The past few years, it has been a common refrain that the group of three year olds making up the Kentucky Derby have been below average. This year, however, that is absolutely not the case, as this is one of the strongest Kentucky Derby fields in recent times. At the very least, it is the best since the 2007 group of Street Sense/Curlin/Hard Spun, but I’ve seen other remark that it is the best field since the 1997 year (Silver Charm, Touch Gold, etc.), and others going back into the 60s and 70s to draw comparisons to. I’m not sure if I’d go quite that far, but it is undoubtedly a good group of colts.
The headliners for the field are a pair of Bob Baffert colts: American Pharoah and Dortmund. American Pharoah, in particular, has drawn immense praise. I can’t remember more hype surrounding a horse coming into a Derby- for example, a bloodstock agent who has been in the game for 35 years saying he ‘might be the best horse I’ve ever seen,’ and also comparing him to Michael Jordan.
But take away American Pharoah, and there are still 3 or 4 other horses that, in a normal Derby year, would likely be favored. Dortmund is the undefeated winner of the Santa Anita Derby. Carpe Diem is 5 for 6, with the only loss being a second in last year’s oddly run Breeders Cup Juvenile. Materiality is the undefeated winner of the Florida Derby. And other than Dortmund, I could realistically see either one of those two horses having odds of 10-1 or greater. And there are several other horses that, in a normal year, would be highly thought of, but will be lost in the shuffle a bit with the others in the race.
Here’s a look at the field, in post position order:
1. Ocho Ocho Ocho (50-1): He’s not fast enough, has distance limitations, the wrong running style, and is stuck on the rail. Not using.
2. Carpe Diem (8-1): I get that he needs to get faster from a speed figure standpoint, but I also don’t think we’ve seen anything near his best. Todd Pletcher gets grief for his Derby failure, but his one Derby winner (Super Saver) followed a similar pattern to Carpe Diem. Carpe Diem should also relish the extra distance. Win contender.
3. Materiality (12-1): One of the toughest calls for me- he’s the fastest horse from a Beyer standpoint, running a 110 Beyer while winning the Florida Derby. And he does have two wins at 1 1/8 miles, plus a strong pedigree. But it bugs me that he’s only run at Gulfstream, a quirky track that is known to produce Pletcher freaks but don’t quite replicate it outside of that track. Will use defensively in exotics, but ultimately trying to beat.
4. Tencendur (30-1): He did improve last time out in the Wood, but he had a perfect trip, and was still comfortably beaten by Frosted- a horse who did not have a perfect trip. Not using.
5. Danzig Moon (30-1): He’s getting a lot of hype as one of the most impressive horses training at Churchill. The problem is, he’s always looked great in training, and it hasn’t translated to the track. Not using.
6. Mubtaahij (20-1): Another tough call for me. He looked impressive in the UAE Derby, but I don’t know what he beat, and he sat behind a much slower pace than what he will see here. He has a great trainer in Mike de Kock- he has only ran six horses in the United States in his career, and all of them have finished in the top three. But it concerns me that his feed- one of de Kock’s creation- won’t be allowed in the US. It might make a minimal difference, but it can’t be a positive, and on a horse I’m on the fence about, it’s enough to tip the scales against him for me. Not using.
7. El Kabeir (30-1): He is what he is- a solid horse that is a tier below the best and that has some distance limitations. With Calvin Borel as his jockey, he’ll be overbet. Not using.
8. Dortmund (3-1): The likeliest winner in the field to me. He’s won in blowouts and in dogfights. He’s also already won at Churchill. He’s won setting the pace and by passing horses. And he’s consistently running very fast, with three straight mid-100 Beyers. The one concern I’d have with him is getting into traffic trouble around the turns- he’s such a big horse that he doesn’t run smoothly on the turns. But if he gets past that, he’ll be tough to beat. Won’t get great odds on him though. Win contender.
9. Bolo (30-1): He’s a grade one caliber horse, but I think that is on turf and going a bit shorter. Think he’s in a bit too deep here. Not using.
