Dinosaurs were roaming the earth the last time a horse won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old.
Okay, that’s an exaggeration. But the point is it’s been ages since it happened.
No Kentucky Derby winner from the 1880s is talked about these days as much as Apollo. That’s because no horse has won the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882.
To give you an idea of just how long it’s been since Apollo won the Kentucky Derby, future U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was born that year. Apollo’s Kentucky Derby victory came five years after Thomas Edison invented the phonograph. It was nine years before Whitcomb Judson would invent the zipper. It means that for everyone who wore pants at the 1882 Kentucky Derby, their pants were zipper-less.
Some people say, in so many words, something that occurred way back in 1882 really has no relevance to today. Racing these days, they say, is very different. And this certainly is true. But what those people seem to be ignoring is the fact that horses unraced at 2 have not fared too well even in recent years.
In the last dozen years, horses unraced at 2 to have run in the Kentucky Derby are 0 for 10. Those 10 horses are:
Battle of Midway (3rd in 2017)
Patch (14th in 2017)
Materiality (6th in 2015)
Verrazano (14th in 2013)
Bodemeister (2nd in 2012)
Midnight Interlude (16th in 2011)
Dunkirk (11th in 2009)
Summer Bird (6th in 2009)
Curlin (3rd in 2007)
Showing Up (6th in 2006)
Horses rarely have even finished second or third in the Kentucky Derby if they didn’t race at 2. Since 1937, only eight of the 61 have managed to even finish second or third. Those eight are:
2017 Battle of Midway (third)
2012 Bodemeister (second)
2007 Curlin (third)
1994 Strodes Creek (second)
1982 Reinvested (third)
1974 Agitate (third)
1948 Coaltown (second)
1946 Hampden (third)
Two undefeated contenders in this Saturday’s Run for the Roses, Justify and Magnum Moon, did not race at 2. Mike Battaglia has pegged Justify as the 3-1 morning-line favorite. Magnum Moon is listed at 6-1.
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert trains Justify. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby four times. Baffert won it with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, War Emblem in 2002 and American Pharoah in 2015. American Pharoah, of course, subsequently won the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes to end an agonizingly long 37-year Triple Crown drought.
Todd Pletcher, who is 1-20 to be installed into the Hall of Fame when he first becomes eligible in 2021, conditions Magnum Moon. Pletcher has won the Kentucky Derby twice. He won it with Super Saver in 2010 and Always Dreaming in 2017.
Justify had stardom written all over him from the moment he took his first step out of the gate in his career debut. He has yet to taste defeat. And Justify is my pick to win this year’s Kentucky Derby despite the fact that he did not race at 2 and despite the fact that he has made only three lifetime starts. Here are my selections:
- Justify (3-1 morning line)
- My Boy Jack (30-1)
- Mendelssohn (5-1)
- Bolt d’Oro (8-1)
Justify created quite a buzz when he won a maiden race by 9 1/2 lengths on Feb. 18 a Santa Anita in his career debut. Effortlessly completing seven furlongs in a terrific 1:21.86 as the 1-2 favorite, he recorded a 104 Beyer Speed Figure.
In Justify’s next start, he cruised to a 6 1/2-length allowance/optional claiming victory at one mile on a muddy track March 11 at Santa Anita as the overwhelming 1-20 favorite. His final time of 1:35.73 actually was praiseworthy because he was far from being asked for his best in the stretch. He was assigned a 101 Beyer Speed Figure.
And then, in only the third start of Justify’s career, he justified his 4-5 favoritism in the Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles on April 7. He won by three lengths in 1:49.72. That 1:49.72 clocking itself was not too impressive, but it actually was quite good due to a racing surface described by Baffert and others as being very deep and tiring. Justify’s 107 Beyer Speed Figure for the Santa Anita Derby was as high as it was in part because he had raced on a slower-than usual surface, which is quantified by the track variant.
