Award-winning BloodHorse senior correspondent Steve Haskin presents his Derby Dozen for the week, which offers an opinionated overview of leading contenders for the 144th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 5.
The biggest day of Kentucky Derby preps was held on April 7, and Justify (Santa Anita Derby), Good Magic (Toyota Blue Grass Stakes), and Vino Rosso (Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets) all improved their standings on the Road to the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard with impressive wins. On April 14, the final two points preps will be held. Oaklawn Park hosts the Arkansas Derby, worth 100-40-20-10 points to the top four finishers. Meanwhile, the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes at Keeneland offers qualifying points on a 20-8-4-2 scale.
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1. Vino Rosso
I know this is going to shock a lot of people, being the only one of 25 voters in the Derby Media Poll to have him No. 1 and the only one of 46 voters in the NTRA poll (he ranks 8th and 9th on both polls). But when totally confused, look outside the box. This colt actually checked off more boxes than the others and to me simply looked like a Derby horse who is moving in the right direction and should be peaking on Derby Day. He ran fast in the middle part of the race in the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets (:23 4/5 and :23 4/5) and fast enough at the end (:37 1/5), and we learned a lot about him from the bumping match, as he shrugged it off and was drawing away at the finish and running through the wire, as they say, which I always want to see. Whether he should have been disqualified applies only in the context of the Wood Memorial. In the context of the Kentucky Derby, I feel he took the worst of the bumping, even though he was the aggressor, and he is now battle-tested for the 20-horse bumper car Derby. Also, this was the horse John Velazquez has always felt was the best of the bunch, and he gave up the mount on Audible and Noble Indy to stick with him.
I also feel he left a lot in the tank and showed marked improvement stretching out to a mile and an eighth, and his pedigree says he will go a lot farther than that. To endure those solid bumps (it was like he kept bumping into a brick wall), two of which knocked his hind end sideways, and still come home his last three-eighths in :37 1/5 is pretty impressive, especially drawing off from a horse the quality of Enticed. His final time was four-fifths faster than older horses ran in the Excelsior Handicap (albeit not a strong field), and he was carrying eight pounds more than the Excelsior winner. His 98 Beyer Speed Figure was strong enough, while leaving room for further improvement. And finally, of the three big preps on Saturday, he ran the same time as Justify, but traveled 51 feet farther on Trakus, and ran faster than Good Magic, traveling 22 feet farther.
I feel I know this horse, having been in contact with Tanya Gunther, who bred (she chooses the matings) and raised Vino Rosso with her father, since the beginning of the year. Remarkably, he grew up in the same field as Justify, who the Gunthers also bred, and he has always had a great mind, being extremely intelligent and always doing exactly what was asked of him, which is important when looking for a Derby horse. And finally, his pedigree is second to none. His sire (Curlin) and maternal grandsire (Ghostzapper) and great-grandsire (Awesome Again) won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, and Belmont Stakes, respectively; he has three English Derby winners in his pedigree, and his tail-female line traces to Dr. Fager and Meadow Stud’s foundation mare Hildene. So, as unlikely a No. 1 as you might think he is, I can find nothing about him that I don’t like or even question. And I just can’t separate the others at this point. Now, if it turns out he is simply not good enough against such a talented group, so be it. We still have almost four weeks to the Derby and things change.
2. Good Magic
I had mentioned that in his “poor” third in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes he actually earned a career-high Thoro-Graph figure, despite having his training delayed. Well, now he has returned to his form from last year, looks like he has further improvement in him, and is another who appears ready to peak on Derby Day. I would like to have seen a little faster final eighth than :13 1/5 after a previous quarter in a tick under :25, but he did get to goofing off a little, jumping back to his left lead, and seemed to win with something left, while flicking his ears around. I’m not sure how strong a field he beat. Runner-up Flameaway took all the worst of it, battling head and head on the lead, and third-place finisher Sporting Chance pulled his same antics again, darting out to the middle of the track nearing the wire, but still was only beaten 3 ¼ lengths before being disqualified. In fact, the first eight finishers were separated by only six lengths, and you like to see them more strung out than that at the finish, But it must be noted that Good Magic ran 55 feet farther than Flameaway on Trakus, and although some may knock his 95 Beyer Speed Figure, this looked to be more of a move forward than a best effort. Last year, he peaked after two races, and now he looks to repeat that same pattern in the Derby. I liked the acceleration he showed on the far turn, suggesting a return to his best form. And remember, he is the defending champ, who occupied the No. 1 spot every week before his defeat in the Fountain of Youth, which can certainly be attributed to missing some time with a foot issue and coming into the race at least two workouts short. This is a horse who has shown he may be best racing himself into shape. No doubt Chad Brown will have him 100% sharp and fit for the Derby.
