by Johnny D
May 10, 2018
Earlier this week I received an inquisitive e-mail from a friend containing a link to a Sports Illustrated article by Tim Layden posted at MSN.com, Justify Elicits Comparisons to American Pharoah in First Step of Following Same Historic Path.
The question my friend asked is, “So, what do you think?”
As I typed a reply it occurred that others might be interested in an opinion regarding a comparison between American Pharoah, our last Triple Crown winner, and Justify, the current threat to sweep the series.
Here’s my reply:
Since you asked…
Justify is bigger than American Pharoah with an accompanying stouter caboose. He’s more radiant in coat--although chestnuts seem to have a strange advantage; like how gentlemen prefer blondes.
While I haven’t measured it with a ruler, Justify’s stride appears to be longer than Pharoah’s was. However, the former isn’t quite as nimble nor as smooth changing leads as the latter. When Juistify readjusts the weight of that massive frame from one prime limb to the other he does it with a deliberate move, almost a thud. If Justify suggests strength, power, dominance, Pharoah, implied poetry in motion. A silk scarf in a gentle breeze. When he switched leads it was accomplished with a magician’s sleight of hand. Now you see it, now you don’t.
Both equines are worthy of devotion. Feel free to observe in awe. I doubt you will see such brilliance again. Of course, I said that when ‘Pharoah roamed between the rails. And then along came Arrogate and his record-setting Travers and stupendous Dubai World Cup. And now there’s Justify. Amazingly, coincidentally or not surprisingly Bob Baffert is trainer to all. Is Baffert that good, or just that lucky? Probably a little of both. And he’d definitely admit to it, too.
When you’ve watched as many races as we have--40+ years-worth--it’s downright inspiring to see such magnificence—in the horses mainly, but to some degree Baffert, too. In full-flight these equines are as captivating as works of art. Masterpieces. Perhaps, I have seen others like this. Spectacular Bid immediately comes to mind. However, I fear that I may have been too inexperienced to fully appreciate them. Not now, though. I’m soaking it all in. Making up for lost time.
As to whether Justify, like 'Pharoah, can win the Triple Crown…it’s not a slam dunk conclusion. He’s certainly talented enough and we’re not that concerned with the Preakness outcome. Justify should win handily. We’re more bothered by Belmont prospects, specifically, the possibly cumulative toll of so many demanding races squeezed into such a short timeframe.
Several horses that finished behind Justify in the Kentucky Derby ran solid races on Cinco de Mayo. Of note are Audible, Hofburg, Instilled Regard and My Boy Jack. Derby alums skipping Preakness will benefit from roughly one month’s rest before Belmont. Others that may have passed on both Derby and Preakness will enjoy an even longer freshening.
As potential heir to the Crown, Justify positively must toil in Baltimore. And no matter how facile the triumph there the confluence between overexertion and challenger rejuvenation might occur exactly where it has so many times before: somewhere in that seemingly endless Belmont homestretch.
We qualify the above scenario with the word ‘might’ because Justify, so far, has raised the bar; achieved heights that no horse has realized for almost as long as they’ve been lining up equines and wagering on which one is fastest. Normal rules don’t apply to him. He’s unique. An exception.
Exceptions are everywhere in horse racing. Every day. We even have names for some that surprise us on a regular basis. We call them longshots. Upsets. Dark horses. But when one does the things Justify has done we lovingly refer to it as a freak.
Both Justify and American Pharoah are incredibly special. Amazing athletes, but different. Born of a similar era but as distinctive as Jordan from Lebron. Mays from Aaron. Manning from Brady. It’s fun to compare and to contrast the greats over a cold one. However, don’t let the side show discussion detract from what’s happening right now under the big tent.
So, that’s what I think. Aren’t you glad you asked?
