By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Four months later than originally scheduled, the 146th
running of the Kentucky Derby (G1) will take place on Saturday, Sept. 5 at
For the first time since 2003, less than 20 horses have
been entered in the 1 1/4-mile "Run for the Roses," and the field has been
further reduced by the scratch of #6 King Guillermo due to a fever.
With 17 horses left to handicap, here's how I break down
the key contenders:
Tiz the Law
With the exception of the Belmont Stakes (G1), I've
played against Tiz the Law in all his races this season. I keep looking for
chinks in his armor, trying unsuccessfully to find a way to beat him. But now
the truth has dawned on me—Tiz the Law doesn't have any chinks. He doesn't have
any shortcomings. He's just a flat-out racehorse with the talent and mindset of
an elite competitor.
Tiz the Law's rousing triumphs in the Florida Derby (G1)
and Belmont Stakes (G1) were certainly eye-catching, but it was his runaway
victory in the Travers (G1) that convinced me the son of Constitution is the
real deal. After pressing the talented Uncle Chuck through splits of :23.65,
:48.36, and 1:11.95, Tiz the Law took command and blew the doors off his
pursuers down the straight, sprinting the final quarter-mile in an excellent
:24.53 to win by 5 1/2 lengths.
Tiz the Law's final time of 2:00.95 marked the
fifth-fastest 1 1/4-mile Travers in history and produced strong speed figures
of 109 (Beyer) and 115 (Brisnet). The New York-bred sensation enters the
Kentucky Derby as the fastest horse on paper, blending speed with stamina to
form a formidable package. He's also drawn an outside post, setting the stage
for a clean and unencumbered trip.
In short, how can anyone defeat Tiz the Law? He's
training up a storm, so assuming he brings his A-game (there's no reason to
think he won't), the rest are likely running for second place. I won't get
creative this time—I'll just accept that Tiz the Law is the best horse and key
him in all my exotic wagers.
Honor A. P.
In a normal year, Honor A. P. would be my choice to win
the Kentucky Derby. A powerful son of Honor Code conditioned by John Shirreffs,
Honor A. P. was an eye-catching winner of the Santa Anita Derby (G1), rallying
from off the pace to defeat three-time graded stakes winner Authentic by 2 3/4
lengths. This performance yielded strong speed figures across the board,
including triple-digit Brisnet E1, E2, Late Pace, and Speed ratings—an
impressive combination rarely seen.
Honor A. P. was subsequently beaten to second place in
the Shared Belief Stakes, but I wasn't disappointed by his performance. He'd
trained modestly heading into the race and endured a tricky trip, racing wide
and making a big early move before settling back down again. Even in defeat, he
earned strong speed figures of 102 (Beyer) and 103 (Brisnet).
In the weeks since the Shared Belief, Honor A. P. has
posted significantly sharper workouts under the guidance of jockey Mike Smith, so I'm
confident the dark bay ridgling will take a big step forward at Churchill
Downs. He looms as the main threat from behind the speed, and I fully expect
Honor A.P. to crack the exacta. But catching Tiz the Law will be a difficult
A one-run deep closer, Max Player probably isn't up to
winning against this caliber of competition. He's been hesitant to race through
kickback, so breaking from post three in the Kentucky Derby could be
problematic, potentially prompting him to fall even farther off the pace than
But Max Player is resilient once he gets going, as he
displayed when rallying to finish third in the Belmont Stakes (G1) and Travers
(G1). Late-running longshots frequently hit the board in the Run for the Roses,
so if you like Tiz the Law—and who doesn't?—you have to respect Max Player as a
candidate to pick up the pieces and crack the trifecta or superfecta.
