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The Kentucky Derby

Fantastic racing around the world this week - Guineas weekend at Newmarket in the UK, the Warrnambool Carnival followed by the Prime Ministers' Cup meeting at the Gold Coast in Australia, and then there's the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. My blog is always open to any blogger/aspiring writer who wants to gain some exposure with a feature race preview, drop me an email or contact me on Twitter to volunteer!

Taking the reins for the Run for the Roses, the 138th Kentucky Derby, is Phil Derbyshire, @mo_licker. He's got in early as he's off to celebrate his last few days of freedom (stag party) over the weekend. Best of luck!

The Kentucky Derby

We went back to the clubhouse to watch the big race. When the crowd stood to face the flag and sing "My Old Kentucky Home," Steadman faced the crowd and sketched frantically. Somewhere up in the boxes a voice screeched, "Turn around, you hairy freak!" The race itself was only two minutes long, and even from our super-status seats and using 12-power glasses, there was no way to see what really happened to our horses. Holy Land, Ralph's choice, stumbled and lost his jockey in the final turn. Mine, Silent Screen, had the lead coming into the stretch but faded to fifth at the finish. The winner was a 16-1 shot named Dust Commander….

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved - Hunter S. Thompson 1970

The 138th running of the Kentucky Derby looks far from a simple problem to solve. It looks as wide open as I can remember, and it’s not difficult to make a good argument for around half the field. This is a 1 1/4-mile race at which the horses will be tested for the first time, so analysis of pedigrees is required also.

Typically, it is crucial to identify an improving three-year-old with the bona fide credentials to deliver a career-best performance on the day. From there my preferred method of selecting horses to go on the shortlist is to actually look at who cannot win, rather than who will win.

I’ve been a big fan of US racing for a long time and as a result am familiar and comfortable with the various speed ratings that are available and are such an important handicapping tool. Typically I use Timeform, Beyer figures from the Daily Racing Form and BRISnet figures to come to a rounded conclusion.

It’s worth remembering too that 9 horses came out of the Breeders Cup Juvenile last November and have all won Group or Graded races since. That’s seriously impressive. I’ll go on record and say that if a horse hasn’t run a prep race in 100+ figures, then they’re going to be snookered.


Derby prep races are a great pre-cursor to selecting horses to play on in the Kentucky Derby.

The key prep races are: The Florida Derby (Gulfstream Park in Florida), The Wood Memorial (Aqueduct Race Course in New York), The Spiral Stakes (Turfway Park in Kentucky, formerly called The Jim Beam Stakes and The Lane’s End), The Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn Park in Arkansas), The Louisiana Derby (Fairgrounds in Louisiana), The Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita Park in California) and The Blue Grass Stakes (Keeneland Race Course in Kentucky).

I focus on horses that have at least placed in their Derby prep. If they’ve come 2nd or won then it’s serious consideration we give to them. And here’s why…

If we look at the last 20 years, only four Derby winners failed to run first or second in any of the specified races.

Two of those four Derby winners were Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009. Unfairly, Mine That Bird’s win in ’09 has been labeled as a fluke – but go and watch that race, you can’t tell me the best horse didn’t win that race.

So, in the last 20 years then 80% of the Derby winners finished either first or second in one of those prep races.

The winners and second place finishers in the Derby prep races that have entries in this year’s Kentucky Derby are:

• Florida Derby: Take Charge Indy (Winner)
• Wood Memorial: Gemologist (Winner) Alpha (Second)
• Spiral: Went the Day Well (Winner)
• Arkansas Derby: Bodemeister (Winner)
• Louisiana Derby: Mark Valeski (Second)
• Illinois Derby: Done Talking (Winner)
• Santa Anita Derby: I’ll Have Another (Winner) Creative Cause (Second)
• Blue Grass: Dullahan (Winner) Hansen (Second)

No Union Rags I hear you cry? Well no, and here is the fly in the ointment; Union Rags finished 3rd in his Derby prep race behind Take Charge Indy in Florida. More of that later.

The Contenders
In alphabetical order:

With the exception of the Breeders' Cup, Alpha has been a consistent colt. Has won 3 of 6 starts and placed twice. Gutsy and brave, exemplified by his narrow defeat by Gemologist in the Wood Memorial (G1). The breeding suggests he will be fine at 10 furlongs being by Bernardini, out of 11.5f winner from the family of Swain.
There have been rumours of the severity of his infection after he received some minor cuts in the Wood Memorial. Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Alpha for Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin Racing, said last week that he is “OK now” but regardless of that this is not ideal and has ultimately changed his shipping and training plans. There’s also the jockey because his recent rider Dominguez has chosen Hansen.