When American Pharoah in 2015 swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes, he ended a 37-year streak in which there had been no Triple Crown winner. He became the first horse to achieve the coveted feat since Affirmed in 1978. But those 37 years were peanuts compared to the streak that came to a halt in the rain at Churchill Downs last Saturday. When undefeated superstar Justify splashed his way to a decisive victory in the 144th running of the Grade I, $2 million Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky-bred Scat Daddy colt ended a streak of 135 straight winners of the 1 1/4-mile classic who had raced as a 2-year-old. Winning the Triple Crown rarely happens. It has happened only 12 times. But to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced at 2 is even rarer, having occurred just twice, first with Apollo in 1882 and now with Justify in 2018. Thanks to Justify, trainer Bob Baffert joins Green B. Morris, Apollo’s trainer, as the only two members of their profession to have won the Kentucky Derby with a horse unraced at 2. While Morris won the Kentucky Derby only once, Baffert now has won it five times (Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, War Emblem in 2002, American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018). Baffert’s total is surpassed only by Ben Jones’ six Kentucky Derby victories (Laurin in 1938, Whirlaway in 1941, Pensive in 1944, Citation in 1948, Ponder in 1949 and Hill Gail in 1952). Apollo, like Justify, won the Kentucky Derby on a wet track. Apollo, also like Justify, was a chestnut. But Apollo was a gelding. Justify, a $500,000 auction purchase, is a colt now worth millions to his owners, a partnership consisting of Winstar Farm, China Horse Club, Starlight Racing and Head of Plains Partners. Sol Kumin is a co-owner of both Justify and Monomoy Girl. Monomoy Girl won this year’s Kentucky Oaks on a fast track last Friday. Kumin became the first owner to win the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks in the same year since Calumet Farm did it with Hill Gail (Derby) and Real Delight (Oaks). When Apollo won the 1882 Kentucky Derby on May 16, it was contested at 1 1/2 miles. Runnymede was the heavy favorite. It appeared that Runnymede was going to win when he had the lead in the stretch, but he could not stave off Apollo in the final yards. The chart says: “As they were well into the stretch, Runnymede took command, and looked like the winner until Apollo started a cyclonic rush an eighth of a mile from home. Apollo caught Runnymede a few jumps from the wire, and won by a half-length.” Apollo’s Kentucky Derby victory was described as a “historic upset” by author William H.P. Robertson in his book “The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America.” The chart of the 1882 Kentucky Derby shows Apollo paid $169.80 to win for a $5 wager. The minimum wager that year was $5. Though Apollo had not started at 2, he did have an advantage vs. Runnymede in the Kentucky Derby. Apollo had been racing in New Orleans at 3. Apollo’s recency advantage was especially significant inasmuch as Runnymede was trying to win a 1 1/2-mile race following a long layoff, not an easy task, to be sure. Six days after the Kentucky Derby, Runnymede turned the tables on Apollo at Churchill Downs in the Clark Stakes (now the Clark Handicap). In Runnymede’s second start at 3, he won the 1 1/4-mile Clark, while Apollo finished well back in third. Justify did not have a recency advantage vis-a-vis any of his 19 opponents in this year’s Kentucky Derby. Yet Justify was able to become just the first Kentucky Derby winner who did not race at 2 since 1882. I have been saying for the past several years that someone probably would come along to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old. On Feb. 13, 2013, I wrote that I expected it to eventually happen, “especially considering today’s Thoroughbreds generally make far fewer starts than they once did.” Earlier this year on March 21, I wrote: “Is this the year it finally happens? Will this be the year in which the Kentucky Derby winner is someone who did not race as a 2-year-old? Apollo won the Kentucky Derby in 1882. Since Apollo, 135 straight Kentucky Derby winners have raced as a 2-year-old. But this long streak appears to be in serious jeopardy this year, thanks to a pair of seriously talented colts, Justify and Magnum Moon.” While Justify had what it took to win and become an Apollo streak-buster, Magnum Moon “was banged around in traffic” near the five-sixteenths pole