Derby Trail: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down


Sunland Derby victor Firing Line exercises at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Kentucky Derby. (Photo by Eclipse Sportswire)

For the final pre-Kentucky Derby version of this blog, I allowed myself some leeway to take a look at a few extra contenders whose stock has risen in my view over the last few weeks. I used race performance, analysis, reports from Churchill Downs plus video of workouts to identify the horses I think have the best shot at having an impact, including my winner. I added a few live longshots at the end.

This is a great group of 3-year-olds, so the cooling down section was much harder. I didn't just want to list the horses I thought were no-hopers. Instead, I went with some very good 3-year-olds who I'll be playing against.

One final note: I really like Dortmund, too, but he's pretty much been at or near the top of my top 10 all year. I'll be using him on my Kentucky Derby tickets for sure. The top 10 at the bottom reflects what I'm expect for the finish of the Kentucky Derby.

Heating Up

1. Firing Line

Coady Photography

Firing Line is my pick to win the Kentucky Derby. His battles with unbeaten and ultra-game Dortmund in the Los Alamitos Futurity and Robert B. Lewis Stakes led me to really respect him. His Sunland Derby performance had what I look for most in a derby candidate: he was able to run very fast early and still finish well while setting a new track record in a 14 ¼-length win. I love that he’s had six weeks of rest since the Sunland Derby and reports from Churchill have him looking splendid. I think his burst of acceleration will play better in the Kentucky Derby than in the short fields he encountered when running against Dortmund and having Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens is a huge plus. Post position 10 was an ideal spot for Firing Line.

2. American Pharoah  

Eclipse Sportswire 

American Pharoah did not have much room to improve my opinion of him; I already thought he was the most physically gifted horse in the crop. But he’s earned rave reviews at Churchill Downs by people much better at evaluating horses than I am, and his final five-furlong workout in a blistering :58.40 was reminiscent of Barbaro’s pre-Derby drill in 2006. Don’t believe me, this is what clocker and bloodstock agent Gary Young had to say: “I have been doing this for 35 years, and he might be the best horse I’ve ever seen. He’s simply like Michael Jordan and stays in the air like he did in his rookie year. He stays in the air longer than any horse and you get the feeling that there’s not one gear left, but he may have two, three or four gears.” I went into the final two weeks leading up to the Kentucky Derby planning to play against expected favorite American Pharoah, but at this point I just don’t think you can leave him off your tickets. Post position 18 might not seem ideal, but with his cruising speed it will allow him to jump out of the starting gate and make his own position. Sure, take a shot on a horse with better odds to win and place, but if you are betting exactas, trifectas and supefectas, leave American Pharoah off at your own peril. You’ve been warned.

3. Materiality   

Eclipse Sportswire

From all accounts, Materiality is another who has made a splendid impression at Churchill Downs. In an ordinary Kentucky Derby, meaning one with less elite talent, Materiality might be the favorite or the second choice and he certainly would be generating more buzz leading up to the first jewel of the Triple Crown. But with American Pharoah, unbeaten Dortmund and highly regarded Blue Grass Stakes winner Carpe Diem, not to mention Dubai invader and wise-guy horse Mubtaahij, Materiality has kind of flown under the radar. For an unbeaten colt by a dual classic winner (Afleet Alex) whose speed figures rate right there with the best of this group, that’s hard to believe. I understand Materiality is facing the “curse of Apollo” – no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without at least one race as a 2-year-old – but even if he doesn’t win, Materiality should be right there at the finish. Remember, one day the curse will be broken and it doesn’t apply to second or third place. Post position three was not ideal, but Materiality is an elite talent who has looked like a million bucks leading up to the most important race of his career.

4. Danzig Moon

Eclipse Sportswire

Danzig Moon should be able to reserve energy early and make one late run. He turned in a workout of five furlongs in :58 on April 18 and a half-mile in :48.80 on April 24 and appears to like the main track at Churchill. By Malibu Moon, Danzig Moon was the subject of this week’s Making the Grade. I like the class and stamina from his pedigree and his running style. I think he could close for third or fourth, but he definitely will need to step up his game.

Cooling Off


Eclipse Sportswire

Mubtaahij is definitely a gifted racehorse and he showed an explosive turn of foot in winning the United Arab Emirates Derby by eight lengths, but shipping from Dubai where it pushes 100 degrees to a much cooler Arlington Park outside of Chicago to Louisville, plus preparing for the race on a synthetic surface at Arlington and having to switch feeds seems like too much to overcome. Post position six should be just fine for Mubtaahij, and I actually think he has a sneaky-good pedigree for the dirt. He’s enjoyed success on that surface in Dubai, but the level of competition improves here for the Kentucky Derby. If you are looking for a horse in the 9-1 to 16-1 range, I prefer Firing Line and Materiality.