Justified sports the highest lifetime Beyer Speed Figure of anyone entered in this year’s Kentucky Derby. These are the best Beyers:
107 Justify (won Santa Anita Derby on April 7)
106 Mendelssohn (won UAE Derby on March 31)
104 Justify (won Santa Anita maiden race on Feb. 18)
103 Bolt d’Oro (won FrontRunner at Santa Anita last Sept. 30)
102 Bolt d’Oro (second in Santa Anita Derby on April 7)
101 Bolt d’Oro (won San Felipe via DQ at Santa Anita on March 10)
101 Justify (won Santa Anita allowance/optional claimer on March 11)
100 Good Magic (won BC Juvenile at Del Mar last Nov. 4)
APOLLO’S VICTORY WAS AN UPSET
I think if Baffert or Pletcher do win this Saturday’s Kentucky Derby with a horse unraced at 2, it should rank right up there in terms of their greatest accomplishments. That’s because they will be the first trainer to do it since Green B. Morris with Apollo in 1882.
When Apollo won the Kentucky Derby, it was a 1 1/2-mile race. In his marvelous book “The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America, author William H.P. Robertson described Apollo’s win over runner-up Runnymede, the heavy favorite, as a “historic upset.”
When Runnymede took the lead entering the stretch, many thought he was on his way to a Kentucky Derby victory, but he could not quite stave off Apollo’s late surge. Two factors seemingly contributed to Runnymede’s defeat. He was trying to win at 1 1/2 miles in his first start of the year (unlike Apollo, who had been racing earlier that year in New Orleans), plus he was not at his best on a wet surface. The 1882 Kentucky Derby was decided on a wet track.
Six days after the Kentucky Derby, Runnymede turned the tables on Apollo at Churchill in the Clark Stakes (now the Clark Handicap). Runnymede won the 1 1/4-mile Clark, with Apollo well back in third.
LACK OF OVERALL EXPERIENCE ALSO A CONCERN
As noted earlier, Justify has made only three career starts. Magnum Moon has raced just a total of four times. In addition to their lack of a start at 2, both colts must show they have what it takes to win the Kentucky Derby despite their overall lack of experience.
If Justify does get the job done this Saturday, he will become only the third horse to win the Kentucky Derby having made three or fewer career starts. The only two to do it so far were the great filly Regret and Big Brown.
Regret in 1915 became the first filly to win the Kentucky Derby. The race in 1915 was at the same 1 1/4-mile distance as it is today. Regret led from start to finish while making her first start since Aug. 22, plus it was the first time she had ever raced beyond six furlongs!
Another filly would not win the Kentucky Derby for another 65 years when Genuine Risk took the 1980 renewal. The only other filly to win the roses was Winning Colors in 1988.
Big Brown had made just three lifetime starts prior to winning the 2008 Kentucky Derby from post 20.
Regret and Big Brown are two of only five horses to win the Kentucky Derby having made four or fewer starts:
2011 Animal Kingdom (4 starts)
2008 Big Brown (3 starts)
1918 Exterminator (4 starts)
1915 Regret (3 starts)
1902 Alan-a-Dale (4 starts)
DREAM TRIP FOR JUSTIFY?
I am picking Justify to win this year’s Kentucky Derby even though he didn’t race at 2, even though he has just three career starts and even though he has three strikes in my Derby Strikes System.
I must confess that I feel like something of a traitor by selecting Justify. I am going against my own Derby Strikes System by picking a horse to win who has three strikes. I guess you could say that when it comes to Justify, I am drinking the Kool-Aid. I just can’t help but be swayed by what he has done at Santa Anita this year in the afternoon and the morning, fueling my belief that Justify’s sheer talent might be sufficient to trump his lack of a race at 2, his lack of overall experience and, yes, his three strikes.
Another reason I am picking Justify to win is it’s not hard for me to envision him getting an ideal trip. I expect him to be in a forward position early. If he is, I think he then has an excellent chance to be first or second with a furlong to go. That is significant because 52 of the last 55 Kentucky Derby winners have been first or second with a furlong to run.
