• Ruffina wins The Sprinters Cup (Gr.1)
  • Azzurro wins The Dr M A M Ramaswamy Stayers Cup (Gr.1)
  • Whomakestherules wins The Maj P K Mehra Memorial Super Mile Cup (Gr.1)
  • Kangra wins The Indian Turf Invitation Cup (Gr.1) in record timing
TWENTY TO FACE STARTER IN 144TH KENTUCKY DERBY
By Anil Mukhi
Thursday 03 May 2018
Anil Mukhi

The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby will be the first to be run under the banner of its new sponsor, Woodford Reserve, as the contract with Yum! Brands has ended. The stellar event, known locally as the “Run For The Roses”, is scheduled to take place at 6:46 p.m. local time on Saturday, May 5th (4:16 a.m. IST on Sunday, May 6th). It will be the 12th race of a long 14-race card at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky, one that will surely test the patience of racegoers. A small tot of the sponsors’ famed bourbon whiskey might be called for in the circumstances!

The weather forecast anticipates sunny skies, and a high in the region of 75 degrees F (22 degrees C). There is only a small chance of rain. As such, the going should be fast and none of the runners would be inconvenienced by the ground conditions – as Thunder Snow was so memorably spooked last year by the sticky surface!

In keeping with modern day trends, a full field of 20 three-year-olds has accepted, along with an “also eligible” who will draw in only if one of the declared runners has defected. Prize money is on par with last year at $2,192,000 (about Rs.14.50 crore), of which the winner's share is $1,432,000. Far more valuable, though, would be the breeding rights as all the runners are colts.

Overall, the quality of the field is high with many exciting prospects, including all the major trial winners, taking their chances. One can say the “points system” employed to determine eligibility has worked well, as no major contender has been left out. The race itself will reveal if any of those presently considered to fall into the category of “could be anything” actually qualify for that title.

Some may lament the perceived effect of the draw. However, a recent statistical study of previous Kentucky Derbies by an associate professor at the University of Texas suggests that: “post position may not matter at all”! And further that: “there is no advantage for horses at any post. For any given field size, different posts have equal chances of winning”. His reasoning looks quite plausible.

The favourite has won in each of the past four years, a good portent for the connections of 3 to 1 Justify (by Scat Daddy), the Santa Anita Derby winner from the barn of silver-haired Bob Baffert in California. This unbeaten colt, who has recorded Beyer Speed Figures in excess of 100 in each of his three starts, all at Santa Anita, is a magnificent specimen with a great future – but will he stay that tenth furlong? Also, the chestnut did not race at 2, and one has to go back to 1882 to find a Kentucky Derby winner that was unraced as a juvenile – Apollo (that year the race was run over 12 furlongs). Though lightly seasoned, he looks mature and veteran Mike Smith will be aiming for his second victory in this classic, after Giacomo in 2005.

Last year’s winning trainer, Todd Pletcher, fields a quartet in the shape of Audible (by Into Mischief; 8 to 1, with Javier Castellano up), undefeated Magnum Moon (by Malibu Moon; 6 to 1, with Luis Saez in the irons), Vino Rosso (by Curlin; 12 to 1, with Johnny Velazquez aiming for a back-to-back double) and Noble Indy (by Take Charge Indy; 30 to 1 under Florent Giroux). Incidentally, the first-named has drawn the interest of internet behemoth Amazon Inc., owners of the audio books site www.audible.com, who have adopted the Florida Derby winner purely because of his name and are making a donation to charity. He’s won the last four of his five starts and must surely be on the short list, even if one harbours doubts about his stamina.

Similar doubts assail followers of Magnum Moon as does the so-called “Curse of Apollo” – he did not make his debut till mid-January of this year. What’s more, he hung out noticeably in his lead-up race, the Arkansas Derby and appears to be still learning the ropes after four starts. One point to be noted: these days trainers are noticeably reluctant to give their wards searching preparations in their quest for a Kentucky Derby triumph, and hence might well have deliberately chosen to go easy with their promising juveniles at 2. Four-time Derby winning schooler D. Wayne Lukas is quoted as having said: “I don't buy into the Apollo Curse or whatever at all, mainly because Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher have got the horses".

Noble Indy, with three wins – including the Louisiana Derby – from four starts, seems on the upgrade and cannot be ignored, but Pletcher’s best could well be Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso, who should appreciate the distance and has been working very well. He is the “chosen one” of Johnny “V”, who had other options as well. A lot will depend on how Noble Indy’s ace pilot steers him into position early from draw no. 18.

Adding intrigue to the race is the presence of Coolmore’s $3,000,000 yearling Mendelssohn (by Scat Daddy), coming off a monstrous winning effort in the UAE Derby (1900 m.) at Meydan in March. On the one hand, not a single runner following this route has ever obliged in the Kentucky Derby – and many have tried, most notably Greentree Stud’s China Visit, who was sixth under Frankie Dettori in 2000; on the other, the world’s best rider Ryan Moore has sacrificed what could have been a winning mount in the Qipco 2000 Guineas in Newmarket on the same day to partner Aidan O’Brien’s 5 to 1 ward in Louisville. The inference is that the team is bullish!

The only Kentucky Derby winners trained overseas so far are Bold Forbes (campaigned at two in Puerto Rico before being returned to his native land and relocated to the barn of Luiz Barrera) and Canonero II (who flew in from Venezuela to stun his rivals). Also, the British-trained Bold Arrangement, by no means a great horse, finished runner-up to Ferdinand in 1986. So it appears that a foreign-trained win is overdue – and inevitable.