NYRA photo 

I know this is going to be unpopular, but I just can’t buy in on Frosted. The Wood Memorial Stakes was such a big improvement that I think it’s going to be tough for him to duplicate. His connections made myriad changes for the Wood – from a procedure to correct a breathing issue to new equipment to a new rider – and it worked for that race. I just wonder if a 3-year-old who seems to require so much adjustment is the one to bank on in a 20-horse field in the Kentucky Derby where adversity is virtually a guarantee. He should at least be out in the clear when breaking from post position 15. Pedigree is a big strength for Frosted, who has plenty of stamina and class on the bottom half and top sire Tapit on top. I’m going to look really stupid if he wins the Kentucky Derby, but you’ve got to take some stands when analyzing this race and my money will be going elsewhere.

3. Itsaknockout

Gulfstream Park photo

Itsaknockout looked like an up-and-coming star in the Fountain of Youth Stakes but I think it took quite a bit out of him. He came back with a lackluster effort when fourth, beaten by 21 lengths, in the Florida Derby and I’m hearing mixed reviews about how he has looked at Churchill Downs. I’m as big a fan of his sire, Lemon Drop Kid, as you will find, but I just prefer my Derby hopefuls to be coming into the race in better form. 


1. Firing Line 
2. Dortmund
3. American Pharoah
4. Materiality 
5. International Star 
6. Carpe Diem 
7. Far Right 
8. Bolo
9.  Mubtaahij
10. Danzig Moon 

Next four: 
TencendurFrostedUpstart, El Kabeir

Racing Terms

Allowance race – A race for which the racing secretary drafts certain conditions to determine weights to be carried based on the horse’s age, sex and/or past performance.

Also-eligible – A horse officially entered for a race, but not permitted to start unless the field is reduced by scratches below a specified number.

Apprentice – A rider who has not ridden a certain number of winners within a specified period of time. Also known as a “bug,” from the asterisk used to denote the weight allowance such riders receive.

Blinkers – A cup-shaped device that limits a horse’s vision. Blinkers, often used to try to improve a horse’s focus, come in a variety of sizes and shapes to allow as little or as much vision as the trainer feels is necessary.

Bullet – The fastest workout of the day at a track at a particular distance.

Claiming race – A race in which each horse entered is eligible to be purchased at a set price.

Closer – A horse that runs best in the latter part of the race, coming from off the pace.

Connections – Persons identified with a horse, such as owner, trainer, jockey and stable employees.

Disqualification – Change in order of finish by stewards for an infraction of the rules.

Dam – The mother of a horse.

Entry – Two or more horses with common ownership that are paired as a single betting unit in one race.

Front-runner – A horse whose running style is to attempt to get on or near the lead at the start of the race and to continue there as long as possible.

Furlong – An eighth of a mile.

Graded race – A non-restricted race with added money or guaranteed purse value of $100,000 or more which has been run at least twice under similar conditions and on the same surface and has been assigned graded status for the year contested by the American Graded Stakes Committee.

Handicap – This race type refers to a race where the weights are assigned by the track’s racing secretary or handicapper based upon past performances.

Length – A measurement approximating the length of a horse, used to denote distance between horses in a race.

Off track – A track that has a wet surface and isn’t labeled as “fast”.

Pacesetter – The horse that is running in front (on the lead).

Past performances – A horse’s racing record, earnings, bloodlines and other data, presented in composite form.

Prep – A workout (or race) used to prepare a horse for a future engagement.

Post Parade – Horses going from paddock to starting gate past the stands. The post parade provides spectators with a chance to get a final look at the horse before the race.

Post Position – Position of stall in starting gate from which a horse begins a race.

Rabbit – A speed horse running as an entry with another, usually a come-from-behind horse. The rabbit is expected to set a fast pace to help the chances of its stablemate.

Rank – A horse that refuses to settle under a jockey’s handling in a race, running in a headstrong manner without respect to pace.

Scratch – To be taken out of a race before it starts.

Silks – Jacket and cap worn by jockeys.

Sire – Father of a foal.

Stakes – A race for which the owner usually must pay a fee to run a horse. The fees can be for nominating, maintaining eligibility, entering and starting, to which the track adds more money to make up the total purse. Some stakes races are by invitation and require no payment or fee.

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