With all the big preps and impressive winners, when you get right down to it, the only prep you can truly say was fast, and I mean fast fast, not just speed figure fast, was the San Vicente Stakes, run in 1:20 3/5. And with my belief that starting the year off in a sprint is old school and still the best way to sharpen a horse and prepare him for the Derby trail grind, I feel Nyquist and Exaggerator may be a cut above the others after their big efforts in the San Vicente, although I still would have preferred Nyquist having a second two-turn race. Nyquist still has a habit of cocking his head to the outside in his races, works, and gallops, and he did lose focus in the Florida Derby, drifting and changing back to his left lead when his rider looked back in the stretch. So while I believe he’s the best horse in the race, and certainly the most accomplished by far, I’m not really sure what to expect from him, especially if he’s caught up in what could be a pretty contentious pace. If he wins, it will all look so obvious. The best horse winning always does.
Yes, the Santa Anita Derby fell apart when the speed collapsed, but Exaggerator still went his third and fourth quarters in :23 3/5 and :24 1/5. His final eighth of :13 2/5 could have been faster, but he was all alone drawing off with every stride, so one would think he could have closed faster if he had to. Desormeaux needs to time that powerhouse move so that he has more left for the final eighth. Many feel it was the slop that also helped, but although he had run well in his two slop appearances, he was far from a terror over it, finishing second and barely winning the Delta Jackpot in a photo. I believe Keith Desoremaux has done a magnificent job turning Exaggerator from a one-paced stalker into an exciting horse with a devastating turn of foot. But we really don’t know who he is or how good he really is or what his best distance is. Even Desormeaux had no idea what to make of him after the San Felipe. Exaggerator, like Nyquist, will look very obvious after the fact if he wins. I just feel this is a different horse than the one we saw last year, and he could turn out to be the best of the bunch.
So, how one handles these two is strictly up to each individual. Both have their fans and detractors. We’ll see who is correct soon enough. But as much as I like the two favorites, this column is all about value and trying to make some money.
There are seven horses in the field who have made it into my Top 3 since we began in January. They are Nyquist and Mohaymen (No. 1), Destin, Exaggerator, and Brody’s Cause (No. 2), and Mor Spirit and Suddenbreakingnews (No. 3). That looks like an enticing trifecta or superfecta box if you can afford it. A seven-horse box is beyond my means, so that will have to be one of my mind bets, and used just as a reference point to the horses who have been ranked the highest on a consistent basis all year.
Another is boxing the six horses from my original Top 12 back on Jan. 19 who have made it to the Derby. They are Brody’s Cause, Mohaymen, Nyquist, Exaggerator, Mor Spirit, and Mo Tom. I can certainly see that trifecta box, even a superfecta box, paying off, but betting a 50-cent box, there might not be enough value in it if you’re looking for a killing, so you would have to bet at least a $1 trifecta box and that starts running into big money.
I mention these two exotics boxes just as a point of interest, although I’d tempted to bet both if I had the finances.
While Nyquist and Exaggerator look strong, the Derby is all about value, and there are a number of horses in here who are potential overlays.
Before getting into the race in depth, I begin with a couple of general comments. I actually have liked a lot of what I’ve seen from Mohaymen, which is a horse coming off a very disappointing effort over a track he obviously disliked. He didn’t work for a while after that race and his energy level has been on high since coming to the cool weather in Kentucky from the heat of Florida that apparently had started to get to him. And he has wanted to do a lot more than they’ve let him do. He’s been wanting to do too much, but now that he’s had two serious works in fast time and some strong gallops, he’s been settling much better and was a perfect gentleman schooling in the paddock. He’s not the type who loses it mentally and will not be affected by the large crowd. He just wants to step on the gas and let it roll. Now, whether he can rebound off the Florida Derby and whether he wants to go the mile and a quarter we’ll just have to find out.
Remember, he has settled beautifully down on the inside in his two stakes victories this year, so he’s not the type who normally would get rank early. Kiaran McLaughlin’s only hope is that he’s done enough with him to take some of the spit and vinegar out of him. That we won’t know. Although it’s turned out he hasn’t beaten anyone of significance, he did twice beat Fellowship by the same margin Nyquist beat him by in the Florida Derby. If this horse can return to his form earlier in the year when he topped many of the Derby lists, and if he can relax and stay the mile and a quarter, we’re looking at potentially one of the big Derby overlays in recent years.
