By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
After months of preparation, the field for the 144th
running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (gr. I) at
Churchill Downs is set, and on paper, the twenty horses entered in the
ten-furlong "Run for the Roses" comprise one of the strongest fields in recent
There's a lot to consider, so let's dive right in and
take a horse-by-horse look at the race....
This admirable son of Poseidon's Warrior defeated the
likes of Good Magic and Enticed in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) last year and
outperformed his pedigree to finish a good second in the Withers Stakes (gr.
III) going nine furlongs, but overall his record suggests that he might be best
going a mile or less. His form has also deteriorated a bit in recent months, as
he could only manage distant fourth-place finishes in the Gotham Stakes (gr.
III) and Wood Memorial (gr. II). A ground-saving trip could be in the works
from post one, but the waters look pretty deep in the Derby.
Free Drop Billy
This consistent late runner won the Breeders' Futurity
(gr. I) at Keeneland last fall, but has generally come up short when facing the
better members of this crop and is 0-for-3 so far this year. That said, I'm
inclined to forgive his fourth-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II)
last time out, as he endured a dreadfully wide trip and was badly hampered in
the homestretch before being placed third via disqualification. He might have
finished closer to Good Magic with a clean run, and with a perfect
ground-saving trip in the Derby (no guarantee, but a possibility while breaking
from post two), I don't think it's out of the question that Free Drop Billy could
finish in the superfecta.
Promises Fulfilled knows of only one way to run, and that
is to take the early lead and dare his rivals to catch him. He's never been
headed during the first six furlongs of any of his races and rationed his speed
effectively to upset Good Magic in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) two
starts back, but subsequently got caught up in a destructive speed duel in the
Florida Derby that resulted in a :21.95-second opening quarter--mile-suffice to
say, he had no chance after all.
If you draw a line through Promises Fulfilled's Florida
Derby run, his form is actually pretty solid--his only other defeat came in the
Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) last fall, in which he fought his rider
and popped a splint but still battled on to finish third. Trainer Dale Romans
has stated that Promises Fulfilled will set the pace in the Derby, and I think
there's an outside chance that this colt could shake loose on a clear lead and
hang around to finish in the superfecta. At 50-1, he might be worth including
for the huge payoffs he'll generate if he does finish on the board.
The Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) runner-up has plenty of
speed but is a bit more versatile that Promises Fulfilled, showing the ability
to rate when finishing second in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) two starts back.
He might get first run at Promises Fulfilled, but catching that colt could be
easier said than done, and with Audible, Good Magic, and Justify looming to his
outside, Flameaway could have a tough time finding his way on to the board in
Few horses in the Derby field, if any, have demonstrated
the same versatility in terms of running style as Audible. Following a striking
debut at Belmont in which he fell 19 lengths off the early pace before rallying
to finish third, Audible has rattled off four straight wins at Aqueduct and
Gulfstream Park while demonstrating the ability to win from just about anywhere.
I loved his dominant triumph in the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) to kick off the
season, as he tracked a decent early pace before unleashing a dramatic burst of
acceleration in the homestretch, turning back a strong bid from Free Drop Billy
to win by 5 ½ lengths while running the final five-sixteenths of a mile in
:29.92 seconds. That's flying in a dirt race!
Two months later, Audible returned to action in the
Florida Derby (gr. I) and showed no hesitation settling at the back of the pack
while Promises Fulfilled ran off through a :21.95-second opening quarter-mile.
Adapting to the fast pace, Audible smoothly advanced down the backstretch and
around the turn to seize command from the leaders, then turned back a strong
bid from the late-charging Hofburg to pull away and win by three lengths.
Audible did not train particularly well in the weeks
before the Florida Derby, but has come back strong since then and appears to be
a horse that is getting good at the right time. The Derby will be his third
start of the season, an angle that has worked for eight of the last eleven
Derby winners, and while Audible has yet to crack the triple-digit Beyer mark,
the 99s that he received in the Holy Bull and Florida Derby are enough to put
him in the mix from a speed figure perspective, and he's even faster on the
BRIS scale, having put up a 107 in the Florida Derby.