As for Magnum Moon, I just am not enthused about him. As I explained last week, I did not like seeing him drifting out during the stretch run of the Arkansas Derby. But as I also said last week, I readily concede that I might be nitpicking. Magnum Moon obviously is a talented colt. As mentioned earlier, Regret won the 1915 Kentucky Derby. When the 2018 Kentucky Derby is over, I might regret not having had a more positive opinion of Magnum Moon.
WATCH OUT FOR MY BOY JACK
If Justify does not win, I believe My Boy Jack has as good a chance to win as anyone. And he is 30-1 on the morning line.
Even though My Boy Jack’s running style is to come from well off the pace, I think he has the capability to rally early enough to be either first or second with a furlong to go. I feel he has that capability in light of the alacrity with which he passed rivals on the far turn while extremely wide in the Louisiana Derby.
Keith Desormeaux has expressed his view that while his brother, Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux, has given him many a “genius ride” through the years, the Louisiana Derby was not one of them. Keith believes that My Boy Jack would have won that race if Kent had made a more gradual move rather than unleashing a burst of speed like someone in a car “going from zero to 60.” But any way you slice it, I was impressed by such an electrifying turn of foot. All in all, I do think it’s understandable that My Brother Jack flattened out in the final furlong and finished third.
My Boy Jack cut back from 1 1/8 miles to 1 1/16 miles for Keeneland’s subsequent Lexington Stakes. It was decided to run him in the Lexington to make sure that he had sufficient points to get into the Kentucky Derby.
Granted, My Boy Jack won the Lexington by only a head. But considering the distance of the race being shorter than what he really wants, I felt that he did quite well just to win it against a pretty darn nice Ghostzapper colt in runner-up Telekinesis. The small margin of victory also might be a bit misleading in that it appeared to me that Kent Desoreamux had Telekinesis’ measure in the closing yards, riding My Boy Jack only hard enough to get the win.
I love the fact that My Boy Jack has earned the exact same 1 3/4 Thoro-Graph figure in his most recent three starts going into this Saturday’s race. In terms of a Thoro-Graph figure, the lower it is the better. And I believe Thoro-Graph figures are better than Beyer Speed Figures. Thoro-Graph figures take many more factors into account than the Beyers.
It appears to me My Boy Jack might be crying out to go 1 1/4 miles. If he does relish the longer 1 1/4-mile trip to the extent it leads to improvement in the Thoro-Graph department from his three straight 1 3/4 figures, he could be the one draped in a garland of roses this Saturday.
FOUR ADDITIONAL WIN CANDIDATES
This year’s Kentucky Derby seems to be extremely strong. As I see it, Mendelssohn, Bolt d’Oro, Audible and Good Magic also deserve much respect.
Mendelssohn is very scary off his scintillating 18 1/2-length UAE Derby victory in which he broke the track record and was assigned a 106 Beyer Speed Figure. He had never raced on dirt before that. But then it should come as no surprise that Mendelssohn would be proficient on dirt inasmuch as he is a half-brother to Beholder, a multiple Grade I winner on dirt and four-time Eclipse Award winner.
A $3 million auction purchase, Mendelssohn already has won an important race in this country. He took the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last year at Del Mar.
Mendelssohn is by the late Scat Daddy, as are Justify and fellow Kentucky Derby entrants Flameway and Combatant. Scat Daddy finished 18th among 20 starters in the 2007 Kentucky Derby won by Street Sense.
A concern to me for Mendelssohn is he is a prime candidate to regress or “bounce,” as they say, off his sensational performance in Dubai. He was assigned a fantastic negative 4 1/2 Thoro-Graph figure for his UAE Derby win.
Mendelssohn also must deal with logging so many international miles this spring. He was shipped from Ireland to Dubai, then back to Ireland. From his home in Ireland, he then will be flown all the way to Kentucky.
Another reason some may be reluctant to back Mendelssohn is the dismal record of Kentucky Derby starters to have run in the UAE Derby. Twelve UAE Derby participants have started in the Kentucky Derby, with their best finish in Louisville being Master of Hounds, fifth in 2011.
