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Photo of Orb (with trainer Shug McGaughey in the background) courtesy of Reed Palmer/Churchill Downs.

By Ellis Starr – National Racing Analyst for Equibase

Assembled before us for the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands is a field of 20 as competitive as any seen in recent history. The reasons for the depth of contention can be traced to the new Road to the Derby points system, awarding the most points for the spring prep races and insuring that a number of horses that won key Derby preps enter the race off a victory. Leading the field in terms of the best career record is Verrazano, who is unbeaten in four races including the Grade 1 Wood Memorial Stakes in his most recent race on April 6. Next in line is Orb, who is riding a four-race winning streak of his own stretching back to November and culminating with a powerful 2 ¾-length win in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 30. In terms of best recent efforts, the pair of Revolutionary and Mylute can be considered strong contenders as they were the one-two finishers in the Grade 1 Louisiana Derby at the end of March. The competition doesn’t end there by any means, with Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents having won three of his last four. Goldencents is another horse with all the credentials to wear the garland of roses, particularly as his trainer, Doug O’Neill, saddled I’ll Have Another to win last year’s Derby.

More spring Derby prep winners include Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner Java’s War and Horseshoe Casino Cincinnati Spiral Stakes winner Black Onyx. Not to be discounted in the list of strong recent winners also are Overanalyze (Arkansas Derby) and Lines of Battle, who ships in from Dubai by way of England following victory in the United Arab Emirates Derby on March 30. Will Take Charge won the Rebel Stakes and skipped the Arkansas Derby, so he is entering the race fresh as a daisy for four-time Derby-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

After that, here are a number who were close in their most recent races to the winners, including Normandy Invasion and Vyjack (second and third, respectively, in the Wood); Itsmyluckyday, second in the Florida Derby; Palace Malice, second in the Blue Grass Stakes; Frac Daddy, second in the Arkansas Derby; Charming Kitten, third in the Blue Grass; and Giant Finish, third in the Spiral. Rounding out the field for Derby 139 are Golden Soul, fourth in the Louisiana Derby; Falling Sky, fourth in the Arkansas Derby; and Oxbow, fifth in the Arkansas Derby. Fear the Kitten is an also-eligible entrant who will run in the Derby only if one of the other 20 withdraws by Saturday morning.

Main contenders:




Normandy Invasion


Lines of Battle

Orb appears to be the kind of horse that wins the Derby, a horse that peaks on Derby day to run the race of his life. The winner of four straight races going back to November, Orb has continued to show both physical and mental improvement in each race, culminating with his clear win in the Florida Derby last month. What is most appealing about Orb in terms of the ability to win the Derby is that he is nearly a “push-button” horse, meaning that he can accelerate on command (or when he feels it is time), a necessity in a 20-horse field and in a race in which being near the front of the pack with a quarter-mile to go is essential. Another trait that Orb seems to have that many in the Derby field may not is an “alpha” quality, in that he wants to be in front and pull away in the stretch from his opponents. Orb earned a career-best 101 Equibase Speed Figure when winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes in February and, although he regressed slightly to a 99 figure when victorious in the Florida Derby, I believe he could have run as fast as he needed to in order to win. That trait is what can help Orb to win Kentucky Derby 139. When assessing a horse’s overall form and their ability to repeat it in a certain situation as in the Derby, workouts and a horse’s demeanor in preparation for the race come into play. On this count, too, Orb meets all the requirements, with an exceptional half-mile workout at Churchill Downs earlier this week in preparation for the race that should put him on edge for his shining moment.


Orb Inside

Photo by Bob Coglianese/Gulfstream

Revolutionary showed me the kind of champion instinct a potential Derby winner needs when victorious in the Withers Stakes in February, a race in which he got into traffic trouble in the stretch that would stop most ordinary horses. Instead, Revolutionary showed his winning instinct and the result of his powerful burst was that he pretty much pushed his way between two horses to win by a neck at the finish line. Showing an almost entirely different personality in the Louisiana Derby last month, Revolutionary was 12th in a 14-horse field in the early stages but by the time the field reached the top of the stretch he was in front by a head. From there, Revolutionary battled head and head with Mylute down to the finish line but would not let the other horse by, earning a 111 Equibase Speed Figure while bringing his record in two-turn races to a perfect 3-for-3. With three-time Derby winning jockey Calvin Borel riding, as well as getting aboard in the morning for some of Revolutionary’s preparation for the race, this colt appears very capable of success in this year’s “Run for the Roses.”



Photo courtesy of Eclipse Sportswire

Goldencents could be the horse the rest are trying to run down in this year’s Derby as he has been in front or second in the early stages in every one of his six career starts. Winning four of those six, including the Santa Anita Derby last month with a career-best 111 Equibase Speed Figure, Goldencents has demonstrated a high cruising speed like 2012 Derby runner-up Bodemeister, who nearly led from start to finish. Similar to Revolutionary and Orb, Goldencents impressed me from the perspective of having a strong desire to win in the Santa Anita Derby as he fought hard the last quarter-mile to prevail. That attitude, and the fact that his trainer, Doug O’Neill, saddled I’ll Have Another to win the 2012 Derby, makes Goldencents a strong contender this year.

Normandy Invasion ran the fastest race in North America by a 2-year-old last year, earning a 115 figure when coming up a nose short of victory in the Remsen Stakes. Rested for three months, Normandy Invasion returned this past February in the Risen Star Stakes and may have been a bit short of 100% ready for his best. He also  broke slowly and had significant trouble in traffic in that 12-horse field, eventually rallying for fifth and beaten just over a length for the win. Improving markedly in his next start, the Wood Memorial on April 6, Normandy Invasion rallied to miss to unbeaten Verrazano by three-quarters of a length. With further improvement of his 105 Equibase Speed Figure effort in the Wood and jockey Javier Castellano staying aboard, Normandy Invasion has a big shot to post the upset in the Derby, particularly as his recent workouts at Churchill Downs have been called “razor sharp” and because I liked the way he stuck his neck out near the finish line in the Wood as he attempted to get the win.

