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 Kentucky Derby prep season concluded with Magnum Moon’s dominant score in the Arkansas Derby and My Boy Jack’s rallying win in the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes. Now, all eyes will be on Churchill Downs as the Derby contenders arrive and conduct their final preparations for the May 5 classic.
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1. Vino Rosso
What 3-year-old has run the fastest Thoro-Graph number in America this year? Hint: it’s a tie and they all did it in their final Derby prep. The tie is between Justify (of course), Audible (no surprise there), and Vino Rosso (really?). That’s right, Vino Rosso ran the same negative number as Justify in the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets, finally getting on a track he could handle. John Velazquez said the colt was only giving him 50% at Tampa Bay Downs, because he was only running in spots and wasn’t focused. He would start spinning his wheels on the sandy, sometimes quirky, track at the same spot on the far turn. Both Velazquez and Todd Pletcher felt blinkers would help. Even though he ran worse in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby than in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, his connections felt he was more focused, and it was not handling the track on the far turn that caused him to regress. So, it was decided to leave the blinkers on in the Wood Memorial. Once he got on a track he liked, he responded by earning the co-fastest Thoro-Graph number this year. As for bouncing off that effort, he does have a very fast number in his career debut to fall back on. Only Justify and Magnum Moon have run faster in their career debut.
He may not be as gifted and talented as some of the more brilliant horses, but one of the main reasons for his No. 1 ranking is the way the race looks to play out. We do know that Justify, Mendelssohn, Magnum Moon, Noble Indy, Flameaway, Bolt d’Oro, Promises Fulfilled, Quip, Bravazo, and possibly one or two others want to be in the first flight, which should ensure a contentious pace, especially with arguably the three most brilliant and exciting horses in the race – Justify, Mendelssohn, and Magnum Moon -- all wanting to be in the same place, on or just off the pace. It is the second tier, mid-pack horses with an excellent turn of foot that will be looking to pounce first if such a contentious battle on and near the lead begins to take its toll. Those include the No. 1 and 2 ranked horses Vino Rosso and Good Magic. That could be where the real danger comes from, and with so little separating the leading contenders and many question marks regarding experience and being battle-tested, or regarding pedigree, I am looking at who might have the advantage from a tactical standpoint.
2. Good Magic
I realize he had a perfect trip in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes and beat a horse who had to be softened a bit after battling head and head, and only beat Sporting Chance by 3 ¼ lengths despite that colt running sideways, ducking in and out. But breaking cleanly and establishing position going into the first turn of the Derby is so important, and I like the way he bulled his way into position going into the turn, shoving Machismo out of his way. And to his credit he did run 55 feet farther than Flameaway, according to Trakus, which equates to almost seven lengths. The most important factor, however, is that the Blue Grass looked to be his rebound race, and I am a expecting a big move forward in the Derby. He still ran a negative number on Thoro-Graph, and his pattern indicates he is sitting on a career-best effort. Also, as mentioned above, I feel his running style will be very beneficial in the Derby the way the race is shaping up with so much brilliant tactical speed. Unless one of them puts all the others away, I can see him and Vino Rosso sitting in a excellent striking position. He is the champ, and what he did in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile was extraordinary, so we know he is special. And there are few trainers better than Chad Brown at getting a horse to peak on the right day; something he no doubt learned from his mentor Bobby Frankel.
Many of the experts feel the Santa Anita Derby winner is something out of the ordinary and is in a class by himself, despite the abundance of talent we have this year. And he very well may be. But with standing room only on his bandwagon, sometimes you just want to wait before jumping on, especially with such an inexperienced horse who has never been tested. If he is the freak he looks to be and can overcome a couple of historical trends, then he will put on quite a show on the first Saturday in May. He is an imposing physical presence, and when Bob Baffert is this high on a horse, you have to pay attention. I expect to see him sit just off the pace, and that humongous stride of his can gobble up ground in a hurry. It would be great for the sport if he is the freak many believe he is, just as Arrogate was during his meteoric rise to stardom.
