Image via Churchill Downs
At long last, Kentucky Derby day is finally here. Twenty of the best 3yo colts in the land will break from the Churchill Downs starting gates just after 6:45pm EST tonight and run a mile and a quarter as fast as they are capable in an effort to win the 1st leg of the American Triple Crown in the 143rd Run for the Roses. While the Derby is the primary reason some 150,000 will pack the infield and grandstands of the iconic race track on Central Avenue in Louisville, the day is full of top notch racing from start to finish. The Derby card includes 6 other stakes races, each of which is a prime opportunity to pad your bankroll for the main event. What follows is some handicapping insight to consider prior to heading to the wagering windows.
Stakes action kicks off in the 6th race with the Grade 1 Humana Distaff at 7 furlongs for older fillies and mares. Finest City (# 5) is the deserving morning line favorite. She captured the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at this same 7 furlong distance back in November. She took her 5yo debut in style, going gate to wire in the Santa Monica at Santa Anita. She stretched out around two turns for her next race and ran a gallant second behind Vale Dori. She cuts back to her best distance here, and her versatility will allow “Money” Mike Smith to place her wherever he feels is best to get the job done. Carina Mia (# 7) is 2 for 2 at Churchill, having bagged the 3yo edition of this race, the Eight Belles, here last year. She makes her first start since a very disappointing 9th place finish in the Breeders’ Cup race won by Finest City. She may well need the race, as this is quite difficult company to step into off such a layoff. Paulassilverlining (# 2) will likely offer the best value. She may well improve in her 2nd start for trainer Chad Brown, and she exits a victory in the Grade 1 Madison at Keeneland. Mines and Magic (# 3) may be worth consideration as a long shot play as she has shown a prior affinity for the surface at Churchill, winning all 3 of her previous races here.
The scene shifts to the turf course for the Grade 2 Churchill Distaff Turf Mile in race 7. Miss Temple City (# 2) kicks off her 2017 campaign in this spot following a rousing season with 3 Grade 1 victories last year. She is undoubtedly the class of this field and her tactical speed is a major advantage in a race lacking much pace, but the task at hand will not be easy. Believe in Bertie (# 4) is extremely dangerous and will be in complete control at the head of affairs. It’s a step up in class over the competition she’s been facing in Louisiana, but she’s been extremely impressive reeling off four straight wins and will have no excuses if she is unable to take them all the way around. Roca Rojo (# 6) showed major improvement near the end of her 4yo season as she finished just a nose short of upsetting Miss Temple City in the Grade 1 Matriarch in December. Given a break since then, she looks ready to fire fresh for Chad Brown.
Let’s just be honest, the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile (race 8) is largely a race for 3yos that were not good enough to make the Kentucky Derby field. It looks like there is ample speed signed on to insure an honest pace. I prefer No Dozing (# 5) who is perfect in 1-turn races and is cutting back to a mile after a solid 3rd place effort in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland. His off-the-pace style seems to be the right fit given the projected pace scenario. The only loss around one turn for Excitations (# 9) was his first career start in which he ran 2nd by a head to Louisiana Derby winner Girvin. He employs a stalking style that should suit well in this spot and enters of a solid allowance score over 7 furlongs at Keeneland.
The 26th running of the Grade 2 American Turf goes as the 9th race on the Derby day card. The race features 3 returnees from the Transylvania Stakes run on opening day at Keeneland. That race was won in impressive fashion by Big Score (# 2). He offers tremendous value at his 6/1 morning line price, but will likely go off shorter than that. Oscar Performance (# 4) disappointed as the heavy favorite in the Transylvania, breaking slowly and then tiring through the stretch. I expect him to improve markedly with that try under his belt. He has two good works since and should rebound in a big way. Conquest Farenheit (# 7) invades from California where he has rattled off two straight stakes victories, one sprinting and one at a mile. This will be the stiffest distance test of his career and the free wheeling frontrunner may be tested by the additional half furlong. Good Samaritan (# 10) makes his 3yo debut after an impressive 2yo campaign that ended with a 3rd place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.