The horse that really has me torn is Destin, who I was as high on as any horse this year after his two victories at Tampa Bay Downs. I moved him up from No. 12 to No. 2 in one week because I felt so strongly about him. Then his Ragozin figure came out and his entire Derby preparation changed because he had made such a dramatic leap from the Sam Davis to the Tampa Bay Derby and ran a figure that still on Thoro-Graph is the fastest number run all year and the only negative figure. When they decided to bypass his final prep and train the eight weeks to the Derby, I, as a historian and traditionalist, was off his bandwagon and he steadily dropped in the rankings.
But I’m starting to have second thoughts about that, and can’t forget the horse I was so enamored with back in March. It would not surprise me anymore if he won, but I am just going to let him do it. If he is going to pave new ground and do something that hasn’t been done in modern times, I’ll be the first to salute him. I realize times indeed are changing and this could be a breakthrough in Derby preparation. I’m not crazy about it, but I will accept it as part of racing’s ever changing move toward speed stats and points systems and less-is-more mentality when it comes to overall race preparation.
Strategy-wise, the horse who benefited most from the post position draw was Gun Runner, who from post 5 is far enough off the rail, but is going to have the inside all to himself, with deep closers drawing posts 1,2,3,4, and 6. He could get another dream trip, as he did in both his starts this year.
There will be a great deal of jockeying on the outside as Danzing Candy, in post 20, and Outwork, in post 15, will have to be hustled out of the gate to get a good position into the first turn. And it will be interesting to see if Mario Gutierriez , breaking from post 13 on Nyquist, tries to float them out and keep them wide for as long as possible before tucking in somewhere. Shagaf, in post 16, and Mor Spirit, in post 17, also will have to show enough speed to get position, so there could be a mad dash into that first turn, with Nyquist in position to keep all four of those horses wide, unless Gutierrez takes him back a bit to avoid getting caught up in a fast pace.
The connections of Destin and Oscar Nominated no doubt will have their eyes on Lani, who breaks in between them, and some people fear the unpredictability of the Japanese horse, although his races in Japan seemed to be pretty clean, with him being steered to the far outside in all his races where he would launch his move circling horses. Mohaymen, drew well in post 14, right outside Nyquist, and it will be interesting to see what Junior Alvarado does with him when the speed horses come charging on his outside.
It is important to note that of the major contenders, Exaggerator will be in the gate the longest, being loaded first, along with Trojan Nation in post 1. Suddenbreakingnews, Creator, Mo Tom, Nyquist, and Mohaymen also will be in the gate for a long time, while Whitmore and Danzing Candy will be loaded last, with Destin, Brody’s Cause, Lani, and Majesto also in the gate for a very short time.
From the works and few gallops I’ve been able to see, most have been excellent, and my main key horse, Suddenbreakingnews, turned in a very strong work wearing a shadow roll, which he had never worn in any of his races. Like most of the experts, you had to be impressed with Outwork, and, to me, Shagaf, another potential Shadwell overlay (see my column this week). One of the best gallopers I’ve seen has been Majesto, who has been strong throughout his gallops, and trainer Gustavo Delgado has been building up his stamina. Another strong galloper every day has been Mo Tom, who seems to love to train.
But the one horse who really caught my eye in his work and especially his gallops was Creator, a big powerful throwback type. With all his South American and European distance breeding, there is no doubt he is one tough horse, who will run all day. He’s crammed a lot of races into a short period of time, and every one of his career starts has been around two turns, but he not only looks as if he can handle it, it seems like he’s actually starting to peak after taking a number of races to figure it all out and mature. In his work in company, he did everything easily and smoothly, with the rider’s hands motionless well down the colt’s neck, and he continued strongly past the past in an excellent gallop-out. In his gallops, he’s had his neck arched and has really been into the bit and in a zone. I wrote in my column a few months ago after his maiden victory that he was a live future book horse at 250-1, and, boy, I wish I had that ticket right now. So, in my limited observation of the horses training, he gets my No. 1 spot. I will have him in my key exacta box.