Perhaps what is most amazing is that four or five veterinarians turned him down at the Keeneland yearling sale because of a tiny OCD lesion. Breeder John Gunther said Coolmore was very interested in him, as they had his sire, Scat Daddy, but they went off the horse as well when their vet turned him down. Gunther really didn’t want to sell him, nor did he want to sell Vino Rosso, so he put a high $499,000 reserve on Justify, figuring if he sold he would be happy getting that big a price and if he didn’t sell he would be happy to keep him. As it turned out, he barely missed keeping him, as the colt sold for $500,000. Gunther said he’s still pinching himself. Not only did he breed Justify and Vino Rosso, he has two half-sisters to the dam of Good Magic. Justify actually was first trained at Keeneland by Quip’s trainer Rodolphe Brisset before being sent to Baffert. Brisset remembers him as being “very good looking and very forward, and easy to be around. He was immature, but gave you the feeling he was a very good horse by the way he breezed and galloped.”
4. Bolt d’Oro
After watching the Santa Anita Derby several more times I am confident that he is going to bounce back with a big race at Churchill Downs, and will do so as a huge overlay. He actually paired up his Thoro-Graph number from the San Felipe Stakes and now it all depends on whether he goes back to his sensational negative-1 ½ Thoro-Graph figure in the FrontRunner Stakes or shows that he peaked at age two. Although he has run good numbers this year, he has not approached that figure, and now is the time he has to take a jump forward. He had to do the dirty work in the Santa Anita Derby, chasing a loose-on-the-lead Justify. And you don’t usually see horses cut to the inside turning for home on dirt catch a good horse in front. And with Mike Smith saying he took Justify wide because that was the best part of the track, it means Bolt d’Oro was on the slower part of the track, and perhaps that inside move is when he grabbed his quarter. He certainly deserves another shot in a bigger field with a lively pace.
You know how special a horse is when they can affect a veteran jockey like Corey Nakatani, even though he was taken off the horse after finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. “He won his debut going 6 ½ furlongs at Del Mar and you don’t usually see a Medaglia d’Oro do that,” Nakatani said on our blog-talk radio show Switching Leads. “Then he wins a Grade 1 at seven furlongs and then crushes them in the Grade 1 FrontRunner stretching out. It’s not easy to then ask a 2-year-old to still be at his peak form in the Breeders’ Cup, especially having to break from the 11 post and close on that short stretch. Losing that race cost him the 2-year-old championship and cost me the mount. I still love the horse no matter what and I know he’s going to keep making me proud. He’s meant so much to me and still does; they’re like your kids. I also worked him all the time and feel like I know him better than anyone; we just clicked and got along together so well. I rode Shared Belief at two (winning the Hollywood Prevue by 7 ¾ lengths and Cash Call Futurity by 5 ¾ lengths) and California Chrome once, and Bolt d’Oro is by far the best 2-year-old I’ve ever sat on. He has so much raw talent and so much ability; he’s just a very special horse. He’s got the frame and the athletic ability, and he will get the distance. I just hold him in such high esteem. I wish I had the opportunity to ride him (in the Derby) and let him show his stuff, but those things happen in racing.”
5. Magnum Moon
There is a good chance this colt will move higher in the next couple of weeks as I put things in more perspective. A lot of people are wary of his drifting out in his last two races, and he did drift out significantly in the Arkansas Derby. But watching his gallops it is obvious he notices everything around him and reacts to it. In the heat of battle in a 20-horse field I don’t see him drifting. He did get away with a very slow pace, but he is not a frontrunner; he just took the lead because no one else wanted it, and once he straightened out he did fly home his final eighth in :11.99. Also, a very good horse in Quip looked him in the eye, putting a lot of pressure on him on the far turn, but he just shrugged him off and spurted clear. In addition, he did not make a smooth transition into the stretch, appearing to switch to his right lead a bit too early. You have to remember, he is a May 9 foal, so he won’t even be three years old on Derby Day. He would have been ready to run at two, but he came down with a filling in his ankle, and although the vets gave Todd Pletcher the OK to go on with him, he felt it was in the colt’s best interest to send him to his father, J.J., in Ocala and give him more time to develop and become a man.
