Kentucky Derby 2018 Preview: Exceptionally Strong Field Ready to Rumble

Kentucky Derby 144 is finally here and after months of prep races across the world, a field of 20 horses are set to enter the starting gate at Churchill Downs for the Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports on Saturday, May 5. This year’s entrants are shaping up to be one of the strongest fields we have seen assembled in recent years.  What a fun and challenging race this race is to handicap!

Justify, trained by Bob Baffert, is the morning line favorite for the Kentucky Derby (photo by Jim Safford).

Justify, trained by Bob Baffert, is the morning line favorite for the Kentucky Derby (photo by Jim Safford).

You could make a strong case for many of this season’s top point-earners, but the likely morning-line favorite in this year’s Run for The Roses is ninth in Derby point standings: Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner, Justify.

The Bob Baffert trainee went wire-to-wire and held off hard-knocking multiple Grade 1 winner, Bolt d’Oro, in their final preps, and in the process earned himself the highest Brisnet and Beyer Speed Figures of any horse in the Derby this year — 114 and 107, respectively. While Justify is undefeated in his three lifetime starts in less than as many months, his lack of experience gives plausible doubt to whether he will be worth betting as the post-time favorite.

Top Contenders

Justify’s competition will be steep and will consist of four horses from the barn of last year’s Derby-winning trainer, Todd Pletcher. Pletcher’s best chance to upset Justify is with Audible, who is coming into the race off of a four race win streak, including wins in the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) and Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream Park this year. Audible ran an impressive 107 Beyer Speed Figure in the latter stake performance. He has solid pace-pressing tactical speed, but showed a valuable new dimension in his running style in his Florida Derby (G1) victory, sitting further than usual off of the fast pace before making his move, passing several horses en route to an easy three-length victory.

Pletcher’s other top Derby contender is the undefeated Magnum Moon, who reeled off back-to-back wins in Oaklawn Park’s major Derby prep races, the Rebel Stakes (G2) and the Arkansas Derby (G1). His gate-to-wire victory in the Arkansas Derby (G1) saw him get an easy lead, drawing off to win by four lengths. Although he ran greenly down the stretch, he completed the final quarter mile in :11.99 and earned a 98 Beyer Speed Figure. If there is a knock on Magnum Moon, it is also his lack of seasoning — he only has four career starts and none as a two year old.

Pletcher’s other two contenders, Wood Memorial (G2) winner, Vino Rosso, and Louisiana Derby (G2) winner, Noble Indy, are no slouches either, adding even more depth to the three year old division.

This year’s wild card is UAE Derby (G1) victor, Mendelssohn. Other than his crushing win by 18 ½ lengths in the 1 3/16 mile UAE Derby (G1), all of his other starts have been on the turf, including a win in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1). Trainer Aiden O’Brien said he’d always believed Mendelssohn would be better on dirt than turf and would be pointed to the Kentucky Derby (G1) instead of the English classics, which are run over turf.

Mendelssohn, a half-brother to the Champion mare, Beholder, is bred to be a dirt monster.  He may have taken advantage of a speed-favoring track in Dubai, but he has been able to rate throughout his seven-race career and doesn’t need the lead to win. That makes me view him as a stronger Derby contender than either of the proven front-runners with less races under their belts.

Fringe Contenders

Enticed

Enticed (photo via NYRA).

The choice of Derby longshot picks will include: Gotham Stakes (G3) winner and Wood Memorial (G2) runner-up, Enticed; Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and Tampa Bay Derby (G2) runner-up, Flameaway; Arkansas Derby (G1) third place finisher, Solomini; Arkansas Derby (G1) fourth place finisher, Combatant; Blue Grass Stakes (G2) fourth place finisher, Free Drop Billy; Florida Derby (G1) runner-up, Hofburg; Lexington Stakes (G3) winner, My Boy Jack; Risen Star Stakes (G2) winner, Bravazo; Louisiana Derby (G2) runner-up, Lone Sailor; and, Fountain of Youth (G2) winner, Promises Fulfilled.

From this fringe group, I have noticed Hofburg getting some attention from “wise guy” types as a lightly-raced horse with a right to improve off his tough trip in the Florida Derby (G1). My pick from these in the exotics at a price would be Combatant, who got no pace to run at when suffering a ground-losing trip in the Arkansas Derby (G1) for trainer Steve Asmussen. Combatant’s fourth place finish in that race looks a lot worse on paper than it did when watching it. He had the toughest trip against the pace, and was actually just a neck and a head out of second place.

Jockeys

Jose Ortiz is slated to ride last year's Juvenile Champion, Good Magic, in the Kentucky Derby (photo via www.theepochtimes.com)

Jose Ortiz is slated to ride last year’s Juvenile Champion, Good Magic, in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby (photo via www.theepochtimes.com)

If you are looking for some clues about the Derby contenders from the jockeys, you won’t get a ton of help in that department. Justify (Mike Smith), Magnum Moon (Luis Saez), Mendelssohn (Ryan Moore), and Good Magic (Jose Ortiz) all will have their regular riders aboard. Javier Castellano was in the enviable position of having the mounts on both Audible and Bolt d’Oro, but chose to ride Audible.  The mount on Bolt d’Oro will go to three-time Kentucky Derby (G1) winning jockey, Victor Espinoza, so certainly no harm done there to either horse.

