Churchill Downs: The GI, $2 million Kentucky Derby at 1 ¼ miles
#1 Black Onyx (50-1 morning line): Streaking runner has won both starts this year, on turf at Gulfstream Park in February and in the GIII Spiral on the Polytrack at Turfway Park in March, and tries the dirt for the first time since breaking his maiden at Aqueduct in November. Going into the draw, this son of Rock Hard Ten was somewhat intriguing at a big price, but that all ended when he drew the rail, which in the Derby is the toughest post in all of racing, as he’ll have a 19-horse stampede to his outside entering the first turn. No doubt he’s bred for this, and trainer Breen won the Belmont a few years back, so you know he can handle a classy 3yo, but this is one salty spot to make your graded stakes debut on the dirt; tough to tout.
#2 Oxbow (30-1): The first of two from Lukas is another who got beat up by the draw as he now projects as the inside speed in what shapes up as a very fast pace. Son of Awesome Again ran well in three starts to kick off his campaign, which included an 11 ½-length romp in Fair Grounds’ GIII Lecomte in January, but enters off a dull fifth in Oaklawn Park’s GI Arkansas Derby in April, when they tried to take him off the pace and make a late run. It’s not hard to toss that start, as the experiment didn’t work, which means he’s going back to his pace-pressing style, though that also means he’s going to have to gun from the rail to secure his position. One of just two in here (in the main body of the race) to own a local win is likely going to be forced to set a ridiculously fast pace while being pressed by the big guns from the outside, which is a mighty tough ask. The talent is no doubt there, but this draw really forces his hand and basically eliminates his chances; siding against.
#3 Revolutionary (10-1): The first of a record-tying five entrants for Pletcher drew a cozy inside draw for an owner/trainer/jockey team that won the Derby in 2010 with Super Saver, and with Borel aboard, you know this son of War Pass will save all the ground along the rail. Stretch-runner enters off a win in the GII Louisiana Derby at FG in March, when he avoided the gaggle of trouble inside and rallied wide from 12th to just hold off fellow rival Mylute. Detractors will say he beat a 19-1 longshot by a neck that day while avoiding heavy traffic, while backers will mention his gallop out, which was huge and the fact that third-place finisher Departing came back to win the GIII Illinois Derby impressively. If there’s a slight knock, it would be that his sire wasn’t isn’t exactly bred for this trip, though mom did win Saratoga’s GI Alabama at this distance some years back, and his closing style is right for a race filled with pace; won’t fault anyone looking this way.
#4 Golden Soul (50-1): Fipke homebred will be one of the longer shots on the board as he’s won just a FG maiden and hasn’t been close in any of his graded stakes runs. Stewart trainee didn’t run poorly when fourth, beaten 4 ¾ lengths, in the La. Derby, and he did make up 15 lengths in the middle of that race, but like his buddy next door, he rallied wide and avoided all the bumper cars inside. Son of turf runner Perfect Soul will be closing and will get his pace, but he sure has his work cut out for him; midpack finish seems his ceiling.
#5 Normandy Invasion (12-1): Stretch-running son of Tapit really impressed in his last, when he finished second to hotshot Verrazano in Aqueduct’s GI Wood Memorial in April after closing furiously in the final strides to miss by three-quarters of a length. That run was a stark contrast to his seasonal debut, when he encountered a world of trouble yet still finished fifth, beaten just 1 1/2 lengths in the GII Risen Star at FG in February. If you want to do a little extra homework, go back and watch his gallop-out in the Wood, when he put open lengths on Verrazano, even though he got no pace help and his undefeated rival got a dream trip stalking a hopeless longshot through plowhorse splits. Potential wiseguy horse has trained brilliantly under the Twin Spires since arriving and seems poised to deliver a breakthrough run in the third start of his form cycle for Brown, who is one of the best young trainers in the sport; love his chances today.
#6 Mylute (15-1): Amoss charge didn’t fire in the Risen Star, but then woke up when necked out by Revolutionary in the La. Derby after removing blinkers and settling much kinder, so he should be well off the expected hot pace today. Son of Midnight Lute is a real question at the distance today, as his white-hot sire never won a two-turn race and was a champion sprinter in his day. On paper he looks to be coming up to this the right way, but the addition of Napravnik will make him a real underlay and he’s another who steered clear of all the trouble in Cajun Country last time, so it’s a little tough to think lightning will strike twice, especially with his running style and a potential bounce staring you in the face; making him prove it.
#7 Giant Finish (50-1): The answer to your Derby Eve dinner party trivia question in 2033 was a midnight hour addition to the field after his owners decided to run, which knocked Fear the Kitten out of the race. New York-bred was a close third to Black Onyx in the Spiral for Tony D., who is one of the best horseman on the planet, but this son of Frost Giant hasn’t run remotely fast in any of his three dirt starts, so this is one tall task. There’s speed here, so he could be involved early, but it’s highly doubtful he will be late; easy toss.