The vast majority of voters on the national polls have him ranked him No. 1 and for good reason. But in some crazy way, ranking him No. 1 just seemed too obvious, and the Kentucky Derby will be a huge departure from what he’s seen in his three starts at his home track. There is no doubt in my mind he is the most gifted and talented 3-year-old in the country, and has superstar written all over him, and he surely can win the Kentucky Derby, maybe even decisively. But it is a big jump from three races in which he was always in complete control, having perfect trips, to a 20-horse stampede against one of the deepest Derby fields we’ve seen in a long time. And where does he go from a 107 Beyer Speed Figure? I moved him from No. 6 to No. 3 for now and nearly had him No. 2, changing at the last minute. But perhaps I’ve seen too many Kentucky Derbys and still need to see a horse win with only three career starts, all of them convincing scores at the same track, and not having raced as a 2-year-old. That’s a lot of history to overcome. But I certainly do acknowledge this colt is special and may very well be able to overcome his lack of experience and foundation, ringing in a new era in Derby preparation. He could become the poster child for minimal racing. Although he was able to control the pace in the Santa Anita Derby, I do like the way he opened up on Bolt d’Oro in the final eighth after his rival closed to within 1 ½ lengths, as if he either got a second wind or got his mind back on business. He drew clear to win by three lengths and was five lengths in front shortly past the wire. This was a good test for him, unlike his two prior strolls in the park, and he showed he could handle pressure in the stretch – well, sort of pressure. Despite having his hardest race, he strutted back afterward with good energy. If he had another start or two, he no doubt would be a shoo-in for the No. 1 spot. But with only the three starts, I need more time to soak it all in, seeing how he bounces out of this race and how he trains at Churchill Downs. And if I’m ready to toss out the history books.
I can’t believe I had to lower him from No. 2 to No. 4, and I am still leaving open the option of moving him back up upon further analysis. I actually had him at No. 5, but moved him up a spot when Javier Castellano decided his loyalty to Todd Pletcher took precedence over keeping the mount on Bolt d’ Oro. I just love the fact that in four of his five starts, he has triple-digit Brisnet late pace figures, the last two following fast middle pace figures, so you know he not only has high cruising speed, running fast in the middle of a race, he can come home fast. That is a very dangerous weapon. He also is only one of two Derby hopefuls to earn a negative number on Thoro-Graph this year, the other being Mendelssohn’s otherworldly performance in Dubai. The only reasons I didn’t keep him higher are the pedigree question marks and the perfect setup he had in the Xpressbet Florida Derby, in which all his major competition in the race were cooked and in full retreat by the quarter pole, whether because of the suicidal pace that killed off Promises Fulfilled and Strike Power or in Catholic Boy’s case, bleeding badly. So all he really had to beat was Hofburg, with two career starts and a half-length win in a maiden race.
5. Bolt d’Oro
Mind you, this is only a gut feeling, but it wouldn’t come as a surprise if he winds up in the Top Two or Three by the time we get to the final Derby Dozen. I just don’t know quite what to do with him right now, especially now that he gets his third rider in his last three races with Victor Espinoza announced for the Derby. I could have easily kept him at No. 1, as I felt he might regress a little off that hard race in the San Felipe Stakes. And he was between the proverbial rock and a hard place having to chase a loose-on-the-lead Justify. I just would have preferred to see him making up ground or maintaining the distance behind Justify rather than losing 1 ½ lengths in the final furlong. He was under the whip on the far turn before they even reached the head of the stretch, was hard-ridden all the way down the stretch, and by the sixteenth pole, had no more to give. Justify opened up even more immediately after crossing the wire. Whether or not grabbing his quarter and returning with a small wound on his ankle affected his performance, no one can know for sure, but I wouldn’t think it affected his race, as it looked to be very minor and horses run through those things. The bottom line may be that he simply “bounced” off the San Felipe and got tired after chasing Justify. Can I picture Bolt d’Oro rebounding with a huge effort in the Kentucky Derby, this time taking back farther off the pace? Most definitely. And getting a jockey in Espinoza who has won three Kentucky Derbys and who has worked him, certainly isn’t going to hurt him. But for now, like Justify, I’m just going to see how he comes out of the race. One thing in his favor is that he fires big every time, and he has a sensational negative 1 ½ Thoro-Graph figure in the FrontRunner Stakes last year to fall back on. So you know he can beat any of these horses on his best day and under the right conditions.
