The last time I made a profit on the Kentucky Derby was 2013, when Orb, the favorite, won the race ahead of a longshot I loved named Golden Soul. That was the first of five consecutive years where the favorites have won the Kentucky Derby, including 2016 where they ran 1-2-3-4 in order, and 2015 where they ran 1-3-2 in order. If we see that again this year, I’m probably headed for another losing year. I know that over the long haul, I will make money on the Kentucky Derby. If I crush it once every several years, I will come out way ahead. The losing years are frustrating. Especially because I spend so much time analyzing each race run by each horse. But with 20 horses, and with such a rare opportunity to make a huge score, I prefer to swing for the fences rather than have a 30% chance of hitting a single, if that makes sense.
It’s time for you to get to know the Big 7. They are….
Justify – The expected favorite trained by Bob Baffert. Undefeated in three starts. Total monster.
Good Magic – Last year’s Champion two-year old trained by Chad Brown.
Mendelssohn – The Euro invader who just blitzed the field in the UAE Derby. Half-brother to the great Beholder.
Bolt d’Oro – Very fast but has “lost” three straight races (with one win by DQ).
Vino Rosso, Audible, and Magnum Moon – Three of Todd Pletcher’s four horses in this Kentucky Derby.
I wouldn’t talk anyone out of betting on any of the Big 7. And there are three or four others than I think can win if they take a reasonable step up and avoid bad luck while others maybe have traffic issues. It’s a very deep Kentucky Derby. And that means it’s going to be very hard to hit the superfecta. But if you do, it will pay a lot.
- Firenze Fire – After the Mine That Bird fiasco where I said for the last time in my career that a horse had no chance of winning a race, I’ve learned to be less dismissive. So I won’t say Firenze Fire has no chance. But in my opinion, he’d need an absolute miracle to win this. A mile is his game. And it’s a game he is very good at, as he defeated Good Magic last fall in the one-turn mile Champagne. But I don’t see him being effective at this distance. Since only five or six horses seem to be still running at the end of the Kentucky Derby every year, any horse can clunk up for a 7th-place finish. But I see this guy near the back of the pack late.
- Free Drop Billy – I don’t think Free Drop Billy qualifies as an elite horse, but he’s got some real ability for sure. Should be doing his best running late, and that makes him one you have to consider for your trifecta and superfecta. His Thorograph number for the Blue Grass was a major step forward, and with another move up, he can make some noise. Probably not a win candidate, however. Just a good old fashioned longshot play. He’ll be on all of my tickets. It’s a simple a that.
- Promises Fulfilled – If he’s able to break away early and really slow down the pace, he can hang on late for 5th I guess. Otherwise, I see him near the back of the pack in the final 1/8 mile. Yes, he beat Good Magic in the Fountain of Youth. But Good Magic clearly needed the race while Promises Fulfilled had everything his own way up front. He’s not in the same league as the Big 7 and isn’t as likely as my top longshots. I won’t be using Promises Fulfilled. But if you bet on him, you’ll probably get to see your pick in the lead for at least the first 3/4 mile.
- Flameaway – Definitley the overachieving fighter of the Derby field. Always runs his butt off. Never quits. Never seems to lose ground in the late stages. Reminds me of More Than Ready, who ran 4th in the 2000 Kentucky Derby even though he preferred shorter distances. I think Flameaway is the same kind of horse. Another son of Scat Daddy, which I don’t love. But this is one that I don’t think you can dismiss as a threat to hit the board. I also have a wager on him at 33-1 that I don’t expect to cash but will be happy to if he defies all expectations and takes this race. I’ll be using this horse where I can afford to./li>
- Audible – By some speed figures, Audible is fast early and fast late. And he absolutely romped in his two Gulfstream Park preps. On one hand, it’s easy to chalk up his Florida Derby win to the pace breakdown upfront. But on the other hand, he has shown before that he doesn’t need a fast pace in order to make his move. Make no mistake, Audible is a very very talented racehorse. And he is definitely a major win candidate. But don’t forget that John Velazquez gave up the mount on Audible and Noble Indy in favor of Vino Rosso, and many believed Vino Rosso was the top Pletcher horse all along. However, Javier Castellano jumped off Bolt d’Oro for Audible, and Bolt d’Oro has been arguably the second-fastest horse all year. So who knows what to make of the jockey games? You can look at it many different ways. Major threat.
