American Pharoah Bob Baffert
Pioneerof the Nile—Littleprincessemma, by Yankee Gentleman
He had to win the Arkansas Derby and win impressively to keep that superstar aura that has surrounded him since last fall. His well of talent is bottomless and he just keeps reaching new heights of sheer brilliance with every performance. And now we learn that he can rate behind horses, which makes him all the more formidable in a year loaded with talented 3-year-olds. Watching it live, I would have preferred if Espinoza had ridden him out to the wire and not eased him to such a degree, but after further viewing it was apparent that had he not eased him to a gallop, he would have won by 15 lengths in 1:47 and change and that might not have been in his best interests with the Derby coming up in three weeks. What was impressive was his ability to rate kindly, while tracking brisk opening quarters of :22 3/5 and :23 1/5 and still come home his final eighth in :12 2/5, despite being eased to a crawl with his ears straight up. Although his time was three-fifths slower than older horses in the Oaklawn Handicap, that winner was hard-ridden to the wire, and on top of that, American Pharoah was carrying six more pounds. With his 105 Beyer speed figure, he has now run four consecutive triple-digit Beyers. The only question left is how he will stand up to a challenge, as he has never been battle-tested. Who knows what an athlete will do after a series of strolls in the park and then having to slug it out against some tough heavyweights, especially his own stablemate Dortmund, an intimidating and proven street fighter. Then again, he may not need to be battle-tested if he is as scary good as he looked on Saturday.
Dortmund Bob Baffert
Big Brown —Our Josephina, by Tale of the Cat
Baffert wants to emphasize that there is little separating Dortmund and American Pharoah. It’s one thing to be fast, but it’s the ability to go fast and do it so much easier than the others that makes a horse all the more imposing and separates him from his opponents. And both these horses, with their magnificent strides, have shown the ability to go fast while appearing to be just loping along, which will take the steam out of anyone running near them. But sometimes an attribute can be a detriment in other areas. In Dortmund’s case I cannot recall a horse this big with such a humongous stride winning the Derby. The closest I can recall is Winning Colors. So it’s all about keeping him in the clear and using that stride to his advantage, because it could very easily work against him with a bad break, bad post, or traffic problems. If you’re trying to weave your way through traffic and tight holes you want to be in a Lamborghini and not a Dodge Grand Caravan. When you have a horse who takes one stride to his opponents two, that is a big weapon to have going 1 1/4 miles, as long as you don’t have to abruptly step on the brake. We all witnessed how effective that same weapon was for Zenyatta when she was kept in the clear, but we also saw what can happen when she had to do a lot of maneuvering in traffic in the 2010 BC Classic. What he has going for him is his tactical speed and the ability to use it on the lead if he has to. He is so light on his feet for a big horse it is easier for him to work out a perfect trip than other horses his size. As of now, Dortmund will do all his serious training at Santa Anita and then ship to Churchill after his final work a week before the Derby.
Carpe Diem Todd Pletcher
Giant's Causeway—Rebridled Dreams, by Unbridled’s Song
If this horse is going to lose the Derby, there is a better chance of him losing it before the race than during the race. He has it all; the complete package…once the gates open. But he has had issues at times in the saddling stall, on the walking ring, in the post parade, and at the gate. If he can have those problems at Tampa and Keeneland, what’s going to happen with all the craziness and turmoil at the Derby? Ironically, the main problem he’d been having, which was getting in the gate, was the only problem he didn’t have before the Blue Grass. He must get past the walkover, the saddling, the paddock, “My Old Kentucky Home,” and then the gate with 20 horses loading. His grandsires are Storm Cat (through Giant’s Causeway) and Unbridled’s Song, so there is a lot of hot blood there, capable of boiling over at any time. Unbridled’s Song, in fact, lost it before the ’96 Derby when the crowd cheered after “My Old Kentucky Home’ and he did almost a complete 360 wheelie. There have been a lot worse horses than this guy, and he hasn’t let his issues take a toll on his performances so far. The strange part is that he was always a very quiet, easy-going horse as a baby, who went about his training with no problem and then slept most of the day. He does have a great deal of class about him once the gates open and he’ll have to rely on that class. If he can get through the preliminaries and keep his cool, and not waste too much physical and mental energy, his tremendous natural ability, fluid action, and high cruising speed are going to make him very tough to beat.
