Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert calls the field assembled for the 144th Kentucky Derby “one of the best I've seen in years.”
That may be an understatement.
Baffert's association with America's most famous horse race goes back to 1996, when he lost by a nose with his first Derby starter, Cavonnier. He's won the race four times, putting him on equal footing with a pair of Churchill Downs legends, Herbert J. “Derby Dick” Thompson from the 1920s and ‘30s and D. Wayne Lukas, whose relentless pursuit of the Run for the Roses, beginning in the early 1980s, helped raise the profile of this iconic event with the American public.
Baffert and Lukas, both with starters in this year's running, are chasing Ben Jones, the all-time leading Derby trainer, who won the race six times from 1938-52.
So is Todd Pletcher, one of 19 trainers with two or more Kentucky Derby wins. When he sends out his formidable quartet – unbeaten Arkansas Derby winner Magnum Moon, Florida Derby winner Audible, Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy and Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso – he will have passed his former boss, Lukas, to become the trainer with the most Kentucky Derby starters of all time. Lukas and Pletcher both have started 48 Derby runners prior to 2018.
This isn't the first time Pletcher has come to Kentucky with a multi-pronged assault on the Derby. Twice he's had as many as five starters (2007 and 2013). He's had four on three occasions (2000, 2010, 2014) and a trio of Derby starters three times (2005, 2015, 2017).
This may be his strongest contingent ever. Pletcher has four of the top five horses on the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard, led by Magnum Moon, with 150 points. He dominated the major races on the road to the Derby like no one has ever done before.
It's worth noting, since the points system was created prior to the 2013 Kentucky Derby (it replaced money won in graded stakes as the qualifier), five consecutive betting favorites have worn the garland of roses, including Pletcher-trained Always Dreaming in 2017. A sixth winning favorite in as many years would be unprecedented.
The favorite's role, however, is likely to land on the Baffert-trained Justify, whose victory in the Santa Anita Derby was his third win in as many starts since his racing debut on Feb. 18. He and Magnum Moon, who debuted for Pletcher on Jan. 13, will try to become the first Kentucky Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 that did not race at least once at age 2.
That doesn't bother Justify's trainer.
“He's different,” Baffert said, marveling at Justify's raw talent. “He's a big horse, but he's powerful and quick on his feet.”
Justify's sire is Scat Daddy, winner of the 2007 Florida Derby and one of five Pletcher starters in that year's Kentucky Derby. Three others by Scat Daddy are in the Kentucky Derby leaderboard's top 20: UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn, Sam F. Davis winner Flameaway and multiple graded stakes placed Combatant. One year after his offspring dominated Royal Ascot with four winners, Scat Daddy sired four of the top 20 3-year-olds being pointed to the Kentucky Derby. Considering that there were 22,936 foals born in North America in 2015, it is a remarkable feat and makes Scat Daddy's untimely death in December 2015 that much more of a loss for the Thoroughbred breed.
Another horse coming out of the 2007 Kentucky Derby was third-place finisher Curlin, who would go on to be two-time Horse of the Year for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and a leading sire. Curlin has three starters in this year's prospective Derby field: Good Magic, the 2-year-old champion of 2017 and winner of the Blue Grass Stakes; the aforementioned Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso; and Solomini, runner-up to Good Magic in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Speaking of multiple entries in this year's race, let's also tip our Derbies to WinStar Farm, which has part ownership of three runners in Audible, Justify and Noble Indy, the latter of which was bred at the Versailles, Ky., farm. WinStar, which won the 2010 Derby with Pletcher-trained homebred Super Saver, will have had 21 Derby starters since 2006, third behind Col. E.R. Bradley (28) and Calumet (25).
Two of the Derby starters – Justify and Vino Rosso – were bred by John D. Gunther and raised at the Glennwood Farm in Versailles run by his daughter, Tanya Gunther. That is no small accomplishment for an operation that owns about 20 broodmares.
This year's Kentucky Derby will be one of the most expensive gatherings of horseflesh ever seen. Fifteen of the top 20 on the Derby leaderboard were sold at least once at public auction as yearlings or 2-year-olds in training. The aggregate price is $8,837.000, more than quadrupling the Derby's $2-million purse. The average cost of those 15 horses is $589,133, with a median of $400,000.
Three Derby starters sold for $1 million or more, led by Mendelssohn, a half-brother to multiple champion mare Beholder and leading sire Into Mischief (sire of Florida Derby winner Audible). He brought a winning bid of $3 million from Coolmore's M.V. Magnier at the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. Victories in the 2017 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and 2018 UAE Derby now make that price look like a bargain.
Good Magic sold for $1,000,000 at that same Keeneland sale, while Lecomte Stakes winner Instilled Regard was purchased by racing newcomer Lawrence Best for $1,050,000 at Fasig-Tipton's Gulfstream Sale of 2-year-olds in training.
The bargain buy in this tony group is My Boy Jack, a $20,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale graduate who has gone on to win two graded stakes and $645,145.
Seventeen of the top 20 on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard were bred in Kentucky, with one each from New York, Florida and Ontario, Canada.
Promises Fulfilled Owner ‘A Lucky Man'
By Chelsea Hackbarth
Robert J. Baron named Fountain of Youth winner Promises Fulfilled for three things: 44 years of marriage to his childhood sweetheart, his four grown children now raising their own families, and a promise trainer Dale Romans gave him nearly 20 years ago.
“Dale always told me that some day we'd have a good horse together,” Baron laughed. “When we started to think that this colt might be something special, it was my 44th wedding anniversary. My wife and I were celebrating in Saratoga, and the name just sort of struck me. It was perfect.”