This could turn out to be another blunder on my part lowering him, but I just have to give the advantage to the American horses, and this is such a talented group I just couldn’t rank a European-trained horse over any of the top five. And I still don’t know if he will be able to maintain that incredible form from the United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group. His Thoro-Graph number for that race was an outrageous -4 ½, which is way faster than anything we’ve seen in this country. If that race were here, we’d be hearing the word “bounce” all over the place. But how much will he regress off such a huge number? He could run two or three points slower and would still probably win the Derby. He just may be that good. I admit he is yet another I still can’t get a good grasp of.
Pedigree-wise, if you ask any European racing aficionado to name the three greatest horses of the modern era, many of them would say Ribot, Sea Bird, and Nijinsky II. Well, all three are in the pedigree of Mendelssohn, including inbreeding to Nijinsky II. Combine all that European class and stamina with a number of American influences that provide both speed and stamina, and you can see why Mendelssohn was able to bury his UAE Derby opponents with a potent combination of speed and stamina. The result of all this speed and stamina on grass and dirt is a horse who it appears can do just about anything at any distance on any kind of surface. For example, Mendelssohn has now won three consecutive stakes on three different surfaces – dirt, synthetic, and grass – on three different continents. The Ribot influence comes through his son His Majesty, whose daughter Battle Creek Girl (dam of Mendelssohn’s broodmare sire Tricky Creek) was one of the most amazing broodmares of her time, producing 20 foals, 15 winners, six stakes winners and eight horses who earned more than $200,000. Two of her offspring made 84 and 90 starts, so she also passes on soundness and resilience. Tricky Creek, of course, sired the equally amazing Leslie’s Lady, dam of Mendelssohn, four-time Eclipse champion Beholder, and Into Mischief (sire of Florida Derby winner Audible). Again, to show the versatility of this family, Beholder is by the pure sprinter Henny Hughes, yet was able to win the 1 ¼-mile Pacific Classic by 8 ¼ lengths in a near-record 1:59 3/5. Yes, like Justify, we could be looking at a freak here.
7. Magnum Moon
Ignore the drop from No. 5 to No. 7. There is a very good chance that is only temporary until he runs next weekend in the Arkansas Derby. But he will have to run lights out again if he is to knock any of the top six down. He is another who has impressed me more with each performance, and other than Quip, he will be facing basically the same horses he beat in the Rebel Stakes. We don’t even know where he ranks in the Todd Pletcher stable, but from what we’ve seen so far, he could even wind up being his most potent threat. Remember, though, he also has the curse of Apollo hanging over his head and will have only four career starts prior to the Derby. He indicated his sharpness by breezing a half-mile in a bullet :48 3/5, fastest of 20 works at the distance. His second dam, Win McCool, is a half sister to Arkansas Derby winner Graeme Hall, earner of $1.14 million, and $850,000 earner and Grade 1 winner Harmony Lodge. Like stablemates Audible and Noble Indy, he has good stalking speed and should get a good position early on Saturday. If he can outrun Solomini, who didn’t have the best of trips in the Rebel, and Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby winner Quip, he will have to be considered yet another serious contender, which will make things even more complicated next week trying to figure out where to rank him.
I was surprised when he was scratched from the Blue Grass Stakes to travel to Oaklawn Park instead just because of who was not running in it. The reasons given were that Justify wasn’t running and it is a Grade 1 race. The Blue Grass was a winnable race, and who knows what the weather will be in Arkansas. And Magnum Moon is no slouch, nor is Solomini. Quip can certainly win the Arkansas Derby, and it may turn out to be the best move for him, if he can win a Grade 1, increase his stud value, and get a valuable prep for the Kentucky Derby. I was just surprised they waited so long to decide it was a better spot than the Blue Grass. I can understand not wanting to run against Justify, but he was withdrawn from Arkansas Derby consideration on Monday, and Quip still was entered in the Blue Grass the following day and the announcement that he would be scratched came two days after that. But we will see how it turns out. I was very impressed with his Tampa Bay Derby score, and he should only improve off it. He breezed a half in :48 3/5 at Keeneland, and it’s off to Arkansas. He has pretty much the same running style as Magnum Moon and Solomini, as all should be tracking the pace, along with lightly raced Tenfold and Beautiful Shot. But there is no pure speed horse, so don’t be surprised to see Solomini take the initiative, or possibly Tenfold. If he runs back to his Tampa Bay Derby score there is no reason why he shouldn’t run huge again.
