Last year in this spot I opined, quite effusively, on the mediocrity (to put it nicely) of the 2017 3yo crop of North American thoroughbreds. Frankly, there just was not much to like. At the time, I even suggested that Thunder Snow, the UAE Derby winner, had a legitimate shot at taking home the roses despite a void of successful Derby finishes by that race’s winners in the past. Alas, when the latch was sprung on the Kentucky Derby starting gate the Godolphin entrant bucked like a bronco at the rodeo and was pulled up, putting a quick end to that hypothesis. Fast forward one year though, and the long-term view that Thunder Snow was very likely as good or better than the 2017 American 3yo colts does not look quite so foolish. The son of Helmet captured the $10 million Dubai World Cup at Meydan on March 31st, with Bob Baffert pupil West Coast running a gallant second. West Coast was a mere maiden winner at this time last year and had yet to emerge on the scene as the eventual champion 3yo in North America. Based on the results those two colts have produced since last May and the fact that not a single one of the 2017 American classic winners have won another race, the accusations against the group that competed in the 143rd Run for the Roses appear to be right on target.
The 2018 3yo crop is a completely different story. Last year, finding eight horses worthy of inclusion on a “top anything” list was a mighty struggle. This year the difficulty lies in narrowing down the list to just 8 contenders. Most thoroughbred historians and prognosticators would agree that this is, at minimum, the best sophomore class since 2007. That year’s Derby starting gate included the likes of Hard Spun, Curlin, Scat Daddy, and Street Sense. The very talented Any Given Saturday joined the upper echelon a bit later in the year. Some would say this class looks better than that one. Time will tell, but at this point it would be quite difficult to disagree with that premise. This is an exceptionally exciting group of colts with nearly half of the prospective field owning credentials that would have them amongst the betting favorites in average years. The 144th Kentucky Derby lineup is shaping up to be one of the most memorable in history. Here is the last look at the Elite Eight prior to the post draw on May 2nd:
# 8 – Magnum Moon – The undefeated Rebel winner heads back to Oaklawn Park for his final tuneup on Saturday in the Arkansas Derby. He possesses a preferred stalking style, and the ease with which he won the Rebel suggests that we have not seen anything close to his best yet. There are two primary reasons his name comes at the beginning of this list as opposed to somewhere in the middle. He is one of several colts in the anticipated Derby field facing the dreaded curse of Apollo, which simply means that he lacks experience in comparison to most of his peers. That said the Arkansas Derby will give him a fourth start, which is one more than one of his higher ranked competitors. The biggest concern with this son of Malibu Moon, oddly enough, is his trainer. Todd Pletcher has had unprecedented success in Kentucky Derby prep races over the last decade. Horses in his barn occupy 3 of the 8 spots on this list, and he has won the Kentucky Derby twice. If he has a weakness, it most certainly is running horses back on “short” rest. While he did win his first Derby with Super Saver (the race was run over a sloppy track, and the son of Maria’s Mon never hit the board again in three subsequent starts) utilizing the Arkansas Derby and its 3 week spacing from the first Saturday in May, he much prefers a 5 to 8 week gap between starts for his horses. His win percentages begin to plummet when running horses back on breaks of 3 weeks or less. This horse does appear to have a load of talent and may prove capable of overcoming both the inexperience and the quick turnaround.
# 7 – Flameaway – The Bluegrass runner-up is one of three sons of the late Scat Daddy on this list. With 5 wins from 9 starts, he will be one of the more experienced runners in the Derby field. The Sam Davis winner battled at the front end through solid fractions and made Good Magic work hard for the victory at Keeneland on Saturday. His tactical speed should allow him to avoid most of the congestion that inevitably comes with a 20 horse field. He is gritty and has shown he will not back down from a fight. Stamina is likely the biggest question with the Mark Casse trainee.
# 6 – Vino Rosso – Many would argue that Saturday’s Wood Memorial winner should have been disqualified after initiating contact with Enticed during a rough stretch run. While that argument certainly has its merits, it is meaningless in an assessment of the colt’s Derby winning potential. While one can question the quality of the overall field he beat in the Wood, he did so with authority, pulling away by 3 lengths on the wire. He runs like a horse that will relish 10 furlongs like his sire, Curlin. Furthermore, the aptitude of jockey Johnny Velazquez and his agent Angel Cordero Jr. (a Hall of Fame jockey himself) should not be questioned. They chose this colt over two other Pletcher trainees, Noble Indy and Audible, as Johnny V’s Derby mount. This horse may well be peaking at the right time and looks to benefit from the addition of an extra furlong in his next start.
# 5 – Bolt D’ Oro – The leader of this list up until this point has yet to cross the finish line first in 2018. While others seem to have caught up to what looked like the best 2yo colt of 2017 (save for one afternoon), there are still reasons to believe that he can emerge victorious at Churchill Downs. He had a long layoff after the Breeders’ Cup and made a belated sophomore debut in the San Felipe. The Derby will be his 3rd start off the layoff, a spot where most horses reach top conditioning and produce a peak performance. He will likely benefit from both a faster pace and added distance in Louisville. If he bounces out of his runner-up finish in the Santa Anita Derby well and trains forwardly over the next several weeks it would be very dangerous to leave him off the top line of any Derby wagers.