The way he won the Arkansas Derby was extremely eye-catching. Absolutely smashing his rivals and was still pulling away from them at the end when winning by over 9 lengths. Based on that alone – the extra distance won’t be an issue. Comfortable as a front-runner or raced prominently, with a fantastic natural cruising speed. On his side he has the brilliant Bob Baffert training him and Mike Smith as his jockey.

He will be up 8lb but that may not be enough to halt what looks to be a very progressive horse. A worthy favourite who is lightly raced due to not even starting a race as a 2yo, as a result completely unexposed. One slight cause for concern is the chance he may go and battle for the lead and with the extra race simply burn himself out. But Smith is a master jockey and is likely to be keeping him held back until ‘push button’ time.

Creative Cause
Mr Consistency has either won or placed in all of his 8 starts (8-4-2-2) never been off the board in eight starts. The BC Juvenile is the same track as the Derby and probably his biggest race was when he was 3rd in his only start at Churchill Downs. It is worth remembering that Creative Cause's BC Juvenile performance meant that despite being beaten by 1L, he actually went 38ft more than Hansen, which equates to ~4.5L. He ran the 2nd fastest Derby preparation around two turns and can handle any type of race scenario.

There is a perception that he has a dislike of the whip and when in a duel in the stretch tends to hang which has cost him; in his four losses he's been beaten a length or less in each. However he has beaten Bodemeister giving weight away an as a son of Giant's Causeway will likely be staying over the trip at Churchill Downs.

Daddy Long Legs
He looked fabulous in winning the UAE Derby, which came off a long layoff. A smart 2yo winning the Juddmonte Royal Lodge Stakes (G2) at Ascot and is actually the only horse in the field that has won beyond nine furlongs. Lightly raced too.

However, he ran poorly in the BC Juvenile and it’s very hard to shake that off. There seems to my mind a doubt of whether he actually likes the dirt of Kentucky or not. I’m also a little concerned that he is making the trip in Derby week. I’d have preferred him there longer to acclimatise. At the odds of 14-1 he isn’t a bet for me. Even at double the price he wouldn’t appeal.

Daddy Nose Best
Trained by Steve Asmussen (leading trainer at Churchill Downs). He is the only horse in the race who has won twice at nine furlongs, and they came in his last two starts. Has improved since his 2yo campaign (6th in the BC Juvenile Turf). Is a bit of a tough grinder and that was evident when in his last 2 races he had to overcome a lot to win. Has a stalking style of running which may be perfect for this race. Will stay the distance as long as the track is fast on the day (as did his sire, Florida Derby winner Scat Daddy)

There are some doubts as to who exactly he has beaten in winning his two Grade 3 wins, and his speed ratings are consistently below the top contenders. Most of his racing has come on turf.

Done Talking
Doesn’t boast the most impressive speed figures. In the Illinois Derby he ran 1:53 4/5 which is relatively pedestrian. He is a pretty consistent horse though and is likely to be staying on at the end, but the overall feeling I get is that it will be happening far too quickly for him. Does like racing on fast dirt though and may well end up in the top 5 due to his racing style.

Dullahan's dam sire, Smart Strike, is making quite a name for himself as a broodmare sire. Although relatively early in his broodmare sire career he already has several winner's at classic distances. Shared Account, First Dude, Inglorius, Eye of the Leopard, not to mention Mine That Bird.

His run last time out to win the Blue Grass (G1) running down Hansen and winning by 1 1/4L was fabulous. That day Dullahan covered 20ft more than Hansen in BlueGrass and the added ground equates to ~2.4L. As a Derby prep it was seriously impressive and looks to be progressing with each of his last 3 runs. Will be guaranteed to be running on at the business end and has had a steady and progressive racing career since he started racing last summer.

His pedigree tells us he’s a half-brother to a Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and 10f is within his scope. Will need luck in running too. Interestingly he’s had 3 races on dirt at Churchill Downs and lost them all. So enthusiasm is tempered a touch based on that.

But he is the only two-time Grade 1 winner in the field. Appears to be coming to the boil at the right time. I think that there won’t be a more dangerous closer this year than Dullahan. Tactical speed, willing to go through tight gaps which will be required in a tight field and above all a three time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux, doing the steering.

El Padrino
The son of Kentucky Derby fourth Pulpit and on paper looks ready for the race with 10f being within scope. Has won a Grade 2 race (beating Mark Valeski in February) and ‘bounced’ to fall to fourth to Take Charge Indy in the Grade 1 Florida Derby.