- Good Magic – I predicted that Good Magic would win the Kentucky Derby last November when he had only raced twice and had lost both races. And I made a pile of money on him when he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, paving the way to the award for Champion Two-Year Old. So it’s fair for someone to accuse me of being a fan of this horse and being blinded by my fandom. But from an objective standpoint, I think he is the most-likely winner of the Kentucky Derby. And as of this writing, he had been bet down from 10-1 to 5-1 in a matter of days in Vegas casinos. It’s looking like he will be the second favorite, unfortunately. And for full disclosure, I already have $500 on him at 10-1, and that live bet will partially shape my wagering strategy. Good Magic figures to sit just off the early pace, and with the move he made in winning the Breeders’ Cup and the Blue Grass Stakes, it’s reasonable to predict that he will be the first one to make a move on the early leaders while hoping to kick clear far enough to hold off the late closers. I think that’s the most-likely scenario. Trainer Chad Brown ran 5th in this race last year with a horse that wanted to go no farther than a mile. And now we get a son of Curlin and a top jock in Jose Ortiz coming into the race in perfect form. His third start of the season last year was his best, and if you believe in form cycles, with the Kentucky Derby being his third start of this year, you have to think he is primed for his best effort. This is an elite racehorse for an expert trainer. And with legitimate knocks against several of the Big 7, I feel it’s Good Magic’s race to lose. My pick for the win. But is it possible I could have picked the Derby winner six months in advance before he had won even a single race? If I am right, it will go down as the greatest handicapping achievement of my life.
- Justify – If you are betting on him, you are betting on a horse that has run incredibly fast three times while destroying his opposition on his way to an undefeated record. Depending on which speed figures you read, he is either way faster than the rest of this field, or he is right there up at the top of the list. But as with Magnum Moon, Justify never raced at age 2. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby without having raced at age 2 since 1882. Yes, that’s 136 years for those of you who are mathematically challenged. In three career races, he has faced a total of 14 horses. By comparison, Good Magic defeated 13 in the Blue Grass, and 13 in the Breeders’ Cup. The only horse of any stature that Justify has defeated is Bolt d’Oro, and that guy just lost his jockey to Audible after failing to make a dent in Justify’s lead in the Santa Anita Derby. On top of that, Justify has had literally everything his own way in all three races. Now, that may be because he’s so damn good that he makes his own race. Even so, he’s faced no adversity of any kind. Another negative in my mind is that Justify’s sire, the recently-deceased Scat Daddy, wasn’t a distance horse himself and I don’t know that I see him producing a winner at 10 furlongs. Plus, the odds on Justify will be low. He can definitely win. No doubt about it. And if he wins and I am right about one or two of my longshots, I’ll cash a saver bet with Justify on top. No point in being stubborn about things. But my final decision on Justify is that he’s a bet-against for the win. He’s just trying to overcome too much history with too little experience against too few opponents. But if he does win, we may be seeing the next great racehorse, and he’ll be a big threat to take the Triple Crown just three years after his trainer, Bob Baffert, did it with American Pharoah. And if he does win, I won’t say “Wow, I didn’t see that coming.” I’ll say “I was afraid that might happen.” And I’ll be mad at myself for making things too complicated like I often do when I am chasing a big score. This horse might be the monster of monsters.
- Lone Sailor – To be short and to the point, I think Lone Sailor is a closing miler type. I can see him notching a few wins here and there up to 1 1/16 miles, but it’s hard for me to envision him running down the big boys in here. Useful little horse though. I just don’t like him here. That said, numerous clockers and workout observers have said he looks fantastic since arriving at Churchill. So if you are looking for an excuse to use him, you can find one. UPDATE: With a back-and-forth possibility of rain in the forecast, his 11-length win in the mud at Saratoga last summer draws the attention. I have no choice but to add this horse to the mix.
- Hofburg – As soon as he hit the wire in the Florida Derby, I knew Hofburg would be the wiseguy horse in the Kentucky Derby. His runner-up finish to Audible was pretty impressive considering he was making only his third career start and had only a maiden win to his credit. And even though all he did was follow Audible past the tiring front-runners, he did it with authority and appeared ready to keep running. Being a son of Tapit helps his chances I think. And being trained by the conservative Bill Mott is another plus. He wouldn’t be in here if he didn’t belong. And even with the title of Wiseguy Horse hanging over his head, given the depth at the top of this field, we should still see 20-1. This is a very solid racehorse and he is going to be passing horses late. That’s more than I can say for the bulk of this field. I think you have to use this horse, even if just at the bottom of your tickets. And it’s not going to shock me that much if he wins, just by virtue of the upside. He’s a serious contender at juicy odds.
