Kentucky Derby 142 Analysis

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The preparations began months ago, when the two-year-old racing began at Saratoga and Del Mar. Since then, I have watched hundreds of races and dozens of workout videos; I've analyzed an untold number of result charts; I've calculated the fractions of all the major Derby prep races; I've looked at pedigrees and Tomlinsons and statistics of all sorts; I've looked at virtually every type of speed figure known to handicappers, comparing and contrasting the various numbers and even attempting to calculate my own on occasion.

There's only one problem: Despite all this research, I still don't know who is going to win the Kentucky Derby.

Usually, whether right or wrong, I have one or two clear-cut choices in the Derby. In recent years, I've felt very confident that Orb, Revolutionary, California Chrome, American Pharoah, and Dortmund would win or hit the board in the Derby; three of them won and the other two finished third.

This year, I feel no such confidence. I like the chances of many horses, but none have really separated themselves from the pack, and all have questions to answer. The deserving favorite is the unbeaten champion Nyquist, who has done everything asked of him in seven career starts. He's won sprinting and going two turns; he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) despite a very wide trip, and in the Florida Derby, he led every step of the way through solid fractions and still ran the final three furlongs in a solid :37.72 seconds. This is a seriously talented colt that deserves a ton of respect, and despite a pedigree that suggests ten furlongs could be beyond his best distance, I don't think ten furlongs will be an issue for him. He hasn't run all that fast in terms of speed figures, but he has given me the impression that he measures his performances to the horses he's running against and could go faster if necessary. Furthermore, the Florida Derby was his first two-turn race of the year, and I think he's eligible to take a step forward in the Kentucky Derby.

My only real concern is that Nyquist has drawn post position thirteen with all the other major speed horses drawn outside of him, which could lead to a tricky trip, particularly if he gets sucked into a fast pace. In my opinion, Nyquist can beat any speed horse that runs against him and will prove best of the pacesetters/stalkers in the Derby, but if he goes too fast early in the race, I think he could be vulnerable to getting caught in the final furlong by a late runner. Throw in the fact that he will be well-bet off his race record, and I think it's worth playing against him for the top spot, at least on some tickets. That's not to say he won't win--and I wouldn't want to play any multi-race wagers without him, as I think he's the best horse in the race on talent--but in a Derby that looks pretty wide-open on paper, and with a fast pace a possibility, I don't think he offers the best value in the race.

Two horses that I like a lot are Gun Runner and Brody's Cause. The former has won four of his five starts, including the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) by 4 ½ lengths, and he's shown steady improvement throughout his career. I loved his workout at Churchill on April 25th, in which he breezed six furlongs in a bullet 1:12 1/5 and galloped out a mile in 1:39, and I think he's ready for a career-best effort in his third start of the season. He's also drawn perfectly in post position five with four closers on his inside and three to his immediate outside, meaning that he should have no trouble securing a pace-tracking trip while saving ground on the inside, a style he has showcased in three of his four victories. I also think that he can settle further off the pace than he did at Fair Grounds this year, which would be useful if the Derby pace is fast. If he had slightly better speed figures, I wouldn't hesitate to make him my selection, but some of his speed figures--particularly his Beyers and his Thoro-Graphs--are a little on the slow side. Can he take a big enough step forward to win the Derby?

Brody's Cause is a colt that I've liked for a long time, and he's another that could be poised for improvement in his third start of the year. After a productive two-year-old season that saw him win the Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) and finish third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), Brody's Cause disappointed when seventh in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) to start 2016, but rebounded in a big way to win the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) by 1 ¾ lengths. Although he got a great pace setup that day, I loved the move he made on the far turn to reach contention, and the fact that he had the lead by the eighth pole is significant--it shows that he's not strictly a deep closer and can make his move early, which is useful in the Kentucky Derby. And although he didn't really kick clear very much in the final furlong, he appeared to lose focus and idle a bit when he got to the lead, so I think there's more to Brody's Cause than first meets the eye. He has made a nice impression training at Churchill Downs, breezing in a style reminiscent of, but better than, his former stablemate Keen Ice, who finished seventh in the 2015 Kentucky Derby. Ten furlongs shouldn't be an issue for Brody's Cause, and although his speed figures are on the slower side, I think he is a major contender to finish on the board and wouldn't want to play a trifecta or superfecta that doesn't include him.

Readers of this blog know that I have been a fan of Exaggerator since he broke his maiden at Del Mar, and he was my clear pick to win the 2015 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a race in which he finished fourth despite a tricky trip tracking a solid pace while racing inside of horses. In recent races, he's shifted to a deep-closing style that has proven more successful; he finished third in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) after making a premature move on the far turn, and with a more patient ride in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), he swallowed up the field to win by 6 ¼ lengths. Many have questioned whether his performance was enhanced by the sloppy track, which Exaggerator is known to love; I personally think Exaggerator is equally good on fast and sloppy tracks, but I believe some of his Santa Anita Derby rivals didn't relish the conditions, and the blazing early pace played strongly in Exaggerator's favor.

But there's one thing Exaggerator has done that none of his rivals have matched--he's run consistently fast. Whether he's been tracking a :44 2/5 half-mile in a seven-furlong sprint or charging from 16 lengths back going nine furlongs, Exaggerator has shown that he has the speed to post a fast final time. He's the one Derby contender that has made my jaw drop with his brilliant bursts of speed, and if a fast pace unfolds in the Derby--which I think it will--he should be able to take advantage. His recent workouts, while nothing too eye-catching, have been similar to his workouts before the Santa Anita Derby. His gallops at Churchill Downs have drawn positive reviews. As a son of Curlin, he might be only now reaching his peak.