Impressive run of triple speed figures. Another gutsy, game horse who doesn’t appear to have run a poor race. He may be a touch one paced so there is an angle that if the others burn themselves out he can hoover them up in the stretch. And it is a long stretch too.

People underestimated Drosselmeyer at Churchill Downs last year saying he was one paced, however if that one pace is going past tiring horses what’s the problem?

Only horse in the field to boast an undefeated record. The son of Tiznow is happy to stalk the pace under Javier Castellano. In the G1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct he displayed real fighting character and determination to fight off Alpha. Gemologist has a graded stakes win at Churchill as a 2-year-old and in Pletcher and WinStar you have connections who have been there, done it and bought the Super Saver t-shirt.

It’s very hard to find faults in Gemologist. I feel he is progressing and could be set to run a career best. His pedigree is in line with many recent Derby winners, who are ideally bred for 8-9 furlongs but get the extra furlong on class.

Hansen won the BC Juvenile over this track. Boasts fabulous speed and perhaps equally as important will have has a world-class jockey who is a fine judge of pace. A prominent racer and it’s a logical pace scenario to see him chasing Trinniberg early on. The problem is I don’t see Trinniberg winning the race and I can see a scenario where they burn each other out.

Ten furlongs may also be a touch beyond him. However he is proven at Churchill Downs and that stacks up in his favour. Bigger and stronger than last year. In with a legitimate shot though if getting the trip.

I'll Have Another
Has won 3 of 5 starts, 2 of which were on fast dirt. Has won a G2 Robert B Lewis and G1 Santa Anita Derby (both at Santa Anita) this term. Has beaten Creative Cause by a nose at Santa Anita. His Robert Lewis win is very impressive.

Investigation into his pedigree see that his sire Flower Alley won the 10f Travers, so it’s entirely plausible he’ll get the trip.

The big question is can he run three big races in a row in a short space of time? He won't have any work at Churchill before the race, only a couple of gallops.

Trained by Bob Baffert. Baffert has shortlisted this race for him ever since he won the G1 CashCall. Not the most impressive figures speed wise means it’s relatively easy to look elsewhere. Baffert has since said that the reason for this is that Liaison didn’t like racing at Santa Anita – which is interesting enough, but then why run him 3 times there to find that out?

However it is important to note that he has been putting in some good breeze up times since his training has all been at Churchill.

Mark Valeski
Mark Valeski is one of two Proud Citizen colts in the Derby field. Mark Valeski comes from a very fast Gone West/Fortunate Prospect cross, although his dam was a multiple stakes winner at nine furlongs and hails from the family of Silver Buck, sire of Derby winner Silver Charm.

After failing to run down Hero of Order (a 109-1 shot) in the Louisiana Derby G2 just highlights that the last thing he wants is more ground. I just don’t see him being fast enough to beat 19 other horses.

This Malibu Moon colt will go off at large odds but on pedigree he probably has a good chance to outrun those odds. Out of an Awesome Again mare who was a stakes winner at 8.5 furlongs, Prospective's closing style should benefit him in the likely event of a strong pace which we know we’ll get. Some digging around has thrown up that his third dam is 1987 champion older mare North Sider.

A consistent type who has won four times and placed twice. In this company I just feel he’ll be outclassed. His speed figures aren’t the best – they simply suggest he’s not quick enough and he disappointed in his final tune-up in the Blue Grass. Only start at Churchill was the worst race of his career and it’s easy to look elsewhere.

Rousing Sermon
Pedigree doesn’t come close to what you’d expect to see from a Derby winner. Has failed to make much of an impact in all three starts this year, his figures simply suggest he's too slow and has no tactical speed. Has never run a Bris speed rating over 94 or a Beyer speed figure of over 91. He's winless in his last five starts and was soundly beaten in a couple of them.

Sire Bluegrass Cat was second in the Derby and Belmont, and broodmare sire Forty Niner was also second in the Derby. On pedigree alone Sabercat looks eye-catching. Trained by Asmussen, who has said from the beginning of the year that he planned to have Sabercat peaking in his third race off a layoff.

His speed figures suggest he cannot outrun these and logically the race would need to fall apart for him to win it. Has been soundly beaten in his previous 2 races. I couldn’t count him out of the top 5 though.

Take Charge Indy
On paper, a pedigree that suggests a classic horse. By A.P. Indy out of multiple Grade 1 winner Take Charge Lady. Won the Florida Derby beating Reveron and Union Rags with something left in the tank. That was no fluke either. If you look at his sectionals, he was allowed to dictate the speed in the middle of the race and slowed things down a touch saving energy for the stretch. Clever riding from a jockey who knew exactly what he had under him.