- My Boy Jack – They gave him an extra race just to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, and deviating from the original plan never seems to work out in this race. Closed with a furious rush to win the Lexington Stakes, and before that closed fast and wide before flattening out in the Louisiana Derby. I’d be surprised with anything better than a 4th-place finish. I suppose 3rd isn’t impossible, but he’s really going to need several others to throw in duds. It’s hard to bet him with any confidence. If he runs in the top two and maybe even the top three, it will ruin a lot of my tickets. Unofficially and off the record, I am hearing that My Boy Jack does not look great at Churchill Downs this week. Would not shock me if he is a scratch.
- Bolt d’Oro – Had a wide trip in the Breeders’ Cup last November and wasn’t able to catch Good Magic (or Solomini). Everyone pointed to his trip and said he should have been undefeated coming out of that race and was therefore worthy of being the Kentucky Derby favorite. But even if he HAD won that race, I STILL would have preferred Good Magic given that Good Magic was only making his third start that day. Anyway, since the Breeders’ Cup, Bolt d’oro has failed to cross the wire first in either of his two subsequent starts, being given the win via DQ in his 2018 debut. He tried and failed to catch Justify in the Santa Anita Derby, and then lost his jockey to Audible. I think he’s more likely to get the distance than several of the Big 7. He’s very good, but I don’t think he’s as good as Good Magic. But he scares me for sure.
- Enticed – He’s won his share of big races, including the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall which produced several horses who would themselves go on and win big races of their own. But he really got whooped by Vino Rosso in the Wood Memorial, and his win in the Gotham before that was against suspect competition. I just don’t think Enticed is at the same level as the Big 7. And I think others have way more upside. Another solid racehorse who would need too many others to fail to fire for him to have a real shot. From the same people who brought us Frosted in 2015, and even Frosted could only manage 4th. This guy is no Frosted, in my opinion. But while Noble Indy is the horse who gets no respect, Enticed is the forgotten horse. No doubt about that. It would be a pretty big surprise if he won, but he’s just a better racehorse than so many others so it would be no surprise if he managed a board finish. Legit longshot.
- Bravazo – If you take away D. Wayne Lukas from his corner, all you really have is a horse who essentially stole the Risen Star on the front and then ran like a lunatic in the Louisiana Derby en route to an 8th-place finish. I guess you can hope he’ll be up close early and will have a head start turning for home, but even that is hard to envision. I think he’s unlikely to make noise here, and I like others more.
- Mendelssohn – This is probably the most divisive horse in the Kentucky Derby. People either pick him to win, or they totally dismiss him. He won the UAE Derby by about a football field, and being a half-brother to Beholder doesn’t hurt his resume. (By the way, you are only considered a half-sibling in horse racing if you have the same mom. Having the same dad doesn’t make you a half-sibling. Although having the same mom and dad makes you full-siblings. I get it, it’s a little odd. But just don’t do what some racing amateurs do this time of year and refer to the four sons of Scat Daddy in the Derby as half-siblings. No one will take you seriously). He is bred for dirt so the fact that he has only run on it once isn’t a cause for concern. But his win in Dubai was aided by a massive, undeniable, pronounced rail bias that helped many horses win by wide margins all meet long. And the visual impressiveness of that win is why so many people are picking him. And he can win. The Thorograph figure he got for that race is much faster than any figure any other horse has gotten in any race they have ever run. But I won’t be betting on him. The Coolmore/O’Brien team hasn’t done much in America on dirt in the past, with the major exception being Johannesburg in the 2001 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. And since last November, Mendelssohn has shipped from Europe to California to Europe to Dubai to Europe and now to Kentucky. That takes a toll. And as for the big win in Dubai, winning by 19 lengths in track record time also takes a toll. Several positives but too many negatives for me. I think he’s more likely to regress than progress, or even run the same race.
- Instilled Regard – I don’t know what to make of this horse. On video and on paper, he’s not in the same league as the Big 7. But the way he runs gives the impression that he just might not stop like most of these will. And that makes him one you really have to consider. Make no mistake, there are at least 10 horses that I think are more likely to win the Kentucky Derby. But he’s got this solid, iron horse thing about him, and with a clean trip I can see him hanging around late in the race. Although I have to add that the late word from people who have seen him on-track is that he looks “like an absolute mess”.