He has crammed a lot of experience into his four races this year. He won first time out at Gulfstream Park, then shipped to Tampa Bay Downs to win an allowance race and back to Palm Beach Downs, then shipped to Oaklawn Park, where he won in front of the largest crowd in Rebel Stakes history, then shipped back to Palm Beach Downs, then shipped back to Oaklawn, winning the Arkansas Derby in front of 64,000 people. That’s four races at four different distances. And as J.J. Pletcher said, “He don’t know how good he is yet.” He is one of the classiest, most beautiful moving horses you’ll ever see, with that look of eagles, and he’s still improving. Jacob West, who picked him out for Robert and Lawana Low, said he was a “big stately colt that stood over a lot of ground, with a kind, classy eye, and had a phenomenal way of going. He picks up on everything. He’s never turned a hair and loves his job. Every time I see him he gets better physically and mentally.” With three two-turn races in him already, and all the traveling he’s done, he has all the credentials to end the reign of Apollo.
This crop of 3-year-olds is making me feel totally frustrated, trying to separate them. Case in point: having to rank this colt No. 6 when I had him at No. 2 and believe he’s a very gifted horse who can easily win the Kentucky Derby on talent alone. I’m probably making too much of his pedigree, but I have to try to separate the Magnificent Seven somehow. As I mentioned, he has the co-fastest Thoro-Graph number this year, is improving with every start, and his four triple-digit Brisnet late pace figures, two of them after fast middle pace figures, indicates a horse with a very high cruising speed who can keep up with a fast face and close fast off it. And he showed in the Xpressbet Florida Derby he can take way back and make a long steady run. But the Florida Derby was a perfect scenario for him, with two of the top contenders killing themselves in a suicidal speed duel and one contender bleeding badly and never firing, so there wasn’t much competition for him from the quarter pole home. And again, he is going to have to find some stamina for that final quarter mile. He is a complete outcross through five generations and has sort of an unusual pedigree, with horses that are difficult to get a handle on. And if he can tap into Damascus, His Majesty, and Easy Goer back in his fourth and fifth generations, and also show he has as much Beholder in him as he does her brother, Into Mischief, then he could definitely outrun his pedigree, which he pretty much has already. He turned in a sharp half-mile work in :48 3/5 at Palm Beach Downs. In short, he really has me stumped.
Once again I admit this could be the worst ranking ever on Derby Dozen considering what a monster this colt may be. But not seeing any of his training and with him not likely to arrive at Churchill Downs until late, we really won’t get to see much of him, and how can I rank a European-trained horse, as spectacular as he’s been, over those above him? We certainly witnessed the devastation he created when he shot to the lead on a notoriously speed-favoring track in Dubai and turned the United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group
into a procession, defeating what looked to be a talented international field. The guess is he will try the same tactics in the Derby rather than have him get dirt kicked in his face for the first time and have Ryan Moore venture into unknown territory dealing with the kickback and a lot of traffic around sharper turns than he is used to in Europe. But with Promises Fulfilled in there, he may not have an easy time getting the lead. Promises Fulfilled, following his Florida Derby debacle, is going to have to outrun the field and get a clear uncontested lead and not go on another suicide mission. So we’ll see where Mendelssohn and Moore wind up early. Many will feel this finally will be Aidan O’Brien’s year, as he comes loaded with a strong American pedigree and a colt with a ton of speed and the ability to carry it long distances. Remember, unlike the others, he has already romped going 1 3/16 miles, and did it in record time. All we can do is wait to find out just what we’re dealing with. Like the other top-ranked horses, you can put him anywhere from No. 1 to No. 7 and make a good case for it. I am a huge fan of Aidan O’Brien’s and he certainly would be a deserving winner after all his attempts to win the Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic. No European has supported American racing more.