Frosted Kiaran McLaughlin
Tapit—Fast Cookie, by Deputy Minister
This colt is one of the lucky few in that his issues, and he had several, all appear to be behind him, as McLaughlin seems to have tinkered with him just right and corrected everything to the point where he is coming off a flawless performance in the Wood Memorial and brings no bad habits into the Kentucky Derby. Some people can’t see a son of Tapit going the mile and a quarter in top-class company, but I don’t see pedigree as an issue at all, especially with a strong female family. He also is one of the few horses to win a major stakes without once feeling the whip. It’s easy to put the whip away when a horse is coasting along with a huge lead, but when you’re trying to catch a live horse in the stretch who is opening up on the rest of the field and still don’t need the whip, while keeping a perfectly straight course, that is a major advantage. And when you can come home as fast he did in the Wood, you have to go into the Derby with a great deal of confidence. This is a horse who obviously needed blinkers, had a breathing problem, and wasn’t showing any explosive kick in the stretch. This is not that horse anymore. We saw an example of who he is when he was merely toying with Upstart and Itsaknockout at the quarter pole in the Fountain of Youth. Edit out the last quarter mile of that race, when he apparently displaced, and pick it up in the Wood and you have an impressive reel that suggests this is one very serious horse who is sitting on a peak performance.
Mubtaahij Mike de Kock
Dubawi —Pennegale, by Pennekamp
Some people insist on using the lack of success of past UAE Derby runners in the Kentucky Derby to get a gauge on this colt. That’s like saying Mine That Bird couldn’t win the Derby because no Sunland Park-based horse had ever won it before. We have never had a UAE Derby horse like this before. Yes, he will have a long journey to Churchill Downs and is coming off five races in four months and two at 1 3/16 miles, and there is always the question of whether if he can keep moving forward or if he is over the top. Mike de Kock will be the one to tell us the answer, and you can count on whatever he says. If he says Mubtaahij traveled great and is feeling great and training great, you can take that to the bank. This was no last-minute lark. This is de Kock’s first Dubai-trained 3-year-old bred in the Northern Hemisphere and Mubtaahij was an early Triple Crown nominee. Other than Mubtaahij’s inconsistency in changing leads I sure can’t find any flaws in him. Of course, there is the question of whether he’s fast enough to run with these horses. To his credit, he won the UAE Derby by eight lengths on his left lead, while taking a lot of kickback down the backstretch. Some also question the competition in Dubai and rightly so. But did you ever hear of a horse named Lot o’ Gold? He was a nice useful horse, nothing more, yet he finished second to Spectacular Bid in the Hutcheson, Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby, and Blue Grass Stakes. Sometimes it’s just about the eye test. This colt passes that with flying colors and is one of the few Derby contenders who has zero question marks regarding his ability to get the mile and a quarter. He will do a the bulk of his training over a Polytrack surface at a nearby training center before shipping to Churchill on Derby week. It's nothing new, as he trained over the Tapeta training track in Dubai.
Firing Line Simon Callaghan
Line of David—Sister Girl Blues, by Hold For Gold
He has maintained his sharpness, working a strong 5 furlongs in :59 1/5. As previously mentioned, this could very well be the forgotten horse and another whose ceiling is a mystery right now. Expect to see an improved version of the horse who lost those two heartbreaking photos to Dortmund, as he was coming off only a pair of sprints. The Sunland Derby romp had to boost his confidence after his tough defeats, but he did not beat anyone of consequence in that race, and he now has to go into the Kentucky Derby off a six-week layoff and with a pedigree that appears to be borderline going 1 1/4 miles. Like American Pharoah, Dortmund, Materiality, Carpe Diem, Stanford and others, he likely is going to be caught up in the wave of fast tactical speed horses who want to be on or near the lead. Some of these horses will be forced to take back, and it’s just a question of which one will emerge from the first tier. Whether he can withstand that kind of pace pressure and stay the 10 furlongs is a big question mark. While he is a smooth mover with a decent reach to his stride, it appears to be on the quicker side and doesn’t have the extension of the top three contenders. But, again, we really don’t know how good he is, and he has come from a bit off the pace before, so he could very well avoid the fracas up front. One thing is pretty sure; he is going to make his presence felt and should still be in the thick of things deep into the race. And he is Gary Stevens’ type of horse. Stevens has made a Hall of Fame career out of riding horses just like this.
