If it’s December, it’s time for making gift purchases and charitable donations, reconnecting with family and friends, holding Seasonal Affective Disorder at bay, and perhaps most important of all for horseplayers, keeping tabs on contenders for the following spring’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
Several qualifying points races have already been held over the past three months, and other talented 2-year-olds have emerged in the Derby discussion after winning or running well in maiden and allowance races around the country.
Forecasting the field — and even taking a stand on a potential winner backed by a future wager — is an annual highlight of Kentucky Derby season, and the bookmakers at Caesars Sportsbook in Las Vegas are taking fixed-odds future wagers on the 150th Derby, which will be held at historic Churchill Downs on May 4, 2024.
Caesars, like many other bookmakers, has expanded its reach out into several other states after sports gambling has become legal, including Kentucky this fall where it has partnered with Keeneland Race Course and the Red Mile harness track in Lexington. However, as of this writing, only Caesars’ Nevada book is offering fixed-odds future wagers on the Kentucky Derby. The same is true – again, as of this writing – for other platforms that offer Derby pools and have launched in the Bluegrass state and elsewhere.
In addition to the Vegas futures, Churchill Downs has completed two pari-mutuel Derby future wager pools, the most recent one closing on Nov. 26. The “all others” option finished with 6-5 odds, while FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by TAA winner Fierceness led individual entries at odds of 8-1. The next Derby future wager parimutuel pool will run from Jan. 19-21, followed by one each in March and April.
Dec. 3 Caesars Sportsbook Odds Leaders to Win the 2024 Kentucky Derby:
1. Fierceness (15-1)
2. Nysos (20-1)
3. Locked (30-1)
4. Knightsbridge (35-1)
5. Muth (40-1)
5. Nash (40-1)
5. The Wine Steward (40-1)
Not surprisingly, Fierceness tops the futures book in early December after his eye-catching bounce-back win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park on Nov. 3. The Mike Repole homebred trained by Todd Pletcher rewarded faithful supporters at 16.50-1 odds in the Juvenile with a blowout 6 ¼-length win, in retrospect arguably the most impressive performance of the two-day World Championships. Now, can he move forward from that? Time will tell, of course, and right now 15-1 as a future bet would be an underlay for any 2-year-old Derby prospect in recent memory (including American Pharoah, who as you may recall was recovering from an injury back in December 2014). Read Mile Curry’s recent profile of Fierceness on America’s Best Racing’s Triple Crown page.
Juvenile runner-up Muth and third-place Locked are getting 40-1 and 30-1 odds, respectively, and of course it must be noted that Muth has not accrued any qualifying Kentucky Derby points from his three stakes appearances to date, including his impressive win in the American Pharoah Stakes. That’s due to Churchill Downs’ decision to extend its ban of any Bob Baffert-trained horses from the Kentucky Derby through 2024. The ban also applies to Nysos, who has won his two races in California, including the Bob Hope Stakes, by a combined 19 ¼ lengths for Baffert and owner Baoma Corp.
As for Locked, the Pletcher-trained winner of the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity should resurface in Florida in early 2024 for a Derby prep. He was just getting going late in the FanDuel Juvenile, closing to finish a half-length behind Muth, and has a solid pedigree for handling more distance as a son of top young sire Gun Runner and out of a dam who is a half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to Always a Princess and Gabby’s Golden Gal. Both of those fillies won graded stakes at 1 1/16 miles or longer.
Knightsbridge and Nash are proverbial “buzz” horses, both owned and bred by international powerhouse Godolphin Racing and coming off of dominant maiden wins in November. Knightsbridge won first out on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, taking a seven-furlong maiden race by a widening 10 ½ lengths and earning a 103 Equibase Speed Figure. The Nyquist colt had to steady early on but recovered and shot clear of the field in early stretch while being kept to task by jockey James Graham. This colt is a half-brother to Grade 1 winner Speaker’s Corner, who did his best racing at the one-mile distance, and his second dam (maternal grandmother) is 2006 Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Round Pond.
Nash, trained by Brad Cox, improved from a runner-up finish in his October debut at Keeneland to win a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Churchill by 10 ¼ lengths Nov. 23. The Medaglia d’Oro colt shot to the lead immediately under Florent Geroux, cruised through the backstretch and far turn, and opened up in early stretch with a few shakes of the reins in a visually impressive effort that netted a 104 Equibase Speed Figure. His dam is Sara Louise, who won the one-mile Top Flight Handicap, and he’s from the family of Forbidden Kingdom, who won the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes back in 2022 but otherwise also performed best in sprints.
Knightsbridge is Florida-bound for the winter and Nash will ship to Fair Grounds for a planned start in the Dec. 23 Gun Runner Stakes, per Daily Racing Form’s Marcus Hersh.
Recent prep winners:
Two years ago, the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct turned out to be both an exciting race and a key Triple Crown prep for the top two finishers, as Mo Donegal nipped Zandon by a nose following some bumping in deep stretch. Mo Donegal trained on to finish fifth in the 2022 Kentucky Derby and then won the Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, while Zandon checked in third in the Derby behind longshot Rich Strike and Epicenter.