8. My Boy Jack
It’s too bad he had to run in the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes to try to pick up enough points to assure a spot in the Derby field. But fortunately, with his style of running, coming from far back, he doesn’t use himself as a horse would who runs hard the whole way. And at least the Lexington is now run three weeks before the Derby instead of two, as it used to be. He has now run three consecutive races where he has exploded on the far turn with a devastating move; once along the rail and twice going very wide circling horses. So, he not only would benefit from a fast, contentious pace, once Kent Desormeaux steps on the gas, he accelerates and gets into the fray quickly, unlike most deep closers who make a long sustained run. The Lexington proved to be an important test for him after he made a huge move seven-wide in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, but was unable to sustain it and couldn’t pass Noble Indy and Lone Sailor late when it looked like he was going to roar by them. For a second, it looked as if it might be the same story in the Lexington, but this time he was able to wear down a stubborn Telekinesis in the final jump to win by a head, and he did it at a distance shorter than he likes, and on a shortened stretch, with the finish line at the sixteenth pole. Although his Beyer Speed Figure was only a 90 and they ran slower than maidens earlier on the card, he did what he had to, and with his pedigree and running style, he definitely will appreciate the distance of the Derby much more than the Lexington. And he’s already run faster Beyer figures than that on a couple of occasions. He is scheduled to ship to Churchill Downs on Saturday.
Despite getting beat four lengths in the Arkansas Derby, he ran a very good race chasing Magnum Moon, and even though he couldn’t match strides with the winner after eyeballing him nearing the head of the stretch, he really dug in gamely, holding off three very good horses for the place spot. And it was only his second start of the year following a 3 ½-month layoff. Florent Geroux could have gone after Magnum Moon down the backstretch, but had his feet in the dashboard, apparently feeling he had a better shot dogging the favorite than engaging him early. That’s the way he won the Tampa Bay Derby, and probably how the colt prefers to run. I’m not sure if a mile and a quarter will be his best distance, but he no doubt has the ability and it certainly wouldn’t surprise me to see him run well at 10 furlongs. Winning the Tampa Bay Derby in your first start off a layoff is no easy task, and having run first or second at Churchill Downs, Keeneland, Tampa Bay Downs, and Oaklawn Park, he obviously can handle any track. Right now, he looks like a perfect horse for the Haskell Invitational, but don’t ever sell him short, whether in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness Stakes. Rodolphe Brisset is a talented young trainer, who spent 10 years with Bill Mott, and his star looks like it’s definitely on the rise.
He is consistent and versatile and just keeps running his race. No one can say for sure what would have happened in the Blue Grass Stakes had he not gone head and head on the front end with a 69.40-1 shot. Just as he put that horse (Arawak) away, here came Good Magic to look him in the eye before he could change leads and level off. But once he did, he ran strongly to the wire. The only problem is that he is one of many horses who want to be on or very close to the lead. He did close well in the final yards of the Tampa Bay Derby, but that is not where his strength lies. It shows you what a strong Derby group this is for a horse with his credentials to be ranked No. 10. Like Quip, I think of him more as a Haskell-type of horse, but both colts have more than earned their way into the Kentucky Derby. One person who is a big admirer of Flameaway is his trainer, Mark Casse. “He never gave up,” Casse said of the colt’s performance in the Blue Grass. “He’s just so classy you’ve got to love him. I got what I asked for. I said I wanted a fight at the top of the lane, and we got one. Unfortunately, we were second best today. We’ve beaten the winner of the Wood Memorial twice already. I think we can hold our head high.”