My only concern is that Audible had to be urged to keep
up early on in the Holy Bull Stakes, and I have the feeling that in the hectic
run to the first turn of the Derby, he'll be a colt that could have trouble
holding his position early and wind up farther off the pace than expected. That
might not be a big deal--look at what he did in the Florida Derby--but it does
introduce the possibility of encountering traffic. In general, I think Audible
is sitting on a big run in the Derby and must be included in the exotics, but
there are others that I prefer slightly more from a win perspective
I certainly understand the arguments by some that Good
Magic has been a bit disappointing this year. The well-bred son of Curlin
caught eyes last fall with a dominating 4 ¼-length victory over Solomini and
Bolt d'Oro in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), earning a huge 100 Beyer. In
contrast, his two efforts this year--a tiring third in the Fountain of Youth
Stakes (gr. II) and a hard-fought 1 ½-length win over Flameaway in the Blue
Grass Stakes (gr. II)--have been less inspiring.
However, I'm taking a different view of Good Magic's
races this season and believe he's sitting on his best run yet in the Kentucky
Derby. He missed a couple of workouts prior to the Fountain of Youth and also
receiving a tough trip chasing a slow pace, so it wasn't terribly surprising to
see him come up short in the homestretch. And while he had to work hard to win
the Blue Grass Stakes (while posting just a 95 Beyer), he was caught wide
throughout the race and wound up running nearly seven lengths farther (per
Trakus) than the second- and third-place finishers.
Good Magic has drawn well in post six for the Derby and
should be able to work out more of a ground-saving trip this time around,
perhaps settling in behind the speedy Justify, who is drawn right to his
outside. Furthermore, trainer Chad Brown has done excellent work in the past
getting talented two-year-olds to the Derby in top shape--think back to Normandy
Invasion and Practical Joke, who respectively finished fourth in 2013 and fifth
in 2017. Like Good Magic, Normandy Invasion and Practical Joke each ran twice
prior to the Derby and were beaten in their seasonal debuts; unlike Good Magic,
they were beaten in their final preps as well, yet ran huge in the Derby
despite being at their best going shorter distances.
Considering his pedigree, distance shouldn't be any issue
for Good Magic, and I'm expecting him to step up his game significantly in the
By traditional standards, Justify should not be a
contender to win the Kentucky Derby. He was unraced as a two-year-old and
didn't debut until February 18th; no unraced two-year-old has won
the Derby since Apollo in 1882. He has just three starts under his belt; since
1915, only Big Brown and Regret have won the Derby with so little experience.
He's a son of Scat Daddy out of a Ghostzapper mare, a pedigree that suggests
"turf miler" more than "classic dirt runner." And he's beaten a combined total
of just 14 rivals in his three races.
These are all valid points, but to focus on the negatives
is to ignore the preponderance of evidence that suggest Justify might well be a
superstar in the making. Speed? No colt in the Derby field has run faster;
Justify opened his career with Beyers of 104, 101, and 107, plus BRIS speed
figures of 100, 104, and 114. He can run fast early, as he did in his maiden
win (posting fractions of :21.80 and :44.37), and he can run fast late too, as
he did in the Santa Anita Derby, coming home the final three furlongs in a
rapid :37.11 seconds while earning a massive 117 BRIS Late Pace.
Even better, the visual impression that Justify makes
during his races is just as eye-catching as his speed figures. His lead changes
are effortless--you can hardly tell they're there--and although he is very fast,
he doesn't give the impression of being a speed-crazy colt by any means. Just
look at his allowance win two starts back, in which he broke a bit slowly but
casually settled behind the leaders like a seasoned veteran.
There are obviously some questions that Justify will have
to answer in the Kentucky Derby, and we don't know for sure how he'll respond
should he break slow and wind up in traffic early on. But truth be told, that
is the case with every horse in the Derby field--they all need racing luck, and
Justify's immense talent should give him a better chance than most to simply
make his own luck and secure a good position. I'm not particularly worried
about the distance either--the way that Justify turned back the two-time Grade 1
winner Bolt d'Oro in the Santa Anita Derby to draw off and win by three lengths
is exactly what you want to see in a Derby contender, and Justify strikes me as
the type of horse that can blow the Derby wide open with a big move around the
far turn and sustain it through the homestretch to hold off the closers.
If it's not already clear, Justify is my choice to win
the Kentucky Derby.
He ran an admirable race when second by just a neck in
the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), a career-best effort, but it's worth noting that
he received a terrific pace setup rallying into fast fractions, had the lead in
the homestretch, and still couldn't hold off the resurgent pace-presser Noble
Indy. In addition, Lone Sailor's only victory to date came going seven furlongs
in an off-the-turf maiden race conducted over a sloppy, sealed track at
Saratoga; unless the track is wet for the Derby, he might be in a bit deep
against this caliber of competition. I also wonder if he won't ultimately be at
his best as a miler.
