Churchill Downs: The Grade I, $2 million Kentucky Derby at 1 ¼ miles
#1 Ocho Ocho Ocho (50-1): Decided longshot was up against it even before they drew post positions and then was essentially eliminated when he drew the dreaded rail, which would have compromised even the best’s chances. Son of Derby winner Street Sense hasn’t had a very smooth campaign after going three-for-three as a juvenile for Cassidy, but fans will note he did wake up a bit when third in Keeneland’s GI Blue Grass last time. Versatile runner will reportedly take back and make a run, but from this brutal draw, with no edge on paper, he’s way out of his element; easy toss.
#2 Carpe Diem (8-1): The first of a trio from Pletcher is another who got no help from the draw, especially when you consider that he has been stalking outside of horses this year and would seemingly have to be used to get that position in here. Pricey Giant’s Causeway colt has had nothing more than a pair of public workouts against overmatched rivals in winning his two races this year, including the Blue Grass, but he’s hardly been eye-catching, and his win last time left a lot to be desired, as he eyed longshot ‘Ocho, then didn’t exactly pull away from Danzig Moon in the lane. Fans will say there’s a lot more in the tank and that he hasn’t been asked for his best yet, but detractors will ask if two easy-as-you-please preps against inferior foes will have him tight enough for a 10-furlong dogfight against the best of his generation. On paper he’s never run fast enough to win this, and with a poor draw and an underlaid price, he’s not at all enticing; confidently tossing.
#3 Materiality (12-1): The second from Pletcher went from an unraced maiden in early January to a GI winner in late March and is another in the long line of Gulfstream Park wunderkinds that we seemingly see from this barn every year. And while that is fine and dandy, you also have needed a search party to find them in the Derby, as the magic just doesn’t translate at Churchill, not to mention that he’ll look to buck the biggest Derby no-no ever and try to win the race without having run as a 2-year-old. How big of a deal is it, you’re wondering? Well, it’s been 1882 since Apollo was the last one to pull it off, and if Curlin and Bodemeister couldn’t do it, it’s a bit presumptuous to think that this son of Afleet Alex can. If you like him, you get arguably the fastest horse on paper in the race, and his GI Florida Derby win over Upstart, which raised his record to three-for-three, showed that he can win a dogfight, too, but from a poor draw outside of the cozy confines of South Florida, he’s mighty tough to trust; thinking he gets exposed today.
#4 Tencendur (30-1): The first of three New York-breds is one of the trickier reads in here, as he woke up in a big way when second to Frosted in Aqueduct’s GI Wood Memorial last time and would rate as a viable longshot if he can improve off that run for Weaver. The problem is that it was so far and away his best that he’s a poster boy for the dreaded “bounce,” especially when you consider that he walked on the lead that day and the pace here could be 15 lengths faster to the half-mile. Son of Warrior’s Reward isn’t exactly bred for this, and with a rough post that may force him to commit early, it’s very unlikely he’s around late; tough to tout.
#5 Danzig Moon (30-1): Improving son of Malibu Moon had a “someone had to be second” feel to him when he rallied late in the Blue Grass in what was clearly a breakthrough run. It’s also worth noting that he closed the cap on Carpe Diem that day, as he was beaten 12 ½ lengths by that rival in the GIII Tampa Bay Derby in March and was just three back in the Blue Grass. Stalker has come to hand quickly for Casse and may yet have another forward move in him, so if he stays out of trouble and gets a clean run, he’s in the group of runners that could blow up the board underneath; worth a look if you’re spreading in the exotics.
#6 Mubtaahij (IRE) (20-1): The biggest wildcard to run in the Derby in years has had quite an adventure to get here and will look to parlay his win in the GII UAE Derby at Meydan in Dubai into a win in our biggest horse race. Son of Dubawi (IRE) toyed with his rivals that day and unleashed a devastating turn of foot to win going away, but the time was slow and it’s fair to ask who he beat as well. On the plus side, he’s trained by de Kock, who is as good a big-game hunter as there is in the racing world, and he is four-for-five on dirt, so it’s not like he’s a turf/synthetic ace who is out of his element here. But geesh, could you give a horse a bigger ask than travelling from Dubai to Chicago to Louisville and then asking him to beat what is without question the deepest Derby in many a year? Willing to make him prove it.
#7 El Kabeir (30-1): Stretch-running grey is the working class hero of this year’s Derby, as he just goes out and fires every time, yet gets no respect for his accomplishments, which are actually quite impressive. The rub is that he’s made a name beating up on a bunch of also-rans for Terranova while coming up empty against the big guns, like he did when third in the Wood. Scat Daddy colt does own a local two-turn win in last year’s GII Kentucky Jockey Club, which is never a bad thing, and Borel has a plaque in the Hall of Fame because he’s won this race three times and knows this track like no other, so there are a lot of positives here. And that’s before we mention that his closing style should have him passing quite a few in the lane, as the race flow really suits. If you like him, you’ll get half the price you should because of Borel, but if you think it’s falling apart in the lane, he’s one to consider; eligible for a piece underneath.
