Flight to Quality - By Evan Hammonds

Few people have experienced the joy of breeding or racing a horse good enough to start in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1). Imagine how breeder John Gunther felt April 7 after two horses he bred—Vino Rosso and Justify—won the Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1), respectively. Both figure to make their way to Churchill Downs come May 5.

Gunther was featured in the March 31 issue, covered well by features editor Lenny Shulman, with photos of the dams of both winners shot by our own Anne M. Eberhardt.

From a broodmare band that is usually around 20, to breed two horses of that caliber in one crop is off the charts. In the piece, Gunther expressed, “I’ve never used a bloodstock agent,” and admitted he has pangs of regret from selling a big winner.

“I put some high reserves on these horses,” he said “Justify (who sold for $500,000) and Vino Rosso ($410,000) were both spectacular-looking yearlings, so I put high reserves on them hoping they wouldn’t sell, but they did anyway.”

Pride of accomplishment could replace pangs of regret in four weeks’ time.

The trifecta of Derby preps April 7—that also included Good Magic’s score in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2)—figured to separate the wheat from the chaff. While racing sometimes has a habit of muddying the waters with unpredictable results, this year’s lead up to the Run for the Roses has been rather formful.

And just as the sales arena has “polarized,” with heightened demand for the best lots and little-to-no interest for the middle-market and lower-end horses, the betting on this year’s crop of 3-year-olds has a similar feel. Wall Street refers to it as a  “flight to quality.”

Fans flocked to the Bob Baffert-trained Justify in Southern California, who was a skimpy 9-10 for just his third career start. He prevailed in a near gate-to-wire thriller at Santa Anita, brushing off the more seasoned Bolt d’Oro’s advances on the turn and in the stretch.

With four weeks to the Derby and with only Oaklawn’s Arkansas Derby (G1) left as a major prep, the early odds for the Derby are polarized between the so-called top lots of Justify and UAE Derby Sponsored By Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (G2) runaway winner Mendelssohn.

Churchill Downs’ fourth and final Kentucky Derby Future Wager closed April 8 at 6 p.m. EST and with a bit more than $540,000 in the pot, the prices on the favorites were remarkably low considering we are now in the age of the 20-horse Derby field.

Justify, who is bucking all sorts of historical Derby trends, was bet down to 3-1 in the final Future Wager.

To put things in perspective, the Baffert-trained American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, was 5-1 in the fourth and final Future Wager pool in 2015.

Mendelssohn’s price in the Future Wager closed at 5-1. That’s a huge leap of faith, considering the colt has made but one start on dirt and will be asked to make his way to Churchill Downs from Ireland, via the effort in Dubai—a feat yet to be accomplished.

These are prices on horses that also have a one in 20 chance of being asked to break from the dreaded rail when post positions are drawn May 1.

Just as Gunther’s 2018 classic crop consists of a pair of top athletes, both Justify and Mendelssohn are from the penultimate crop of the late Scat Daddy. Way back in November, Churchill Downs offered an esoteric Derby Future Wager Sire Pool. If one had the premonition then, the price on Scat Daddy closed at 26-1.

Happy handicapping.

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