11. Noble Indy
Can anyone remember a Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner who so few people are talking about, and who is regarded as the fourth best 3-year-old in his own barn? He lost his jockey, and his gutsy Louisiana Derby victory seems like a long time ago. He was back on the work tab this week, breezing a solid five furlongs in 1:01. He is another who has had only four lifetime starts, but his Beyer Speed Figures have improved every race, and his Brisnet numbers are consistently strong as well. Like Vino Rosso, he has improved with blinkers, wearing them for the first time in the Louisiana Derby, where he looked beaten turning for home, but battled back to snatch victory in the final strides. One of those he came back on and outran to the wire was My Boy Jack, who came back to win the Lexington Stakes. He’s not as flashy as a couple of Todd Pletcher’s other Derby hopefuls, but to demonstrate how loaded Pletcher is this year, his four Derby horses combined have won 14 of 18 starts, with three thirds and a fourth. So, none of Pletcher’s horses have finished off the board in their career. I don’t know if he’s good enough to handle the heavy hitters this year, but, for a Louisiana Derby winner, he’s going to be a huge price.
Give him credit for taking those solid bumps from Vino Rosso in the Wood Memorial and not budging an inch. It was as if Vino Rosso had hit a brick wall, bouncing off him twice. There is no doubt this is a tough, hard-knocking colt, who may have just picked the wrong year to come along. But for a 12th-ranked horse he does possess some heavy-duty credentials, and like many other talented horses he’ll be a forgotten horse at the windows. Kiaran McLaughlin has had some bad luck getting major players to the Derby, such as Cairo Prince and Mohaymen, and suffered one of the toughest defeats ever with 71.60-1 shot Closing Argument losing to fellow longshot Giacomo. He also had the immensely talented Frosted come along the same year as American Pharoah. Maybe this year, he can ambush everyone when they’re not looking. As I’ve been saying, Enticed just needs to find his strengths. He doesn’t have the speed to run with the ultra brilliant colts we have this year and he doesn’t have that push-button acceleration to blow by horses or the explosive closing punch to run down horses in the final furlong. What he does have is the ability to keep coming at you with at that one steady pace and take advantage of others’ mistakes. He’s as honest as they come and is going to win his share of big races.
Knocking At the Door
First off, let me say that the rankings of Derby Dozen over the next couple of weeks are based on a number of factors, but do not necessarily reflect my final selection and wagering analysis, which will not be published until the Thursday before the Derby after watching all the training and seeing the post positions...and of course a last minute epiphany. When having to depend on a ranking system, your hands are tied having to try to separate seven horses who are almost one when it comes to talent. Many of my past selections when I was covering the Derby were based on training and how a horse looked Derby week and how his coat and overall appearance and demeanor changed during the course of the week. Not being at Churchill Downs, I will have to rely mainly on the training as seen at internet outlets such as Churchill Downs and XBTV, and what I can see of the horse in general. There you have the freedom to shuffle the deck as much as you want without the restrictions of a ranking.
For the first time I had to drop Solomini from the Top 12, even though he still remains as tough and honest as any of them, and I have him ranked No. 13 at this time. I just can’t figure him out anymore. Forget the fact that he again didn’t change leads in the stretch of the Arkansas Derby. I just couldn’t comprehend what he was doing running eighth in a field devoid of early speed, where they crawled the first three-quarters in nearly 1:13 2/5. I was hoping to see him use his speed and grinding style to either set or pressure the pace, as he is so tough I feel he would be very difficult to get by in the stretch. I would love to have seen what he would have done having Quip’s trip. He broke on his wrong lead and found himself four wide going into the first turn. He did make a good five-wide move on the far turn and was right there at the head of the stretch, but by now had been fanned nearly seven-wide. He again ran greenly down the stretch, stuck on his left lead and briefly looking at the grandstand, and to his credit he did battle hard to the wire, between horses. That is his strength. I firmly believe he will like the mile and a quarter, but, despite his experience, he still needs to be more professional. It isn’t finishing third that forced me to drop him; it was the manner in which he did it. We know the talent is there, as well as the heart. But the Kentucky Derby is all about being professional, and one of these days he hopefully will put everything together, and then we will see the real Solomini.