If he and Magnum Moon were human athletes, you can bet they would feel like a baseball player on deck when the other team intentionally walks the batter at the plate to get to you. The connections of Quip obviously showed them little respect by leaving home where he likely would have been second choice to face them on a track they have already run big over. Okay, so Magnum Moon and Solomini couldn’t care less. Quip is just another horse they have to beat. This is Solomini’s last chance to establish himself as a serious Kentucky Derby contender and put everything in the past. It’s not about him improving or displaying his talent. We have already seen that, and we know what he’s capable of doing. He just needs to be professional, not do anything to cost himself the race, and hopefully get a clean trip. I feel he has to dog Magnum Moon all the way and not put himself in a position where Magnum Moon has to catch him. Or, as mentioned earlier, go to the lead and try to control the race. The same applies to Quip. He has to hook them when they make their move and use his grit and class to outrun them. If Solomini can get the lead in the stretch I don’t know if there is anyone capable of passing him, unless something comes flying late that he doesn’t see. This is a tough test, even though it looks to be a smaller field than usual for the Arkansas Derby, but you have to pass these kinds of tests if you are going to have a chance on Derby Day. We’ll see who, if anyone, comes out of the woodwork late to join the field.
Anyone who has watched Flameaway’s races knew that when Good Magic came to him at the head of the stretch in the Blue Grass Stakes, he was going to dig in and put up a fight. As I’ve been saying, this is one gutsy, tenacious horse, who needs to be in front turning for home. Despite getting involved in a head-to-head battle on the lead, he dug in when Good Magic came to him, but was stuck on his left lead and his stride was very sloppy. That allowed Good Magic to get a slight advantage and begin to ease clear. But Flameaway kept trying to fight back, and when he did finally change to his right lead, he leveled off, got back in sync, and matched strides with the winner to the wire, getting beat a length and a half. I’m not sure what the strategy is going to be in the Kentucky Derby, especially if Promises Fulfilled runs, and with all the top-class tactical speed horses in there, but he is going to have to get involved at some point and make sure he is right there turning for home in order to give himself a chance to mix it up in the stretch.
11. Noble Indy
Well, he lost his jockey, as expected, and it is safe to say he is the forgotten soldier in the Todd Pletcher army. You can bet that riders will be beating down Pletcher’s door to try to land the mount on the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner. I’m not crazy about him having only four career starts and a six-week layoff to the Kentucky Derby. I just don’t know if he has the seasoning and experience to go into the Derby and do serious damage in such a deep and talented field after barely winning at Fair Grounds and having to come on again in the stretch to beat Lone Sailor. In that race, he ran fast early and middle Brisnet pace figures, but got a very slow late pace number. He has shown on two occasions, however, that if he goes slower early, he has the ability to close fast. He had his first work since the Louisiana Derby, breezing an easy half in :50 1/5. It will be interesting to see how hard and how long Pletcher trains him as we get closer to the Derby. Expect to see some heavy-duty gallop-outs in order to build up his stamina and get him fit to go a mile and a quarter. Let’s just say he will be a heckuva pick-up mount.
Many feel he should have been put up in the Wood Memorial, but that is immaterial now. It’s time to look ahead to the Kentucky Derby. He did show how strong and tough he is physically when Vino Rosso came in and soundly bumped him twice, and just bounced off him, taking all the worst of it. My main observation with him has been that he is more of a grinder and lacks the quickness you want to see in a big Derby field. He ran well and he ran hard in the Wood, and was trying to come back when the bumping occurred. But he just wasn’t as quick to the punch as the winner, who charged up on his outside and stuck his head in front turning or home before angling in on him. That, however, came after Enticed floated Vino Rosso wide nearing the head of the stretch. I do admire this colt’s consistency, other than that aberration at Gulfstream Park in the Holy Bull Stakes, and how hard he runs all the time. I don’t believe he would have beaten Vino Rosso had the bumping not occurred. I’m just trying to picture a scenario where he can win the Derby, and it would seem the slower the pace the better for a horse with his grinding running style. That would allow him to stay closer to the pace and keep building up momentum. I thought he ran an excellent race in the Wood. He just ran into a very good horse on top of his game who took advantage of the fast opening fractions. Remember, he has won a Grade 2 stakes at Churchill Downs.