John Velazquez rode both Noble Indy and Vino Rosso in their last victories, as well as Audible. Johnny V will be aboard Vino Rosso on Derby Day, leaving Florent Geroux to pick up the mount on Noble Indy.

Pace Makes the Race

Besides race records and connections, the key to handicapping the 2018 Kentucky Derby (G1) very well might come down to the pace. Several of this year’s main contenders have early speed, and the key to success for those horses may potentially be to use their tactical speed to rate just off the pace.

The pace-setter is likely to be the very fast Promises Fulfilled, and horses like Justify, Noble Indy, and Flameaway are likely to be in hot pursuit. In this scenario, it will be incumbent on contenders like Magnum Moon and Mendelssohn to go against the front-running tactics they used to win their key prep races by laying just off the pace to have their best chances at winning, something both horses have proven capable of in the past.

Rating could be a more difficult proposition, however, for a horse like Justify, who probably lacks the seasoning to go against his natural speed at this young stage of his career.

If you really want to use pace to handicap this year’s Kentucky Derby (G1), however, you’d probably do best to shy away from all of the front-runner types mentioned in the previous paragraph and focus on the stalkers and late-runners. These are the horses with the best advantage from a pace standpoint this season.

This group includes Audible, Good Magic, and Bolt d’Oro.  None of the three are stone cold closers that need to come from a hundred lengths back.  Rather, all of them have some degree of tactical speed, but all have shown the ability to rally from off the pace and pass horses, and none of the trio is short on talent or ability in any way.

Post Positions

Finally, you don’t want to ignore the importance of the post-position draw in the Kentucky Derby (G1).  It’s easy to make a case for almost any of the contenders this year. One way you might be able to narrow down your selections is based off of post position.  A post position of 1, 2 or 3 will be enough for me to remove any horse from my list of top picks, while an outside post anywhere in or near the auxiliary gate may give me more confidence in a selection.

Based on recent statistics from the last few decades, I feel absolutely comfortable upgrading the chances of horses that draw post 13 or higher (accounting for 9 of the past 17 winners). I feel even more confident downgrading any horse drawing posts 1,2 or 3, which have combined to go 3-for-117 in the past 39 years.

Selections

Assuming no post position disasters, I’m going with Audible and Mendelssohn on top of Good Magic, and Bolt d’Oro underneath him. I’ll mix longshot Combative into the bottom of my trifectas and superfectas. And – because I don’t want to kick myself later – I will also sprinkle Justify and Magnum Moon into the underneath slots. Then I will sit back and hope that the pieces all fall in place in the best possible order at the finish.

If you held a gun to my head, I think that Mendelssohn is the best horse with the best chance to be something special, but because of the likely pace scenario and his shipping in from overseas, I think the advantage very well might go to Audible. Whoever you choose, I wish you best of luck and I hope you enjoy what figures to be a special Kentucky Derby (G1).

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Kentucky Derby Road: Magnum Moon Stays Perfect, but Won’t Be Derby Favorite

Originally published on April 17, 2018

Bob Baffert trains the likely Kentucky Derby favorite, Justify.

Bob Baffert trains the likely Kentucky Derby favorite, Justify.

With the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland now in the books, the final prep races have been run and theA field has more or less been set for the Kentucky Derby. Six of the 20 horses in the starting gate will be trained by Todd Pletcher (4) or Bob Baffert (2).  Pletcher will enter the race as the defending champion trainer, having won last year with Always Dreaming, while Baffert is likely to go postward with this year’s favorite, Santa Anita Derby winner Justify.

The Arkansas Derby was another tour-de-force performance by Todd Pletcher’s undefeated Magnum Moon, who took the field wire-to-wire and drew off late to win by four lengths with a 98 Beyer speed figure. He ran the final quarter mile in :11.99, giving Pletcher an amazing streak of 5 straight Saturdays with a major Kentucky Derby prep race victory.  Pletcher’s streak started on March 17, when Magnum Moon took the Rebel Stakes, and continued with Noble Indy’s victory in the Louisiana Derby on March 24, Audible’s win in the Florida Derby on March 31 and Vino Rosso’s score in the Wood Memorial on April 7.

The 2018 Kentucky Derby field of 3-year-olds is shaping up to be one of the strongest crops in recent memory. Magnum Moon, who is a perfect 4-for-4 with back-to-back Graded victories, would surprise nobody if he won the Derby. Yet Magnum Moon might not even be one of the first five choices on the tote board at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. He may or may not even be the top Derby contender in Pletcher’s stable.  In the opinion of many, that distinction goes to Audible, who earned a 99 Beyer figure for his dominant three-length win in the Florida Derby. Jockey Javier Castellano, who had the mounts on both Audible and Bolt d’Oro, chose to ride Audible in the Kentucky Derby.  The mount on Bolt d’Oro will go to three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Victor Espinoza.