Combatant, who is the first horse looking in at No. 21 in points, just doesn’t seem to be able to take that big step forward. He ran well to finish fourth in the Arkansas Derby, but lacked the big late punch he needed to get second and a spot in the Derby field. He still has several weeks for that spot to open up. You can’t say this colt is not honest. He tries hard every race, but at some point he has to have that breakout performance.
For a horse with so little racing, I thought Tenfold ran a terrific race in the Arkansas Derby, making a strong wide move at the head of stretch to reach contention, only to be beaten in a four-horse photo for second. This is an undefeated horse who had only two lifetime starts, and there is no doubt this son of Curlin has a very bright future. Watch out for him in the Preakness.
Speaking of the Preakness, the newly-blinkered High North became the sixth Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes starter to win a stakes at three when he captured the Northern Spur Stakes at Oaklawn Park in impressive fashion. Earlier on the Lexington Stakes card, the Pioneerof the Nile colt Just Whistle, trained by Michael Matz, rallied to break his maiden in his third career start, running the 1 1/16 miles four-fifths faster than they ran in the Lexington. This is truly turning into the year of the lightly raced, late-developing 3-year-old.
Speaking of which, keep an eye on the highly regarded Telekinesis, who nearly pulled off the Lexington Stakes in his third career start, falling a head short after getting nailed right on the wire by My Boy Jack. Trainer Mark Casse has, on more than one occasion, has called him a “superstar.” The son of Ghostzapper’s only defeat came when he was forced to race against older horses in order to be ready for the Lexington.
Another potential Preakness horse, Instilled Regard, breezed an easy half in :51 2/5 at Santa Anita Park. The potential is there, as we have seen it several times already. He just hasn’t been able to take it to the next step.
The Derby workouts have begun at Churchill Downs, as the early arrivals have started their serious training. The highlight was Lone Sailor’s half-mile breeze in :47 1/5 for Tom Amoss. Also on the work tab was the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Bravazo, who breezed five furlongs in 1:01 1/5, with a final quarter in :24 1/5.
Dale Romans, who has called Churchill Downs home for almost his entire life, sent out Promises Fulfilled for a half-mile breeze in :49, in which he came home his final eighth in :12 flat, then galloped out five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 and six furlongs in 1:14 4/5. Coming off his Florida Derby debacle, the question is, how far can the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes winner take them in the Kentucky Derby? I would doubt anyone will try to run with him. Romans could have one of the real sneaky horses in the Derby in Free Drop Billy, who ran well enough in the Blue Grass Stakes to be considered a definite dark horse. The race should set up well for his running style, and he won’t have Sporting Chance to dodge this time. That is one horse his connections don’t want to see again. Keep this colt in mind in your exotics if you’re looking to throw a big-priced horse in there.
In other Derby works, another lightly raced horse, Hofburg, second in the Florida Derby in only his third career start, breezed a half in :49 at Payson Park for trainer Bill Mott.
Trainer Jeremy Noseda said Gronkowski is all ready for his assault on the Kentucky Derby and will leave for America on April 28. Noseda said on Racing UK, “I am delighted with him. He’s a lovely, straightforward horse to deal with and everything is very much on schedule with our preparation,” Noseda told Tattersalls. “It’s just getting him happy, fit and healthy, and then we have to find out if he goes on the dirt or not. I’m pretty confident he’ll handle it well. They either do or they don’t, no matter how much you train them.
“I am definitely looking forward to meeting (Rob) Gronkowski the man. It will be a huge day and will possibly open racing, even at the Kentucky Derby, to a different level of sports fans with the NFL being the most high-profile sport in America. The Kentucky Derby is one of the most special days in horse racing. It has an atmosphere and intensity that I have never experienced at any other race anywhere in the world. It is a special event to be at and we will roll the dice and give it our best shot.”
The Derby lost one of its best feel-good stories with the injury to Sunland Derby winner Runaway Ghost, who came out of his six-furlong work with what was believed to be a hairline fracture in his shin. He will certainly be missed.