#8 Dortmund (3-1): How good is this year’s Derby, you ask? Well, consider that this son of Derby winner Big Brown is undefeated in six starts for Baffert, including two GI wins, is as fast as anyone on paper, and he won’t even be favored. Imposing physical specimen has shown versatility in the past and he drew well, but with a long run into the first turn, you have to think he’s going to want to hear his feet rattle a bit, as he’s done his best running on the lead, as evidenced by his GI Santa Anita Derby win last time, when he did nothing more than toy with his field in a tour de force. Giant horses can struggle in a 20-horse street fight of a Derby, though (think Point Given), so if he doesn’t break cleanly or gets shuffled back, all bets are off, as he’ll have a heck of a time making his way through traffic and to the front. It’s tough to knock a horse that wants to beat you, is versatile, and is game as heck, but at a short price in a race where a bunch of others will want to run with him early, you might want to look around for more value; tread very lightly if landing here.
#9 Bolo (30-1): Price player was a big third to Dortmund in his seasonal debut in SA’s GII San Felipe in March, then struggled to keep pace when a distant third to that rival in the SA Derby, though he battled some minor ailments heading into that one. Word is that he’s made a grand local appearance all week and Gaines is as patient as they come, so if he’s in the starting gate, you have to believe this son of distance specialist Temple City is ready to fire a big shot. Losing Smith to fellow longshot Far Right isn’t the best of signs, but there’s a lot of talent here and his running style should have him in the second flight ready to pounce if/when the speed comes back, so at a big price, you’re allowed to give him an extra look; exotics potential.
#10 Firing Line (12-1): The forgotten horse took the road less traveled after coming within a head of Dortmund in SA’s GII Robert Lewis in February, as he enters off a win in the GIII Sunland Derby where he would have lapped the field if they went around again. Versatile Line of David colt has a stalking gear but is also as fast as anyone, so if no one wants the lead early, you could see cagey Stevens going on a send mission and playing catch-me-if-you-can. On paper he’s every bit fast enough to win this, and Callaghan has done an excellent job managing his campaign, which means he comes to Louisville with a lightly raced but battle tested colt that gives every indication that he’s going to run the race of his life; expecting a monster effort.
#11 Stanford: SCRATCHED.
#12 International Star (20-1): Stout closer and second NYB in here was thought of as a turf/synthetic specialist but became a new horse in New Orleans as he blitzed through a trio of FG stakes, including a game win in the Louisana Derby last time. Maker/Ramsey runner is a son of Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus, so you know today’s distance is within his scope, plus the race flow really flatters his running style, too. The worry is that he’s peaked in every start this year while getting dream trips up the rail, something that is not likely to happen in a crowded 20-horse Derby field, so you may question how big of a shot he fires if things don’t go his way for a change. However, he’s going to be a nice price (though not likely as big as this ML), likes to win races, has done nothing but win on the dirt this year, and will no doubt be picking them off down the stretch; you certainly could do worse.
#13 Itsaknockout (50-1): Completely overmatched runner is the third from Pletcher and about a month behind his two stablemates on paper, as his ticket to this race was punched by a highly, highly controversial win via disqualification over Upstart in GP’s GII Fountain of Youth in February. Lemon Drop Kid runner was exposed when a meek and non-threatening fourth in the Florida Derby and, quite frankly, he might not even be favored to win the optional-claimer for 3-year-olds earlier on the card, let alone be able to make an impact in the Kentucky Derby. Respect these connections, but let’s hope he doesn’t get beaten up too badly so he can watch the real fight at about 11:30pm Saturday night; get home safely.
#14 Keen Ice (50-1): Surprising ML on a runner who checks off a lot of boxes in here, as he’s got the right running style to pick up a ton of pieces and reminds a lot of Golden Soul and Commanding Curve, who were Derby fringe players and stretch-runners from FG who ran second in this race at huge odds. Now, that’s all good, but he hasn’t done a lot on paper to suggest that he can wake up and run in the number here, as his figures are low and he regressed when fourth in the Louisiana Derby. However, they went very slow early that day, and the splits Saturday will be much faster, which means what he’s done before this might not matter, as you know a son of Curlin wants every bit of 10 furlongs, and Romans and Desormeaux have teamed for some success in this race in the past; worth a long look underneath.
#15 Frosted (15-1): This year’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde looked like he was going to win the Fountain of Youth by seven lengths entering the far turn but stopped badly, but then finally put it all together last time when he came from off the pace to win the Wood in a breakthrough run that everyone who believed knew he had in him. Son of Tapit gives McLaughlin and the boys in blue their best shot at an elusive Derby win, and it helps that his newfound running style fits the race profile to a T. And sure, he won a subpar renewal of the Wood, but don’t forget that he was wide and wider on every turn, yet still extended late and was running away from Tencendur in a career-best run that came after a small procedure to fix a minor breathing issue that he dealt with earlier this year. The connections ensure the price will be much lower than his ML, but that’s ok because you get an improving colt that showed talent at 2, took a big leap forward in his last, and gets all the best of it in the lane today when the speed comes back to him; Godolphin finally gets their Derby.
