By Ben Vining
Horse Handicapper for Red Rage Tailgate
Some are calling this the greatest Kentucky Derby field ever assembled, which is refreshing to hear considering how bad as a whole the last few three-year old crops have been. When I started following horse racing, right around the time Big Brown took the first ever win from post twenty, 100+ Beyer Speed Figures were the norm for the winners of the Kentucky Derby. Beyer speed figures, a term coined by Andrew Beyer of DRF, is a figure used to determine how fast a horse runs a race. This year, four horses will go to the starting gate having reached at least 100 Beyer Speed Figure: Good Magic, Justify, Mendelssohn, Bolt d’ Oro. There will also be two undefeated horses in the race, Justify and Magnum Moon. These two will be trying to break the curse of Apollo, who won the eighth running of the Kentucky Derby having never ran a race as a two-year old. All Derby contenders are three-year olds and start racing at the age of 2, so it will be interesting to see if one of the pair can pull off a win.
Todd Pletcher owns the headlines as he returns to Churchill Downs loaded with a full arsenal of three-year olds after his horses won four major derby preps. He won the Florida Derby with Audible, Wood Memorial had Vino Rosso winning, Louisiana Derby put Noble Indy in the winner’s circle, and the undefeated Magnum Moon won the Arkansas Derby. Pletcher won last years Derby with Always Dreaming and looks to win his third run for the roses this year. Pletcher, the trainer, may own the headlines, but Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert’s horse will most likely be the betting favorite when the gates open for the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby. Recapping the preps should be an easy task this year. Pletcher, Brown, Baffert, and O’Brien are all you need to know. The trio of Pletcher, Brown, and Baffert, are arguably the top three trainers in the United States and they swept the Major Prep Races. O’Brien is the top European trainer and he won the UAE Derby with three-million-dollar Mendelssohn.
Now to the preps and we will keep this short and sweet. The winners of all the major preps were either the favorite or won at short odds, so no surprises there. Good Magic, two-year-old juvenile champion, won the Bluegrass coming off the pace. I believe he is sitting on a magically good race Derby day. Audible, one of Todd Pletcher’s loaded arsenal, won the Florida Derby which produced the last two Kentucky Derby winners.
Audible closed from way back and won after a suicidal pace was set in front of him. John Velasquez, one of the best jockeys in the U.S. as well as the jockey of Audible, opted to ride Vino Rosso in the Derby. Vino Rosso punched his ticket into the Kentucky Derby by winning the Wood Memorial. After two sub-par efforts down in Florida, Vino Rosso won the Wood from way off the pace and by 3 lengths at around 4-1 odds. Vino Rosso will be one to watch when they break from the starting gate May 5th.
Mendelssohn won the UAE Derby for Aidan O’Brien and is a strong contender for this years Kentucky Derby. No horse has won the Derby after winning the UAE Derby, but make no mistakes, this one isn’t coming over to Louisville to stretch his legs. He won in Dubai by 18 lengths and set a track record in doing so. O’Brien is the best trainer in Europe and when he brings a horse to the United States you better pay attention.
The winner of the Santa Anita Derby, Justify, made Bolt d’ Oro, who was at one-time early betting favorite for the Derby, look silly in this race. Making just his third start of his career, Justify had everything go his own way, but when Bolt pulled up beside him Justify put him away with ease.
Magnum Moon won the Arkansas Derby for who else other than Todd Pletcher. Moon drifted out in the stretch while closing for the finish line, but still won impressively. Undefeated after four career starts, this runner will be looking to add number three to Todd Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby win total and make it back-to-back Derby’s for the Toddster.
Finally, the first, and the slowest of the major preps to be ran based on the winner’s Beyer Speed Figure was the Louisiana Derby. The horse that won this race was Noble Indy and he is Todd Pletcher’s forgotten one. Nobody is talking about him, and Johnny Velasquez, the regular jockey of Noble Indy, chose to ride a different horse. Visually this race looked impressive. It looked like he was put away in this one and somehow came back to win the race. Either he showed heart and determination or Lone Sailor and My Boy Jack, which he defeated are simply bad horses.
This is always an exciting time of year and my favorite time of year as preparations are being made for the Kentucky Derby. The weather is warming up and guys and gals dress up to come watch this little old horse race. There is a lot of time, money, and effort that goes into getting these horses ready for this race, and we are the lucky ones to watch it all unfold the first Saturday of May.