Nyquist Doug O'Neill
Uncle Mo—Seeking Gabrielle, by Forestry
Sometimes in a year like this you have to play defense, and he is the one horse in the race who can make you look foolish by going against him. Or is that offense? How do you justify going against an undefeated champion and four-time grade I winner and easy winner of the Florida Derby? I wouldn’t call him invincible, but he’s a winning machine and that’s all you can for in the always unpredictable Derby. The race looks wide open right now, but it all could look pretty obvious when it’s over if he continues his winning ways and you don’t have him in your trifecta box. The question is where he’ll be placed. You can pretty much put him anywhere and he’s one of the few horses in the field who can adapt to any pace. His works have been unique to say the least, and with him it’s visual and not about time. One thing is for sure, his training regimen appears to be giving him the bottom he’s going to need off such a light racing schedule. I don’t know if he has the closing power to catch a good horse in the final furlong, because that’s not how he wins his races, but no one has ever passed him, so the strategy seems pretty obvious.
Exaggerator Keith Desormeaux
Curlin—Dawn Raid, by Vindication
He looks to be very athletic and well balanced, cornering beautifully in his workout, and has a classy European look to him. No matter how closely you scrutinize over his speed figures and form, you really can’t a get true read on him due to the track condition and pace meltdown in the Santa Anita Derby. But the gut feeling here is that he has made a dramatic turnaround and is not the same even-paced horse we saw last year. Yes, the Santa Anita Derby might have been an illusion to a degree, but if it was, the illusion was winning by six lengths, not the fact that he won. The reality is we a saw horse take off with an electrifying burst of speed and was visually spectacular even passing tired horses. These were still grade I and grade II horses he blew by. The fact he was able to change his running style to such a degree indicates a horse who is remarkably tractable and is push-button to train. He is another you don’t want to toss. Sometimes a visual assessment is more revealing than fractional times.
Suddenbreakingnews Donnie Von Hemel
Mineshaft—Uchitel, by Afleet Alex
He turned in a terrific 5f work in :59 3/5, showing more speed than usual, while equipped for the first time with a shadow roll, which he will wear in the Derby. Another Arkansas Derby runner-up who wore a shadow roll for the first time in the Derby was 1992 winner Lil E. Tee. The more I see of this horse the more I like him. Yes, like all the closers he’s going to need a great deal of luck, and you would prefer to have a big-money rider on him, but you do get familiarity with Quinonez, and the shadow roll could help him concentrate better and in turn enable him to launch his move sooner. It’s simple, if he’s eight lengths back at the quarter pole, he’s likely running for second or third at best. But if he’s within four lengths of the leaders I think he can outclose all of them. Remember, too, he was giving weight to Creator and Whitmore in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. He’s picking up 4 pounds in the Derby, while they are picking up 8-11 pounds. And he actually ran a faster Thoro-Graph figure in the Arkansas Derby than Creator.
Brody's Cause Dale Romans
Giant’s Causeway —Sweet Breanna, by Sahm
He turned in a solid enough 5-furlong work and I liked his overall demeanor. It’s just so difficult separating him from the other deep closers, they’re so evenly matched. One thing he has going for him is the ability to make his move between horses and put it into gear on the far turn. I’ve been saying from day one that this could very well the year the Derby gods smile down on Romans, who looks to be sitting on a Derby victory that would be very emotional for him considering that he has practically grown up at Churchill Downs, stabled in the same barn that his father had for years. The main question with Brody’s Cause is if he got enough out of the Blue Grass Stakes, considering he did virtually no running at Tampa Bay. But a big positive was his very impressive victory over a mile at Churchill Downs last year.
Mor Spirit Bob Baffert
Eskendereya—Im a Dixie Girl, by Dixie Union
I honestly don’t know what to make of his works. You rarely see a Baffert work go the way his last two works went, the first with fast early fractions and an extremely slow final eighth in :13 4/5, then, according to Churchill clockers, in his :59 4/5 work he came home his last two eighths in :11 2/5 and :13, which makes little sense. But at least his second work was an improvement. If their fractions are correct, he has come home slow in both his works, yet Baffert and Gary Stevens were happy with his last work, in which he finished a nose behind his workmate and was outrun by him on the gallop-out. Baffert seems to be trying to put him closer to the pace and he’s asked him for more speed early. It’s never wise to second-guess Baffert, who is always one step ahead of everyone else. But it is worth mentioning, even strictly as a non judgmental observation, because these were not your typical Baffert works. This is a big, long-striding horse who carries a lot flesh, and sometimes it’s difficult to gauge just how fast these heavier horses are going. He sure fooled Stevens, who was supposed to go the half in about :49, but missed by over two seconds. One thing is for sure, he looks super physically, and he’s never finished worse than second in his career. But, like so many others, I just can’t get a true handle on him, except that he likely will need the speed Baffert is putting in him.