and finished 19th. Going into this year’s Kentucky Derby, horses unraced at 2 reportedly were 0 for 80 since Apollo. Justify’s victory this year no doubt will lead many people to conclude that a lack of racing experience at 2 no longer is important. But it took an exceptional colt -- possibly even a great one -- to end the long Apollo streak or, as many have called it, the “Apollo curse.” Again, it should be remembered that while Justify was able to win without having raced at 2, his fellow unraced-at-2-starter Magnum Moon lost by 29 1/2 lengths. Yes, horses do not race as much these days, increasing the chances that a horse unraced as a 2-year-old could win the Kentucky Derby, as Justify now has proved. But even with Justify’s victory, Kentucky Derby starters unraced at 2 have not fared too well in recent times. There have been 12 horses unraced at 2 to run in the Kentucky Derby going back to 2006. This is how they have done: Justify (1st in 2018) Magnum Moon (19th in 2018) Battle of Midway (3rd in 2017) Patch (14th in 2017) Materiality (6th in 2015) Verrazano (14th in 2013) Bodemeister (2nd in 2012) Midnight Interlude (16th in 2011) Dunkirk (11th in 2009) Summer Bird (6th in 2009) Curlin (3rd in 2007) Showing Up (6th in 2006) JUSTIFY’S START WAS CRUCIAL Baffert said time and again that it was critical for Justify to get off to a good start. According to the Hall of Famer trainer, he was confident going into this year’s Kentucky Derby that he had the best horse. Such confidence on the part of Baffert was, well, justified following the colt’s three impressive victories in his first three career starts, along with how wonderfully he had trained and his radiant physical appearance in the days leading up to the Run for the Roses. But Baffert believed it was imperative that Justify leave the gate sharply and that he be 1-2-3 going into the first turn. If not, there would be very little chance of victory despite the colt being a “phenomenal talent,” as Baffert had said of Justify after his three-length Santa Anita Derby triumph on April 7. A number of horses in this year’s Kentucky Derby experienced traffic woes after they did not leave the gate quickly. This affirmed that Baffert had good reason to be so worried about how well Justify would begin the race, especially since the big colt had not exactly been blasting away from the gate in his previous races. Justify’s Hall of Fame jockey, Mike Smith, likewise was keenly aware that the start was of paramount importance. But no rider in history is any better of coming through when the pressure is on, hence the nickname “big money” Mike Smith. In yet another demonstration of rising to the occasion on an important occasion, Smith executed a flawless ride aboard Justify. This was Smith’s second Kentucky Derby win, following his victory on Giacomo’s in a 50-1 shocker in 2005. Smith this year, at age 52, became the second-oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, behind only Bill Shoemaker, who was 54 when he gave a ride for the ages to win with Ferdinand in 1986. Smith got Justify away to a beautiful start in this $2 million event. As expected, Promises Fulfilled darted immediately to the front and set the early pace. With Justify breathing down Promises Fulfilled’s neck in the early going, the preliminary fractions were a scorching :22.24 and :45.77. Even though the early pace was so rapid, it appeared to me that Smith was sitting pretty stoically in the saddle while rating Justify, who was going along quite smoothly without expending much effort. My thought was, despite the torrid early tempo, Justify would go on and win if he truly was a “phenomenal talent,” as Baffert had said. Equibase’s official Kentucky Derby chart says Justify “spurted clear leaving the three-furlong marker.” I don’t think it was Justify “spurting clear” as much as it was Promises Fulfilled all of a sudden backpedaling when beginning to pay the price for going as fast as he had early. But almost immediately after Justify had opened a clear lead, he had to deal with a mild challenge from Bolt d’Oro, who was 8-1 in the wagering. It appeared for a brief moment on the far turn that Bolt d’Oro was going to move up and take on the leading Justify. But not only was Bolt d’Oro unable to ever reach the favorite, Bolt d’Oro began to falter even before reaching the stretch and eventually finished 12th to the disappointment of owner-trainer Mick Ruis. “Bob has a monster,” Ruis said after the race in reference to Baffert and Justify. Nearing the top of the stretch, it was Good