An Early Look at the Kentucky Derby

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")

When the calendar informs you that the month is December, and when a foot of snow on the ground confirms that winter has arrived, and when the lone graded stakes race of the previous weekend was a grade II at Los Alamitos… racing fans across America (especially those in the northern states!) know with certainty that it’s time to start thinking about the Kentucky Derby!

We have already seen a number of promising two-year-olds stamp themselves as promising contenders for next year’s Triple Crown, including two-time grade I winner American Pharoah, runaway Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner Texas Red, Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) winner El Kabeir, and Remsen Stakes (gr. II) winner Leave the Light On.

But as we all know, it’s a rare year when the top two-year-olds progress into the top three-year-olds, and it wouldn’t be a huge shock if none of the above-mentioned horses are in the Churchill Downs starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Thus is the hardship of the road to the Kentucky Derby, a treacherous trail with pitfalls at every turn and an inconceivable number of unmarked intersections.

So with that in mind, here’s a question to ponder—who was the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby after winning more than one graded stakes race as a juvenile?

The answer, believe it or not, is Swale, who won the 1984 Kentucky Derby after sweeping the Young American Stakes (gr. I), Breeders’ Futurity (gr.I), Futurity Stakes (gr.I), and Saratoga Special (gr. II) as a two-year-old. Of the thirty Derby winners since then, a remarkable twenty-two of them failed to win so much as a single graded stakes race as a juvenile. That total includes California Chrome, Orb, I’ll Have Another, and Animal Kingdom, the last four winners of the Derby.

Therefore, it’s clear that if you want to try and find the Derby winner five months in advance, your odds will be better if you focus on up-and-coming runners that aren’t as well-known as their graded stakes-winning counterparts. So to start the ball rolling in our early look at the Kentucky Derby, here’s a trio of non-graded stakes-winning juveniles that I believe are poised to make some noise next spring…

1. Dortmund

Virtually everyone seems to have Dortmund at or near the top of their early Derby rankings, and I can certainly understand why—after all, he’s at the top of my list as well!

From the same team as Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Bayern, Dortmund won his debut on November 2nd at Santa Anita, and the way in which he did so was particularly impressive. After getting off to a slow start in the 6 ½-furlong sprint, Dortmund became rank and rushed up to contend for the lead through a :21.91 opening quarter. Then, while racing wide around the turn, he advanced through a half-mile in :44.59 and then drew off powerfully to score by 4 ¾ lengths in the good time of 1:15.87 seconds.

Just under four weeks later, Dortmund returned in a one-mile allowance race at Churchill Downs, which he won in 1:35.75 seconds. Again, the way he won was noteworthy, as he raced very wide around the turn before gradually drawing off under urging to win by nearly eight lengths with a final quarter in :24.82 seconds. That he drew off under urging, and without a sudden burst of speed, suggests to me that his margin of victory was an honest, accurate measure of his superiority, rather than being inflated by a very favorable pace setup and trip.

As a son of Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown out of the stake-winning sprinter Our Josephina (by Tale of the Cat), Dortmund seems likely to excel at distances up to a mile, and possibly beyond. He may also enjoy turf, given that Big Brown was a stakes winner on the grass and has had success as a sire of turf horses (along with Tale of the Cat, who sired two-time turf champion Gio Ponti.)

Dortmund will get a chance to answer questions about additional distance—and whether he can handle two turns—when he starts in the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) on December 20th. Stay tuned!

2. Om

Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of Om, because his name hasn’t exactly been in the news as of late. After beginning his career in June with an uninspiring fifth-place finish in a five-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita, he stretched out to 6 ½ furlongs at Del Mar and promptly won by 7 ¼ lengths in the time of 1:15.75. Shortly thereafter, he went to the sidelines with an injury and hasn’t been heard from since.

But the reality is that Om may very well be one of the most talented two-year-olds in California. Among the horses he beat in his maiden victory were Iron Fist, who came back to finish third in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I); One Lucky Dane, who earned a large Beyer speed figure when breaking his maiden two starts later before finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile; American Pharoah, who won the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) and FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I); and Daddy D T, who won the Oak Tree Juvenile Stakes in his next start and went on to finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I).

Can anyone say "key race?" :)

Now, it must be noted that some of Om’s rivals underperformed that day—obviously, American Pharoah stepped up considerably in subsequent starts, and surely could have given Om a challenge with the benefit of additional experience. But the fact remains that Om didn’t just beat American Pharoah—he crushed him, defeating him by ten lengths.

It’s also fair to ask questions about Om’s ability to stretch out in distance—his sire is Munnings, a talented sprinter that never won beyond seven furlongs, and his dam is Rare Cat, whose lone victory came at that same distance. But dig a little deeper, and there are some encouraging signs. Munnings had enough stamina to run third in the 2009 Haskell Invitational (gr. I), finishing just one length behind Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird, and Rare Cat stayed well enough to finish second in an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs. Furthermore, Rare Cat is by 1994 Preakness and Belmont Stakes winner Tabasco Cat, who tended to pass stamina on to his progeny and was the broodmare sire of 2010 Kentucky Derby runner-up Ice Box.

Time will tell when or if Om makes it back to the races—he hasn’t posted a workout in months—but if he returns to the work tab soon, expect to see his name in the headlines as the Derby approaches.

3. Bold Conquest

This Steve Asmussen-trained colt caught my eye when he battled to a gritty victory in a 6 ½-furlong maiden special weight at Saratoga, overcoming a wide trip to triumph by a head after a long stretch battle. He backed up this effort with an even more impressive performance a few weeks later at Churchill Downs, where he raced wide throughout in the one-mile Iroquois Stakes (gr. III) before losing by just a neck to Lucky Player after another long stretch duel. Finishing behind Bold Conquest were Danny Boy and Mr. Z, both of which have come back to run well in graded stakes company.

In his final start of the season, Bold Conquest endured another troubled trip in the Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I), being forced to wait behind horses during a key moment in the race. Despite this obstacle, Bold Conquest put in an eye-catching late rally to pass several horses and finish third. The winner, Carpe Diem, came back to finish second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), while the runner-up—the above-mentioned Mr. Z—was recently beaten a nose in the Delta Downs Jackpot Stakes (gr. III).

As a son of Curlin out of a Distorted Humor mare, Bold Conquest should not only get better with maturity, but with additional distance as well. Of the three horses I’ve mentioned, Bold Conquest seems the most likely to relish the distance of the Derby, and his stakes-caliber form as a juvenile suggests that he could be on the verge of a big year in 2015.

Now it’s your turn! Who are your early favorites for the Kentucky Derby?

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