Besides speed and connections, Audible also will have something else going for him in the Kentucky Derby — pace. So many of this year’s top Derby contenders are frontrunners, it makes sense that a late runner like Audible might enjoy a pace advantage, especially at 1 ¼ miles.  In addition to Magnum Moon, major contenders such as Justify and Mendelssohn will also want the lead, as well as speedball Promises Fulfilled and possibly others. That should guarantee a fast pace in the Derby, and perhaps provide an edge to off-the-pace runners such as Audible.

In the Arkansas Derby, Magnum Moon got away with only a moderate pace, which certainly was a factor in his strong finish.  Runner-up Quip chased the pace the whole way and was able to narrowly hold on for second. He had already earned a Kentucky Derby berth on the strength of his March win in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Two others in the Arkansas Derby field, however, Baffert’s Solomini and Steve Asmussen’s Combatant, needed the qualifying points offered by the Arkansas Derby.  Both horses ran well from off the pace considering the fractions to finish third and fourth, respectively, in a close photo behind Quip. Solomini’s third was enough to secure him a berth into the Derby field. Combatant, meanwhile, is on the bubble, currently sitting in 21st place in terms of Derby qualifying points. He’ll need a defection in the following three weeks leading up to the Run for the Roses to get into the race. Based on recent history, he is likely to get it because late injuries, illness, or training setbacks often occur amongst the 20 contenders in the weeks leading up to the race.

The other last-minute prep race that had an impact on the field for the Kentucky Derby took place at Keeneland with the running of the Lexington Stakes. My Boy Jack overcame post 12 and beat a lesser field in that race with relative ease to secure a spot in the gate at Churchill Downs. The Beyer speed figure of 90 he earned in that race, however, indicates he is not likely to be one of this year’s major Derby contenders.

Taking a look back at the 2018 Kentucky Derby prep season as a whole, certain races stood out more than others.  In terms of the best visual performances of them all, that honor certainly could go to Mendelssohn’s 18-length win in the U.A.E. Derby in Dubai.  Some of the preps seemed like weaker fields, such as the Louisiana Derby, while others, like the Florida Derby, seemed to have much tougher fields.

To many, the standout prep race of them all this season was the Santa Anita Derby. Despite the late drop-out of McKinzie due to injury, that race turned out to be a doozy anyway with Bolt d’Oro running a big race but still falling short to the lightly raced Justify, who earned a 107 Beyer figure when drawing off to a strong win and solidifying his credentials as the likely 2018 Kentucky Derby favorite.

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Kentucky Derby Road: Baffert’s Prep Race Shuffle was ‘Justified’

Originally published on April 11, 2018

It seems that each and every weekend this spring a new horse has stepped forward in a big way to assume the title of “horse to beat” in the upcoming 144th running of the Kentucky Derby, and the weekend of the Santa Anita Derby-Blue Grass-Wood Memorial was no exception.  On a Saturday when Vino Rosso made his presence known at Aqueduct and Juvenile champion Good Magic re-emerged to prominence at Keeneland, it was Bob Baffert’s Justify that rose up above all others to stamp himself as the likely favorite for the 2018 Kentucky Derby.

Justify_Jim-Safford2

Justify (by Jim Safford).

The road to this year’s Kentucky Derby has hardly been a straight and smooth one for four-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert. Yet, Baffert has managed to emerge atop the heap of Derby contenders anyway with Justify, a horse that rolled to an impressive wire-to-wire victory over California’s divisional-leading Bolt d’Oro in the Santa Anita Derby in what was just the colt’s third lifetime start.  Multiple stakes-winning Bolt d’Oro, who was coming off a DQ victory over McKinzie in the San Felipe, gave futile chase throughout, along with other quality horses such as Instilled Regard, but neither Bolt d’Oro or Instilled Regard or anybody else looked at any point in the race like they might have any chance to catch Justify, who extended to a three-length winning margin at the wire, stopping the clock at 1:49.3.

Justify arrives on the scene just in time for Baffert, who only the week before had lost his first-string Kentucky Derby contender, Mckinzie, to an injury that removed him consideration for the race.  But credit Baffert, who immediately went into damage control mode and re-shuffled his entire Derby deck within the span of a single week.

With McKinzie originally scheduled to go to the SA Derby for a rematch with Bolt d’Oro, Justify had been penciled-in to go to Baffert’s favorite Derby-prep-race stomping ground, Oaklawn Park, for the Arkansas Derby on April 14.  Third-stringer Solomini was to head east for the Wood Memorial. When McKinzie got hurt, Baffert just readjusted his pieces on the chess board. Justify took McKinzie’s place in the SA Derby starting gate and that move proved to be checkmate for Bolt d’Oro.