International Star Mike Maker
Fusaichi Pegasus—Parlez, by French Deputy
There are some who really like this colt and rank him in their top 5 and others who don’t like him at all, feeling he is too slow, beating an inferior group of horses at Fair Grounds. What can’t be denied is the fact that he’s won three straight graded stakes and did it in three different ways. In the Lecomte, he was trapped behind horses along the inside and had to be abruptly steered to the outside and still was able to run down a good horse in War Story, while changing leads twice in the final sixteenth. In the Risen Star, he squeezed through a very narrow opening on the rail and again outran War Story. Then in the Louisiana Derby, he pulled off the rail at the top of the stretch, came between horses and wore down a very stubborn opponent in Stanford who had controlled the pace through easy fractions. In fact, he was the only horse to get near Stanford, as all the other closers failed to challenge the front-running Pletcher colt. International Star should have no problem with the mile and a quarter and is one of only a handful of true closers in this year’s field. And if you’re looking for constant steady improvement, his Beyers have climbed every race: 66—74—84—90—93—98. He is one of these plain brown wrappers with not a lot of size to him, but he is well balanced and athletic with a very efficient stride and possesses a powerful late knockout punch. And most important, he is fearless; there isn’t a hole he won’t go through, no matter how small. With this horse, it is wise to remember, brilliance and beauty do not win Kentucky Derbys.
Danzig Moon Mark Casse
Malibu Moon—Leaveminthedust, by Danzig
Don’t let his Blue Grass defeat turn you off in any way, especially since he was compromised in the Tampa Bay Derby incubating a viral infection. Remember, since 1990, 11 Derby winners have come off a victory and 13 have come off defeats, with eight of those coming off a second-place finish. And the one thing those eight had in common is that in their second-place finishes they all pretty much maintained the same margin at the eighth pole to the wire without losing any ground to the winner, who they came back to beat in the Derby. The biggest exception was Funny Cide, who was a head back at the eighth pole in the Wood and was beaten a half-length by Empire Maker. Danzig Moon was 3 1/2 lengths behind Carpe Diem at the eighth pole and was beaten 3 lengths, so he certainly fits that same pattern. And as far as pedigree, he is one of the few horses who should improve going a mile and a quarter. Whether he is ready to take a big step forward against these horses, especially maturity-wise, remains to be seen. I’m not sure if we’re ready to see the finished product just yet. But he definitely should keep improving and is not one you want to ignore just because he was beaten in the Blue Grass.
Materiality Todd Pletcher
Afleet Alex—Wildwood Flower, by Langfuhr
This colt remains a huge question mark because of his inexperience, lack of racing foundation, and his running style. But what makes him possibly the biggest enigma in the field is his untapped ability and brilliance. He’ll have to be very special to win, bucking so much history, but he just may be that special, and that is what makes him so perplexing and difficult to handicap. Sometimes, you pick up little things about a horse from the most mundane sources. I saw a close up photo of him turning for home in the Florida Derby, and even with being challenged on his outside by a tough horse in Upstart, his left ear was straight up in the air, as if he were merely toying with him, while his right ear was pointing straight out to the side, as if he was aware of Upstart’s presence and was tracking his every move. I remember Affirmed used to do that whenever Alydar came up on his outside. Now, that may be insignificant and mean absolutely nothing, but I did find it interesting in that it might have revealed two special qualities in the colt at the same moment.
