Keeler Johnson’s Kentucky Derby 144 Selections

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 memory.

There's a lot to consider, so let's dive right in and take a horse-by-horse look at the race....

#1 Firenze Fire

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.

#2 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.

#3 Promises Fulfilled

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.

#4 Flameaway

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 the Derby.

#5 Audible

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

#6 Good Magic

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 Derby.

#7 Justify

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.

#8 Lone Sailor

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.

#9 Hofburg

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 approached.

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.

#10 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.

#11 Bolt d'Oro

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 Juvenile.

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.

#12 Enticed

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.

#13 Bravazo

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.

#14 Mendelssohn

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.

#15 Instilled Regard

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 field

#16 Magnum Moon

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.

#17 Solomini

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.

#18 Vino Rosso

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, 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.

#19 Noble Indy

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.

#20 Combatant

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 Derby?


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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

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