Hofburg has come a long way in a short period of time.
After debuting with a fourth-place finish sprinting at Saratoga last September,
Hofburg went to the sidelines and did not run again until March 3rd,
when he stretched out to 8.5 furlongs and rallied from mid-pack to defeat the
next-out maiden winner Just Whistle by half a length.
Off that promising maiden win, trainer Bill Mott elected
to run Hofburg right back in the Florida Derby four weeks later, an ambitious
move considering that Mott usually takes his time with lightly-raced three-year-olds
and doesn't often embark on the Derby trail. Mott's confidence paid off as
Hofburg produced a big rally to finish second, three lengths behind Audible and
7 ¾ lengths clear of the rest of the field.
But although Hofburg has trained well since then and is
becoming something of a buzz horse as a result, I'm not sure that he'll be able
to turn the tables on Audible in the Run for the Roses. He got an ideal setup
in the Florida Derby, rating far behind the fast early pace, but despite making
a later move than the victorious Audible (who you can argue moved a bit prematurely),
Hofburg actually lost ground on Audible in the final furlong, getting within
two lengths at the eighth pole before dropping back a bit as the wire
Also, unlike Audible, Hofburg hasn't shown the ability to
race close to the pace if necessary, showcasing a one-dimensional late-running
style in all three of his starts. That could be an ideal running style if the
Derby pace is fast, but as with any closer, he'll need a bit of racing luck to
avoid a traffic-filled trip. Under the circumstances, I'm tempted to take a
stand against Hofburg in the Derby.
My Boy Jack
With ten races under his belt, we certainly know what to
expect from My Boy Jack. Almost without exception, he drops far off the pace
early on and comes with a big run around the turn, a move that was most
impressive over a muddy, sealed track in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) three
starts back. But My Boy Jack also benefited that day from saving ground over a
rail-biased track, and when forced to rally extremely wide in the Louisiana
Derby (gr. II), he flattened out in the homestretch and finished a close third
despite having dead aim on the leaders thanks to a favorable pace setup.
My Boy Jack subsequently returned to the winner's circle
when facing easier company in the Lexington Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland, but
again he flattened out a bit after making a big move and had to work hard to
edge runner-up Telekinesis by a head. I think My Boy Jack could be a major
player in the Derby if the track comes up sloppy and sealed, particularly if jockey
Kent Desormeaux can work out a ground-saving trip, but over a fast track it
could be tough for My Boy Jack to sustain his rally well enough to finish in
the superfecta against a field this deep.
Solomini. Good Magic, McKinzie, Justify. That's a pretty
deep group of horses that Bolt d'Oro has faced in his last three starts, and
while he didn't cross the wire first in any of them, it wasn't from a lack of
trying. The talented son of Medaglia d'Oro burst onto the scene last fall with
a breathtaking 7 ¾-length romp in the FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I), earning a 103
Beyer speed figure that stamped him as the horse to beat in the Breeders' Cup
Unfortunately, Bolt d'Oro endured an impossibly wide trip
in the Breeders' Cup and could only finish third behind Good Magic, and his
misfortune has continued this year. After taking the winter off, Bolt d'Oro returned
to action in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) and ran a huge race off the layoff,
settling just off the pace before moving up to challenge the talented McKinzie
for the lead. Bolt d'Oro had his head in front at the eighth pole and looked
like the winner, but was bumped by McKinzie late in the race and finished a
head back in second place before being awarded the win via disqualification.
Bolt d'Oro had a less than ideal trip in the Santa Anita
Derby as well, taking up the unenviable task of chasing Justify from start to
finish. While he was no match for the Justify late in the race, Bolt d'Oro made
a couple of gallant challenges and wasn't badly beaten at all while finishing
second by just three lengths.
It's fair to wonder whether these tough defeats will take
a toll on Bolt d'Oro, but from a speed figure perspective he's been running as
fast as ever, earning Beyers of 101 and 102 this season as well as a massive
110 BRIS speed figure for his Santa Anita Derby effort. You can also argue that
those tough runs might actually be a good thing for Bolt d'Oro since he missed
a scheduled start in February's San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) and has run just
twice this season.