In the BC Juvenile he finished 5th but he has clearly improved over the Winter and I feel he is peaking at the right time. Will need to be raced prominently near to the pace. With Trinniberg in the race he won't get an easy front-running trip like he did in the Florida Derby. So we know he has improved and won a prep race but has been beaten by a number of horses in this race.

The speedball. Young sire Teuflesberg looks like he could make quite a useful sire, but so far all his best runners are sprinters. The dam, by sprinter Goldminers Gold, was stakes-placed going six furlongs at Finger Lakes.

You can go further back in the pedigree and find some evidence of stamina there, but it’s a leap of faith to think Trinniberg can win the Kentucky Derby. The pedigree just doesn’t scream ‘look at me’. Will however set the pace for the others to aim at, and I’d expect to see Trinniberg and Hansen up top battling it out.

Union Rags
I’ll confess that Union Rags in the BC Juvenile was my largest bet of that meet. It was also the bet that took me weeks to recover from, both mentally and financially! Union Rags covered 9 lengths more than Hansen, 4.5 more than Creative Cause, ~8 more than Dullahan in the BC Juvenile and was still only beaten by a nose.

The Dixie Union colt comes from a very classy female family, and similar to Gemologist, he has what you'd call an 8-9 furlong pedigree and would have to get the extra furlong on class. But that’s the risk you’re taking.

To be fair to Union Rags he does have legitimate reasons for losing in the Florida Derby. He stayed on like a train but was hampered and had a door or two slammed in his nose. Jockey Leparoux is as good as anyone riding at Churchill. He’ll strip fitter for the Florida Derby race, by all accounts is lighting up the clock during his workouts. I’m expecting a big run.

By the way he finished his races, 10f is within his scope but the enchantress Lady Luck has deserted him before and in a race when you need Lady Luck on your side he’ll have to show some explosive form down the stretch to put it to bed. Capable of it though.

Went the Day Well
The other Proud Citizen (a Derby runner up) colt, Went the Day Well has a more encouraging distance profile. His dam is by Tiznow out of the Roberto mare Sweet Roberta, who was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies G1. Like Animal Kingdom last year, Went the Day Well enters off a win in the Spiral G3 for Team Valor and Graham Motion.

Intriguingly when I was researching this horse I found that I’d actually seen him at Haydock in 2011. On that day he finished 2nd to Mazeydd and then he he finished 2nd to Thomas Chippendale at Leicester. Born in New York and raced in England.

He looks, like a few of these, to be a horse peaking at the right time, and the last time Motion had a horse peaking at the right time was with Animal Kingdom. Ring any bells?

Clearly a good pedigree, and while it doesn’t scream 10f at you you can make a case for it. Arguments can be made about who has he actually beaten in his 2 wins from 5 races but he has won on fast dirt before.

Gemologist is lightly raced yet unbeaten, won last time out displaying a great attitude, has the breeding to succeed on dirt which is backed up by him winning 3 times on dirt and having won twice already at Churchill. Bodemeister has history to overcome. As he didn’t race as a two-year-old the last winner of the Derby who made his debut at three was Apollo, and that was in 1882.

Hansen winner of the The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year which has, as mentioned earlier, proven to be a very strong race. Has the class to do it, but there remain niggling doubts about him being vulnerable to a closer. Such a closer is Union Rags who is probably the most talented horse in the field, and his stalking should suit how the race will unfold given the early speed in the race. He is a major factor if he can keep out of trouble.

Creative Cause will in theory be right there at the business end. Nagging doubts remain i.e. trainer confirms the horse doesn’t like being crowded and will he be blinkered or not? His figures and past performances tell us he should be right there if given a canny ride and it’s hard to leave him out. Dullahan appears to handle the dirt, not necessarily bred for it, but does seem to handle it based on his only run on Churchill dirt (4th but had a poor start). By my reckoning, he ran the last three furlongs in the Blue Grass in about 35 seconds, and given that the horse is still on the upgrade, that is seriously quick and is probably the most dangerous closer in the field.

Finally, I’ll Have Another has to be included on the basis that he beat Creative Cause in the Santa Anita Derby showing a great attitude. It’s a big ask to run 3 big races in a row but he will be staying on strong at the end.

Due to its open nature and endless imponderables, this has been probably one of the most difficult races to handicap and as a result I’ll be betting on a couple of horses to win. I’ll also be playing the exotics and have included those selections too.

To win: Gemologist (8-1 generally) and Dullahan (7-1 generally)
To be used in Exotics: Creative Cause, I’ll Have Another, Union Rags
Longshot: Take Charge Indy (14-1 generally)


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