Upstart Rick Violette
Flatter—Party Silks, by Touch Gold
We’ll have to monitor his illness to see if it’s anything to be concerned about or just a mild bug that will have only minimal impact on his training schedule. The good news is that his fever was gone quickly, so there’s a good chance it will turn out to be nothing more than a 24-hour bug. But even so, that’s not something you want to have to deal with three weeks before the Derby, and you don’t want to miss a work, having to go into the Derby off five weeks. Fortunately, he has a solid foundation, good bottom, and has had a couple of tough races to get him fit, so he might be able to get away with missing a work three weeks out, although that gives him only two works between the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. After those two grueling races over an agonizingly slow and demanding track, he is one horse that should benefit from the five weeks. He ran like a tired horse in both the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, judging by his inability to keep a straight course in both races.
Far Right Ron Moquett
Notional—Zindi, by Vindication
Here is your longshot sleeper. He actually turned in a pretty strong effort in the Arkansas Derby, considering how far back he was. Mike Smith certainly wasn’t going to beat him up trying to catch American Pharoah, and, remember, he did skip the Rebel to freshen up for this race and was given only three works since Feb. 22. Getting beat 7 lengths in his final prep in the Santa Anita Derby didn’t stop Ferdinand from winning the Kentucky Derby by daylight. This was a much better performance than it looks on paper. His trouble began when he broke inward, bouncing off American Pharoah, and found himself far back in last, some six lengths behind the next-to-last horse and about 15 lengths off the lead. Smith asked him to run nearing the three-eighths pole and he began passing horses, while 6 wide at the top of the stretch. Smith then eased him to the far outside where he was herded badly by Win the Space, who forced him several paths farther out. He still was able to charge home his last eighth in about :12 or :12 1/5 to snatch second from Mr. Z while striding out very well at the finish and galloping out strongly. He’s finished in the money in eight of his nine career starts, with his only out of the money performance a fourth in the Futurity at Belmont when he didn’t have the best of trips. He also has a win a second, and a third in three starts at Churchill and definitely looks like one of those 25-1 shots who can come flying late in the Derby to at least pick up a piece of it. Ron Moquett and the owners have themselves a tough, consistent runner who always gives his all, with a pedigree to get the 1 1/4 miles with no problem. And he’s one of only a few true closers in the field, who fires every time.
One Lucky Dane Bob Baffert
Lookin At Lucky—Echo Harbor, by Boston Harbor
Talk about being overshadowed in your own barn, this is a vastly improved colt who held his own against Dortmund in only his second start of the year, while finishing clear of several top-class horses, yet he can only play third fiddle in the Baffert barn. Although he has a huge uphill climb in the Derby he certainly has earned his spot in the field. There are some stamina issues, but he is a grinding type who just keeps coming. He really didn’t assert himself in the Santa Anita Derby until several others made runs at him and seemed to have him put away. But you can never count out horses who have that one strong gear and can ride that gear for a long way. What helps a grinder like him is his low action, in which he drops his head and shoulder way down, with very little wasted movement. Winning the Derby would seem to be too ambitious at this stage of his career, but he has the ability and enough room for improvement to make his presence felt. We should see him at his peak in the Preakness.
Knocking At The Door
You couldn’t ask for a bigger endorsement for the points system as opposed to the graded earnings system than the way the Derby has shaped up this year. The top six point getters could very well be your top six favorites, in no particular order – International Star, Dortmund, Carpe Diem, American Pharoah, Frosted, and Materiality. And it could be seven if Mubtaahij gets bet over Firing Line.
On this the 25 th anniversary of Unbridled’s Kentucky Derby victory, it is interesting to note that leading Derby contenders American Pharoah, Carpe Diem, and Frosted are all great-grandsons of Unbridled, as are El Kabeir, Madefromlucky, and Frammento.
If you like following patterns and are looking to beat Baffert and Pletcher with a fresh face, you should note that the last 16 Kentucky Derbys have been won by 16 different trainers – Baffert and Pletcher among them.
If Pletcher gets five in the Derby it will be the third time he’s done so. But other than the third-place finish by Revolutionary, his other finishes when he’s had five in there have been 6th, 8th, 9th (twice), 11th, 12th, 14th, 18th, and 20th. So, it’s not about how many you run, it’s about who you run, and even if you’re sure you’re running five top horses, that assures you nothing. All qualifiers deserve to run on paper, but the Derby is the one race that’s not about what is on paper, and every year there are some 16 owners and 16 trainers of top-class horses who would in retrospect have rather stayed home to fight another day instead of seeing their horse plod along at the back of the pack.