10. Firing Line (12-1): He’s the only horse that Dortmund has had any trouble with. Firing Line has lost by a head twice to Dortmund. I think he was best in their first meeting, with Dortmund having the better trip, but would give Dortmund the edge in their more recent race. Once he got away from Dortmund, he absolutely destroyed an overmatched field in the Sunland Derby. Another positive- he has three time winning jockey Gary Stevens on his side. I think he’s dangerous. Win contender.
11. Stanford: He has been scratched.
12. International Star (20-1): He swept the Louisiana series of races, and I’ve consistently underrated him. And he should sit a decent trip. But I still tend to lean towards him being the beneficiary of getting great trips against a relatively mediocre group of horses. Not using.
13. Itsaknockout (30-1): I don’t like him in this spot; he’s not on the level of the others in the Derby. But keep him in the back of your mind if he ends up running in the Belmont Stakes- he reminds me very much of Commissioner last year. Not using.
14. Keen Ice (50-1): On paper, he’s not fast enough, but if you are looking for a bomb in the exotics, I think he is the one. He has a great distances pedigree, and the right running style to get a piece. Dale Romans horses always seem to outperform their odds in the Derby. And I think he’s had excuses in all of his races, either due to running into a slow pace or being forced to run wide while International Star has been able to cut the corner in their races. Do I think he’s one of the top 4-5 horses in the field? No, but neither was Golden Soul two years ago or Commanding Curve last year, and they each ran second. He doesn’t need to be the best horse, he just needs the right trip to get into the bottom of the exotics, and that seems very plausible to me. Exotics contender.
15. Frosted (15-1): He had minor throat surgery after his collapse in the Fountain of Youth, and he came back to win impressively in the Wood Memorial. His best race puts him in with the other top contenders, and, other than maybe Firing Line, he’ll be a better price than any of them. And he’s also a horse that can sit back a bit, and could benefit from a more contested pace. Win contender.
16. War Story (50-1): He’s just not that good, and he’s also had a history of breaking slow, which would further hurt his chances. Not using.
17. Mr. Z (50-1): He’s always game, and he shows up every time at any track you ask him to, but with the number of races he’s run, it’s tough to imagine him improving, and he would need to do so significantly to contend. Not using.
18. American Pharoah (5-2): I can’t remember the last Derby horse that has been hyped as much as he as- even from competitors. I’ve even heard some comparisons to Seattle Slew thrown around. He’s brilliant, there’s no doubt about that. But I can’t get over the fact that he’s had easy trip after easy trip, and that the female side of his pedigree is very much orientated to speed, not stamina. And as great as he’s looked, his speed figures aren’t any better than the other main contenders, and it isn’t if he’s been beating any great horses- a horse like Dortmund has been keeping much better company this year. Will use defensively in exotics, but ultimately trying to beat.
19. Upstart (15-1): He hasn’t run a bad race yet, and has multiple races that make him competitive. But I’ve always had some distance concerns with him, and given his post position and running style, I could see him having a less than ideal trip. Similar to Mubtaahij, he scares me a bit, but I will be against him. Not using.
20. Far Right (30-1): He’s another deep closer that, theoretically, could make a late run and pick up a piece. But he’s had much more favorable trips than a horse like Keen Ice this year, and I don’t think he’s been training all that well in the lead up to the Derby. Still, at his price, I could maybe throw him into the bottom of exotics. Fringe exotics contender.
21. Frammento (50-1): With the defection of Stanford, he draws in to the field. He’s another horse that will be coming from well back, but I don’t like him as much as some other closers in this group. Not using.
Win Contenders: Carpe Diem (2), Dortmund (8), Firing Line (10), Frosted (15)
Exotics Contenders: Materiality (3), Keen Ice (14), American Pharoah (18), Far Right (20)
Kentucky Derby Selections:
1. Carpe Diem (2) 8-1
2. Dortmund (8) 3-1
3. Firing Line (10) 12-1
4. Frosted (15) 15-1