The Kentucky Derby prep season never fails in one respect. It always flies by.
The calendar tells us the Derby is a scant three weeks away, and after this weekend's final preps in Arkansas and Kentucky, we will pretty much know who's in and who's out of the 20-horse field.
Let's open up the Derby Capsule and see what's inside it this week.
Who's this Derby's daddy?
Surely Scat Daddy is looking down from horse heaven and beaming with pride about this year's contenders. At this point, his progeny are the two favorites for the first Saturday in May, and in all likelihood, we haven't seen the best of either.
In the Santa Anita Derby, Justify shot straight to the top of this year's Derby list, looking like he might give American Pharoah a run for his money. Bolt d'Oro is a darn good racehorse and he had no answer for Justify in the stretch. In his three starts, Justify has won by a combined margin of 19 lengths and considering the recent Triple Crown history of West Coast horses, he left no doubt he'll break from the gates May 5 as the favorite to be draped in roses.
Now, history is stacked against Justify, and I'm not just talking about the Curse of Apollo. More on that below, but he's also not raced over the Churchill surface, faced anything like a 20-horse field (in fact, he's only beaten 14 horses total in those three races), and he's not really been battle-tested, so we'll see whether his obvious talent is enough to carve out a trip and last that famous final eighth of a mile in Louisville. As his trainer Bob Baffert said recently, the great ones don't get themselves beat by trouble.
Scat Daddy's other top contender, Mendelssohn, evokes questions as well. We know what California has produced for the Derby recently, and Dubai is no California in that respect. But Mendelssohn's resume goes deeper. He beat a 13-horse field in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, a field that included My Boy Jack and Flameaway, both respectable Derby contenders based on their recent performances. Flameaway, also by Scat Daddy, has two victories and a pair of seconds during his 2018 campaign, the runner-up finishes coming against last year's 2-year-old champ Good Magic and Quip, one of the favorites in Saturday's Arkansas Derby.
As a racehorse, Scat Daddy had a decent career, not earth-shattering. He did win the Grade.1 Champagne as a juvenile and G1 Florida Derby at 3, although his final result was 18th place in the Kentucky Derby. It's a shame that he left us so soon, at age 11, because it's obvious he was a special talent as a sire. There's a pretty good chance, though, that one of his sons will represent him in the Derby winner's circle May 5.
If not, Megaglia d'Oro's got a couple threats (Bolt d'Oro, Enticed), and Curlin has several (Good Magic, Vino Rosso, Solomini, and zero-point Arkansas Derby contender Tenfold). Almost forgot. Combatant, a decent chance in Arkansas, is also by Scat Daddy!
Zero to 60?
Right now, My Boy Jack has the last seat at the Kentucky Derby table. He sits in 20th with 32 points. He could sneak in without another point, depending on the results of the Arkansas Derby, but trainer Keith Desormeaux has him in Saturday's Lexington Stakes, hoping to grab another 20 points and make it official. But what if My Boy Jack doesn't win? Well, Desormeaux said this week, he won't be going to the Derby.
“If he can't win the Lexington, he's got no business in the Derby,” Desormeaux said. “There are serious, serious horses this year, even more than in years past. I think the talent this year is off the charts. If he can't win the Lexington and do it decisively, then he has no business in the Kentucky Derby.”
In the Louisiana Derby, My Boy Jack made a hellacious move on the far turn — visually, it was one of those wide, sweeping “wow” moves that gets you to the edge of your seat. But after it failed to produce a victory, Desormeaux decided it was too hellacious and in his no-nonsense fashion, blamed his brother, the jockey.
“It wasn't the fact that he went wide,” Keith said. “It was the speed of the move. He needed to move more gradually. In other words, he went zero to 60 in one eighth. He didn't need to do that. He could've remained steady and picked up horses as he needed to on the second longest stretch in the country. Kent seemed to have forgotten that fact, and that's what cost us the race.”
Still, in brotherly fashion, Keith said Kent has given him more genius rides than questionable ones, and he's keeping the mount.
If he does win the Lexington, My Boy Jack's an intriguing Derby horse and story. Like Desormeaux's 2016 Derby runner-up Exaggerator, My Boy Jack is a deep closer with an exciting turn of foot. Neither colt cost that much either. Exaggerator went for $110,000, while My Boy Jack was a basement bargain at 20-grand. His sire, Creative Cause, finished fifth in the 2012 Kentucky Derby.
Keith's always a great interview and he provided reporters with one final laugh when talking about this talented Derby crop.
“(Justify) would be my pick. Of course, I haven't seen Mendelssohn in person yet. It's pretty cool that both those horses are by Scat Daddy. I would rank Justify at the top. It's gonna be a lot of fun taking those guys down.”
Here are a few history factoids to consider when looking at this year's field.
— Always Dreaming did something last year that no Derby winner had done since 1934. That is, win his first race after mid-January. Always Dreaming broke his maiden Jan. 25. Prior to that, the winner had to have tasted victory by Jan 17. This year, Justify could blow the doors off this stat. His first start (and of course win) didn't come until Feb. 18.
Magnum Moon, the other lightly-raced, highly-regarded Derby contender, won in his first start Jan. 13, so he fits the historical profile. There's a colt in Saturday's Arkansas Derby with an even shorter, trying-to-break-the-Apollo-Curse resume. Tenfold, trained by Steve Asmussen, has only TWO starts, including a first-out victory on Feb. 9. He's well-bred, a Curlin out of a Tapit mare. One to watch tomorrow.
When it comes time to handicap the Derby, I myself will likely side with the more experienced colts, despite this sign-of-the-times trend.
— Going against that last statement, eight of the last 11 Derby winners had only two sophomore starts heading into the Kentucky Derby. In this year's group, Good Magic, Bolt d'Oro, Mendelssohn, Promises Fulfilled, and Hofburg fit the bill. Solomini and Quip will join them after their starts in the Arkansas Derby.
— Only two Derby winners since 1929 have won off a six-week layoff (Needles, 1956 and Animal Kingdom, 2011). These guys are hoping to crush that stat:
Bravazo (last start Louisiana Derby)
Lone Sailor (last start Louisiana Derby)
Runaway Ghost (last start Sunland Derby)
Zero to 100?
With its points layout, the Arkansas Derby has the power to take a colt with no points at all or very few and put him in the starting gates May 5. It happened in 2014 with 41-1 Danza grabbing the winner's 100 and putting them to good use in Louisville with a third-place Derby finish. In 2015, 11-1 Creator took his 10 points and leapfrogged a bunch of horses to make the race. In 2013, Frac Daddy (remember Frac Daddy?) packed his bags to Louisville by finishing second at 23-1 and collecting 40 points.
So while we think we know the Derby field, there could be one, maybe two surprises in store. Combatant, with his 22 points, and his Steve Asmussen-trained stablemate Dream Baby Dream (20 points) look like candidates who could steal someone's spot. And the aforementioned Tenfold, also trained by Asmussen, could go from zero to 40 or 100 with an exacta finish and maybe get in.
Whose spot could they grab? Well, race favorite Magnum Moon and Quip are already in. Second choice Solomini's the one in a precarious position with 34 points (19th place). If he doesn't fire, the Zayats may have to sit this one out.
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