Magic’s turn to take a run at Justify. This was a more serious challenge. The chart says that Justify “rebuffed the bid of Good Magic approaching the stretch.” That bid came from no less an opponent than last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and the 2017 Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male champion. Good Magic, who was sent off at 9-1, had been talked up as someone who appeared ready for a dynamite effort in his third start of the year for trainer Chad Brown. Good Magic had finished a disappointing third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in his 2018 debut on March 3. He rebounded to take the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 7, with seemingly still more room to improve in his next start. Brown has said it was his plan all along to have Good Magic ready for a peak performance on the first Saturday in May, which is exactly what happened, to Brown’s credit. All the way down the long Churchill Downs stretch, Good Magic ran his heart out while trying to close the gap on Justify, who kept sloshing along with a clear lead. But Justify continually kept Good Magic at bay, just as Justify had done with Bolt d’Oro when that foe had taken not one, but two serious runs at the front-running Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. Justify had his mojo coming down the lane at Churchill Downs and was able to maintain a clear advantage throughout the final furlong. He won by 2 1/2 lengths, the same margin as Secretariat’s when he won the 1973 renewal in 1:59.40 to set a track record that still stands. After Good Magic had tried so hard for so long to no avail, he almost blew the place. But he did hold on to finish second. Justify is “a super horse,” Brown said after Good Magic’s admirable effort resulted in nothing more than a minor award. Audible finished third, a head behind Good Magic. Audible actually did well to finish third at 7-1 in the betting. He came home energetically after being steadied in traffic on the far turn. “Justify is a super-impressive horse,” said Audible’s trainer, Todd Pletcher, who won the Kentucky Derby in 2010 with Super Saver and 2017 with Always Dreaming. As for Pletcher’s three other 2018 Kentucky Derby starters, Vino Rosso finished ninth, Noble Indy ended up 17th and Magnum Moon, as mentioned earlier, came in 19th. Instilled Regard, 17th early, rallied to finish fourth as the longest shot in the race at 85-1. Instilled Regard’s trainer, Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, sent out Battle of Midway to finish third at 40-1 in the 2017 Kentucky Derby. My Boy Jack was 30-1 on the morning line for this year’s Kentucky Derby. I picked him second. With four furlongs to run, My Boy Jack was last in the field of 20. He was making a move when he got stopped near the five-sixteenths pole, then regrouped and was full of run in the stretch to finish fifth at the surprisingly low odds of 6-1. Other than Justify, Good Magic, Audible and My Boy Jack, the only horse who started at under 10-1 was Mendelssohn, who was 6-1 off his scintillating win in the UAE Derby for trainer Aidan O’Brien. But the Kentucky Derby was a nightmare for Mendelssohn from the get-go. At least Mendelssohn and jockey Ryan Moore made it across the finish line, unlike 2017 UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow. In last year’s Kentucky Derby, Thunder Snow became extremely rank, started trying to buck off jockey Christophe Soumillon and was pulled up early. Mendelssohn “just got knocked over coming out of the gate and again going to the first bend,” said O’Brien. Moore eased Mendelssohn in the stretch when they were hopelessly beaten. The dismal record of UAE starters in the Kentucky Derby continues: Year Horse (Kentucky Derby finish) 2018 Mendelssohn (20th) 2017 Thunder Snow (did not finish) 2016 Lani (9th) 2015 Mubtaahij (8th) 2013 Lines of Battle (7th) 2012 Daddy Long Legs (did not finish) 2011 Master of Hounds (5th) 2009 Regal Ransom (8th) 2009 Desert Party (14th) 2003 Outta Here (7th) 2002 Essence of Dubai (9th) 2001 Express Tour (8th) 2000 China Visit (6th) 2000 Curule (7th) OVERCOMING OVERALL LACK OF EXPERIENCE Much attention has been focused on Justify breaking the century-plus streak of Kentucky Derby winners who had lost at 2. But Justify also became only the third horse to ever win the Kentucky Derby having made three or fewer career starts. The only two to do it previously were the great filly Regret in 1915 and Big Brown in 2008. Justify, Regret and Big Brown are three of only six horses