Knocking At the Door
Free Drop Billy occupied a spot in the Top 12 for several weeks, and although he had to be dropped following a defeat in the Gotham Stakes, he ran well enough in the Blue Grass Stakes to keep him in mind when looking for longshots in the Derby. He did put in a good move on the far turn and ran slightly farther than the winner. It’s debatable whether he would have gotten up for second or at least made it close had it not been for Sporting Chance bolting right in his path, forcing him to take up and alter course abruptly to get out of his way. He still managed to finish fourth, beaten only four lengths, before being put up to third via disqualification. This at least was encouraging enough to raise hopes that he could be a player in the Kentucky Derby, especially if we get a fast pace. I still go back to his second behind Audible in the Holy Bull Stakes, where I felt he ran an excellent race and was aggressive enough on the turn to look the winner in the eye. He looks to be Dale Romans’ last legitimate shot after Romans started off the year with a seemingly powerful arsenal.
Two beaten horses over the weekend who fared well enough to keep an eye on down the road are Restoring Hope, third in the Wood Memorial, and Core Beliefs, third in the Santa Anita Derby at 41.10-1. I particularly liked the way Restoring Hope galloped out. Restoring Hope could be a live Bob Baffert horse come summer. Instilled Regard’s backers had to be disappointed with his well-beaten fourth in the Santa Anita Derby when so much was expected of him, especially after his last two works, which raised hopes that he was back on the right track following his disappointing effort in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford.
That was a long way for jockey Ryan Moore to go to finish eighth in the Blue Grass Stakes on Marconi. Perhaps it was designed as a practice run for Moore to get used to American dirt racing and big fields for when he returns to ride Mendelssohn on the first Saturday in May.
Because of the automatic inclusion of the European-trained Gronkowski, it puts My Boy Jack on the bubble, sitting at No. 21 on the Derby points leaderboard. So now it is up to his connections to decide whether to play the hand they’ve been dealt or change plans and run in Saturday’s Lexington Stakes in an attempt to pick up a few more points. That’s not going to be any easy spot with the returning Greyvitos and Mask, and that shortened stretch at Keeneland for 1 1/16-mile races is not going to help him with his new running style. I fully expect him to get in the Derby field either way, but it would be a real shame if he doesn’t, as he is on a very strong Thoro-Graph pattern, having paired up two big numbers in his last two stakes after a huge jump. This is a horse who definitely can pick up the pieces late to at least get a share of it. He definitely would be in my exotics plays. You hate to alter your schedule to such a degree to try to get points, but that is the nature of the Derby now. Don’t sleep on this horse.
One horse My Boy Jack has to worry about jumping over him in points is Combatant, who faces a formidable task in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, but is very consistent and is sitting on a breakout performance if he can get the right kind of trip. So far he’s been nickeling and diming it, picking up pieces of stakes all year, but I believe there is a lot more to give, and he’s just waiting for things to set up for him. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, also will run the improving Dream Baby Dream, second in the Sunland Derby, and the lightly-raced undefeated Tenfold, who will be attempting to burst on the scene.
To show how deep this crop is, there are other talented horses who have either been in the Top 12 and dropped off or are sitting right on the edge. Sunland Derby winner Runaway Ghost, former No. 12, had his first work back, breezing an easy five-eighths in 1:03 2/5 for Todd Fincher. Weird thought of the day: What if the wining trainer of the Derby this year is named Todd, but not Pletcher? As of Tuesday morning we’re still waiting for Lone Sailor, second in the Louisiana Derby, to return to the work tab, but he has settled in at Churchill Downs and has been galloping. He is on the improve and might have cost himself a Louisiana Derby victory by drifting in the stretch, which helped allow Noble Indy to come back and narrowly beat him. He is an intriguing longshot, who is rounding into peak form at the right time for trainer Tom Amoss.
Despite having only two career starts going into the Florida Derby, the Bill Mott barn was optimistic Hofburg would run well. “I don’t think any of us know quite how good the horse is yet,” said Mott’s son and assistant Riley. “At this point his ceiling seems pretty high if he continues to improve. He certainly acted like our nicest 2-year-old last summer, but needed some time to develop after his initial race. As far as running him in the Florida Derby off his maiden win, I think it was combination of the timing and situation of the race and the confidence we had that he was a good horse. It was fulfilling that he ran so well but it wasn’t a surprise to anyone in our camp.”
As for some of the others in the Derby field as of now, there is Firenze Fire, who has been disappointing in his last two starts, and Promises Fulfilled, who is still being targeted for the Derby despite his 35 ¼-length defeat in the Florida Derby.