Solomini now will be Baffert’s representative in the Arkansas Derby, where he should be second choice in the wagering behind Todd Pletcher’s Rebel Stakes winner, Magnum Moon.

Baffert, meanwhile, filled Solomini’s vacated spot in the Wood Memorial with fourth-stringer Restoring Hope, who was dramatically overbet as the 7-2 second-choice en route to defeat at Aqueduct last weekend. Instead of Baffert’s fourth-stringer winning the Wood Memorial, it turned out to be Todd Pletcher’s fourth-stringer Vino Rosso who came out on top.  The victory amazingly gave Pletcher his fourth major Kentucky Derby prep win in the span of four weeks after Magnum Moon took the Rebel, Noble Indy won the Louisiana Derby, and Audible rolled in the Florida Derby on consecutive Saturdays.

Vino Rosso punched his Derby ticket with the victory in the Wood, as did second-place finisher Enticed, but both of those horses seem to be a cut below the top tier of contenders in what is shaping-up as a loaded season in the 3-year-old division. So many prep race winners have looked so good. This year’s Kentucky Derby should turn out to be a classic and this 3-year-old crop could turn out to be amongst the best we’ve seen in years.

The other big news of the biggest Derby prep race weekend of all was made by Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic, who rebounded from a sub-par sophomore debut third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth to win convincingly over a big Blue Grass Stakes field that included Flameaway, Sporting Chance, Blended Citizen, Free Drop Billy and others.  Of that group, Flameaway and Free Drop Billy will both apparently have enough points to get into the field for the Kentucky Derby, while the others exiting that race will be left out.

Good Magic took the necessary step forward and got back on track for trainer Chad Brown to once again become one of the principal contenders to win the Derby. Good Magic did what he needed to do in a final time of 1:50.18, which was the slowest of the weekend’s prep races but run over a fast track that actually may still have been drying out from snow flurries that morning and rain the night before.  Still, Good Magic’s performance was workmanlike and seemed to lack the “magic” we saw in recent wins by Justify, as well as Mendelssohn in the UAE Derby, Audible in the Florida Derby, Magnum Moon in the Rebel and Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe.

Next up is the final round of prep races on the road to the Kentucky Derby, including the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, and of course the last of the major prep races, the Arkansas Derby.

Noel Michaels’ Kentucky Derby Top 5 Contenders

  1. Mendelssohn
  2. Justify
  3. Audible
  4. Magnum Moon
  5. Good Magic

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Kentucky Derby Road: Audible Makes Noise, but Mendelssohn is a Monster

Originally published on April 3, 2018

On the Kentucky Derby road, some contenders have switched gears and moved into the fast lane, while others have hit speed bumps or made pit stops that have allowed rivals to pass them by. There are plenty of highs and lows and peaks and valleys in the months leading up to the running of the Kentucky Derby and never was that more true than this year when the calendar flipped over from March to April.

On the weekend of the Florida Derby, just five weeks out from the Run for the Roses, the biggest news of the day on the 3-year-old scene did not happen at Gulfstream Park. Rather, it was a seismic shift in the Kentucky Derby landscape that occurred halfway around the world when Mendelssohn destroyed the field in the U.A.E. Derby in Dubai to serve notice that he, in fact, is the horse to beat at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 5.

Yes, on the same day that Todd Pletcher’s favored Audible crushed a good field in the Florida Derby, it was Mendelssohn’s star that shined the brightest and rose the fastest on the Kentucky Derby road.  From the barn of the world’s preeminent trainer Aiden O’Brien, Mendelssohn jogged to an 18-length victory at Meydan Racecourse to pass his first dirt test with flying colors.

Even after Mendelssohn won last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, O’Brien said he’d always believed Mendelssohn would be better on dirt than turf and would be pointed to the Kentucky Derby (on dirt) instead of the English classics (on turf).  After watching Mendelssohn’s eye-opening performance in the U.A.E Derby, it would be hard to find anyone that could possibly argue with the road that O’Brien is choosing to take.

The U.A.E. Derby has always been more of a sideshow on the road to the Kentucky Derby, despite the fact that race offers maximum 170 Derby qualifying points (100 to the winner). Foreign horses who’ve attempted to win the Derby without a stateside prep race have always failed miserably, and heck, even Arazi lost after seeming to be the next superstar the sport was looking for in the early ‘90s.  If you’re not old enough to remember who Arazi was, just watch the following video of the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile:

But in reality, Mendelssohn is so much more the real deal than Arazi or any of the others have ever been.  Mendelssohn is a half-brother to the champion filly Beholder, trained by the world’s top barn and already with a dirt prep under his belt, in a race at 1,800 meters — about 1 3/16 miles — at a time when most of the Derby contenders have yet to even go 1 1/8 miles.