#16 War Story (50-1): Big longshot has made a habit of chasing International Star home this year, and if that guy has won three graded stakes in a row and is 20-1, then what does that make this gelded son of Northern Afleet? And that’s without even mentioning that he’s reportedly looked poor in his training this week and seems to be going the wrong way for Amoss, who saddled Mylute to a fifth-place finish in this race two years ago. Closer has the right style to make a late dent, but his recent form and weak figures suggest that he’ll be lucky to split the field; tough to endorse.
#17 Mr. Z (50-1): Lukas war horse of old has not missed many dances and found a bit of his form again when he was a distant third to today’s heavyweight American Pharoah in Oaklawn Park’s GI Arkansas Derby last time, but he was also beaten about a furlong, which doesn’t bode well for his chances. Speedy sort has run some solid races and was third, beaten just head to Dortmund and Firing Line in the GI Los Alamitos Futurity last year, so he’s got a big race in him on his best day. The issue is that he hasn’t improved an inch off that form and is another who wants to mix it up early, which doesn’t speak highly of his chances late, so even for a Hall of Famer who has a trophy room filled with hardware from upsetting races like this, this would be a real stretch; no thanks.
#18 American Pharoah (5-2): The deserving and imposing favorite has won all three of his dirt starts by open lengths and, with Dortmund, gives Baffert a 1-2 punch that is possibly even better than Point Given and Congaree in 2001, which is saying something. Zayat homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile, who was second in this race for these connections in 2009, was thought of as a runaway speedball but settled before blowing the doors off of the Arkansas Derby last time, though we have to mention the pacesetter that day was a hapless longshot who finished last, so it’s not like it was that big of a deal. The good news is that he drew perfectly today, as Espinoza can break alertly, gauge the proceedings to his inside, and act accordingly, though the bad news is that if he sees daylight down the stretch the first time, he could be keyed up and want to press the issue, which would be a problem late. On paper there’s no doubt he’s the horse to beat, but his edge isn’t as big as people want to believe, and, like Carpe Diem, he’s not had to take a deep breath all year, so what happens when he looks the big guns in the eye and they don’t shrivel up and quit, like his rivals have done this year (think Officer in the 2001 BC Juvenile)? Point being, yeah, he’s rock solid, but he’s also had every single thing go his way this year, so at a short price, that all that seems like a mighty dicey proposition in a 20-horse race where things rarely go right; taking a deep breath and playing against on top.
#19 Upstart (15-1): The third Empire-bred in the race took a solid 2-year-old campaign to a new level in Florida this year, when he drilled Frosted in GP’s GII Holy Bull in January, won the FOY the following month (only to be DQ’d), then gave game chase to Materiality when second in the Florida Derby when last seen. And if you’re a Beyer fan, then he’s about the fastest horse in here, as his two best figures are better than the best two of the rest. There’s cause for concern, though, as he got sick after the Florida Derby and missed some training time, so even though he’s whistled at Palm Meadows in the morning in his last two drills, you have to wonder if he’s coming up to the biggest race of his life in tip-top shape? Versatile sort has answered every question Violette has asked so far and has the versatility to trip out nicely just off the leaders, and as a son of Flatter, he’s got this trip within his score, too, but that missed training time leaves a bad taste in the mouth and that’s a real issue when you’re talking about the Kentucky Derby; siding against.
#20 Far Right (30-1): Stretch-running son of Notional made some waves at OP this winter when he won the Smarty Jones and GIII Southwest, then came running late to nab second in the Arkansas Derby, though he had to make a long-distance call to talk to American Pharoah. Kudos to former Zito assistant Moquette, as he’s done a really nice job this year getting a few big pots on a horse who is much more blue collar than superstar, and he’s yet another in here with the right running style to pick up some pieces. Smith was aboard for his last three and opted to stay here over Bolo, so that’s a nice feather in his cap as well, and if they go crazy early, you know this dude will come calling late; not impossible for a share.
#21 Frammento (50-1): That guy you saw lighting a candle at mass Thursday morning was probably Zito, as he needed a defection to get this stretch-runner in, and, what do you know, Stanford obliged and now here he sits in the far outside stall. Midshipman colt was third against the grain in the FOY and fourth along those same lines in the Blue Grass and has some mild appeal as a deep closer in a race full of speed, but we’ve already mentioned about six others like him, all who are better and faster on paper. If you’re spreading in the superfecta, then you might want to give him a look, but that’s about as far of a reach as you’d want to take on a colt who would be better served running in that aforementioned AOC earlier on the card; needs softer.
#22 Tale of Verve (50-1) (AE): You have to give Mike Battaglia credit for not slipping another “0” at the end of this colt’s ML, as he was a surprise entrant and would clearly be the longest shot in the race if he ran. The good news is that he likely won’t get in because he needs another defection to play. Stewart has won his fair share of races and saddled Commanding Curve to a second-place finish last year, and this son of Tale of Ekati is bred to be a good horse and he put it together in his MSW last time at Keeneland, but why that means he should run in the Kentucky Derby is anyone’s guess; the longest of the long.
#10 Firing Line
#18 American Pharoah