Whitmore Ron Moquett
Pleasantly Perfect—Melody’s Spirit, by Scat Daddy
He had an excellent work, and just needs a clean trip without losing a ton of ground or having to steady. He will get new supporters with the addition of Victor Espinoza, but despite his rider winning five of the last Triple Crown races, I worry about his unfamiliarity with the horse and getting the timing right and negotiating traffic. Espinoza’s three Derby winners have all been speed or pace horses and were very easy rides. He’s going to have to make a lot more decisions and negotiate his way through or around the field aboard a horse he’s never been on. And you have to wonder, can he actually win a third straight Derby? With that said, I believe this horse is sitting on a big race, and perhaps Espinoza will have a chip on his shoulder after not getting voted to the Hall of Fame, despite his five out of six Triple Crown victories and winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup. You can’t go into a Hall of Fame vote with better timing and credentials than that. As long as they prepare Espinoza for the explosion that will come once he pulls the trigger on the turn he should be ready for anything.
Mohaymen Kiaran McLaughlin
Tapit—Justwhistledixie, by Dixie Union
He’s become one of the more polarizing horses in the Derby field. Some haven’t liked his antics in the morning and pinning his ears in his works. Others, like myself, like to see the high energy, which simply signifies he’s feeling good after running by far the worst race of his career. He has always pinned his ears in his races and works, and I loved the way he worked in his two drills at Churchill. No horse in memory has come off such a poor effort after having had such high expectations, but if you focus on his career before that race, remember, he was everyone’s consensus Derby favorite and a potential Triple Crown winner. I have been saying that I fear the Remsen Stakes as being too long a race for a 2-year-old, and it eventually catches up to you, just like it did runner-up Flexibility. I believe Mohaymen would have been better off starting off the year in a sprint, just to sharpen him up. But that didn’t happen, so perhaps it was good that he got this bad race out of the way when he did, with ample time to bounce back to his previous form, if he’s able to. I find him an intriguing proposition in the Derby, because if he does bounce back to his old form you’re looking at one of the great Derby overlays ever.
My Man Sam Chad Brown
Trappe Shot —Lauren Byrd, by Arch
He had a nice easy maintenance work at Churchill in company. It’s too early to tell how good he really is, but his ceiling is extremely high and he has shown a great deal in the few starts he’s had. With only four career starts his peak likely will come later on, but he’s still capable of winning if the leaders come back and he doesn’t lose as much ground turning for home as he did in the Blue Grass, which really was a terrific effort considering his lack of racing and stakes experience and having to overcome that much ground loss. He has been progressing steadily on his Thoro-Graph figures and it won’t take that much of a move forward to put him right in the thick of things. The big difference between him and Creator and Brody’s Cause is that he will provide far better value.
Creator Steve Asmussen
Tapit —Morena, by Privately Held
He has looked solid in the mornings and appears to be a throwback type who’s as tough as nails and keeps coming back for more. He has crammed a lot of two-turn races into a short period of time, but it doesn’t seem to have affected him at all. You have to attribute it to all that South American and European blood, and, remember, his dam was a multiple stakes winner at 1 1/4 miles in Peru. I loved the way he looked on the track Monday morning, and I’m starting to like him a lot better just seeing all that toughness and eagerness after all those route races. He can rally inside, outside, or between horses, which obviously will help him a great deal getting through or around all that traffic. It took him a while to get his act together, but once he did he exploded on the scene with one of the more impressive maiden victories of the year, coming from far back and blowing away his field. He’s also on an excellent Thoro-Graph pattern and looks to be progressing up to a career best effort. I find him more intriguing by the day.
Gun Runner Steve Asmussen
Candy Ride—Quiet Giant, by Giant's Causeway
He is one of those horses who you know is talented and is hard to go against, but whose speed figures as a whole do not measure up to most of the other leading contenders, and there is a question of the competition he faced at Fair Grounds and the six-week layoff after having only two starts. But if he wins it will come as no surprise, but he’s had issues changing leads and drifting, although he did seem much more professional in his last work. Not only are his Beyer figures slow, so are his Thoro-Graph figures, which makes one wonder about the quality of the Fair Grounds stakes fields this year. I do know he’s looked good visually and appeared to be finishing with good energy in the Louisiana Derby.
Outwork Todd Pletcher
Uncle Mo—Nonna Mia, by Empire Maker
The feeling here is that he will be the big bet-down horse after his brilliant works, his impeccable record and speed figures, and the Pletcher-Repole-Uncle Mo mystique. He’s a big gorgeous individual and I don’t believe we’ve seen anything near his best yet. The key will be the pace and whether he’s seasoned enough, having only a pair of two-turn races and only three starts since last April. His fortunes could be dictated by Danzing Candy, and we have no idea whether Mike Smith will be able to control his speed and set an easy enough pace for Outwork and the other pace horses to hang around for a while and then come home fast enough to hold off the cavalry charge of closers. One thing he has in his favor is an excellent progression on Thoro-Graph, and he’s already as fast as any of them based on his figure in the Wood Memorial and strong figure in the Tampa Bay Derby, so he is on course for a big effort. Another move forward or even a pairing of the Wood is more than sufficient to win this.