And if you don’t believe what your eyes have seen in Dubai, then take a look at Mendelssohn’s Breeders’ Cup victory, in what turned out to be a huge key race in the Juvenile Turf.  Among those behind Mendelssohn that day were Catholic Boy (next-out winner of the Grade 2 Remsen on dirt), My Boy Jack (subsequent winner of the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes on dirt), Flameaway (sussequent winner of the Grade 3 Sam F Davis on dirt), and Snapper Sinclair (subsequent second by a nose in the Grade 2 Risen Star on dirt).

And then there is Audible, who was impressive in his own right winning the Florida Derby, giving Todd Pletcher his third major Kentucky Derby prep win in three weeks following Noble Indy in the Louisiana Derby and Magnum Moon in the Rebel Stakes.  With this three-pronged attack of Audible-Noble Indy-Magnum Moon, Pletcher is absolutely loaded heading into the Run for the Roses.  Catholic Boy, Promises Fulfilled and others were major disappointments in the Florida Derby, but that doesn’t take away from the victory of Audible, who validated his earlier win in the Holy Bull.  Depending on how Bolt d’Oro does in the Santa Anita Derby, that performance just might make Audible the favorite in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.

Speaking of the Santa Anita Derby, the other major news on the Kentucky Derby road is that the Bob Baffert-trained McKinzie, one of the top contenders for the SA Derby, and hence, the Kentucky Derby, came out of a workout last week unsound and with an unspecified injury. He will now miss his scheduled rematch with Bolt d’Oro, following their head-and-head DQ battle in the San Felipe.

This injury, which could take McKinzie off the Derby trail or at least drop him down several pegs, may have wide-ranging effects on several prep races, including most notably the Arkansas Derby.  Baffert had planned on taking his second-string contender, Justify, to Oaklawn, but now is leaning toward keeping him home for the Santa Anita Derby to take on Bolt d’Oro in KcKinzie’s place.

With Pletcher wavering over whether or not to run Magnum Moon in the Arkansas Derby or to just train him all the way up to the Kentucky Derby without a final prep, that could leave Steve Asmussen’s Combatant favored in what would be a disappointingly weak final prep at Oaklawn.  If Justify runs in the Santa Anita Derby instead of the Arkansas Derby, then Baffert may pull a double-switch, and take his third-string prospect Solomini out of the Wood Memorial and bring him back to Oaklawn instead for the Arkansas Derby.

Stay tuned…

Noel Michaels’ Derby Top 5

  1. Mendelssohn
  2. Bolt d’Oro
  3. Magnum Moon
  4. Audible
  5. Noble Indy

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Kentucky Derby Road: Todd Pletcher’s Stock Quickly Rising

Originally published on March 30, 2018

Trainer Todd Pletcher, who won the Kentucky Derby last year with Always Dreaming, is loaded again this year, as he goes for a third win in the Run for the Roses. Pletcher’s 3-year-olds have surged into the spotlight the last two weeks with victories in both the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds.  He is also expected to have the favorite in next weekend’s Florida Derby.

Once without a clear Derby frontrunner in his barn as recently as a few weeks ago, Pletcher has firmly put his barn into the forefront of the Kentucky Derby discussion with no less than a trio of top contenders as of late March.

The latest in the Pletcher win parade on the road to the Kentucky Derby was Noble Indy, who was victorious in the Louisiana Derby. Noble Indy turned the tables on the horses that beat him last time out in the Risen Star Stakes, Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair, who both were essentially no shows in the Louisiana Derby (eighth and fifth, respectively). By most accounts, the field for the Louisiana Derby was not the strongest and certainly not the deepest. Noble Indy scored by a neck with John Velazquez aboard over the relatively unheralded Lone Sailor in second, while Southwest Stakes winner My Boy Jack was third, but beaten less than a length.  Of that group, however, Noble Indy’s effort was by far the best, as he pressed a fast pace and, then, held off the closers at 1 1/8 miles.

Even more impressive for Pletcher was his win the week before in the Rebel Stakes with the lightly-raced, but unbeaten, Magnum Moon, who crushed some solid contenders, including favored Los Alamitos Futurity third-place finisher (by DQ) Solomini, Southwest second-place finisher Combatant, and last year’s Grade I Hopeful winner Sporting Chance.  Magnum Moon passed his first stakes test with flying colors and is likely to be the favorite in April’s Arkansas Derby. Pletcher has indicated, however, that he might bypass a final prep and train Magnum Moon up to the Kentucky Derby instead, which seems like a questionable move for a horse that has only three races of experience under his belt so far.

The third of Pletcher’s major Derby contenders at the moment is Holy Bull Stakes winner Audible, who will either sink or swim in the $1 million Florida Derby on March 31, as he attempts to repeat his but 5 ½-length win and 99 Beyer speed figure last time out. His competition this time will be very much tougher, however, as the Florida Derby is shaping up to be the tough race you would expect it to be. Audible’s top competition should come from the 1-2 finishers in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, wire-to-wire winner Promises Fulfilled and runner-up Strike Power, and Catholic Boy, who looked good winning last fall’s Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct and then finished second off a layoff in his sophomore debut last time out in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa.

