Kentucky Derby Analysis

By most estimations this is a Kentucky Derby field rich in talent where at least four different horses are capable of winning without raising an eyebrow. To make matters more difficult there are at least two runners in the field—Justify and Mendelssohn–that have exhibited sufficient talent to suggest they may be very special.

However, in each case, for much different reasons the jury is still out. How well will favorite Justify handle a crowded Louisville experience? Will Mendelssohn transfer his brilliant UAE Derby form stateside? Those are two unanswerable handicapping questions that hold keys to the Derby mutuel kingdom. And then, of course, once those doors are unlocked a horseplayer with exotic leanings must fill remaining bingo squares with correct numbers.

Below is one man’s detailed horse-by-horse opinion on this year’s Kentucky Derby followed by a suggested $100 Wagering Strategy. Have a great Kentucky Derby!

Post Horse                             Trainer                                  Jockey                               Odds

  1. Firenze Fire                  Jason Servis                          Paco Lopez                          50-1

He has won 4 of 9 races, but 3 of those came within his first 4 starts at 2. His last win was in January in the Jerome at Aqueduct in the mud. Since then he has been second in the Withers, and fourth in the Gotham and Wood. Speaking of ‘wood’ …he would be a surprise by being anywhere in the top five Derby finish positions at the conclusion of the race.

  1. Free Drop Billy            Dale Romans                         Robby Albarado                     30-1

He’s been out of the money just once—BC Juvenile—in 8 career starts. That’s pretty consistent effort. He’ll be overlooked in the wagering because just two of those ITM finishes were wins and both came at age 2 in his first four starts. He races from out of the clouds and requires a decent pace to run at. He has 1 win from as many tries at Churchill and his trainer is based here much of the year. He’s trained acceptably leading up to Derby and ought to save ground from the number 2 post position. He could find himself riding the rail to a spot in the exotics at a big price.

  1. Promises Fulfilled       Dale Romans                         Corey Lanerie                       30-1

According to everyone, including trainer Dale Romans, Promises Fulfilled will set the pace in the Kentucky Derby. How long will he have the lead? Probably until the field approaches the far turn. At that point he should be challenged by better horses. It should be noted that he didn’t stop in the Fountain of Youth when on the lead and running away from Strike Power and Good Magic. This race is deeper, though, much different. He’s not someone we’re interested in leaning on to hang around. Not in this heat.

  1. Flameaway                   Mark Casse                           Jose Lezcano                         30-1

He’s certainly not as accomplished as some others in the race, but he’s won 5 of 9 lifetime, including four stakes races—in mud, slop, on turf and a fast track. What incredible versatility! He’s also been off the board just twice—once in a troubled trip in the Iroquois and also in the BC Juvenile Turf. It’s tough to imagine him winning the race, but if you’re looking for a consistent type to hit the board, he might be on your ticket. This is by far the deepest lineup he’s ever encountered, and he should have company near the early pace. We’re not as high on him being part of the trifecta as perhaps…maybe…the superfecta. Maybe.

  1. Audible                        Todd Pletcher                        Javier Castellano                 8-1

This winner of 4 out of 5 starts has steadily improved for future first-ballot Hall-of-Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. His Beyer figs and Thoro-Graph sheet numbers haven’t regressed once. Like the last 6 consecutive Derby winners Audible is unbeaten as a 3-year-old—won Holy Bull and Xpressbet Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. He’s a New York-bred by Into Mischief, a top-notch sire known mostly for fathering exceptional milers. Jockey John Velazquez had the option of riding this one but chose Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso instead. Replacement Hall-of-Fame resident Javier Castellano hasn’t hit the board in 11 previous Derby tries, but clearly is a suitable pinch-hitter. By the way, Castellano chose Audible over Bolt d’Oro. There are many things to like about Audible, but in five starts he hasn’t cracked the 100 Beyer Speed Fig barrier. Justify’s done it in all three of his races. Expecting a solid effort from this one that should find him in the money and maybe the winner.

  1. Good Magic                  Chad Brown                          Jose Ortiz                              12-1

He’s the 2017 2-year-old champ with a total of two wins in five starts. At 2, he improved with each start, culminating with a BC Juvenile win third out. At 3, he has progressed in both outings, and seeks a climax in his third start Saturday. Last season’s Eclipse Award-winning trainer and jockey will help him to get there. He’s not big, but he’s plenty strong and fast enough to get the job done. He’s also handy, able to maneuver tight spots and to run through trouble. That’s useful in the Kentucky Derby mosh pit. He’s trained well at Keeneland and Churchill leading up to the race. Besides Justify, he’s our next best bet to be around at the finish and maybe the winner. 

  1. Justify                             Bob Baffert                            Mike Smith                           3-1

Justify is a big, strong, gorgeous chestnut with a stride that reaches from here to all the way over there. However, in order to win he will need to overcome trends that are much older than anyone reading this!

