzig Moon and Itsaknockout, and while I’m not touting them big-time, I am mentioning them to assure those who give them a chance that they are both doing very well in every phase and could hit the exotics at a big price.

I also have to quickly mention hair coat, as people are always asking me who are the dappled horses. I thought Bolo’s coat looked great, with faint dapples appearing and Firing Line’s has a bright sheen to it, but I was really impressed with Carpe Diem, who was dappled out beautifully, especially on his hind quarters. I hate to keep him out of the exotics, but there are just so many horses to play. If he can make it in the gate with no issues, then there is no reason why he shouldn't run big. 

So, let’s sort everything out. From strictly a speed standpoint, the five horses who have run negative numbers on Thoro-Graph are American Pharoah, Frosted, Materiality, Upstart, and Tencendur, and I feel that looks like a strong trifecta or superfecta box.

If you feel the Florida-based horses are strong, having run on two ridiculously slow and demanding tracks, you could box Frosted, Upstart, and Materiality or use them with your two top choices. Kiaran McLaughlin has been red-hot coming off that track, including his Wood win with Frosted.

Finally, based on several factors, my main exotic wager would be boxing American Pharoah and Dortmund with Frosted, Firing Line, and Bolo. And now that Frammento is in, it would not come as a shock if he picked up a piece of it, based on how he looksphysically and how he's been training. But that is really reaching.

So, my top horse is still American Pharoah, but my main win bets will go on Frosted (My top value play), Firing Line, Bolo, and Mubtaahij, all at decent prices.

And if you're looking for good exacta with American Pharoah, I'll go with Frosted, Firing Line, Bolo, and Danzig Moon, and if you want to be really daring, you can box the last four just in case. And as we know, the Derby is a just in case race.

Let;s just hope we get a clean, safe race, and why not hope American Pharoah is the superhorse many believe him to be.

Addendum: At the close of Friday there are three monster potential overlays. Those are Bolo at 47-1, Upstart at 33-1, and Far Right at 43-1. If any of these three are anywhere near these odds, they should be worth a saver and inclusion into the big exotics. And how about Materiality at 17-1? I have think those odds are going to come down.Just imagine after their one-two finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes that Upstart would be 33-1 and Itsaknockout would be 34-1 in the Derby. You would have run to the windows to get a piece of that. Other than Frosted, the Florida horses are getting no respect, which could be a mistake.

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