The Florida Derby will be a toss-up and a great betting race, and the horse among that aforementioned quartet that takes the biggest step forward is likely not only to win the race, but also be one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby.

Not to be overlooked this year is the other major Kentucky Derby prep race being run on March 31 — the U.A.E. Derby in Dubai.  Part of the Dubai World Cup undercard and offering maximum Road to the Kentucky Derby points (100-40-20-10 to the top four finishers), the U.A.E. Derby is a fascinating race this year on so many levels and will have much more interest than usual with Derby watchers.  The race will be a showdown between the world’s top two racing operations with two horses who both have Kentucky Derby aspirations — Gold Town (Godolphin) and Mendelssohn (Aiden O’Brien for Tabor and Magnier).

Gold Town won the local Meydan prep for the U.A.E. Derby when he rolled to a 10-length win in the U.A.E. 2000 Guineas.  Mendelssohn, meanwhile, needs no introduction to American racing fans after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar last fall.  The BC Juvenile Turf has turned out to be a key race with horses exiting that heat going on to do well in subsequent dirt races — horses  such as Catholic Boy, My Boy Jack, Flameaway and Snapper Sinclair. But the other thing to make you like about Mendelssohn the most is that he’s a half-brother to champion filly Beholder, and thereby expected to be at least as good, or possibly even better, on dirt than he has been on the turf.

Finally, looking behind the next week, some of the other final Derby prep races are beginning to take shape. Bob Baffert, who has owned Oaklawn Park Derby preps many times in recent years, is sending his Justify for a probable match-up with Magnum Moon and others in the Arkansas Derby. The most looked-forward to prep race is shaping up to be the Santa Anita Derby, which will feature a rematch between Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie.

Noel Michaels’ Derby Top 5

  1. McKinzie
  2. Bolt d’Oro
  3. Magnum Moon
  4. Promises Fulfilled
  5. Catholic Boy

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Kentucky Derby Road: Derby Picture Beginning to Get Clearer

Originally published on March 12, 2018

Kentucky Derby winter book favorites Bolt d’Oro and Good Magic finally have both made their seasonal debuts, as another major round of Derby prep races has been completed, giving handicappers a slightly clearer view of the Derby picture and the clock continues to count down to the First Saturday in May.

Headline Derby prep races are happening on a weekly basis now and will continue regularly throughout March and April. To date, however, none were more under the microscope than the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, which featured the seasonal debut of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic, and the San Felipe at Santa Anita, which not only featured the awaited return of multiple stakes winner Bolt d’Oro, but also an early-season marquee match-up with this year’s leading 3-year-old so far, McKinzie.

While the jury is still out on Good Magic’s disappointing third-place return effort for trainer Chad Brown in the Fountain of Youth, there was no disappointment whatsoever in the San Felipe, which lived up to its headline billing as Mick Ruiz’s Bolt d’Oro and Bob Baffert’s McKinzie put on a scintillating show, battling down the stretch to a close finish that needlessly ended up being decided by the stewards in Bolt d’Oro’s favor.

Without getting into arguments over the merits of McKinzie’s disqualification, let’s just say that both horses ran their hearts out in the 1-2 finish and stamped themselves as the top two Kentucky Derby contenders as of mid-March. Bolt d’Oro was returning from a string of training setbacks this winter and ran a giant race under the circumstances, while McKinzie proved himself to be the real deal, never yielding and fighting off a seasoned challenger who looked like he was going to zip right by him, but never could.  We will look forward to a rematch, hopefully, in the Santa Anita Derby.

Good Magic, on the other hand was dull and without an excuse (other than the layoff) in the Fountain of Youth, which, instead of a one-sided runaway turned out to be a major flop. On the other hand, the race did prove to be a coming-out party, of sorts, for its winner Promises Fulfilled and, to a lesser extent, its second-place finisher Strike Power, who was game in defeat for trainer Mark Hennig.  It was Promises Fulfilled who shined for trainer Dale Romans, however, going wire-to-wire and looking like a the real deal every confident step of the way — just like he did when breaking his maiden at first asking at Churchill Downs last September. Go back and watch that replay and you will see a first starter meant for bigger things evert step of the way. Promises Fulfilled has now won 3 of 4 career races in front-running fashion, with the lone defeat so far a third-place finish in November’s Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs.

In a previous article I had mentioned that the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf had become the ultimate key race for this year’s 3-year-old division, and that still holds true. However, the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes has now moved up to rival the Juvenile Turf as an equally potent key race on the road to the Kentucky Derby.

As mentioned, Promises Fulfilled exited a third-place finish in the Kentucky Jockey Club to win the Fountain of Youth next time out. The KJC 10th-place finisher, Bravazo, came back to win the Risen Star stakes at Fair Grounds, and now the seventh-place finisher from that race, Quip, returned last weekend to upset the Tampa Bay Derby.  Also last weekend, the KJC winner, Enticed, who had later run a disappointing fourth in the Holy Bull, rebounded with a win in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct.