to win the Kentucky Derby having made four or fewer starts: 2018 Justify (3 starts) 2011 Animal Kingdom (4 starts) 2008 Big Brown (3 starts) 1918 Exterminator (4 starts) 1915 Regret (3 starts) 1902 Alan-a-Dale (4 starts) STREAK OF WINNING FAVORITES CONTINUES Justify was sent away as the 5-2 Kentucky Derby favorite. He returned $7.80 for each $2 win wager. American Pharoah likewise paid $7.80 to win in 2015. The favorite now has won the Kentucky Derby six years in a row. The six are: 2018 Justify 5-2 ($7.80) 2017 Always Dreaming 9-2 ($11.40) 2016 Nyquist 2-1 ($6.60) 2015 American Pharoah 5-2 ($7.80) 2014 California Chrome 5-2 ($7) 2013 Orb 5-1 ($12.80) Coincidentally or not, this run of winning favorites dovetails with Churchill Downs’ switch to a point system to qualify for the Kentucky Derby beginning with the 2013 renewal. The previous qualifying system was based on graded stakes earnings. After American Pharoah’s Kentucky Derby victory at 5-2, it seemed likely he would never be that price or higher ever again. Indeed, American Pharoah was 4-5 or shorter in the remaining five starts of his career. It’s hard to imagine that you will get 5-2 or higher on Justify ever again. DERBY STRIKES SITUATION My Derby Strikes System consists of nine key factors that attempt to ascertain the chances a horse has to win the Kentucky Derby from both tactical and historical perspectives. When a horse does not qualify in one of the nine categories, the horse gets a strike. The nine key factors are explained at the end of this column. The Derby Strikes System goes back to 1973. It can’t go back any further because a couple of the key categories are associated with graded stakes races. Graded stakes races began in this country in 1973. From 1973 through this year, 38 of the last 46 Kentucky Derby winners have had zero strikes or one strike. Six of the last 46 Kentucky Derby winners have had two strikes: Cannonade (1974), Ferdinand (1986), Sea Hero (1993), Funny Cide (2003), Giacomo (2005) and Always Dreaming (2017). Justify had three strikes. He becomes only the second of the last 46 Kentucky Derby winners to have more than two strikes. Mine That Bird, who won the race in 2009, had four strikes. It was Justify’s lack of a race as a 2-year-old and overall lack of racing experience that triggered the three strikes. He got one strike in Category 1 for not having run in a graded stakes race before March 31. He also got a strike in Category 6 for not having at least six lifetime starts before the Kentucky Derby. And his third strike came in Category 8 for not having started as a 2-year-old. Here are the strikes for each Kentucky Derby winner going back to 1973: 2018 Justify (3 strikes) Categories 1, 6 and 8 2017 Always Dreaming (2 strikes) Categories 1 and 6 2016 Nyquist (0 strikes) 2015 American Pharoah (1 strike) Category 6 2014 California Chrome (0 strikes) 2013 Orb (0 strikes) 2012 I’ll Have Another (1 strike) Category 6 2011 Animal Kingdom (1 strike) Category 6 2010 Super Saver (1 strike) Category 4 2009 Mine That Bird (4 strikes) Categories 1, 4, 5 and 9 2008 Big Brown (1 strike) Category 6 2007 Street Sense (0 strikes) 2006 Barbaro (1 strike) Category 6 2005 Giacomo (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 5 2004 Smarty Jones (0 strikes) 2003 Funny Cide (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 9 2002 War Emblem (0 strikes) 2001 Monarchos (0 strikes) 2000 Fusaichi Pegasus (1 strike) Category 6 1999 Charismatic (1 strike) Category 5 1998 Real Quiet (0 strikes) 1997 Silver Charm (1 strike) Category 4 1996 Grindstone (0 strikes) 1995 Thunder Gulch (0 strikes) 1994 Go for Gin (0 strikes) 1993 Sea Hero (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 5 1992 Lil E. Tee (0 strikes) 1991 Strike the Gold (0 strikes) 1990 Unbridled (1 strike) Category 3 1989 Sunday Silence (0 strikes) 1988 Winning Colors (0 strikes) 1987 Alysheba (1 strike) Category 2 1986 Ferdinand (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 4 1985 Spend a Buck (0 strikes) 1984 Swale (0 strikes) 1983 Sunny’s Halo (1 strike) Category 1 1982 Gato Del Sol (1 strike) Category 3 1981 Genuine Risk (1 strike) Category 1 1980 Pleasant Colony (0 strikes) 1979 Spectacular Bid (0 strikes) 1978 Affirmed (0 strikes) 1977 Seattle Slew (0 strikes) 1976 Bold Forbes (0 strikes) 1975 Foolish Pleasure (0 strikes) 1974 Cannonade (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 4 1973 Secretariat (0 strikes) “EIGHTH POLE FACTOR” COMES THROUGH AGAIN I picked Justify to win this year’s Kentucky Derby even though he didn’t race