Bolt d’Oro has not finished first in a race since the FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita last Sept. 30. But to his credit he comes into the Kentucky Derby having recorded a triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure in three of his four most recent starts. That gives him a license to win this Saturday, along with the fact that his jockey, Hall of Famer Victor Espinoza, has won the Kentucky Derby three times. Espinoza won it aboard War Emblem in 2002, California Chrome in 2014 and American Pharoah in 2015.
Keep in mind that while Bolt d’Oro’s “raw figure” was 113 before Andrew Beyer arbitrarily lowered it first to 100, then to 103. Beyer did not feel 113 was accurate in that such a huge figure would lead to unrealistically career-best figures for the vanquished.
But that raw 113 suggests that Bolt d’Oro is capable of being one tough dude this Saturday. Consider what the Beyer Speed Figure has been for the Kentucky Derby winner going back to 1989, the first year they are listed in the American Racing Manual. Sunday Silence recorded a 102 Beyer when he won in 1989. Since then, only four Kentucky Derby winners have posted a Beyer of 113 or higher: Unbridled (116 in 1990), Silver Charm (115 in 1997), Monarchos (116 in 2001) and War Emblem (114 in 2002).
Audible rolls into the Kentucky Derby with a four-race winning streak. I sure admire his adaptability to different pace situations. He stalked early when he won the Holy Bull Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths, then rallied from eighth to win the Florida Derby by three.
After Good Magic won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by 4 1/4 lengths at Del Mar, he was voted the 2017 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. He disappointed in his 2018 debut when he finished third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, but rebounded to win the Blue Grass Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths. The Breeders’ Cup was Good Magic’s third start as a 2-year-old. The Kentucky Derby will be his third start as a 3-year-old.
Good Magic seemingly has thrived at Churchill Downs in the days leading up to the Kentucky Derby. He might make anyone (like me) who does not pick him to win look idiotic for not doing so.
DERBY STRIKES SITUATION
My Derby Strikes System consists of nine key factors that attempt to ascertain the chances a horse has to win the Kentucky Derby from both tactical and historical perspectives. When a horse does not qualify in one of the nine categories, the horse gets a strike. The nine key factors are explained at the end of this column.
The Derby Strikes System goes back to 1973. It can’t go back any further because a couple of the key categories are associated with graded stakes races. Graded stakes races began in this country in 1973.
Going back to 1973, 38 of the last 45 Kentucky Derby winners have had zero strikes or one strike.
Six of the last 45 Kentucky Derby winners have had two strikes: Cannonade (1974), Ferdinand (1986), Sea Hero (1993), Funny Cide (2003), Giacomo (2005) and Always Dreaming (2017).
Only one horse in the last 45 years has won the Kentucky Derby with more than two strikes. That was Mine that Bird, who had four strikes.
As I noted last week, Justify has three strikes. Not surprisingly, it’s his lack of a race as a 2-year-old and overall lack of racing experience that triggers the three strikes.
What are Justify’s three strikes? He gets one strike in Category 1 for not having run in a graded stakes race before March 31. He also gets a strike in Category 6 for not having at least six lifetime starts before the Kentucky Derby. And his third strike comes in Category 8 for not having started as a 2-year-old.