Confirmed frontrunner Masochistic (# 2) is your morning line favorite for race 10, the Grade 2 Churchill Downs at 7 furlongs on the main track. While the usually dependable gelding is 3 for 4 at the 7 furlong distance, he has lost the lead late in his last 2 races and will certainly face early pace pressure from Bluegrass Singer (# 14). That pace duel could set things up for a closer. El Kabeir (# 8) will be an afterthought in the wagering and may offer significant value. He won the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill as a 2yo and was moving very well late in his comeback race at Gulfstream Park. It would be a surprise if he did not improve in his second start since switching to the barn of Bill Mott. He will definitely be sharper from that effort and the 4 bullet drills he has posted since. Awesome Slew (# 1) responded well to the cut back in distance last time when winning the Commonwealth at Keeneland. He keeps Joel Rosario in the irons and will again try to mow them all down late. Denman’s Call (# 12) ships in from California for Doug O’Neill. He managed to get past Masochistic in the Grade 1 Triple Bend, and a repeat of that performance would certainly put him right in the mix here. That effort, however, was easily the best of his life and he looks like a prime candidate to bounce back to the norm.
Race 11 is the 31st running of the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic for older horses going a mile and an eighth. Divisidero (# 2) looks like a vulnerable favorite. While undefeated in two starts at Churchill Downs (both coincidentally on Derby Day) he has not visited the winners’ circle since taking this race last year. He has disappointed three straight times now as the favorite, including most recently in an allowance race at Keeneland – far from the company he’ll be keeping in this grade 1 event. In a race with very little in the way of early speed, Beach Patrol (# 8) may well find himself at the head of affairs. He danced every dance in the 3yo turf division last year, and while he most often played the role of the bridesmaid, he did get the win in the Grade 1 Secretariat. His versatility is a weapon in this spot and rates as the top selection. Bal a Bali ships in for Richard Mandella off a win in the grade 1 Kilroe at Santa Anita. He is a top contender at this distance based on his California form. World Approval (# 7) is another grade 1 winner and certainly competitive in this group. Ballagh Rocks (# 12) is an improving 4yo for Bill Mott. He closed strongly to just miss last time in the Makers Mark Mile at Keeneland, and he’ll benefit from the extra furlong here.
As I’ve written for the last 6 weeks in my weekly Kentucky Derby Elite Eight post, the 143rd Kentucky Derby (race 12) field is average at best compared to its predecessors. The winner could come from just about anywhere, and you can read my full rundown of the entire field in Wednesday’s post. I’m against Always Dreaming (# 5) who will go to post as one of the favorites. He’s just too high strung, and I feel like the combination of the walk, the crowded paddock and the post parade will get to him and he’ll be an uncontrollable runaway freight train for Johnny V, setting a blistering pace and faltering late. My top choice is McCraken (# 15). He has been training beautifully at Churchill and seems poised to run the best race of his life (which is what it will take to win). I do feel it is still very likely that Classic Empire (# 14) is the best horse in the field, but I cannot support him as the favorite with all the questions surrounding him. Will he remain behaved in the paddock and post parade with the raucous crowd? Has he had enough time to recover from his taxing effort in Arkansas just 3 weeks ago? Several other horses I will definitely use on top in horizontal wagers are: Thunder Snow (# 2) – he has looked well since arriving at Churchill from Dubai and just might be the most talented horse in an average group. Hence (# 8) – won what turned out to be the most important prep race in the Sunland Derby and has trained very well locally. Tapwrit (# 16) has looked as well as anyone all week at Churchill and could be peaking at the right time. Irish War Cry (# 17) owns the two best races this year of any horse in the field (and one of the worst). Long shots worth including for secondary prizes on exotic tickets include Lookin at Lee (# 2), Gunnevera (# 10), and Irap (# 9).
Best of luck to everyone and Happy Derby Day!