at 2, even though he had just three career starts and, yes, even though he had three strikes in my Derby Strikes System. I felt like something of a traitor by selecting Justify. That’s because I was going against my own Derby Strikes System by picking a horse to win who had three strikes. But regarding Justify, I drank the Kool-Aid. Based on what I had seen, I couldn’t help but believe that his sheer talent might be sufficient to trump his lack of a race at 2, his overall lack of experience and his three strikes. I also picked Justify to win because it was not hard for me to envision him getting an ideal trip. I expected him to be in a forward position early. If he was, I thought he then had an excellent chance to be first or second with a furlong to go. To be first or second with a furlong to run is very significant to me due to the fact that going into this year’s Kentucky Derby, 52 of the last 55 winners had been first or second with a furlong to go. Where was Justify with a furlong to run? He was in front by 2 1/2 lengths. YET ANOTHER TRIPLE-DIGIT BEYER FOR JUSTIFY Justify ran (swam?) 1 1/4 miles on a sloppy surface in 2:04.20. He was assigned a 103 Beyer Speed Figure. He has earned a triple-digit Beyer in all four career starts. Prior to the Kentucky Derby, all three of Justify’s starts had come at Santa Anita. He became first horse in more than 100 years to have won the Kentucky Derby have previously raced at only one track. The last horse to do it was Regret, whose three career starts before the Kentucky Derby all had come at Saratoga the year before. In Justify’s three wins at Santa Anita, he recorded a 104 Beyer Speed Figure in a seven-furlong maiden race on Feb. 18, a 101 in a one-mile allowance/optional claiming race on a muddy track March 11, followed by a career-best 107 in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles on April 7. Justify’s 107 was the highest Beyer Speed Figure that had been earned by any of the starters going into this year’s Kentucky Derby. The average Beyer Speed Figure for American Pharoah’s five wins through the Kentucky Derby was 102.4. Justify’s average Beyer for his four wins through the Kentucky Derby is 103.7. Here are the Beyer Speed Figures for the Kentucky Derby winners going back to 1989: 2018 Justify (103) 2017 Always Dreaming (102) 2016 Nyquist (103) 2015 American Pharoah (105) 2014 California Chrome (97) 2013 Orb (104) 2012 I’ll Have Another (101) 2011 Animal Kingdom (103) 2010 Super Saver (104) 2009 Mine That Bird (105) 2008 Big Brown (109) 2007 Street Sense (110) 2006 Barbaro (111) 2005 Giacomo (100) 2004 Smarty Jones (107) 2003 Funny Cide (109) 2002 War Emblem (114) 2001 Monarchos (116) 2000 Fusaichi Pegasus (108) 1999 Charismatic (108) 1998 Real Quiet (107) 1997 Silver Charm (115) 1996 Grindstone (112) 1995 Thunder Gulch (108) 1994 Go for Gin (112) 1993 Sea Hero (105) 1992 Lil E. Tee (107) 1991 Strike the Gold* 1990 Unbridled* 1989 Sunday Silence (102) *No Beyer Speed Figure is listed in the American Racing Manual for Strike the Gold or Unbridled. THE LATEST NTRA POLLS Here is this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll: Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes) 1. 335 West Coast (12) 2. 275 Justify (22) 3. 209 Mind Your Biscuits (2) 4. 198 City of Light 5. 168 Accelerate 6. 140 Army Mule 7. 92 Unique Bella 8. 80 Heart to Heart 9. 66 Backyard Heaven 9. 64 Gun Runner (3) Here is this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll: Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes) 1. 390 Justify (39) 2. 349 Good Magic 3. 312 Audible 4. 170 My Boy Jack 5. 153 Monomoy Girl 5. 109 Bolt d’Oro 7. 102 Instilled Regard 8. 97 Vino Rosso 9. 83 Magnum Moon 10. 68 Hofburg KEY FACTORS IN THE DERBY STRIKES SYSTEM These are the nine key factors (or categories) in my Derby Strikes System: 1. THE GRADED STAKES FACTOR. (The horse ran in a graded stakes race before March 31.) This points out horses who have competed against tough competition prior to March 31 rather than at the last minute in April, enabling the horse to be properly battle-tested. (Exceptions: Since the introduction of graded stakes races in the U.S. in 1973, only Genuine Risk in 1980, Sunny’s Halo in 1983, Mine That Bird in 2009, Always Dreaming in 2017 and Justify in 2018 have won the Kentucky Derby without running in a graded stakes race at 2 or early at 3 before March 31.) 