These are the strikes for each horse entered in this Saturday’s Kentucky Derby:
ZERO STRIKES OR ONE STRIKE
Audible (Category 6)
Bolt d’Oro (Category 4)
Enticed (0 strikes)
Flameaway (0 strikes)
Free Drop Billy (Category 3)
Good Magic (Category 6)
Mendelssohn (0 strikes)
My Boy Jack (Category 4)
Quip (Category 6)
Vino Rosso (Category 6)
Bravazo (Categories 4 and 5)
Firenze Fire (Categories 3 and 5)
Lone Sailor (Categories 2 and 4)
Magnum Moon (Categories 6 and 8)
Solomini (Categories 2 and 3)
Gronkowski (Categories 1, 2 and 5)
Hofburg (Categories 1, 2 and 6)
Justify (Categories 1, 6 and 8)
Noble Indy (Categories 3, 6 and 7)
Promises Fulfilled (Categories 4, 5 and 6)
Here are the strikes for each Kentucky Derby winner going back to 1973:
1973 Secretariat (0 strikes)
1974 Cannonade (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 4
1975 Foolish Pleasure (0 strikes)
1976 Bold Forbes (0 strikes)
1977 Seattle Slew (0 strikes)
1978 Affirmed (0 strikes)
1979 Spectacular Bid (0 strikes)
1980 Pleasant Colony (0 strikes)
1981 Genuine Risk (1 strike) Category 1
1982 Gato Del Sol (1 strike) Category 3
1983 Sunny’s Halo (1 strike) Category 1
1984 Swale (0 strikes)
1985 Spend a Buck (0 strikes)
1986 Ferdinand (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 4
1987 Alysheba (1 strike) Category 2
1988 Winning Colors (0 strikes)
1989 Sunday Silence (0 strikes)
1990 Unbridled (1 strike) Category 3
1991 Strike the Gold (0 strikes)
1992 Lil E. Tee (0 strikes)
1993 Sea Hero (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 5
1994 Go for Gin (0 strikes)
1995 Thunder Gulch (0 strikes)
1996 Grindstone (0 strikes)
1997 Silver Charm (1 strike) Category 4
1998 Real Quiet (0 strikes)
1999 Charismatic (1 strike) Category 5
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus (1 strike) Category 6
2001 Monarchos (0 strikes)
2002 War Emblem (0 strikes)
2003 Funny Cide (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 9
2004 Smarty Jones (0 strikes)
2005 Giacomo (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 5
2006 Barbaro (1 strike) Category 6
2007 Street Sense (0 strikes)
2008 Big Brown (1 strike) Category 6
2009 Mine That Bird (4 strikes) Categories 1, 4, 5 and 9
2010 Super Saver (1 strike) Category 4
2011 Animal Kingdom (1 strike) Category 6
2012 I’ll Have Another (1 strike) Category 6
2013 Orb (0 strikes)
2014 California Chrome (0 strikes)
2015 American Pharoah (1 strike) Category 6
2016 Nyquist (0 strikes)
2017 Always Dreaming (2 strikes) Categories 1 and 6
THE LATEST NTRA POLLS
Here is this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
- 320 West Coast (23)
- 203 Mind Your Biscuits (2)
- 182 City of Light (1)
- 180 Accelerate
- 152 Unique Bella
- 142 Army Mule
- 92 Heart to Heart
- 84 World Approval
- 82 Gun Runner (6)
- 58 Abel Tasman
Here is this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll:
Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)
- 300 Justify (16)
- 243 Audible (4)
- 235 Magnum Moon (3)
- 221 Mendelssohn (8)
- 220 Good Magic (1)
- 209 Bolt d’Oro
- 129 Vino Rosso (1)
- 78 Noble Indy
- 47 Flameaway
- 43 My Boy Jack
KEY FACTORS IN THE DERBY STRIKES SYSTEM
These are the nine key factors (or categories) in my Derby Strikes System:
- THE GRADED STAKES FACTOR. (The horse ran in a graded stakes race before March 31.) This points out horses who have competed against tough competition prior to March 31 rather than at the last minute in April, enabling the horse to be properly battle-tested. (Exceptions: Since the introduction of graded stakes races in the U.S. in 1973, only Genuine Risk in 1980, Sunny’s Halo in 1983, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Always Dreaming in 2017 have won the Kentucky Derby without running in a graded stakes race at 2 or early at 3 before March 31.)