Quip, trained by former Bill Mott assistant Rodolphe Brisset, and Enticed, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, earned helpful amounts of points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby series for their victories and both looked good. However, both horses defeated weak fields in the Tampa Bay Derby and Gotham, respectively, and are still a notch below the overall top Derby contenders at this stage of the game. Each have chances to move up, however, if they can follow-up their wins with repeats in their final prep races.

The next major stop on the Road to the Kentucky Derby will be on Saturday, March 17 with the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Probables include the likely favorite, the Bob Baffert-trained Solomini, who was a close second in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity behind next-out winners McKinzie (Sham Stakes at Santa Anita) and Instilled Regard (Lecomte Stakes).

Baffert seeks to continue his annual domination of Oaklawn’s Derby prep races, and has chosen Solomini to be his warrior this week.  Top challengers will include the second- and third-place finishers from the Southwest Stakes, Combatant and Sporting Chance, as well as the Todd Pletcher-trainer up-and-comer Magnum Moon and Mark Casse’s Mississippi, who has a penchant for running second.

Noel Michaels’ Derby Top 5

  • McKinzie
  • Bolt d’Oro
  • Promises Fulfilled
  • Catholic Boy
  • Sporting Chance

***

Kentucky Derby Road: Prep Schedule Starting to Heat Up

Originally published on March 1, 2018

Good Magic (photo by Jordan Sigmon).

Good Magic makes his three-year-old debut in Saturday’s Fountain of Youth Stakes (photo by Jordan Sigmon).

The Kentucky Derby prep season is well underway, just like every winter and spring, as 3-year-olds from around the country fight for the right to occupy one of the 20 available stalls in the Churchill Downs starting gate for the Run for the Roses.  The starters in the Derby will be decided by a points system that puts pressure on hopefuls to win, or at least earn a good finish, in at least one high-profile Kentucky Derby prep race in order to qualify.

Handicappers everywhere will be scrutinizing every piece of information available on every contender leading up to the Kentucky Derby in order to try to separate the contenders from the pretenders.  To start the process, the best place to look when gathering your Kentucky Derby information, as always, will be in every runner’s prep races leading up to the First Saturday in May.

These prep races, in addition to being fun betting opportunities at a time of the year when horseplayers are keen on building bankroll in advance of the Kentucky Derby, will also provide handicappers valuable Derby information that should be dissected and studied for the purposes of betting and winning the Kentucky Derby.

Since 2013, a point system in select prep races determines who qualifies to run in the Kentucky Derby. The points the horses earn may or may not end up being relevant, but points aside, the prep race performances obviously mean everything in terms of which horses will advance on the road to the Run for the Roses.

Each year, 20 horses have the once-in-a-lifetime chance to run in the Kentucky Derby. To earn a spot in the starting gate, they must travel along the Road to the Kentucky Derby — formerly called the Kentucky Derby Championship Series — a series of 35 races at tracks across the country have been designated as points races that count toward entry preference in the Kentucky Derby. Points are awarded to the top four finishers in each race on a sliding scale. The 20 horses with the most points will earn spots in the Derby starting gate.

Of the 35 Road to the Kentucky Derby preps, 14 are highly significant events that take place over the 10 weeks preceding the first Saturday in May — plus a smattering of international races in the U.K., Dubai, Japan, and Ireland (hello Mendelsohn, are you listening?).

These races began all the way back in the fall of last year, when Kentucky Derby aspirants were still 2-year-olds. The early races on the schedule (except for the double-points Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) awarded 10 points for first, four points for second, two points for third, and one point for fourth.

The main portion of the Derby prep race schedule is getting going right now with a bunch of 50-20-10-5-point Kentucky Derby prep races that started with the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds on Feb. 17 and continues in upcoming races such as the Fountain of Youth Stakes, Gotham Stakes, Tampa Bay Derby, Rebel Stakes, San Felipe Stakes and Sunland Derby.

The final round of major Derby prep races is obviously the most important and, therefore, they award the most points on a scale of 100-40-20-10. This includes U.A.E. Derby in Dubai and, of course, the big six prep races — the Florida Derby, Arkansas Derby, Wood Memorial, Blue Grass Stakes, Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby.

Two other preps are also included in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series at a lower point importance (20-8-4-2), including the Jeff Ruby Steaks Spiral Stakes and the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, three weeks before the Kentucky Derby. These could become relevant this year due to the increased points, which might be enough for one late, desperate Derby hopeful to get into the field.

In the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series, wins and places in this last round of races will be crucial for horses to be able to work their way into the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby.

As of Saturday, Feb. 24, the current leaders in the points standings are Risen Star Stakes winner Bravazo (54 points), Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic (24), Champagne Stakes winner Firenze Fire (24), Risen Star runner-up Snapper Sinclair (22), Sham Stakes and Los Al Futurity winner McKinzie (20) and Lecomte Stakes winner Instilled Regard (19). Several horses are close behind with 14 points, including Bolt d’Oro, Free Drop Billy, Catholic Boy and Solomini.