2. THE WIN IN A GRADED STAKES FACTOR. (The horse has won a graded stakes race.) This points out horses who have shown they have the class to win a graded stakes race. (Exceptions: Ferdinand in 1986, Alysheba in 1987, Funny Cide in 2003 and Giacomo in 2005 are the only exceptions since the introduction of U.S. graded stakes races in 1973; Alysheba in 1987 did finish first in the Blue Grass, only to be disqualified and placed third.) 3. THE EIGHTH POLE FACTOR. (In either of his or her last two starts before the Kentucky Derby, the horse was either first or second with a furlong to go.) This points out horses who were running strongly at the eighth pole, usually in races at 1 1/16 or 1 1/8 miles. By running strongly at the same point in the Kentucky Derby, a horse would be in a prime position to win the roses. Keep in mind that 53 of the last 56 Kentucky Derby winners have been first or second with a furlong to run. Since Decidedly won the Derby in 1962 when he was third with a furlong to go, the only three Kentucky Derby winners who were not first or second with a furlong to run were Animal Kingdom, third with a furlong remaining in 2011 when only a half-length from being second; Giacomo, sixth with a furlong to go in 2005; and Grindstone, fourth with a furlong to run in 1996. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the Kentucky Derby winners who weren’t either first or second at the eighth pole in his or her last two starts have been Tim Tam in 1958, Carry Back in 1961, Cannonade in 1974, Gato Del Sol in 1982, Unbridled in 1990 and Sea Hero in 1993, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.) 4. THE GAMENESS FACTOR. (The horse’s finish position in both of his or her last two races before the Kentucky Derby was no worse than his or her running position at the eighth pole.) This points out horses who don’t like to get passed in the final furlong. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the exceptions have been Venetian Way in 1960, Cannonade in 1974, Foolish Pleasure in 1975, Ferdinand in 1986, Silver Charm in 1997, Mine That Bird in 2009 and Super Saver in 2010, with Canonero II in 1971 unknown.) 5. THE DISTANCE FOUNDATION FACTOR. (The horse has finished at least third in a 1 1/8-mile race or longer before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the proper foundation and/or stamina for the Kentucky Derby distance. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the only exceptions have been Kauai King in 1966, Sea Hero in 1993, Charismatic in 1999, Giacomo in 2005 and Mine That Bird in 2009.) 6. THE SUFFICIENT RACING EXPERIENCE FACTOR. (The horse has had at least six lifetime starts before the Kentucky Derby.) This points out horses who have the needed experience. (Exceptions: Since 1955, the exceptions have been Grindstone in 1996, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, Barbaro in 2006, Big Brown in 2008, Animal Kingdom in 2011, I’ll Have Another in 2012, American Pharoah in 2015, Always Dreaming in 2017 and Justify in 2018. Grindstone, Fusaichi Pegasus, Barbaro, I’ll Have Another, American Pharoah and Always Dreaming each had made five starts before the Kentucky Derby. Animal Kingdom had made four starts before the Kentucky Derby. Big Brown and Justify had made three starts before the Kentucky Derby.) 7. THE NO ADDING OR REMOVING BLINKERS FACTOR. (The horse has not added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her final start at 3 before the Kentucky Derby.) This seems to point out that, if a horse is good enough to win the Kentucky Derby, the trainer is not searching for answers so late in the game. (Since Daily Racing Form began including blinkers in its past performances in 1987, no horse has added blinkers or had blinkers removed in his or her last start at 3 before winning the Kentucky Derby.) 8. THE RACED AS A 2-YEAR-OLD FACTOR. (The horse made at least one start as a 2-year-old.) (Exceptions: Apollo in 1882 is the only Kentucky Derby winner who didn’t race as a 2-year-old. Through 2018, the score is 142-2 in terms of Kentucky Derby winners who raced at 2. Since 1937, horses unraced as a 2-year-old are a combined 1 for 63 in the Kentucky Derby. During this period, the only horses to even place or show were Hampden, who finished third in 1946; Coaltown, second in 1948; Agitate, third in 1974; Reinvested, third in 1982; Strodes Creek, second in 1994; Curlin, third in 2007; Bodemeister, second in 2012; Battle of Midway, third in 2017; and Justify, first in 2018.) 9. THE NOT A GELDING FACTOR. (The horse is not a gelding.) (Exceptions: Funny Cide in 2003 and Mine That Bird in 2009 are the only geldings to win the Kentucky Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929.)
