With just under seven weeks until the First Saturday in May, I figured it was time to get my Top Ten List of Kentucky Derby candidates in order. When looking for a Kentucky Derby horse, you really need to dig a little bit deeper than you would normally when contemplating a field of runners going a more conventional distance in today’s racing world (six to nine furlongs). The fact is, none of these horses will have ever sniffed ten furlongs when they enter the gate on May 4, and the vast majority of them will never try ten furlongs again following May 4. It takes a combination of talent, speed and luck for a horse to win the Run for the Roses. When I’m looking for a true Derby contender, the first thing I look for is a horse that I think has a good chance of staying the trip. It doesn’t matter how fast a horse is – if their breeding suggests they have no chance of going a mile and a quarter, they’re an immediate toss for me. Following that, I look at how the horses have looked in their races leading up to the Kentucky Derby – mainly are they constantly having gate issues, do they find themselves in tight spots more often than not, do they have any chance of improving, etc. I chose I’ll Have Another last year following his effort in the Robert Lewis at Santa Anita for a couple of reasons: 1) the ease in which he handled the 8.5 furlongs, it looked as though he would relish added ground; 2) his sire, Flower Alley, won the Jim Dandy at nine furlongs and the Travers Stakes at ten furlongs; 3) his damsire, Arch, also had success at ten furlongs and has proven to be a solid stamina sire. Considering these factors (I try not to dive too deep into pedigree’s…obviously prior generations pass along their traits, but I’m more concerned with the immediate family of a runner), I felt like I’ll Have Another was a strong contender to excel at the Classic distances – I made a $30 future wager on him following the Lewis at 25/1 and gladly cashed it for more than $750. Now that you know how I evaluate Kentucky Derby contenders, here is my Top Ten, starting with number 1:
1) Orb (Malibu Moon – Lady Liberty, by Unbridled)
If Orb can stay sound and continue to improve, I think he has the best chance at winning the Kentucky Derby…and I’m not just saying that because of the future bet I made on him back in January while at the NHC in Las Vegas:
His race in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream last month was a beautiful performance, but it was his race in an optional claimer on January 26 that made me a true believer. The figure came back slow for that race, but he had a rather eventful trip. Running over the speed friendly strip at Gulfstream Park going a mile and an eighth, Orb checked briefly entering the clubhouse turn and proceeded to close willingly into a race that lacked much, if any, pace. Regardless of the level, it takes a gifted horse to be able to close the way he did at a track like Gulfstream Park. Another positive for Orb is the fact that his trainer happens to be Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey. Rarely does Shug have young three-year olds on the Kentucky Derby trail, and when he does, they end up being pretty decent horses…Easy Goer ring a bell? Now I’m not about to say Orb is destined to be on par with Easy Goer, but it’s definitely a vote of confidence that McGaughey has proceeded with Orb the way that he has. With the bloodlines of A.P. Indy and Unbridled in his direct family, I’m confident Orb will excel as the distances get further. Fingers crossed, Orb will give me my I’ll Have Another, 2.0 in 2013 and takes down the Run for the Roses.
2) Hear the Ghost (Ghostzapper – Rehear, by Coronado’s Quest)
Hear the Ghost took advantage of a strong pace set up front in the San Felipe Stakes this past weekend, but there is no denying that he finished incredibly strongly. The biggest positive I’ve drawn from his victory is that this was his first time going a route of ground and going two turns – you’d have to think he’s only going to move forward off this effort. Jerry Hollendorfer definitely knows how to keep a horse on the improve, and being by Ghostzapper and out of a Coronado’s Quest mare, the added distance should be beneficial to Hear the Ghost. A small sample size, but I think Hear the Ghost is the strongest three-year old competitor on the West Coast at the moment.
3) Flashback (Tapit – Rhumb Line, by Mr. Greeley)
Speaking of the San Felipe, Flashback was one of the entrants involved in the hot pace on the front end, which understandably fell apart with a sixteenth of a mile to go. I would have loved to have seen him rate and sit just off Goldencents in the San Felipe, but he was incredibly head strong and pulled Julien Leparoux all the way around the track. By the time the real running started, Flashback was running on empty. I’m going to attribute his inability to rate to inexperience, as he’s only raced three times in his young career. The Santa Anita Derby will speak volumes about this son of Tapit – if he can relax in the early and middle stages of the race, I think he’s a serious player in the Kentucky Derby picture…if he pulls the rider directly to the front and battles it out with the other speeds, I’ll take this as a trend and more likely than not eliminate him from my list of Derby contenders.