It’s only a matter of time before Chad Brown gets his name inscribed in the roll of honour of victorious Kentucky Derby trainers. The burning question is: will that be through the medium of Good Magic (by Curlin), the 2017 Eclipse Award winner of the champion 2-year-old colt title? A slightly scratchy win in the Blue Grass Stakes in April has set him up well and the 12 to 1 shot aims to follow in the footsteps of Street Sense and Nyquist, previous winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile en route to the Kentucky Derby. The name of Jose Ortiz has been pencilled in for the ride.

Last year Bolt d’Oro (by Medaglia d’Oro) was the early leader in rankings of North American two-year-olds before suffering three consecutive defeats on the track (promoted on one occasion). This has dimmed the lustre he once exhibited. The $630,000 yearling, who has more than recovered his purchase price, has hitherto been guided by Corey Nakatani (4 times) and Javier Castellano (twice) but will have a new rider come Saturday – Victor Espinoza. The ebullient California-based jockey has annexed two of the last four Kentucky Derbies through California Chrome and American Pharoah (and also scored with War Emblem back in 2002).

Whether you like the riding style of Kent Desormeaux or not, the record shows that he has steered his mount into the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle thrice (Real Quiet, Fusaichi Pegasus and Big Brown). Here he has teamed up with his brother, Keith, the schooler of 30 to 1 chance My Boy Jack (by Creative Cause), to guide this late-finishing runner, who might well be seen picking up the pieces once the front runners exhaust themselves. With 10 starts under his belt, My Boy Jack is the most seasoned customer in the line-up and exits a win in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

Leaving potentially the best three-year-old in the land for last, the spotlight turns onto Juddmonte Farms 20 to 1 homebred, Hofburg (by Tapit), from the yard of Bill Mott. Those familiar with the American Turf know only too well that the connections are conservative in their approach and would never field a runner in a race just for the sake of it. So clearly they are telegraphing the fact that they have a legitimate contender for Derby honours, even though he is inexperienced and needs to show about a 10 lbs. improvement.

Winner of a maiden race at Gulfstream Park at his second start, Hofburg was entrusted to make the steep jump into Grade 1 company in the Florida Derby in March, only his third public appearance, and acquitted himself well by finishing runner-up to Audible. Should the expected improvement materialize, he could be right there. Arguably he is the best-bred runner of the 20 that will participate; his workouts have been “smooth as silk”; and finally he will enjoy the presence in the saddle of red-hot rider Irad Ortiz, Jr., who leads the jockey standings in North America in 2018.

So what does it boil down to? Those who like favourites would be justified in selecting Justify, given that his positives appear to outweigh his negatives. Those who like outsiders might back more than one – the odds allow this luxury. Put forward are the names of Audible, Good Magic, Hofburg and Mendelssohn to give you four shots at the target at an average price of just over 2 to 1 for the quartet. Or you could select one of those with single digit odds and play trifectas with a pair of longshots from amongst the likes of My Boy Jack, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy.

Here is the field:

144th Kentucky Derby (presented by Woodford Reserve)

Purse: $2,000,000. For Three-Year-Olds. One and a quarter miles at Churchill Downs.

Card No.

Draw No.

Runner Name

Sire

Jockey

Trainer

Expected Odds

1

1

Firenze Fire

Poseidon's Warrior

P Lopez

J Servis

50/1

2

2

Free Drop Billy

Union Rags

R Albarado

D L Romans

30/1

3

3

Promises Fulfilled

Shackleford

C J Lanerie

D L Romans

30/1

4

4

Flameaway

Scat Daddy

J Lezcano

M E Casse

30/1

5

5

Audible

Into Mischief

J Castellano

T A Pletcher

8/1

6

6

Good Magic

Curlin

J L Ortiz

C C Brown

12/1

7

7

Justify

Scat Daddy

M E Smith

B Baffert

3/1

8

8

Lone Sailor

Majestic Warrior

J Graham

T M Amoss

50/1

9

9

Hofburg

Tapit

I Ortiz, Jr.

W I Mott

20/1

10

10

My Boy Jack

Creative Cause

K J Desormeaux

J K Desormeaux

30/1

11

11

Bolt d'Oro

Medaglia d'Oror

V Espinoza

M Ruis

8/1

12

12

Enticed

Medaglia d'Oror

J Alvarado

K P McLaughlin

30/1

13

13

Bravazo

Awesome Again

L Contreras

D W Lukas

50/1

14

14

Mendelssohn

Scat Daddy

R L Moore

A P O'Brien

5/1

15

15

Instilled Regard

Arch

D Van Dyke

J Hollendorfer

50/1

16

16

Magnum Moon

Malibu Moon

L Saez

T A Pletcher

6/1

17

17

Solomini

Curlin

F Prat

B Baffert

30/1

18

18

Vino Rosso

Curlin

J R Velazquez

T A Pletcher

12/1

19

19

Noble Indy

Take Charge Indy

F Geroux

T A Pletcher

30/1

20

20

Combatant

Scat Daddy

R Santana, Jr.

S M Asmussen

50/1

Also Eligible:

 

 

 

 

 

 

21

21

Blended Citizen

Proud Citizen

K Frey

D F O'Neill

50/1