by Brian Nadeau
March 21, 2018
When it’s late March and the Run for the Roses is inside of seven weeks away, it’s clearly all Kentucky Derby talk all the time. And rightfully so, as contenders are emerging each and every weekend, while clinching berths into the big dance at the same time. And while every Derby no-no has been cleared in recent years, there remains one giant, daunting hurdle, which states you have to run as a 2-year-old to win the world’s most prestigious horses race. Yet this year, seemingly more so than any other, there are two colts – Justify and Magnum Moon – who are long on talent and will look to crack the one code that has, up to this point, yet to be solved. Can they do it?
Apollo, back in 1882, was the last horse to win the Derby without having raced at 2. And sure, as we all know, the difference between racing then, and racing now, is beyond night and day. Yet, countless horses have tried and failed to turn the trick. And while it’s true some were hapless 50-1’s, there also some absolute superstars like Curlin and Bodemeister. So don’t think for a second that the group who have failed didn’t belong, as those two were clearly two of the more talented individuals we’ve seen over the past 20 years or so. But yet, they still couldn’t do it?
There likely is no right or wrong reason why we’re still looking for a horse to break a seemingly unbreakable rule. After all, Bodemeister ran the best 2nd in the Derby I’ve ever seen, so you could toss bad luck out there as much as anything. But to me, the two overriding attributes that an unraced 2yo is lacking are experience and foundation. And while that may not seem that big of a deal when you’re talking about two super talents like Magnum Moon and Justify, I’d argue exactly the opposite, especially because of two horses like Magnum Moon and Justify. With the main reason being neither of them has ever had a straw in their path or faced any kind of adversity in their races.
Before we go a bit further, I really should separate Magnum Moon and Justify, even they are grouped in the same discussion, as the former already qualified for the Derby, having impressively win Saturday’s GII Rebel at Oaklawn Park. Right now, the latter has as many Kentucky Derby qualifying points as you, me and Dupree have, and that’s a big fat zero (more on that later). And when you’re on as tight a schedule as you can possibly be on to make a race that is on the first Saturday in May, you’ve only got one shot to do so, which means Justify better be 1st or 2nd when he runs next, which is presumably in the GI Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, the very race Magnum Moon is expected to target too.
So, anyway, back to the discussion at hand. Both Magnum Moon and Justify, who are a combined 5-for-5, have won all their races with devastating ease. They’ve also won all their races with absolute ideal dream trips, without facing a hint of adversity, and getting all the best of it over fields that (especially the latter) leave a lot to be desired. Sure, kudos to them for doing what had to be done, and doing it in fast time too, but I just find it hard to believe that anything they have faced so far will resemble anything close to the 20-horse bumper-car of a Kentucky Derby we see each and every year. So you have to ask yourself, “What happens when Magnum Moon can’t get outside in the clear to enjoy the perfect stalking trip he seems to relish?” “What happens when someone actually looks over at Justify on the backside, when he’s making his move, and doesn’t wet their pants? Does he dig in, does he still go by, does he decide this kind of exertion isn’t for him?” “What happens when they get dirt kicked in their face? When they have to check entering the far turn? When someone comes over on them and bumps them soundly?”
Get the point?
Those are all very viable questions to ask, and ones that, for the most part, won’t be answered until we’re a few furlongs or more into the Derby, because, right now, on March 21, we have absolutely no idea how they will be handled. However, many of the 3yos who will be lined up against them have already been through some adversity, having run at 2, having gotten some important seasoning, having had less than ideal trips, if for no other reason than they’ve met the starter more than a handle of times, in legitimate, taxing races that took something out of them. And this isn’t a knock on Magnum Moon and/or Justify just because, up to this point, their enormous talent has simply outweighed that of their overmatched opponents. It’s a knock on the enormity of the quest they are embarking on, and the ginormous challenge it has posed so far.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t spin this back to the gambling aspect of things, as, after all, that’s what we all are going to be doing come Derby Day. And when you factor that in, and the ridiculously underlaid prices both horses will be, should they even be in the race, it makes taking those said short prices on this type of quest even more absurd. Justify, no points and all, was about 8-1 in the most recent Derby Future Pool! Is that 8-1 to win the race or make the race? Hell, if he wins the Arkansas Derby, isn’t he still only about 7-2 in a field that will (presumably) include Bolt d’Oro, McKinzie, Magnum Moon and Good Magic? I will golf clap like heck if either pull it off, but taking the most underlaid price of the year, on a horse trying to buck the one trend that has been unbuckable (sure, that sounds like a word) up to this point, is just the definition of taking all the worst of it.
Yes, the times they are a changin’. So maybe one year the one Derby rule will be broken. And maybe it will be this year. And maybe Magnum Moon or Justify do it. But count me as someone who won’t be paying to find out.