We made it through the winter and the spring preps, so now it’s time to look over the prospective field for the 135th Kentucky Derby. Entries will be taken Wednesday afternoon, but it’s never too early to get a look at the runners, their background, and the good and bad aspects they bring to the table. Over the next few days I’ll dissect the field a little at a time (in order of their graded stakes earnings), then on Thursday I’ll take a look at the post positions and talk a bit about what would represent proper value for each horse. On Friday I’ll wrap it all up with how the Derby might be run, and give my selections. Gulp.
Enjoy and thanks for coming along for a great ride and making this a great experience!
Regal Ransom (Distorted Humor-Kelli’s Ransom, by Red Ransom): Godolphin’s “other” runner was a somewhat shocking winner of the UAE Derby over his heralded stablemate (and fellow Derby entrant) Desert Party. Prior to that run, he was second to Desert Party twice in Dubai this winter, in the local prep for the UAE Derby and in a minor stakes. As a 2-year-old, Regal Ransom broke his maiden at first asking at Saratoga for Kiaran McLaughlin and then disappointed in the Norfolk over the synthetic at Santa Anita.
The Good: There’s some high quality speed in this corner, and with or without Quality Road, this Derby is lacking an abundance of early foot. And just maybe, with the stretch out in distance, this son of Distorted Humor is finally finding his true calling. He essentially galloped them into the ground in the UAE Derby and if he’s on or close to a soft pace in the Derby, he could be a fresh horse turning for home.
The Bad: Well, he does hail from Godolphin, and whereas that would be a plus in any other race, they have simply not done anything of note in the Derby. And they’ve brought better horses than this guy, too. Regal Ransom has reportedly been making a striking appearance at Churchill Downs the past week or so, but it’s asking a lot to ship across the world and take home the biggest prize in racing.
Pioneerof The Nile (Empire Maker-Star Of Goshen, by Lord At War): The leader of the West Coast contingent brings a four-race winning streak to the party (all stakes), including three this year at Santa Anita. He enters off a win in the Santa Anita Derby and retains the services of Garrett Gomez, who opted to stay here instead of pilot Dunkirk. As a 2-year-old, Pioneerof The Nile gained national attention with his win in the Grade I CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park to close out his freshman season.
The Good: Runs his race every time and has shown he likes to win, which can never be underestimated. There also seems to be more than one gear in this corner, which allows him to adapt to whatever pace scenario that might develop. His connections are top-notch, with both Gomez and trainer Bob Baffert, who’s won the Derby three times.
The Bad: First and foremost, he’s never run on dirt–and that’s a major concern. He’s done all his good work over the fake stuff against a group of horses that had to leave town and hit the main track to show their best. And don’t get too caught up with those CD works either, as Baffert loves to works them fast. It doesn’t matter if it was Derby winners like Real Quiet or Silver Charm, or also-rans like Sinister Minister, they’ll burn up the track in the morning. There’s also a nagging feeling in this corner that 10 furlongs might not be his thing. I’m not hearing it anywhere else, so I’m in the minority, but mom was a crack sprinter/miler, not a true router. And lastly he showed a little rankness in the SA Derby, rushing up to the lead when Gomez couldn’t hold him back, and if pulls that on Saturday he’ll get fried.
Square Eddie (Smart Strike-Forty Gran, by El Gran Senor): Back in the picture after a solid third in the Lexington, which marked his first start since getting injured in January (and deemed off the Derby trail) after running second in the San Rafael. He’s taking a highly unconventional path to the Derby, but his power move on the far turn of the Lexington showed he belongs. As a 2-year-old, Square Eddie was a Grade I winner, taking the Breeders’ Futurity over Keeneland’s Polytrack, which marked his first start in the U.S. He followed up that effort with a fine second to eventual Eclipse Award winner Midshipman in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
The Good: Those that saw his move in the Lexington, where he did a sling-shot past the field on the far turn, had to be in awe. That’s the type of move that often breaks the Derby open turning for home (Real Quiet and Thunder Gulch come to mind) and has proven extremely successful at CD in the past. His pedigree also suggests the 10-furlong distance should be well within his scope.
The Bad: There’s a lot in this corner. He’s being asked to win the most difficult race in the world off essentially one prep, not to mention he’s never been on conventional dirt. As good as he looked in the Lexington, it was over a course that he won a Grade I on as a juvenile. He’s also never been past 1 1/16 miles, and while his pedigree suggests the added distance won’t be a problem, he’s not exactly budding with foundation as he enters the biggest race of his life.