Did they deserve a shot? Yes. Did they earn their way in? Yes. Does everyone want to run in the Derby? Yes. But as Pletcher and other top trainers have proven, the Derby can make good horses look bad, and the more horses you have in there, the more horses you’ll have that will look bad. Most trainers would run five if they could, especially if the horses have different owners. You just have to go in knowing that you’ve got one shot to win and five shots to run up the track. Even when Pletcher won his only Derby in 2010, he had four in the race, and his other three horses finished 9th, 10th, and 13th. So, Pletcher has the distinction of running a staggering 14 horses in three Derbys, and 12 of those horses finished up the track. That’s the Kentucky Derby. It is the most humbling race in the country, so you have to go in prepared to be humbled.
In the Arkansas Derby, Wayne Lukas convinced the Zayat family to run MR. Z in spite of his uncharacteristically poor performance in the Louisiana Derby, in which he stopped to a walk, finishing last. It turned out to be good advice, as the colt rebounded with a big effort, challenging American Pharoah briefly nearing the top of the stretch and then battling through the stretch as he usually does, just losing second by three-quarters of a length, while holding off MADEFROMLUCKY and BOLD CONQUEST for third. At this time, it looks as if the Zayat family will be running all three of their horses in the Derby.
As of this writing, still no decision yet on the jockey situation regarding EL KABEIR, who had no chance in the Wood Memorial coming from that far back and not making his move until it was way too late. The Zayats are trying to decide whether to keep C.C. Lopez aboard or make a switch. Calvin Borel rode the horse to a front-running victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last fall. Strictly as a Kentucky Derby prep, the Wood likely was an excellent one and Lopez in my opinion gave the horse the exact kind of prep he needed. He already had the points, and the Wood was his sixth start in the last six months, several of them tough battles. So taking him far back and making one run to pick up third money, while having to take a very harsh kickback, likely was just what he needed to set him up for his stretch-out to 1 1/4 miles in four weeks. You can make a case for whatever decision the Zayats make. Lopez did not give El Kabeir a chance to win the Wood, and has no experience in the Derby, while Borel has won three Derbys and owns Churchill Downs. But whatever their decision, if this horse should run big in the Derby he will owe a lot of it to the ride he was given in the Wood.
Still waiting for an official word on BOLO. Supposedly the owners’ vote is divided, so we’ll have to see how that plays out. Carla Gaines and Mike Smith have let their feelings be known that the colt is better off going back on the grass.
The real longshots in the Derby are a pretty salty bunch in their own right, who have earned a spot in the Derby. They just don’t appear to be on the same level as the top contenders at this point in their career. ITSAKNOCKOUT certainly did before his dull Florida Derby performance, which can be attributed to the track. But whether it was or not, it did not set him up for a peak effort in the Kentucky Derby. But he definitely should improve to the point where he can be competitive. This obviously is a far better horse than he showed in his last start.
WAR STORY showed a good turn of foot in the Louisiana Derby as he made a brief, but short-lived run at International Star and Stanford. He just couldn’t sustain it for more than a few yards. There is still a talented horse in there that Tom Amoss is still trying to unlock.
TENCENDUR is an improving horse who is coming off the best race of his life by far. In the Gotham, he bobbled several jumps out of the gate and fell far back off the pace. While El Kabeir was making his move on the inside, Tencendur was losing a ton of ground around the turn, and after a bumping incident turning for home he closed resolutely, while failing to switch to his right lead in the stretch. He has a mixture of some stamina and several speed influences, so let’s call his pedigree a wash, although he is another who is borderline to get the 1 1/4 miles. He has a nice long stride, and let’s just say he runs like a horse who should keep stretching out.
And with KEEN ICE and STANFORD, we have one horse who will be trying to plod up for a piece of it from far back and a horse who should be on or right off the lead.
It’ll be close, but there is still a chance that FRAMMENTO will get in with 20 points. He currently looks to be No. 23, and that is counting Bolo and Ocho Ocho Ocho. And will Pletcher run both Stanford and Madefromlucky? He probably will, but we’ll see.