- THE WIN IN A GRADED STAKES FACTOR. (The horse has won a graded stakes race.) This points out horses who have shown they have the class to win a graded stakes race. (Exceptions: Ferdinand in 1986, Alysheba in 1987, Funny Cide in 2003 and Giacomo in 2005 are the only exceptions since the introduction of U.S. graded stakes races in 1973; Alysheba in 1987 did finish first in the Blue Grass, only to be disqualified and placed third.)
- THE EIGHTH POLE FACTOR. (In either of his or her last two starts before the Kentucky Derby, the horse was either first or second with a furlong to go.) This points out horses who were running strongly at the eighth pole, usually in races at 1 1/16 or 1 1/8 miles. By running strongly at the same point in the Kentucky Derby, a horse would be in a prime position to win the roses. Keep in mind that 52 of the last 55 Kentucky Derby winners have been first or second with a furlong to run. Since Decidedly won the Derby in 1962 when he was third with a furlong to go, the only three Kentucky Derby winners who were not first or second with a furlong to run were Animal Kingdom, third with a furlong remaining in 2011 when only a half-length from being second; Giacomo, sixth with a furlong to go in 2005; and Grindstone, fourth with a furlong to run in 1996. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the Kentucky Derby winners who weren’t either first or second at the eighth pole in his or her last two starts have been Tim Tam in 1958, Carry Back in 1961, Cannonade in 1974, Gato Del Sol in 1982, Unbridled in 1990 and Sea Hero in 1993, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)
- THE GAMENESS FACTOR. (The horse’s finish position in both of his or her last two races before the Kentucky Derby was no worse than his or her running position at the eighth pole.) This points out horses who don’t like to get passed in the final furlong. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the exceptions have been Venetian Way in 1960, Cannonade in 1974, Foolish Pleasure in 1975, Ferdinand in 1986, Silver Charm in 1997, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.)
- THE DISTANCE FOUNDATION FACTOR. (The horse has finished at least third in a 1 1/8-mile race or longer before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the proper foundation and/or stamina for the Kentucky Derby distance. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the only exceptions have been Kauai King in 1966, Sea Hero in 1993, Charismatic in 1999, Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009.)
- THE SUFFICIENT RACING EXPERIENCE FACTOR. (The horse has had at least six lifetime starts before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the needed experience. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the exceptions have been Grindstone in 1996, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, Barbaro in 2006, Big Brown in 2008, Animal Kingdom in 2011, I’ll Have Another in 2012, American Pharoah in 2015 and Always Dreaming in 2017. Grindstone, Fusaichi Pegasus, Barbaro, I’ll Have Another, American Pharoah and Always Dreaming each had made five starts before the Kentucky Derby. Animal Kingdom had made four starts before the Kentucky Derby. Big Brown had made three starts before the Kentucky Derby.)
- THE NO ADDING OR REMOVING BLINKERS FACTOR. (The horse has not added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her final start at 3 before the Kentucky Derby.) This seems to point out that, if a horse is good enough to win the Kentucky Derby, the trainer is not searching for answers so late in the game. (Since Daily Racing Form began including blinkers in its past performances in 1987, no horse has added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her last start at 3 before winning the Kentucky Derby.)
- THE RACED AS A 2-YEAR-OLD FACTOR. (The horse made at least one start as a 2-year-old.) (Exceptions: Apollo in 1882 is the only Kentucky Derby winner who didn’t race as a 2-year-old. There now have been 135 straight Kentucky Derby winners who raced as a 2-year-old. Through 2017, the score is 142-1 in terms of Kentucky Derby winners who raced at 2. Since 1937, horses unraced as a 2-year-old are a combined 0 for 61 in the Kentucky Derby. During this period, the only horses to even place or show were Hampden, who finished third in 1946; Coaltown, second in 1948; Agitate, third in 1974; Reinvested, third in 1982; Strodes Creek, second in 1994; Curlin, third in 2007; Bodemeister, second in 2012; and Battle of Midway, third in 2017.)
- THE NOT A GELDING FACTOR. (The horse is not a gelding.) (Exceptions: Funny Cide in 2003 and Mine That Bird in 2009 are the only geldings to win the Kentucky Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.)