And yet, I hesitate to pick him on top because he's 0-for-2 against Brody's Cause and 0-for-3 against Nyquist. Even when he had dead aim on Nyquist in the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II), he couldn't reel him in. Granted, the Kentucky Derby is a much different race, and Exaggerator's change in running style could make him more effective against his previous conquerors.

The weather forecasts aren't helping matters. Some suggest a possibility of rain for the Derby; others indicate the weather will be dry. If the track is wet, Exaggerator becomes my clear-cut choice to win; if it's dry, I'd feel less confident.

I feel very strongly about the chances of the four horses I have mentioned, and I expect to see at least two, quite possibly three, and maybe even all four in the superfecta. But the Kentucky Derby is one race where you can't hedge--it is part of the fun to have one pick to win, even if you like multiple horses. In 2012, when I couldn't decide between Bodemeister, Creative Cause, and Take Charge Indy, I waited until Derby day to finalize my selection. I eventually chose Bodemeister, and while he didn't win, I was pleased to see him outrun my other selections.

As I sit writing this on Thursday, there are still two days remaining until the Derby, and plenty of factors--including the weather and the possibility of a track bias--could influence my choice. I reserve the right to post an addendum to this blog post if something causes me to change my pick; if I do, I'll be sure to post it a couple of hours before the race.

But if I have to pick one horse right now, I'm going to bank on the early pace being faster than most expect. I'm going to bank on Nyquist outrunning all of the other speed horses. And I'm going to bank on Nyquist getting leg-weary in the final furlong to finish second or third behind a closer.

And that closer... is Exaggerator, with utmost respect to Gun Runner and Brody's Cause.

For the exotics, I wouldn't want to play any tickets without the late-running pair of Creator and Suddenbreakingnews, the 1-2 finishers in the Arkansas Derby. Since 2004, one horse that prepped at Oaklawn Park has finished in the Derby superfecta every year except 2013, and while Creator and Suddenbreakingnews got a great pace setup in the Arkansas Derby, they strike me as talented horses that will keep rallying when other horses start tiring. Of the pair, I narrowly prefer Creator, who has been improving in leaps and bounds and is training well at Churchill Downs, but both warrant inclusion in the trifecta and superfecta.

Mor Spirit, who finished second to Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby, could show improvement over a dry track, and his grinding style coupled with decent tactical speed should help him see out the distance. I said after the Santa Anita Derby that I would like to see him draw an outside post in the Derby to help him work out a clean trip free of traffic, so post 17 should be fine for him, and he seems to have taken to Churchill Downs very well in his training.

Mo Tom endured much-publicized troubled trips when third in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) and fourth in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) and hasn't been able to run his best race in a while, but has trained strongly at Churchill Downs and gives the impression of being a horse that will relish ten furlongs. My only concern is that his troubled trips might be partly due to a reluctance to run inside of horses or through narrow openings, and after drawing post four, I wouldn't be shocked if he ends up having to rally inside horses once again. If he gets through the field, he could have a big chance to hit the board--but will he get through?

One longshot that I really like is Majesto. He took a long time to put everything together, losing the first four starts of his career, but he seemed to turn a corner when he won an 8.5-furlong maiden special weight at Gulfstream by a length over the future stakes winner Dig Deep and next-out maiden winner Street Gray. Off that effort, he was entered in the Florida Derby, where he raced inside over the wettest part of the track and produced a nice rally to finish second, beaten 3 ¼ lengths by Nyquist. My feeling is that we haven't seen Majesto's best yet, and as a huge, imposing horse with a strong pedigree for the Derby distance, drawing post 18 should help him stay out of trouble. Is he good enough to win? Perhaps not, but I do think he has a live chance to finish in the superfecta at a big price, and I wouldn't overlook him.

I'd also like to briefly mention My Man Sam, runner-up in the Blue Grass Stakes despite a tricky trip from post fourteen. He doesn't seem to have quite the same burst of speed as some of the other deep closers, which could keep him out of the winner's circle, but he could certainly come running late to pick up the pieces if the pace is fast.

Due to the limitations of word count, I can't discuss every horse that is running in the Kentucky Derby, but I would like to mention Outwork and Mohaymen. The former won the Wood Memorial (gr. I) after dueling for the lead over a tiring track, and he figures to be part of the Derby pace. My gut feeling is that he won't see out the distance if the pace is contested, although if Danzing Candy chooses to employ pace-stalking tactics from post 20, Outwork could potentially work out a decent trip setting slow fractions on the lead and could hang on for a share of the purse. Mohaymen was the unbeaten Derby favorite prior to finishing fourth in the Florida Derby; a return to his best races would put him in the mix, and he's been energetic and enthusiastic in his training, but he has been so eager to run in the mornings that I think he might position himself very close to the lead in the Derby or else fight his rider's restraint if taken back, neither of which would be the most ideal trip for a colt that might not want to run ten furlongs.

So there you have it--my long-winded and admittedly indecisive analysis of the Kentucky Derby. Now it's your turn! Who do you think will triumph in the Run for the Roses?

Update on May 7th at 4:40 p.m. ET: After seeing how the Churchill Downs main track has been playing this afternoon--very fast and favorable to horses racing near the lead--I will change my Derby selection to Nyquist, with respect to Gun Runner and Exaggerator. Good luck to all!


To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website

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