I Want Revenge (Stephen Got Even-Meguial, by Roy): The possible Derby favorite has taken his game to a new level in his last two starts, wins in the Grade I Wood and Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct. The sudden improvement coincided with a switch to the main track after chasing Pioneerof The Nile in the CashCall and Bob Lewis. As a 2-year-old, I Want Revenge won once from five synthetic starts, and closed out his campaign with a huge second to Pioneerof The Nile in the CashCall, where he was beaten only a nose.
The Good: This colt has everything you look for in a Derby winner. He has speed, as evidenced by his Gotham win, and he can overcome trouble and still score, which he did remarkably after blowing the start and then getting stuck in traffic in the Wood. In a 20-horse bumper car field, that asset is huge. His pedigree says the added distance should only help. And he has shown he can ship and win a big race, which suggests he’ll adapt nicely to CD. Don’t forget that his Gotham was on the inner dirt and the Wood on the main. He starts Saturday with few, if any, knocks and is a deserving favorite.
The Bad: There’s really not much. If you want to nit-pick, you could point to his jockey, 19-year-old Joe Talamo, who will be in a mighty big spotlight. But he showed in the Wood, when he refused to panic, that he’s got the poise and polish of a veteran. Another minor concern would be the remarkable win in the Wood. Although he was much the best, sometimes it takes the next race before that extraordinary effort catches up to you.
Papa Clem (Smart Strike-Miss Houdini, by Belong To Me): Like his buddy from the west I Want Revenge, it took a trip from the synthetics of California to the main track for this guy to hit his best stride. He hinted at potential with a second to Friesan Fire in the sloppy Louisiana Derby and then he confirmed that with a win in the Arkansas Derby over the ill-fated Old Fashioned. As a 2-year-old, Papa Clem won once from three starts, breaking his maiden in his first two turn start on December 29 at Santa Anita.
The Good: Again, like I Want Revenge, he’s done his best work on the main track, so there are no worries when he breaks from the gate in the Derby. He’s also got some serious tactical speed, which should have him in a good spot turning for home, either on or near a moderate pace. While he doesn’t have that sudden burst, Papa Clem has shown he can grind you down in the lane, like he did in the Arkansas Derby. All of this is important as he should be close enough to the early pace to stay out of the traffic jam that could develop in behind the first flight.
The Bad: With the swift early tempo Old Fashioned set in the Arkansas Derby, this colt basically had to win the race. And the fact that Old Fashioned, who was injured in the race, was still there fighting at the end doesn’t really flatter Papa Clem’s win. Oh, and a maiden winner, with exactly two lifetime starts under his belt, ran third. Point being, after looking a bit deeper, the Arkansas Derby might not be as good as we once thought. He’s also another colt who has a suspect pedigree on the dam’s side. While Miss Houdini is out of Belong To Me, she was an absolute speedball in her four lifetime starts, so there’s a chance Papa Clem could come up wanting in the 10th furlong.
Desert Party (Street Cry-Sage Cat, by Tabasco Cat): Godolphin’s most respected runner got a bit of a reality check in the UAE Derby, when he couldn’t run down stablemate Regal Ransom at 1-5. Prior to that, he won the two preps for the UAE Derby, though besides Regal Ransom, the opposition was highly questionable. As a 2-year-old, Desert Party won the Grade II Sanford at Saratoga before finishing sixth in the Hopeful to close out his campaign.
The Good: He’s got a pedigree that will get every inch of the 10 furlongs, not to mention a running style that should have him passing runners at the end. There will be a lot of horses in the starting gate that will be getting punch drunk and wobbly late, and Desert Party shouldn’t be among them. Also, though he disappointed a bit in the UAE Derby, that was his first two-turn start, so he has every right to move forward off that effort.
The Bad: We’ve already made light of the Godolphin angle, and this guy might have been exposed a bit in the UAE Derby as well. Sure, we mentioned the two-turn thing above, but he was 1-5 in that spot for a reason. Plus, with his come-from-behind style, he’s probably at the mercy of the pace, which doesn’t look too hot right now. While he was precocious enough to win the Sanford, over Vineyard Haven to boot, that was a long, long time ago. And wouldn’t you feel a bit better if Godolphin and Desert Party’s regular rider Frankie Dettori were making the trip?