4) Power Broker (Pulpit – Shop Again, by Wild Again)
We haven’t seen Power Broker since a fifth place finish in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but I think he has an immense amount of talent. He’s had a few nagging injuries that have kept him out of action to date in 2013, and that’s becoming a bit of an issue if he’s going to make the Kentucky Derby in seven weeks. I can’t take him off the list just yet, because he is training and preparing for a return to the races – but he’s running out of time, and running out of time fast. We should know in the next week or so if Bob Baffert is going to send him out in the Santa Anita Derby, Wood Memorial, etc.
5) Verrazano (More Than Ready – Enchanted Rock, by Giant’s Causeway)
The current individual favorite for the Kentucky Derby, Verrazano has the racing world abuzz following his facile victory in the Tampa Bay Derby this past weekend – an effort after which rider John Velazquez said the horse “didn’t like the track”. Eeeesh…I understand it appears as though he didn’t beat much, but what does it say about the ability he possess if he destroyed a field in a graded stakes race in which he didn’t really handle the track? There’s no denying he’s looked like a monster in his brief three race career, but I still have this nagging feeling that he’s got some distance limitations. He’s brilliant at a mile and probably nine furlongs, but I’m not sold on the idea that he wants to go ten furlongs. Add that he’ll be among a host of animals that want to be on the lead, and that could spell disaster for Verrazano at a short price in Louisville.
6) Itsmyluckyday (Lawyer Ron – Viva La Slew, by Doneraile Court)
The impressive winner of the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream is on many people’s short list of Derby favorites. He took down previously unbeaten Juvenile Champion Shanghai Bobby in the Holy Bull, and did so relatively easily. Lawyer Ron was respectable at longer distances, but Itsmyluckyday is another that I’m still a little bit iffy on regarding ten furlongs. He does possess wonderful tactical speed, which is always a bonus in the Kentucky Derby, but I’m just not sold on his chances at ten furlongs, especially at a relatively short price. Maybe I could get Itsmyluckyday and Shanghai Bobby in a race like the Metropolitan Handicap at the end of May? I’m probably dreaming…
7) Super Ninety Nine (Pulpit – Exogenetic, by Unbridled’s Song)
I very much like the breeding of Super Ninety Nine, but I have a real issue with him at this point – his huge victory to date came over a sloppy surface. Kentucky is known for some rain in early spring, so if the track comes up as “off”, he’s got a huge chance. Until he proves to me that he can take care of business as authoritatively as he did at Oaklawn in the Southwest last month on a fast dirt track, I’m going to hold back on singing the praise of this son of Pulpit.
8) Revolutionary (War Pass – Runup the Colors, by A.P. Indy)
I still can’t get over the amount of trouble Revolutionary got into in the Withers and still somehow came out of that race victorious. I like to see young horses overcome some adversity and be able to prevail – but I look at Revolutionary’s race in the Withers as a negative. He did overcome a year’s worth of trouble, and he was probably half an hour the best…but that’s just my problem – I don’t think he beat any horses of significance in the Withers. Once he faces a saltier group, I think Revolutionary will be exposed as being a cut below the rest of the serious Derby contenders. I have him listed on my Top Ten mainly because he has a strong stamina pedigree, but I’ve got some major question marks about just how good this horse is. I’m very anxious to see how he runs in his final Derby prep.
9) Palace Malice (Curlin – Palace Rumor, by Royal Anthem)
Palace Malice is another lightly raced colt that I expect to take a step forward in his next race, most likely the Louisiana Derby. As a whole, I thought the Risen Star Stakes was a poor race, but I thought Palace Malice ran respectably considering the way he was handled. I surely thought he’d be closer to the pace early on and be allowed to get first run on the closers, but he was taken further back into the pack and forced to fight with the late runners. I expect him to be closer to the lead in his start.
10) Vyjack (Into Mischief – Life Happened, by Stravinsky)
Vyjack is a hot name amongst the horse community at the moment. He’s undefeated, and more importantly has shown the ability to win on the lead as well as closing from deep in the pack. I sound like a broken record at this point, but I’m withholding judgement on Vyjack until he faces a stronger cast of characters. The races at Aqueduct thus far have left me a little underwhelmed – that should change when the Wood is run. Time will tell, but Vyjack has shown a versatility that shouldn’t go unnoticed.
Major Omissions include:
Shanghai Bobby – A ton of talent, but only wants 8-8.5 furlongs, IMO…
Overanalyze, Normandy Invasion, Delhomme – The Remsen is looking weaker and weaker each week…
Code West, Oxbow – Out of the Risen Star, I only want to give Palace Malice another shot…
Uncaptured – Thought he was great as a two-year old, but he’s running out of time…hopefully see him soon…