He’s trained by Bob Baffert, a winner of four previous Kentucky Derbies and conditioner of the top two US-based horses in recent memory–Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and Pegasus, Breeders’ and Dubai World Cup winner Arrogate. Justify has the figures to win the race and in just three appearances, he’s passed the eye test, too. In the Santa Anita Derby, a talented and much more seasoned Bolt d’Oro made two determined runs at Justify. Neither succeeded.

But (don’t you just hate it when there’s a ‘but’) he’s previously run at only one racetrack—Santa Anita, three times, against a total of just 14 foes over a cumulative 3 miles. Heck, Saturday, in one race he’ll face 19 others going a distance almost half that!

According to the world famous ‘Apollo Jinx,’ no horse in 136 years (since Apollo) has won the Kentucky Derby without first racing as a 2-year-old. Such runners are 61: 0-3-5. Trainer Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher (Malibu Moon also unraced at 2) are a combined 0-7 with this type.

There have been only two Kentucky Derby winners with three career starts before the Derby: Regret (1915) and Big Brown (2008).

At least for the last 32 years, every Derby winner but one (Triple Crown winner American Pharoah) had faced a 10+ field size at least once before the Derby. The largest field Justify has ever faced is 7. Those that also faced short pre-Derby fields this year are: Audible, Noble Indy and Vino Rosso.

The good news is that Justify will be the favorite in the Derby and favorites have won the last 5 Kentucky Derbies. The bad news is that favorites haven’t won six consecutive times since 1896!

Whew! That’s an awful lot to consider. Let’s make it simple. Justify appears a special horse in a modern age when Derby winners don’t race nearly as often as they used to. If he breaks alertly, he’s got enough speed to clear the first-turn mosh pit and stalk anticipated leader Promises Fulfilled. From there he should unleash that impressive stride and be very difficult to catch. Remember, the last 4 Derby winners had pace-pressing trips; never worse than third.

If he breaks a bit slowly, things become more complicated. That long stride becomes a bit of a handicap and the jostling and bumping, plus the volume of dirt in his face will be a new and possibly confounding experience. How will he react? No one knows. That’s why many say that a 3-1 price is too low for a win wager, especially in a very deep and contentious lineup.

No matter the price, he absolutely can win. And remember that the Apollo Jinx only applies to winning the Derby. After the race you definitely don’t want to be holding an exotic trifecta ticket two-thirds correct but minus Justify. Include him in whatever you do, including to win.

  1. Lone Sailor            Tom Amoss                            James Graham                      30-1

Here’s an interesting Derby runner that requires a bit of imagination. He’s the kind few experts will ‘like’ because he hasn’t really accomplished that much. In fact, he’s won just 1 race in eight starts and that was as a 2-year-old at Saratoga in the slop. However, this horseplayer believes that Lone Sailor is improving at the right time and just might run the biggest race of his career in the Kentucky Derby at huge odds. Will it be enough to win the race? Probably not. But this son of Majestic Warrior just might rock the exotics. He made the lead in the Louisiana Derby and then appeared to be ‘lost.’ No wonder, he hadn’t been in that position in months! He then was re-passed on the inside by Noble Indy. Jockey James Graham said that when Lone Sailor saw Noble Indy he took off after him again, but it was too late. He races from far back in the pack and will be looking to find a way through a maze of horses. He’ll need pace up front and luck, too. He worked very fast at Churchill two weeks before the Derby and came back with another acceptable move Derby week. If you’re looking for a Derby bomb, this one could be it.

  1. Hofburg                   Bill Mott                                Irad Ortiz, Jr.                        20-1

Here’s a lightly-raced (three starts), extremely well-bred colt with sterling connections. That he’s even in this race is a tribute to his talent. Owner Juddmonte Farms Inc. and trainer Bill Mott have been inoculated for ‘Derby Fever,’ so the only reason this colt is in the race is because connections feel like he deserves a shot. He enjoyed a pace set-up when second behind Audible in the Florida Derby, in just the third race of his life. Mott reports the colt has bounced out of that effort well and he’s trained forwardly at Churchill. One of his pre-Derby works at Payson Park in Florida did not go as well, however. When asked to move inside a workmate he seemed tentative and that’s not a great sign heading into a crowded Derby field. Everything considered (he broke maiden from the 11-hole at Gulfstream), Hofburg has much to like but would join exclusive company with a win. There have been only two Kentucky Derby winners with three career starts before the Derby: Regret (1915) and Big Brown (2008). We consider him a ‘use’ on exotic tickets.