- Magnum Moon – Like Justify, Magnum Moon didn’t race at age 2. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby without racing at age 2 since 1882. And while Magnum Moon is undefeated in four lifetime starts, my sense is that he’s hasn’t been facing the best of this crop. I also didn’t like the way he lugged out to the right at the end of his Arkansas Derby romp. I mean don’t get me wrong. Other than that, he’s done nothing wrong on the racetrack. But if I had to rank Todd Pletcher’s Fearsome Foursome, I’d put Magnum Moon third behind Vino Rosso and Audible, and ahead of Noble Indy. Lots of people like this horse and are picking him to win. And I wouldn’t talk anyone out of betting on him. But I just don’t think he will prove to be an elite racehorse as time goes on. If he wins, I will probably lose every bet I make. And that will suck. But I’m not interested in boxing the Big 7 in hoping just to break even. You have to toss good horses in this race. Can’t bet ‘em all.
- Solomini – He ran second to Good Magic in the Breeders’ Cup, and before that was a distant second to Bolt d’Oro in the Frontrunner. He ended the year crossing the wire ahead of the highly touted McKinzie before being DQ’d. This year, he has run two better-than-they-looked races at Oaklawn behind Magnum Moon, with the most-recent effort being a very wide 3rd in the Arkansas Derby. Everyone has forgotten about this horse on the basis that he doesn’t seem to have progressed from a speed figure standpoint this year. And it’s tough to argue against that point. But I really like the way he closed in his last race, and given how wide he was, he should have been much closer at the end. I think he is an attractive longshot for Bob Baffert. And he has a class edge for the vast majority of the field. Like Good Magic and Vino Rosso, he’s a son of Curlin.
- Vino Rosso – If you go back and watch his two losses at Tampa, I think you will see that he ran way better than it appears on paper. A major feather in the cap for this horse, in my book, is that John Velazquez chose him over Audible. We know jockeys aren’t always right. But we have to do the best we can with the info we have, and to me, this guy is a major threat to win just on that basis alone. And his Wood win was a big step in the right direction and shows that he’s gotten the bad races out of his system and is ready for a big effort. I think he’s the best of the Pletcher bunch and I love that he, like Good Magic, is a son of Curlin. If he wins, I’ll likely cash some tickets. And we might get 15-1, so we can sort of consider him a longshot I suppose. He needs to take a step up, but there are indications we may see exactly that from him.
- Noble Indy – Talk about a horse that has done virtually nothing wrong yet gets no respect….Generally regarded as the weakest of the Pletcher Fearsome Foursome, he lost his jockey to Vino Rosso. And while he re-rallied to win the Louisiana Derby, the horses he barely held off aren’t really thought of as top-notch contenders (My Boy Jack and Lone Sailor). His speed figures are just fine and show a nice progression from race to race. So there is definitely a lot to like. My gut just tells me he is a notch below some of the Big 7. Maybe you want to toss him into some of your exotic wagers. Because he’s not totally hopeless.
- Combatant – The fourth and least-accomplished son of Scat Daddy in the field, he always runs his race….which in my opinion, is too slow to win this. Really seems a cut below. He passed Solomini in both of their last two races, and Solomini re-passed him both times.
In life and in horse racing, you have to take a stand at some point. And sometimes, the difference between being on one side of the fence or the other comes down to a minor detail that carries with it a great deal of uncertainty. In other words, a near-total guess. And that’s where I find myself due to not just the weather, but the depth of this field. At various points in the last month, I have planned to bet this race around totally different groups of horses, with Good Magic the only constant.
So I have decided to take my stand against the heavily-bet sons of Scat Daddy: Justify and Mendelssohn. I don’t feel particularly confident about this decision, so I can’t say I do this with any degree of conviction. I just I don’t think Scat Daddy offspring will be at their best at this distance this early in their careers. It’s more of a gut feeling than a feeling based on a deep understanding of pedigree. Flameaway, another son of Scat Daddy, intrigues me a little but not a lot. His fourth son, Combatant, could clunk up for 4th I guess. But I won’t be using any offspring of Scat Daddy in the top two spots. That’s what taking a stand means.
I have also taken a positive stand on the sons of Curlin: Good Magic, Vino Rosso, and Solomini. They will be prominent on my tickets.
That leaves three of the Big 7 not part of either stand I’m taking: Bolt d’Oro, Audible, and Magnum Moon. I don’t like Magnum Moon. I like Bolt d’Oro better than Audible, but I like Audible too.
Longshots I will use are Solomini, Free Drop Billy, Hofburg, Lone Sailor, Flameaway, and Enticed.