# 4 – Justify – His record is perfect. His talent is immense. His team (Bob Baffert, Mike Smith, Winstar Farm, China Horse Club, SF Racing, and a guy that often overpays to get his picture taken and read his name in the paper) is as brilliant as any that could possibly be assembled. His cruising speed is likely unmatched by any other horse in the prospective field. IF he emerges from Churchill Downs unscathed, he may well be the 13th American Triple Crown winner. So, why “just” # 4? Curlin. Like Justify, Curlin was unraced as a 2yo, debuted in February of his 3yo year and reeled off 3 straight victories that made him look like the next Secretariat. Unlike Justify, 2 of Curlin‘s 3 races came against graded stakes competition. So one could make an argument that he was even more battle tested than Justify heading into the Derby. Curlin finished 3rd at Churchill Downs against that standout 2007 field referred to earlier. He came back 2 weeks later having gained valuable experience in the Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness Stakes by a head over Derby winner Street Sense. Curlin picked up additional trophies in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup Classic en route to an Eclipse statue for Horse of the Year. The Kentucky Derby is a very demanding race, and it’s not just the race – the Derby is a uniquely demanding experience. The throng of media and local Louisvillians that occupy the Churchill Downs backstretch during Derby week can wear on a young horse’s nerves and mind. The race itself, with 19 other competitors, serves up a whole slew of firsts for many, especially the least experienced in the field. First time in a large field, first time getting bumped, first time taking dirt in the face, first time having to maneuver through traffic, and first time getting saddled amongst a sea of humans in the paddock to name a few. The combination of all these challenges can make the Derby an insurmountable task for a horse with only 3 lifetime starts. This spectacular son of Scat Daddy has faced 14 horses in his entire career, and while he has soundly defeated each one of them, it would take a massive, herculean effort for him to run his record to 4 for 4 against the quality field of 20 being assembled for Derby 2018.
# 3 – Good Magic – The juvenile champion put forth a very lackluster effort in his 2018 debut – a well beaten 3rd place finish in the Fountain of Youth. Many followers quickly fell off the bandwagon. The Curlin colt was 1 for 4 lifetime at that point and some were viewing his lone victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as something of a fluke. The e5 Racing color bearer came back strong with a workman-like success in the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland. While a replay of the race will not blow anyone away from a visual standpoint, Good Magic did beat a very good horse with solid credentials in Flameaway. Most importantly the feeling here is that the race was a taxing effort and he will be able to take a significant step forward in the Derby. Trainer Chad Brown, who took last year’s Preakness with Cloud Computing after skipping the Derby, has stated all along that his goal with Good Magic is to have him ready to peak on the 1st Saturday in May. His prep at Keeneland and a couple of stiff breezes should have him ready to do just that. The colt is battle tested (and proven), perhaps more so than any other in the field, having emerged victorious in both the 12 horse Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 14 horse Bluegrass Stakes. Big race experience in large fields should serve him well when he lines up against 19 others in Louisville.
# 2 – Audible – The Holy Bull and Florida Derby winner has been very impressive in his two graded stakes victories this term, and with his trainer’s preferred 5 weeks of “recovery” time between starts as opposed to less time for some of the other charges in his barn, he rates as the top contender for Team TAP. Another favorable human element in his corner is that earlier this week Javier Castellano chose the Into Mischief colt as his Derby mount over Bolt D’ Oro, whom Castellano had ridden in each of his starts this year. Considering all the hype surrounding several other contenders, Audible might actually be a tad under the radar for a Florida Derby winner from one of the top barns in North America. This colt’s biggest strength is his versatility. He came from well back in the field in his most recent win at Gulfstream, but sat a close stalking trip in both the Holy Bull and an allowance victory at Aqueduct in December. He’s nearly perfect in his career with the lone blemish on his record coming in his 2yo debut. Given ample time to recover from his most recent effort and uninterrupted training time at Palm Beach Downs in south Florida, Audible should be primed for a peak effort upon arriving in Kentucky.
# 1 – Mendelssohn – You’re unlikely to find him in this spot on any other list of Derby candidates, and for good reason. No UAE Derby winner has gone on to win the roses at Churchill Downs. In fact, none have even threatened to hit the board. It is fair to question the quality of the field that Mendelssohn beat in Dubai, but he completely demolished the competition the way a good horse should. That performance didn’t exactly come from out of nowhere either. The son of Scat Daddy maneuvered his way through a difficult field from a challenging rail draw in the 14 horse Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar last November. He’s been pointed toward Churchill Downs on the 1st Saturday in May ever since. His 2yo campaign also included an impressive runner-up finish in the Grade 1 Darley Dewhurst Stakes at Newmarket. Despite an impressive 2yo resume, he still had questions to answer. Could he handle a dirt surface? Could he get the distance? Well, he handled the dirt in the desert just fine. As for distance, he will be the only colt in the starting gate in Louisville to have raced as far as a mile and three sixteenths. Aidan O’Brien is arguably the greatest trainer the continent of Europe, if not the entire world, has ever seen. While he has never won a Kentucky Derby, most of his previous attempts feel more like stabs in the dark compared to this one. Mendelssohn would likely be one of the top betting choices for the Guineas at Newmarket, run the same day as the Derby. That British classic is always amongst the top early season goals for Team Coolmore, but they have decided to ship their $3 million yearling purchase – a half brother to champion mare Beholder and top class sire Into Mischief – back to the states for a legitimate shot at Kentucky Derby glory.