  1. My Boy Jack           Keith Desormeaux               Kent Desormeaux                30-1

Here’s another interesting exotic candidate with some interesting DRF Beyer figs. In nine previous starts My Boy Jack had never taken a backward Beyer fig step until his last race—the Lexington, which he won. He comes from far back and has Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux aboard. They’ve combined for two wins and a close third-place finish in their last three races. This guy spent most of last season racing at one mile on the turf and posted a win and three seconds, as well as a close seventh-placing in the BC Juvenile Turf. He has a win over an ‘off’ track, too. He will be moving from the back of the pack, needs some pace help and has to get lucky. His price makes rolling the dice worth it. Use him in exotic plays. 

  1. Bolt d’Oro                  Mick Ruis                              Victor Espinoza                     8-1

He’s one of just three runners in this Derby field to have cracked the elite 100 Beyer Speed Figure barrier. The other two are Justify (3 times out of 3) and Mendelssohn (in Dubai). Bolt has tripped the triple-digit mark three times. First, as a 2-year-old in winning the Grade 1 FrontRunner (103), next in the Grade 2 San Felipe (101) when second (placed first via disqualification) to McKinzie and finally, when second to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby (102). Critics will note that Justify’s triple-digit figs and Bolt’s trio all came at Santa Anita Park. Perhaps that track is conducive to fast Beyer figs? Or perhaps, this year it’s been home to the fastest group of horses in the nation? The only real blemish on Bolt d’Oro’s resume is a third in the BC Juvenile behind Good Magic. That afternoon Bolt raced extremely wide around the track and lost his best chance as an odds-on favorite. He also may have reacted to a huge winning effort in the FrontRunner. Make no mistake, this guy is serious. He had a brief setback in early 2017 with a muscle injury, but he’s come back in fine form for below-the-radar trainer Mick Ruis. Three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Victor Espinoza will ride. We respect this guy a bunch and expect a good effort from him.

  1. Enticed                Kiaran McLaughlin                Junior Alvarado                    30-1

This well-bred son of Medaglia d’Oro hasn’t quite lived up to expectations this year and has been a bit inconsistent. 2 of 3 career wins in 6 starts came at age 2—one in a muddy maiden Saratoga score and another in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. The latter has developed into a bit of a key race and has had several runners return to win stakes at 3. Enticed won the Grade 3 Gotham over Free Drop Billy (third) at one mile, but before that was a well-beaten fourth in the Holy Bull behind Audible and Free Drop Billy. Last out Enticed was clear second to Vino Rosso despite being bumped hard by that foe in the lane. He really needs to step up his game to have a shot at a decent prize in the Kentucky Derby.

  1. Bravazo                  D. Wayne Lukas                   Jose Contreras                     50-1

This colt by Awesome Again won an allowance race at Oaklawn and then out-finished Snapper Sinclair at 21-1 in a one-two battle around the track. He lugged out on the final turn of the Louisiana Derby in his last race. He’ll need to really turn things around to influence this outcome. He’s not for us.

  1. Mendelssohn            Aidan O’Brien                      Ryan Moore                           5-1

Purchased for $3 million as a yearling at Keeneland, expectations have been high on Mendelssohn’s ever since the ink on the check dried. He lived up to some of that hype when he shipped across the pond from Ireland to win the BC Juvenile Turf. That’s turned out to be a key race as many runners have returned to win races and graded stakes. But Mendelssohn’s crowning achievement so far has been his scintillating score in the UAE Derby at Meydan in Dubai. In his first dirt start he skipped through the desert night and won by 18 ½ lengths over Rayya, a filly entered in the Kentucky Oaks Friday. The track record-setting performance garnered a 106 Beyer Speed Figure and a startling negative 4 on Thoro-Graph—a ridiculously fast figure!


Based on that effort alone Mendelssohn should be favored in the Kentucky Derby. However, the Meydan track boasted a significant inside speed bias and a comfortable early pace and a less than stellar field may have contributed to Mendelssohn’s facile triumph. What worries this horseplayer most about his chances in the Kentucky Derby is how he will react following such an awesome performance. The last horse we remember running an incredible race in Dubai and then returning to the States to race was never the same. You might remember him. His name was Arrogate. Out of sheer respect for his talent we will use him defensively.

  1. Instilled Regard          Jerry Hollendorfer               Drayden Van Dyke               50-1

At one point in the prep season this guy was all the rage. He won the Lecomte at Fair Grounds impressively and seemed headed for stardom. Unfortunately, he never put it all together again. Last out in the Santa Anita Derby he was up against a pace-less scenario and made little impact on Justify or Bolt d’Oro. At that point he was removed from Derby consideration and then later reinstated when an opportunity to join the field materialized. Last year, Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and his charge Battle of Midway finished third to destroy our trifecta ticket. Let’s hope lightning doesn’t strike twice. We don’t see it happening, but we didn’t see it happening last year either. Pass on him.