It’s early, but last Saturday’s Remsen finish inspired similar anticipation for what lies ahead. Dornoch, a full brother (same sire [father] and dam [mother]) to 2023 Kentucky Derby winner Mage, was in full control for most of the 1 1/8-mile race until midstretch, when maiden winner Sierra Leone came charging from last to engage and then move ahead of him. In a definite case of “something you don’t often see in a 2-year-old,” Dornoch responded when challenged and fought back gamely on the rail to prevail by a nose.
The Remsen was Dornoch’s fourth career race and second win in a row for trainer Danny Gargan following a 6 ½-length blowout in a Keeneland maiden event going 1 1/16 miles where he did not switch leads in the stretch but still won easily. The son of champion Good Magic showed inexperience again in the Remsen but also talent and determination, and the same can be said of Sierra Leone, a Chad Brown-trained colt who was only making his second start and seemed to ease up a bit after he took a short lead before lugging into his rival. Sierra Leone is another Gun Runner-sired prospect who won his first race, a one-turn mile at Aqueduct, by 1 ¼ lengths on Nov. 4. His dam is Heavenly Love, winner of the 1 1/16-mile, Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades Stakes as a 2-year-old in 2017, and intriguingly, his second dam, 1 1/16-mile stakes winner Darling My Darling, is a half-sister to Zenno Rob Roy, who was Horse of the Year in Japan back in 2004 and won seven career races that averaged out to a distance of nearly 1 5/16 miles, including the mile-and-a-half Japan Cup.
Dornoch is offered on Caesars’ latest sheet at odds of 50-1, while Sierra Leone is at 75-1, both good value at this point in the Derby prep season. Read Mike Curry’s analysis of Dornoch as a Derby prospect here.
Four to watch:
Track Phantom was a standout performer on Churchill Downs’ “Stars of Tomorrow” card on the Nov. 25 closing Saturday of its fall meet, romping by 4 ¾ lengths in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race. He had previously finished third and second in one-mile maiden races at Churchill Downs, the runner-up finish coming behind Real Men Violin on Oct. 29 during another 2-year-old showcase card at Churchill. In his November victory, the Quality Road colt shook off some pace pressure on both turns to kick clear late under Joel Rosario. The Steve Asmussen trainee is out of Miss Sunset, who won the seven-furlong, Grade 2 Lexus Raven Run Stakes, and his dam’s-side pedigree tilts toward speed, with one exception being $2.27-million earning multiple graded stakes-winning router Prayer for Relief. He’s offered at 75-1 odds on Caesars’ Dec. 3 sheet.
Real Men Violin, who defeated Track Phantom back in October, subsequently finished a solid second later on the Nov. 25 card at Churchill Downs behind Honor Marie in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile qualifying points race for the 150th Kentucky Derby. Real Men Violin is worth a look at 100-1 on Caesars’ book, and so is Honor Marie at 75-1 (read Mike Curry’s profile of him here). Another Churchill performer, Otto the Conqueror, did not race on Nov. 25 but won twice earlier this fall under the Twin Spires, and his last victory has been flattered considerably by subsequent events. The Street Sense colt romped by four lengths in a seven-furlong allowance-optional claiming race on Oct. 29 for Asmussen and owner Three Chimneys Farm, with Honor Marie checking in second and Just Steel, winner of the Nov. 25 Ed Brown Stakes at Churchill, nabbing third.
Otto the Conqueror is training at Oaklawn Park this month and could resurface in the one-mile Remington Springboard Mile, also a Derby points race, on Dec. 15 at Remington Park as he tries two turns for the first time. He has yet to run worse than second through three starts, finishing just a length behind subsequent Street Sense Stakes winner Liberal Arts back in August at Ellis Park and then winning twice at Churchill. Although his dam, Dream It Is, did her best running in sprints, this runner possesses stamina deeper in his bloodline, highlighted by European champion filly Bosra Sham. Otto the Conqueror is getting 125-1 odds at Caesars, while Just Steel sits at 150-1 and Liberal Arts at 100-1.
Up in New York, first-time starter Otello closed to take a one-turn mile race by a neck over the pacesetter in his career debut on Nov. 4 at Aqueduct. He was bottled up behind three horses in early stretch and had to shift to the inside after his outside path closed off, but Otello still was able to rally late for the victory. Based on the eye test and his pedigree, this Curlin colt trained by Christophe Clement should relish two turns and added distance, although he could also be pointed to turf races down the road. Otello’s dam, Isabella Sings, won four graded stakes routing on turf, and he’s also related to Campanologist, who fans may remember from a dozen years or so ago as an international competitor who excelled in races a mile and a quarter or longer. Otello is offered at 150-1 odds by Caesars.
Finally, Brendan Walsh-trained Snead won his second consecutive start Nov. 23 at Fair Grounds, driving clear to win a 1 1/16-mile allowance-optional claiming race by 7 ¼ lengths. He previously rallied to take a one-turn-mile maiden race at Churchill by 1 ½ lengths on Oct. 29, and is 2-for-4 overall. Snead made a sweeping move to the lead at the top of the stretch but then appeared to ease up for several strides before regaining focus and momentum under strong handling from jockey Jareth Loveberry. Still, he earned a good Equibase Speed Figure of 97 and is another colt who should bet better as his races get longer. The son of 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist is out of an unraced A.P. Indy mare who is a full-sister to champion and 2006 Preakness Stakes winner Bernardini. Worthy of consideration at current 100-1 odds from Caesars.