Tiznow—Unacloud, by Unaccounted For
I had to inch him ahead of Destin based on his powerful work and equally powerful gallops and the way he’s getting over the track. Delgado is training him to build up his toughness and stamina, and with him being by Tiznow and his rate of improvement, I can see him running a huge race at a big price. I can only assume from his record that Emisael Jaramillo is a good jockey, but can the native Venezuelan win the Kentucky Derby? Let’s put it this way, losing Javier Castellano was huge. I have no idea what to make of his chances now, but we have seen Mario Guitierrez and Martin Garcia come from nowhere to win classics for Doug O’Neill and Bob Baffert, so there is some ray of hope at least.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
All those who like DESTIN, SHAGAF, MO TOM, and LANI, and anyone else not included in the Top 12, I have no defense for not putting them on there other than I had no reason to take anyone off and there are simply too many good horses of equal ability in this year’s Derby. Remember, I had Destin ranked as high as No. 2, but I was more impressed with Majesto’s work and gallops than I was with Destin’s work, and I still need to see a horse win the Derby off an eight-week layoff and never having been farther than 1 1/16 miles before I cross that obstacle off my list, as I have many others in the last decade or so. If Destin wins it will change the entire concept of training Derby horses, and we’ll be reduced to seeing 3-year-olds every couple of months and we won’t be able to connect with them the way we used to. It will also emphasize the trend of training by speed figures instead of horsemanship. Just imagine what it would be like to see your favorite Derby horse run in early March and then not see him again until he steps in the gate at Churchill Downs.
I feel Shagaf is going to run much better than most people think and will have him in some of my bets, but, again, I just had no room for him. I believe he could be a live overlay. It’s the same with Mo Tom, who would not surprise me in the slightest if he finally got a clean trip and won it all. He was in my early Top 12 for several weeks before others came along to replace him.
And I still find Lani very intriguing, despite his morning antics, unusual training methods, and an ugly-looking modified work in which he had to be hit three times to stay straight and never changed his leads. But I love the long three-mile gallops and interval training of jogging, galloping, open galloping, jogging, walking, and then starting the process all over, finally blowing out down the lane. And he’s looked a lot better in those gallops than he did in his work. Even in his three-furlong work, which was supposed to be five furlongs, he still came home his final quarter in :23 2/5. So I’m certainly not discounting his chances. I have watched all his races numerous times, and this horse has a powerful sustained move and can pick off horses in rapid fashion. He also can be effective from just off the pace or from 20 lengths back. We discovered too late that another foreign invader, Canonero II, was the same way. He could beat you from far back or right on the pace. In short, don’t mock, shun, or ignore this horse, despite his unusual training methods. We’ve seen the result of that before. And sometimes it is wise to fear the unknown. Ironically, Lani is stabled in the small stakes barn near the old racing office. The last or one of the last Derby horses to stable in that barn was Lani's sire Tapit.
One point to remember, these rankings have no bearing on my wagers, which are based more on value plays and potential overlays. Rankings are to indicate where these horses fit amongst themselves. Nyquist might be the top horse talent-wise in this field, but that certainly doesn’t mean he’s the best bet at 5-2. My longshots and horses for the exotics will be posted either on Thursday afternoon or Friday morning at the latest. Of course, horses like Nyquist and Exaggerator are horses you don’t want to leave out of your exotic bets, but straight win bets and the price horses to play with them are what I will focus on in my final column.
In the past, I have based my wagering selections on how the horses looked in the flesh and their works and gallops. But not being there this year I can only rely on what I see on the internet and the live feed from Churchill Downs, which is only a fraction of the activity each day. A horse’s coat and overall appearance and demeanor have always been a key source for my selections. That is what I will have to do without.
As this is the final Derby Dozen, I want to thank everyone for your support all winter and spring, beginning back in January, and for all your comments and opinions. I’ve been in this game for 48 years and I’m still learning from all of you. The day you think you know everything about this sport is the day you lose all concept of what it’s all about. It’s been an entertaining and enlightening journey, and although I have managed to confuse the heck out of myself trying to decipher this complex puzzle, I wish everyone good luck with their selections and wagers. Perhaps somewhere, some droplets of knowledge and wisdom have trickled through these pages, whether coming from me or any of you, and that it results in some big payoffs. But most of all it should be about having fun. Maybe we’ll do one for the Preakness and a couple for the Belmont.