  1. Magnum Moon             Todd Pletcher                        Luis Saez                               6-1

Like Justify, Magnum Moon is unbeaten and did not race as a 2-year-old, so he’s also facing the Apollo Jinx. Unlike Justify, Magnum Moon does not appear to have as much upside. Also, unlike Justify, Magnum Moon has drifted out in the stretch of his last two races. He’s won each of 4 starts by at least 2 lengths. However, he really hasn’t faced the best of the division, beating Quip (not in the Derby), Solomini and Combatant (both big prices in here) home in his last two races. Only three previous horses have won the Derby off four starts: Animal Kingdom (2011), Exterminator (1918) and Alan-a-Dale (1902). We’re not using this one on the ticket.

  1. Solomini                       Bob Baffert                            Flavian Prat                           30-1

A maiden winner first out at Del Mar and second to Bolt d’Oro and Good Magic in his next two starts—Grade 1 FrontRunner and Grade 1 BC Juvenile, respectively—Solomini was a bright star in the Baffert stable. When he won the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity, but was disqualified in a controversial decision, the star became brighter. In two starts at 3—Rebel and Arkansas Derby—Solomini has shown a grinding, determined style, effective enough to be second and third to Magnum Moon. Solomini is not a pretty work horse (carries his head high) and hasn’t changed leads in the stretch in his last two races, but he’s talented enough to outrun some of his competition. The water gets a lot deeper in here. We’ll pass on this one from the far outside post.

  1. Vino Rosso                   Todd Pletcher                        John Velazquez                    12-1

This son of Curlin has been a barn favorite for a while but didn’t put it all together until his last race in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct when he finished clear of Enticed, despite drifting in through the stretch. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez has chosen to ride Vino Rosso over two other Pletcher Derby runners and that says something. It also should be noted that Johnny V. has a great relationship with ‘Rosso co-owner Mike Repole and that figured a bit into the decision. ‘Rosso has won 3 of 5 starts, two at Aqueduct and one at Tampa Bay Downs. That’s not a traditionally successful winter path for a Derby winner. Blinkers were added two starts back. The Wood has been a poor Derby prep. Since 2003, Wood graduates are 30: 0-0-0 in the Kentucky Derby. He has looked ok in the morning at Churchill and should appreciate the added distance. However, he will need to step it up to be an important factor in this Kentucky Derby.

  1. Noble Indy              Todd Pletcher                        Florent Geroux                     30-1

The least heralded of the Todd Quad (Pletcher’s four Derby starters), Noble Indy, like Audible, has improved Beyer speed figures in each race, reaching a 95 last time out. He’ll also need to improve on that to win this race. His best performance this season came last out in the Louisiana Derby when he was passed in the stretch by Lone Sailor and My Boy Jack. He gamely rallied on the inside to score a neck victory. His previous pair of wins came in maiden and first-level allowance company at Gulfstream. Only three previous horses have won the Derby off four starts: Animal Kingdom (2011), Exterminator (1918) and Alan-a-Dale (1902). Regular rider John Velazquez will ride ‘Indy’s stablemate Vino Rosso in the Derby. Game as he was in Louisiana, an in-the-money finish by this one in the Derby would surprise.

  1. Combatant             Steve Asmussen                    Ricardo Santana, Jr.                  50-1

He’s won just one race in seven starts, but it came here at Churchill Downs. He’s drawn a terrible post, has no speed and probably will drop back in the early going in an attempt to save ground. He reeled off three runner-up efforts from December through February, and then was third in the Rebel and fourth in the Arkansas Derby. In the latter two races he couldn’t out-finish Solomini in the stretch even though both times that one didn’t change leads and Combatant had a head of steam. He would be a surprise anywhere in the top four.

AE Blended Citizen             Doug O’Neil                         Kyle Frey                               50-1

He’s on the Also-Eligible list and would need a defection from the main body of the race by Friday to join the field. That’s possible. However, from the far outside this one seems overmatched and not headed for a spot on our tickets.

The Bottom Line

The One to Beat

  1. Justify

The Ones That Can Do It

  1. Audible, 6. Good Magic

Exotic Considerations

  1. Free Drop Billy, 9. Hofburg, 10. My Boy Jack, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 14. Mendelssohn

Exotic Bomber

  1. Lone Sailor

The Wagering Strategy (3 tickets @ $56 each. Total $168)

The plan is to key Justify in first, second and third. If he’s as talented as he looks he should be able to hit the board and maybe even win. Let’s get lucky!

$1 Trifecta ($56)

First: 7. Justify

Second: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. Mendelssohn

Third: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. Mendelssohn

$1 Trifecta ($56)

First: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. Mendelssohn

Second: 7. Justify

Third: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. Mendelssohn

$1 Trifecta ($56)

First: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. Mendelssohn

Second: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. Mendelssohn

Third: 7. Justify  

Race On!

Kentucky Derby Analysis

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