A stoutly-bred son of Tapit, Enforceable fits in the same
category with Max Player as a one-run closer with a chance to finish on the
board. Trained by Mark Casse, this full brother to 2016 Kentucky Derby
fourth-place finisher Mohaymen has finished the final three furlongs of his
last three prep runs in less than :38 seconds, a deceptively strong
turn-of-foot that will make him dangerous racing 1 1/4 miles at Churchill
Enforceable most recently ran a solid race when finishing
fourth in the Blue Grass (G2). Making his first start off a 3 1/2-month layoff,
the gray colt wasn't cranked for a peak effort, but came running nicely to miss
third place by just a neck. I'm optimistic he'll take a step forward at
Churchill Downs, and drawing post three sets up the potential for a
ground-saving trip. At 30-1, he's my favorite play among the longshots.
Sold for $1 million as a yearling, Thousand Words has
used his relentless, grinding fortitude to win three stakes races with a wide
variety of running styles. A front-running trip saw Thousand Words upset Honor
A. P. in the Shared Belief, but with stablemate Authentic likely to set the
pace at Churchill Downs, Thousand Words seems more likely to settle behind the Derby
speed and make a sustained rally to reach contention.
Part of me wonders if Thousand Words' grinding style won't
be suited to the chaotic nature of the Kentucky Derby—he's probably not fast
enough to set the pace, but he isn't the type to drop back and make a late
rally to pass tired rivals. But Thousand Words just keeps on enriching his
resume, so on accomplishments alone he's worth including for five-time Kentucky
Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert.
True, Sole Volante never fired when finishing sixth
behind Tiz the Law in the Belmont Stakes. But the gelded son of Breeders' Cup
Mile (G1) winner Karakontie was running back just 10 days after an allowance
win at Gulfstream Park, and considering he's bred to excel on turf, perhaps he
didn't care for the sandy track at Belmont Park.
Sole Volante hadn't missed the trifecta in his six
previous starts, including a couple of big efforts at Tampa Bay Downs during
the winter. A powerful stretch-running victory in the Sam F. Davis (G3) was
followed by a deceptively strong runner-up effort in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2).
In each instance, Sole Volante unleashed legitimately fast finishing fractions
while displaying a willingness to race inside rivals.
Sole Volante is training forwardly in advance of the
Kentucky Derby, and since Churchill Downs is known for playing kindly toward
turf horses, this deep-closing colt could be set for a vastly improved
performance on the first Saturday in September.
He might not be a frequent winner, but Ny Traffic is as
game as they come and never gives up. He improved steadily while hitting the
board in four consecutive Road to the Kentucky Derby prep races, including the Louisiana
Derby (G2) and Haskell (G1).
Ny Traffic's effort in the Haskell was particularly
noteworthy. After tracking Authentic through modest fractions, the son of Cross
Traffic appeared beaten when Authentic kicked clear down the stretch. But Ny
Traffic somehow found another gear in the final furlong and re-rallied boldly
to miss by a nose.
With an abundance of tactical speed in tow, Ny Traffic
figures to enjoy a comfortable stalking trip in the Kentucky Derby, staying clear
of traffic while forwardly positioned. If he takes another step forward on
Saturday, he can certainly fight for a spot on the board.
While I'm still skeptical whether this speedy son of Into
Mischief can handle the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby, his talent
is impossible to deny. A front-running winner of the Sham (G3), San Felipe
(G2), and Haskell (G1), Authentic brings competitive speed figures to the
equation and figures to break running on Saturday with an eye on setting the
Authentic has also been the beneficiary of several key
defections from the Kentucky Derby field. The loss of Shirl's Speight and King
Guillermo has sharply reduced the amount of early speed in the mix, giving
Authentic a greater chance to get out in front, relax on the lead, and hang on down
the stretch to finish in the exotics.
1st: Tiz the Law
2nd: Honor A. P.
4th: Sole Volante
AND SUPERFECTA TICKETS
$6 trifecta: 17 with 16 with 2,3,10,12,15,18 ($36)
$2 superfecta: 17 with 16 with 2,3,10,12,15,18 with 2,3,10,12,15,18 ($60)
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Kentucky
Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!
The Road to the Kentucky Derby handicapping challenge is back for the sixth straight year! Check out the Road to the Kentucky Derby contest page for more details.
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.