The next race on the prep schedule will be the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, with a 50-20-10-5 points rundown to the top four finishers.  Following the Fountain of Youth, there will be at least one major prep race every weekend until the Arkansas Derby and Lexington Stakes wrap up the Road to the Kentucky Derby point series on April 14. The date of this year’s Kentucky Derby will be May 5 — as always, the first Saturday in May.

***

Kentucky Derby Road: Where Things Stand

Originally published on Feb. 23, 2018

Handicappers and horse racing fans are stuck in a holding pattern with just a little more than two months to go until the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. Derby watchers are playing a waiting game on two fronts:

1) We are still waiting for last year’s top juveniles to make their 3-year-old debuts.
2) We are waiting for new major contenders to emerge from the pack with big efforts in key races that might propel them to spots in the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

Good Magic (photo by Jordan Sigmon).

Good Magic is scheduled to return in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park (photo by Jordan Sigmon).

The 2018 Kentucky Derby will be run on Saturday, May 5, and the current favorites in the race are still the same as they were months ago when GOOD MAGIC won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the multiple-stakes-winning 2-year-old leader up until that point, BOLT D’ORO, finished third after a troubled break. The wait for both of these horses to make their sophomore debuts is finally almost over. Bolt d’Oro’s connections are targeting the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita on March 10 for the colt’s return, while trainer Chad Brown will have Good Magic ready to go a week earlier at Gulfstream Park in the 1 1/16-mile Fountain of Youth (G2).

While we’ve been waiting for the de facto 3-year-old leaders to re-emerge for their seasonal debuts, very little has happened in terms of the emergence of other major challengers in the three months since the Breeders’ Cup.  The one notable exception, however, has been the Bob Baffert-trained MCKINZIE, who has reeled off graded wins in the Los Alamitos Futurity and Sham Stakes at Santa Anita in the last couple months, beating good horses such as SOLOMINI and INSTILLED REGARD (who returned to win the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds) in the process. If he stays in SoCal, McKinzie will be on an early-season collision course with Bolt d’Oro in the Fan Felipe. Otherwise, McKinzie is likely to ship to Baffert’s home-away-from-home for Derby preps — Oaklawn Park — for the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes on March 17.

Speaking of Oaklawn Park, the Southwest Stakes on President’s Day featured several up-and-coming Derby hopefuls, including the 1-2 finishers of the Smarty Jones Stakes, MOURINHO and COMBATANT. Neither took a step forward, however, with Mourinho not handling the wet track and Combatant solid and workmanlike as ever, but unspectacular.

The race did serve as a useful return prep race for Grade 1 Hopeful winner SPORTING CHANCE, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, who finished third.  All were beaten by the Keith Desormeaux-trained and Kent Desormeaux-ridden MY BOY JACK, who previously had finished seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and, then, third behind McKinzie in the Sham Stakes.

The Sham is beginning to look like a key race, but the ultimate key race up to this point has been, surprisingly enough, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.  From the Juvenile Turf, in addition to My Boy Jack, fourth-place finisher CATHOLIC BOY returned to win the Grade 2 Remsen in his next start and then returned to run second in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa behind FLAMEAWAY, who finished eighth in the BC Juvenile Turf.  Catholic Boy, who likely used the race solely as a prep, narrowly lost and should quickly make amends next time, probably in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Even SNAPPER SINCLAIR, who finished 12th in the Juvenile Turf, got into the act when coming back to finish second by a nose at 41-1 in the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds, beating a long list of hopefuls including Lecomte runner-up PRINCIPE GUILHERME, highly-regarded Todd Pletcher Gulfstream allowance winner NOBLE INDY and the aforementioned Instilled Regard.

By the way, if you were wondering, the winner of the BC Juvenile Turf was MENDELSSOHN, trained by Aiden O’Brien. Mendelssohn is back in Ireland and has never run on dirt, but O’Brien has indicated he believes the horse will be equally as good on dirt and has expressed interest in pointing him to the Kentucky Derby. Based on the results of the other horses exiting the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, you would certainly have to stamp the horse as a legit contender if he does, in fact, point for the race.

Back to the Risen Star results, the winner of the race was BRAVAZO, who previously had finished second in last fall’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Along with Sporting Chance, Bravazo gives Lukas two strong Kentucky Derby candidates heading into the next round of prep races in March.  That is also when we’ll get to see the much-anticipated returns of the top Kentucky Derby contenders, Bolt d’Oro and Good Magic, giving horseplayers much to look forward to in the coming month leading up to the Run for the Roses.

Follow this space regularly for plenty more information and handicapping leading up to the 2018 Kentucky Derby, and much more.

Noel Michaels’ Derby Top 5

  1. Good Magic
  2. McKenzie
  3. Bolt d’Oro
  4. Catholic Boy
  5. Sporting Chance
Noel Michaels
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.
He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.
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