One thing to remember about Creator and stablemate Gun Runner is D. Wayne Lukas, Gary Stevens, and Neil Drysdale all won the Derby the year they were elected into the Hall of Fame. Can Steve Asmussen add his name to that list?
My 50-cent trifecta box will consist of Suddenbreakingnews, My Man Sam, Whitmore, Exaggerator, Nyquist, and Majesto. I came up with this box a while ago, and although, after watching him train, I feel Creator should probably be on here, it’s too late to knock someone off, so I’ll just bite the bullet and keep it as it is.
I have been committed to Whitmore for a long time. Watching him live on the Derby website, he doesn't have the long, lean look of a typical stayer. I’ve been unsure about his female family, with names like Scat Daddy, Johannesburg, and Tale of the Cat close up in his pedigree, but was hoping that his sire Pleasantly Perfect and his stamina pedigree would overcome all that miler speed on the bottom. I still believe he’s extremely talented, with a tremendous turn of foot on the far turn, and has yet to have a good trip this year, and can make his presence felt if he can save some ground this time. He and Sudenbreakingnews have been my key horses and I will stick with them.
My $2 exacta box will consist of Suddenbreakingnews, Creator, My Man Sam, Whitmore, Majesto, and Brody’s Cause. As you can see I’m looking for a closers race and a big payoff. If I see a half-mile fraction over :47 I probably will rip up this ticket before they hit the far turn. I figure it’s either going to be the first tier horses opening up on the rest of the field if the pace is slow or a closers storming home if the pace is fast, and the only hope for this ticket is that Danzing Candy, Outwork, Destin, Nyquist, Mor Spirit, Gun Runner, and Shagaf are all close enough to at least make it a contentious pace without one, two, or three horses being allowed to break away from the pack. Outwork would be especially dangerous if he outruns everyone and is allowed to set his own pace, like War Emblem.
If any of the first tier horses do break free from the pack in the stretch it could very well be my old friend Destin, who may be the fastest of the group and who has the stamina to kick on. We then would just have to see if the eight weeks and lack of a 1 1/8-mile race catches up to him. I don’t know anymore if it will or won’t. I honestly have no idea where Exaggerator will be, even though Desoremeaux said he will be back far enough to avoid any kickback. And that is far back. I also have no idea where Lani will be, as he has shown tactical speed, mid speed, and has come from 25 lengths out of it.
In looking for big win prices and some potential bombs, I will go with Suddenbreakingnews and Whitmore, along with My Man Sam and Majesto. I’ll play all four to win in the hope of hitting a big number.
So, with all that said, my key selection at a price is Suddenbreakingnews, despite his post, long wait in the gate, and likely inside trip, with Whitmore to hit the board, despite some questions about his physique from a classic standpoint, although that doesn't mean he won't stay the distance. And I know this sounds crazy, but I’m not so sure about Espinoza riding him for the first time. In all of Espinoza’s Triple Crown victories he didn’t have to do much, with War Emblem, California Chrome, and American Pharoah all fairly easy on or just off the race rides, This time Espinoza, who got a bit cocky in one of his tweets, saying he’ll see everyone in the winner’s circle, is going to be riding a horse he doesn’t know and this time will have to negotiate traffic and time his move just right. I’m kind of leery about that. But to me, the smartest horse is Exaggerator at 8-1, because he may be turning into something special, and, slop or no slop, he is the only horse coming off a 'Wow' performance.
Look, I have questions about them all. You just have to stick with what got you here and hope for the best.
OK, finally, raise your hand if you plan on betting Lani? Hey, you never know when you’re venturing into unknown territory, especially considering the Japanese horses have fared extremely well in foreign countries. Remember Cesario’s spectacular victory in the American Oaks at Hollywood Park, and Casino Drive was sitting on a Belmont victory if he hadn’t gotten hurt right before the race. Japanese horses also have won a Dubai World Cup and nearly won Arc de Triomphe on more than one occasion. As I said, you never know. And this year that pertains to the entire field.