Mylute was denied by Revolutionary in the Louisiana Derby by a neck after rallying from just about as far back in the early stages as his foe, then battling head and head for the entire last eighth of a mile. He improved to a career-best 111 Equibase Speed Figure in that race and is another that could peak at the right time. Reunited with jockey Rosie Napravnik, who won the 2012 Kentucky Oaks and who rode the colt to a 10 ¾-length win in December, Mylute has been jogging two to three miles in the mornings in preparation for this race. That tactic of getting a horse very fit for its first 1 ¼-mile race worked very well for Derby runner-up Hard Spun in 2007, and so I would expect Mylute to be competitive in the late stages of the Derby when many other runners are throwing in the towel.

Lines of Battle is a Kentucky-bred horse based in Europe who last raced in Dubai, winning the United Arab Emirates Derby with an equivalent of a 104 Equibase Speed Figure. Having been away from the races from November 3 until the U.A.E. Derby on March 30, Lines of Battle certainly can improve physically in the Kentucky Derby.  The main question is whether having just one race this year is enough of a foundation to succeed in such a demanding race. Still, having shown some tenacity in the U.A.E. Derby as he lost the lead with about a quarter-mile to go and was actually third before re-rallying to win the race by 1 ½ lengths, Lines of Battle must be taken seriously as an upset candidate, particularly as he is bred to run this distance and much farther and has one of the top trainers in the world, Aiden O’Brien, in his corner.

Notes about others:

Although unbeaten in his four-race career, Verrazano could see his winning streak come to an end in the Derby owing to the fact his Equibase Speed Figure declined from 108 in the Tampa Bay Derby to 106 in the Wood Memorial. Additionally, it appeared he was all-out to win the 1 1/8-mile Wood, so there are questions about the additional quarter-mile he will be running in the Derby. Java’s War (100 speed figure in the Blue Grass) and Palace Malice (99 speed figure) both ran well but I don’t see them getting running fast enough to get to the level of the main contenders, although it must be noted that both have the running style that could benefit from a hotly contested early pace and could get into third or fourth late to be part of the trifecta or superfecta. Overanalyze won the Remsen last year with the same 115 Equibase Speed Figure as Normandy Invasion, whom he beat by a nose. However, with a 102 Equibase Speed Figure in his 2013 debut followed by a 101 figure winning the Arkansas Derby, he is another that I feel is a cut below the top contenders in this race. The same goes for Spiral Stakes winner Black Onyx, with back to back 101 figure efforts and no real sign of the improvement necessary to win this race. Will Take Charge won the Rebel Stakes in mid-March with a career-best 110 figure on perseverance alone but really never looked like a winner until the last few yards, which causes concern for his chances facing a quality field of horses bringing their “A” game in the Derby. Last but not least among this group is Itsmyluckyday, who was very impressive winning the Holy Bull Stakes in January with a career-best 109 Equibase Speed Figure but who made the lead in the stretch and couldn’t hold it in the Florida Derby, finishing second to Orb and regressing to a 95 figure. It might be difficult to rebound from in this tough field.

The rest of the Derby field (with their best representative Equibase Speed Figure): Charming Kitten (99), Falling Sky (100), Frac Daddy (95), Giant Finish (98), Golden Soul (104), Oxbow (93) and Vyjack (104).

2013 Kentucky Derby

Saturday, Churchill Downs, Race 11, 6:24 ET

3-year-olds, 1 1/4 miles

PP Horse Trainer Jockey Odds
1 Black Onyx Kelly Breen Joe Bravo 50-1
2 Oxbow D. Wayne Lukas Gary Stevens 30-1
3 Revolutionary Todd Pletcher Calvin Borel 10-1
4 Golden Soul Dallas Stewart Robby Albarado 50-1
5 Normandy Invasion Chad Brown Javier Castellano 12-1
6 Mylute Tom Amoss Rosie Napravnik 15-1
7 Giant Finish Tony Dutrow Jose Espinoza 50-1
8 Goldencents Doug O'Neill Kevin Krigger 5-1
9 Overanalyze Todd Pletcher Rafael Bejarano 15-1
10 Palace Malice Todd Pletcher Mike Smith 20-1
11 Lines of Battle Aidan O'Brien Ryan Moore 30-1
12 Itsmyluckyday Eddie Plesa Jr. Elvis Trujillo 15-1
13 Falling Sky John Terranova II Luis Saez 50-1
14 Verrazano Todd Pletcher John Velazquez 4-1
15 Charming Kitten Todd Pletcher Edgar Prado 20-1
16 Orb Shug McGaughey Joel Rosario 7-2
17 Will Take Charge D. Wayne Lukas Jon Court 20-1
18 Frac Daddy Kenny McPeek Victor Lebron 50-1
19 Java’s War Kenny McPeek Julien Leparoux 15-1
20 Vyjack Rudy Rodriguez Garrett Gomez 15-1
Image Description

Ellis Starr

National Racing Analyst for Equibase, Fan Education Specialist, Bettor, Magister of Equine Prognostication (Handicapper).

Image Description

Ellis Starr

National Racing Analyst for Equibase, Fan Education Specialist, Bettor, Magister of Equine Prognostication (Handicapper).

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