#8 Goldencents (5-1): Speedy son of Into Mischief enters off a fast win in the GI Santa Anita Derby in his last start in April, and that’s the same path trainer O’Neill took with last year’s Derby winner I’ll Have Another, so you know he’s got some karma working. That powerful win showcased a big form reversal off his disappointing fourth in SA’s GII San Felipe in March, when he got into a suicidal speed duel and shortened stride badly in the lane in a race won by a deep closer. It’s also worth noting that he made waves turning back Flashback in the SA Derby, and that rival exited the race with an injury that knocked him off the Triple Crown trail. And while his draw is fine, he’s also got to press the inside speed all while being dogged from the outside every step of the way by Verrazano, who drew perfectly. Point being, do you want to take a very short price on a horse who has some questions to answer, may be caught in a pace sandwich, and has shown he can come unglued in that type of scenario before? Taking a stand against.
#9 Overanalyze (15-1): Pletcher’s second runner is one of the tougher horses to read in this year’s Derby, as he has sandwiched two sharp wins around one ugly loss. Son of Dixie Union beat Normandy Invasion in Aqueduct’s GII Remsen to end his 2yo season in November, bombed in his comeback there over the inner dirt in the GIII Gotham in March, and then won a painfully slow Arkansas Derby, so you’re eligible to ask: Who’s showing up today? Supporters get the most prolific trainer in the country at a price, and Bejarano sure got along with this son of Dixie Union in Hot Springs, but it’s just tough to think that last was anything more than a solid horse taking advantage of one really bad crew for a GI; would be a major surprise.
#10 Palace Malice (20-1): Dogwood runner is yet another from Pletcher and enters after running a too- good-to-lose second over the Polytrack in Keeneland’s GI Blue Grass in April, when he made the lead late only to be run down by fellow rival Java’s War. Son of Curlin (third in the 2007 Derby) was the poster boy for trouble in the La. Derby, when he was mired in traffic for much of the stretch and couldn’t deliver a clear run en route to a seventh-place finish, which came on the heels of a close third in the Risen Star. There are a few issues here, though; first, this will be his third start since March 30, which is a ton of activity for a Pletcher runner, and second, he adds blinkers, which is a very odd move when you are coming up to the biggest race of your life. The hood should add more speed to a horse who already has plenty of tactical ability, so there’s a chance he gets too close to the early fire, which would extinguish his chances late; has his work cut out for him.
#11 Lines Of Battle (30-1): Meydan’s GII UAE Derby winner will try to buck history and be the brilliant trainer O’Brien’s first European invader to make a dent in the Derby, let alone deliver a winning run. Son of Scat Daddy bombed in his only stateside start when seventh in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last November at SA, and while he returned with aplomb in Dubai and adds Lasix today, this seems mighty ambitious. If you want a few positives, you can point to the fact he won at 1 3/16 miles last time, which is farther than anyone else here has run, but the pats on the back end there; not seeing it.
#12 Itsmyluckyday (15-1): One of the few 3yos to actually run fast this year going two turns enters fresh after it didn’t look like he fired his best shot when second behind ML favorite Orb in GP’s GI Florida Derby in March. Son of Lawyer Ron has turned heads since arriving for Plesa and looked stunning when beating 2yo champion Shanghai Bobby in track record time in GP’s GIII Holy Bull in January, which further solidifies the thinking he didn’t run his A-race in the Florida Derby. The most experienced horse in the field (10 starts) should sit a beautiful up-close and stalking trip, which will get him first run on the closers off the far turn, and that’s often the winning move in the Derby. Tactical, battle-tested and seems to be sitting on a peak race, which very well could deliver an effort the others simply can’t handle; look out.
#13 Falling Sky (50-1): Speedster tired late to be fourth in the Arkansas Derby and is rumored to be a confirmed front-runner today, which should ensure the hot pace everyone expects. Terranova-trained son of Lion Heart (second in the 2004 Derby) wired Tampa’s GIII Sam Davis in February but hasn’t found any stretch stamina since, and now has to go another furlong after tiring late in Arkansas. If you want a small plus, it does appear he likes the local strip, as he’s posted two bullet drills here in April, including a 59 3/5 move 4/26, but that’s about all he has going for him; pop and stop time.
#14 Verrazano (4-1): Pletcher’s top dog drew perfectly and brings a four-for-four record to Louisville as he looks to become the first undefeated Derby winner since Big Brown in 2008. Son of More Than Ready was simply brilliant in a pair of one-turn romps at GP this winter, but has been more workmanlike in his two-turn runs, especially in the Wood, where he stalked a pedestrian pace and giant longshot, yet failed to really kick in through the stretch. Supporters will argue that he wasn’t asked for his best that day and had something left late, while the naysayers will mention the three to four lengths Normandy Invasion put on him during the gallop-out. And let’s be honest, when you watched the Wood for the first time, didn’t you say to yourself, entering the far turn, “Wow, this horse is going to win by seven” when he was sitting just off a six-furlong sprinter who went 49 3/5 early? And don’t forget, the last time a horse won the Derby after not racing at two was in 1882, when Apollo did it, so there’s quite a bit of history working against him here. Regardless of where you stand, there’s no doubt he’s going to trip off nicely just off the speed, but the gut says he’s going the wrong way while meeting a few others who are ready to bust out of their skin; taking a deep breath and tossing completely.