Baron was introduced to Dale Romans in 1998 and extended his stable of modest claimers to the Kentucky circuit. Romans shipped a string to Saratoga for the summer meets, and it was in 2000 that Baron had his first trip to the winner's circle at his childhood paradise.
“I remember Pat Day coming into the Saratoga paddock, tipping his hat to all the women – he was always such a gentleman,” the owner said. “Ransom Cove was dead last after leaving the starting gate, but he came flying down the middle of the stretch to get up and win. There was nothing like that feeling, standing in the winner's circle.
“Honestly though, I'm the kind of owner who is more comfortable on the back side of the track than on the front side. I love the mornings at the racetrack, and I try to stay under the radar. I guess that will be kind of hard now!”
Since Baron started keeping horses with Romans, the two have become close friends. They know all each other's children and make a point of talking on the phone regularly. That relationship is one of the things that makes Promises Fulfilled's victory in the Fountain of Youth so special, Baron said, along with the fact that Romans selected the colt as a yearling at the Keeneland September sale.
“In the construction business, my job is to find the best people possible and then let them do their jobs,” Baron said. “I believe I've done the same thing here with Dale and Frank, but I still tag along to the sale because it's so much fun. I've learned some things over the years, but I'm definitely not the pro.”
Baron's bid of $37,000 brought the hammer down, and Promises Fulfilled is now one of the Top 20 3-year-olds in the country. Baron acknowledges the best part of the experience is watching his family's delight in rooting for the horse.
“The kids and grandkids are all so excited,” he said. “It's a fun time for the family to watch the races together and for me to see their excitement build up to the next race… I am definitely a lucky man.”
By Ray Paulick
Each day this week, I'll take a look at the pedigrees of four Kentucky Derby starters and what I believe the bloodlines say about their ability to get a mile and a quarter. We'll start with those qualifiers having the fewest Derby points (numbers 17-20 on the leaderboard) and work our way to the top as the week progresses.
INSTILLED REGARD (20): Sired by Arch, winner of the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs when it was a Grade 1 race at 1 ¼ miles. Arch, who raced for and stood at Claiborne Farm until his death in January 2016, is best known as the sire of G1 Breeders' Cup Classic winner Blame, the only horse to ever beat Zenyatta and now standing at Claiborne. Arch raced for Claiborne and Adele Dilschneider and comes from an excellent female family associated with King Ranch and Helen Alexander. INSTILLED REGARD is out of the relatively young Phipps family mare Enhancing (by Forestry), who was produced from newly elected Hall of Fame mare Heavenly Prize. Classic breeding top and bottom.
COMBATANT (19): One of four Kentucky Derby starters sired by Scat Daddy, the 2007 G1 Florida Derby winner for Todd Pletcher who finished 18th in the Kentucky Derby and was retired due to a tendon injury likely sustained in the race. (The others by Scat Daddy are Justify, Mendelssohn and Flameaway.) Scat Daddy is the most successful son of European-trained Johannesburg (by the Storm Cat sire Hennessy), who won the G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile on dirt for Aidan O'Brien in 2001 at Belmont Park. These 3-year-olds are from the second to last North American crop of Scat Daddy, who died in December 2015, not long after his stud fee was announced as tripling from $35,000 to $100,000 for the 2016 breeding season. While sons and daughters of Scat Daddy are fast and have excelled more on turf than dirt in the U.S. and Europe, he was a dominant sire at classic distances during the years he shuttled to Chile. COMBATANT is out of an unraced mare and from the family of two-time Canadian Horse of the Year L'Enjoleur (by Buckpasser out of Fanfreluche).
FIRENZE FIRE (18): The lone Florida-bred in the field, he is from the first crop by G1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap winner Poseidon's Warrior. Poseidon's Warrior came by his sprinting ways naturally, as he is a son of champion sprinter Speightstown, by the Mr. Prospector stallion Gone West. My Every Wish, the dam of FIRENZE FIRE, is by the Danzig sire Langfuhr, whose biggest wins came around one turn in the G1 Metropolitan Mile Handicap, G1 Vosburgh and G1 Carter Handicap. My Every Wish was winless in two starts.
HOFBURG (17): By leading sire Tapit – the G1 Wood Memorial winner who was ninth behind Smarty Jones on a sloppy track in the 2004 Kentucky Derby – HOFBURG is out of the Touch Gold mare Soothing Touch, bred by the Niarchos family's Flaxman Holdings and winless in six starts for Juddmonte Farms. Soothing Touch has produced multiple G1 winner Emollient (by Empire Maker), winner twice at 10 furlongs on turf (American Oaks, Rodeo Drive). Glia, the dam of Soothing Touch, began her career in Europe and was transferred to trainer Robert Frankel in the U.S., where she won a listed stakes at nine furlongs on turf in five starts. Glia is out of Coup de Genie, a Mr. Prospector mare who was a Group 1 winner and champion in Europe. One generation further back in the female line is Coup de Folie, who is inbred 3×3 to the superior mare Almamoud through her sire, Halo, and dam, Raise the Standard.
Chief Kentucky Steward Barbara Borden recalls her two favorite Derby memories:
“In 1986, I worked my first Kentucky Derby for the Daily Racing Form. I was standing out on what used to be the most fabulous pressbox of all time, which is gone now, and watched Ferdinand win. I'll never forget it. It was my first Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, although I'd watched it on T.V. many times. It was electric.
“More recently, American Pharoah. That was an exciting Kentucky Derby. It was not without controversy afterward, however, but to watch him continue on to win the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup Classic was just phenomenal.”
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