In some respects, Bolt d'Oro reminds me of the 2010
Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, an accomplished two-year-old who lost two
hard battles before stepping up with a career-best run in the Kentucky Derby. I
think Bolt d'Oro could be sitting on a similar step forward in the Derby, and
the fact that he's drawn beautifully in post eleven should help him work out
the trip he needs. I'll definitely be using him in the exotics and rank him as
my second choice behind Justify.
He picked up a win over this track in the Kentucky Jockey
Club Stakes (gr. II) last fall and defeated Free Drop Billy and Firenze Fire by
large margins in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) two starts back, but I wonder if
his runner-up effort in the Wood Memorial (gr. II) exposed his limitations a
bit. He deserves credit for racing close to a face pace and staying on to
finish second despite being bumped around by Vino Rosso turning for home, but he
also seemed to be running out of gas at that point and was soundly beaten at
the wire while posting only a 93 Beyer. Despite a strongly classic-oriented
pedigree (he's by Medaglia d'Oro out of the Grade 1-winning Mineshaft mare It's
Tricky), I'm not sure he really wants to run ten furlongs at this point in his
career, especially against a field of this caliber. In terms of speed figures,
he might not be fast enough.
In general, I've been a fan of Bravazo since last year
and really liked the versatility he displayed during the winter while winning
an Oaklawn allowance race from off the pace and the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II)
while challenging for the early lead. But Bravazo was never a serious contender
in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) last time out, a race in which he repeatedly
tried to drift out while fighting jockey Gary Stevens before falling back
around the turn and through the homestretch to finish a distant eighth, a
performance well below his previous form. I'm not sure what went wrong in the
Louisiana Derby, but even if you draw a line through that effort, Bravazo still
needs to step up his game a notch to be competitive at Churchill Downs.
Arguably no horse in the Derby field has turned in a more
breathtaking performance this year than Mendelssohn, who crushed his rivals in
the UAE Derby (UAE-II) by a staggering 18 ½ lengths while breaking the track
record and earning a 106 Beyer speed figure. That he relished dirt wasn't a
shock considering that he is a half-brother to the two-time Breeders' Cup
Distaff (gr. I) winner Beholder, but can he repeat an effort of that magnitude
against significantly tougher competition in the Kentucky Derby?
For various reasons, I'm tempted to play against
Mendelssohn on Saturday. His UAE Derby victory, while certainly impressive, was
achieved over a track that strongly favored speed horses on the rail throughout
the meet, particularly so on the night of the UAE Derby. It's also worth noting
that Mendelssohn hasn't shown that he can handle kickback on a dirt track,
which he could encounter if he finds himself off the pace early on the Derby.
That might be more likely than it appears at first glance--remember, Mendelssohn
did not get off to a particularly alert start in the UAE Derby and had to be
hard-ridden to secure the lead. It worked out on that occasion, but he could
find the battle for the lead to be much more intense in the Kentucky Derby, and
if he winds up in traffic that could spell the end of his chance at victory.
I have a lot of respect for what Mendelssohn has
accomplished and view him as perhaps the best internationally-based Derby
starter in years, but given the questions he has to answer, I'll let him beat
me on Saturday.
He flashed solid form during the winter, crossing the
wire a close third in the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) before winning the
Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) in decisive fashion, but the strength of the Lecomte
field has since come into question, and Instilled Regard seems to have reached
a plateau with Beyers in the low 90s, which yielded fourth-place finishers in
the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I). His declining
form when facing tougher company makes him tough to play against this deep
On paper, it's hard not to be impressed by what Magnum
Moon has accomplished this year. Four wins from four starts, all by a minimum
of two lengths while showcasing a variety of running styles. Two starts back,
he overcame a wide trip to win the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) with a strong finish,
and last time out he won the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) by four lengths in
gate-to-wire fashion while running the final three furlongs in a rapid :36.47
seconds. Throw in his classic-oriented pedigree (he's by Malibu Moon out of an
Unbridled's Song mare) and a solid post draw that should help him stay out of
traffic, and what's not to like about Magnum Moon?
Well, there is his habit of drifting outward in the
homestretch, something he's done to some extent in all four of his starts. It
was particularly pronounced in the Arkansas Derby, when he surprisingly changed
to his right lead while still on the far turn, causing him to shift out
dramatically leaving the turn and wind up in the middle of the track. It didn't
seem to affect his finishing speed--once he straightened out, he ran the final
furlong in :11.99 seconds--but he probably can't afford to make such a severe
mistake in a race like the Kentucky Derby.