#15 Charming Kitten (20-1): The last of Pletcher’s quintet is also the longest of them as he’s yet to run on dirt in seven lifetime starts. Son of turf stud Kitten’s Joy closed nicely late to be a close third in the Blue Grass and has the right running style to make a dent here, but geesh, he sure did pick a tough spot to make his dirt debut. You almost get the feeling he’s in here for his owner/breeder Ramsey, who is a Kentucky legend and loves to be in the big races, as this is not a typical Pletcher move. And with Ramsey, who is one of the truest gentlemen the sport has to offer, comes heavy tote action, which turns a horse who should be 50-1 into a horse who will be 20-1, and that’s not the type of price to take on a colt who has a ton of things going against him today; needs the green to fire his best.
#16 Orb (7-2): ML favorite will look to give Hall of Famer McGaughey his first Derby win and lands the services of the sizzling Rosario after Velazquez opted to stick with Verrazano. How you feel about this winner of four straight likely depends on why you think he rose to the top of his generation this winter. Was it getting to two turns, the addition of Lasix or quite possibly getting down to South Florida and running at GP, where he won all three starts, including the GII Fountain of Youth in February and Florida Derby in his last? There’s little denying that this son of Malibu Moon looked awesome at GP, and his late-running style isn’t ideal going long there, but dig a bit deeper and you can say he was set up by suicidal splits in the FOY and beat Violence, who was injured in the race and retired shortly thereafter, and then ran slow in a Florida Derby where none of the others really ran their race. So sure, while his stretch-running style fits this race perfectly, you can also say his that short price makes him a big underlay in a 20-horse field; keying underneath.
#17 Will Take Charge (20-1): The second from Lukas enters off a March 16 layoff after winning OP’s GII Rebel and will look to add to the Coach’s already legendary career. Versatile son of Unbridled’s Song has done nothing wrong in his last three fast main track runs and is another who has the right running style to threaten here, but his lone start over the track was an awful last-of-13 run in the GII Kentucky Jockey Club in November. Of course, he’s about 238 times the horse he was that day, so it might be wise to forgive that run and judge him on his 2013 form, which is rock solid. The layoff isn’t ideal. but it was also by design, so it’s tough to question a guy with four Derby trophies sitting on his mantle and a Hall of Fame plaque in Saratoga Springs; price players have their hero.
#18 Frac Daddy (50-1): McPeek’s first runner woke up in a big way when second to Overanalyze in the Arkansas Derby, which probably helped his confident trainer sleep at night after this colt was beaten a football field in two GP starts this winter. Son of Scat Daddy is the only other horse in the main field to own a local win, and he was also beaten just a neck in the Jockey Club, so he brings a bit of a homecourt advantage to the party. The issue is that he’s made all his noise in races that have been ridiculously slow on the stopwatch, which means he’s got several lengths to make up on all the major contenders; needs softer to threaten.
#19 Java’s War (15-1): The more intriguing of the two from McPeek closed from the clouds to win the Blue Grass but shouldn’t be overlooked as simply a synthetic lover, as he was a solid second to Verrazano in the GII Tampa Bay Derby in March as well. Son of War Pass was nowhere in the Jockey Club in his lone local start on the main but seems to have turned the corner this year, so you can be a tad forgiving about that dud and should probably view him on his two 2013 starts. The fact that he has no speed is an issue, but he’ll also get a ton of pace to rally into, so while a win might be a bit out of reach, there’s no doubt he can pass a bunch of them in the lane; exotics potential.
#20 Vyjack: Into Mischief gelding saw his four-for-four record get dinged when he was a close third in the Wood, but it’s how he finished that has a few people worried, as he was backing up instead of closing late. Those same people are also mentioning that Rosario chose Orb over this Rodriguez trainee, but in reality, who wouldn’t side with a ML favorite for the Kentucky Derby? Gomez is certainly an able-bodied replacement, but he better be with this draw, which ensures a wide trip every step of the way. His closing win in the Gotham was top-notch stuff, but he hasn’t impressed since getting to Kentucky, all for a trainer who isn’t exactly on the Christmas card list with the folks in the Bluegrass state; not sure he’s coming up to this the right way.
#21 Fear the Kitten (50-1): The lone horse on the also-eligible list was nudged out at the last minute by Giant Finish, which might not be a bad thing as he’s a true longshot here. Son of Kitten’s Joy did finish in the money in the Lecomte and OP’s GIII Southwest in February, which are his only two dirt starts for Maker, but he was also beaten a country mile in both. If you want something positive, it would be his local win last fall, but that’s not much of a leg to stand on in this field; better off waiting for another day.
#5 Normandy Invasion