It's also worth noting that Magnum Moon has already run
four times this year, a busy schedule for modern Derby contenders. The last
horse to win the Derby following a four-race prep schedule was Smarty Jones in
2004, but Smarty Jones had also run twice as a two-year-old, whereas Magnum
Moon didn't debut until January 13th and packed his four starts into
a three-month span. Part of me wonders if Magnum Moon may have peaked in the
Arkansas Derby, setting up the possibility of regression while facing tougher
company in the Kentucky Derby. Of the short-priced contenders, Magnum Moon is
one that I'm tempted to lean against.
Bob Baffert's second runner has never finished out of the
trifecta and ran second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) last year, but
he's had issues with changing leads and was soundly beaten by Magnum Moon in
both the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby. Physically, he has a lot of
talent, but I think mentally he's still trying to catch up to some of his
rivals. Drawing post seventeen could be problematic, as Solomini likes to race
close to the pace, but probably doesn't have enough early speed to avoid
getting caught wide around the turns.
As a son of Curlin out of a Street Cry mare, Vino Rosso
has always been cut out to excel at classic distances, and I've been a fan from
the day he broke his maiden with a rally from mid-pack at Aqueduct last
November. He showed some inexperience and greenness over the winter, turning in
odd runs while failing to accelerate around the turns of the Sam F. Davis
Stakes (gr. III) and Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II), but Vino Rosso put it all
together in the Wood Memorial (gr. II) last time out, rallying strongly from
nine lengths off the pace to win going away by three lengths over the two-time
graded stakes winner Enticed.
On one hand, I think Vino Rosso is finally starting to
figure things out from a mental perspective, with the Wood Memorial being a
more accurate reflection of his talent than his runs at Tampa Bay Downs during
the winter. But at the same time, it's worth noting that Vino Rosso received a
terrific setup in the Wood Memorial; thanks to a combination of a
closer-favoring track and a closer-favoring pace, RacingFlow.com assigned the
race a Closer Favorability Ratio of 99, signifying that the Wood Memorial fell
within the top 2% of races favoring late runners. Throw in the fact that Vino
Rosso has drawn very wide in post eighteen and I'm inclined to take a stand
against him in the Derby, though with his pedigree, I do believe he could be a
major player in the Belmont Stakes five weeks from now.
I have a lot of respect for what Noble Indy accomplished
in the Louisiana Derby, chasing a fast pace and battling back after being
passed in the homestretch to defeat Lone Sailor and My Boy Jack in a thrilling
finish. That was a career-best performance and a nice step forward off his
third-place effort in the Risen Star Stakes, in which he got a somewhat tricky
trip racing inside of horses, but drawing post nineteen in the Derby might
prove to be more of a challenge than Noble Indy can overcome. He's got speed,
but will likely have to run hard in the opening quarter-mile to avoid getting
caught wide on the first turn, a distinct possibility since all of the other
prominent speed horses (Promises Fulfilled, Flameaway, Mendelssohn, and Magnum
Moon) are drawn to his inside. I'm having trouble visualizing Noble Indy
working out a winning trip under these circumstances.
For the sixth time in eight career starts, Combatant has
had the misfortune to draw a very wide post position, and his draw in the Derby
likely leaves with no choice but to drop back early on and make one run.
Trained by Steve Asmussen, Combatant has been remarkably consistent while
competing in five Derby prep races since December, but he's developed something
of a "pick up the pieces" tendency when facing tougher company, repeatedly unleashing
rallies around the far turn before flattening out in the homestretch. Notably,
he had Solomini measured and passed in both the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby
before getting edged out by that rival close to home each time. I get the
feeling that Combatant could benefit from cutting back in distance or possibly
trying turf (he's bred to relish grass), though that doesn't mean he couldn't
rally his way into the Derby superfecta with a perfect setup.
In my opinion, four horses--Justify, Bolt d'Oro, Good Magic, and Audible--stand above the rest as the most likely winners of the
Kentucky Derby, with my strong preference being for Justify. Bettors looking
for longshots to play in the exotics might want to consider the late-running
trio of My Boy Jack, Combatant, and Free Drop Billy, with My Boy Jack being the one that interests me
most. And if you really want to get ambitious, I wouldn't talk you out of using
Promises Fulfilled, though
admittedly he would need a perfect setup from a pace perspective to hang around
for a spot in the superfecta.
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Kentucky
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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 www.theturfboard.com.