By most estimations this is a Kentucky Derby field rich in talent where at least four different horses are capable of winning without raising an eyebrow. To make matters more difficult there are at least two runners in the field—Justify and Mendelssohn--that have exhibited sufficient talent to suggest they may be very special. However, in each case, for much different reasons the jury is still out. How well will favorite Justify handle a crowded Louisville experience? Will Mendelssohn transfer his brilliant UAE Derby form stateside? Those are two unanswerable handicapping questions that hold keys to the Derby mutuel kingdom. And then, of course, once those doors are unlocked a horseplayer with exotic leanings must fill remaining bingo squares with correct numbers. Below is one man’s detailed horse-by-horse opinion on this year’s Kentucky Derby followed by a suggested $100 Wagering Strategy. Have a great Kentucky Derby! 1. Firenze Fire (50/1) - Jason Servis / Paco Lopez He has won 4 of 9 races, but 3 of those came within his first 4 starts at 2. His last win was in January in the Jerome at Aqueduct in the mud. Since then he has been second in the Withers, and fourth in the Gotham and Wood. Speaking of ‘wood’ …he would be a surprise by being anywhere in the top five Derby finish positions at the conclusion of the race. 2. Free Drop Billy (30/1) - Dale Romans / Robby Albarado He’s been out of the money just once—BC Juvenile—in 8 career starts. That’s pretty consistent effort. He’ll be overlooked in the wagering because just two of those ITM finishes were wins and both came at age 2 in his first four starts. He races from out of the clouds and requires a decent pace to run at. He has 1 win from as many tries at Churchill and his trainer is based here much of the year. He’s trained acceptably leading up to Derby and ought to save ground from the number 2 post position. He could find himself riding the rail to a spot in the exotics at a big price. 3. Promises Fulfilled (30/1) - Dale Romans / Corey Lanerie According to everyone, including trainer Dale Romans, Promises Fulfilled will set the pace in the Kentucky Derby. How long will he have the lead? Probably until the field approaches the far turn. At that point he should be challenged by better horses. It should be noted that he didn’t stop in the Fountain of Youth when on the lead and running away from Strike Power and Good Magic. This race is deeper, though, much different. He’s not someone we’re interested in leaning on to hang around. Not in this heat. 4. Flameaway (30/1) - Mark Casse / Jose Lezcano He’s certainly not as accomplished as some others in the race, but he’s won 5 of 9 lifetime, including four stakes races—in mud, slop, on turf and a fast track. What incredible versatility! He’s also been off the board just twice—once in a troubled trip in the Iroquois and also in the BC Juvenile Turf. It’s tough to imagine him winning the race, but if you’re looking for a consistent type to hit the board, he might be on your ticket. This is by far the deepest lineup he’s ever encountered, and he should have company near the early pace. We’re not as high on him being part of the trifecta as perhaps…maybe…the superfecta. Maybe. 5. Audible (8/1) - Todd Pletcher / Javier Castellano This winner of 4 out of 5 starts has steadily improved for future first-ballot Hall-of-Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. His Beyer figs and Thoro-Graph sheet numbers haven’t regressed once. Like the last 6 consecutive Derby winners Audible is unbeaten as a 3-year-old—won Holy Bull and Xpressbet Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. He’s a New York-bred by Into Mischief, a top-notch sire known mostly for fathering exceptional milers. Jockey John Velazquez had the option of riding this one but chose Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso instead. Replacement Hall-of-Fame resident Javier Castellano hasn’t hit the board in 11 previous Derby tries, but clearly is a suitable pinch-hitter. By the way, Castellano chose Audible over Bolt d’Oro. There are many things to like about Audible, but in five starts he hasn’t cracked the 100 Beyer Speed Fig barrier. Justify’s done it in all three of his races. Expecting a solid effort from this one that should find him in the money and maybe the winner. 6. Good Magic (12/1) - Chad Brown / Jose Ortiz He’s the 2017 2-year-old champ with a total of two wins in five starts. At 2, he improved with each start, culminating with a BC Juvenile win third out. At 3, he has progressed in both outings, and seeks a climax in his third start Saturday. Last season’s Eclipse Award-winning trainer and jockey will help him to get there. He’s not big, but he’s plenty strong and fast enough to get the job done. He’s also handy, able to maneuver tight spots and to run through trouble. That’s useful in the Kentucky Derby mosh pit. He’s trained well at Keeneland and Churchill leading up to the race. Besides Justify, he’s our next best bet to be around at the finish and maybe the winner. 7. Justify (3/1) - Bob Baffert / Mike Smith Justify is a big, strong, gorgeous chestnut with a stride that reaches from here to all the way over there. However, in order to win he will need to overcome trends that are much older than anyone reading this! He’s trained by Bob Baffert, a winner of four previous Kentucky Derbies and conditioner of the top two US-based horses in recent memory--Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and Pegasus, Breeders’ and Dubai World Cup winner Arrogate. Justify has the figures to win the race and in just three appearances, he’s passed the eye test, too. In the Santa Anita Derby, a talented and much more seasoned Bolt d’Oro made two determined runs at Justify. Neither succeeded. But (don’t you just hate it when there’s a ‘but’) he’s previously run at only one racetrack—Santa Anita, three times, against a total of just 14 foes over a cumulative 3 miles. Heck, Saturday, in one race he’ll face 19 others going a distance almost half that! According to the world famous ‘Apollo Jinx,’ no horse in 136 years (since Apollo) has won the Kentucky Derby without first racing as a 2-year-old. Such runners are 61: 0-3-5. Trainer Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher (Malibu Moon also unraced at 2) are a combined 0-7 with this type. There have been only two Kentucky Derby winners with three career starts before the Derby: Regret (1915) and Big Brown (2008). At least for the last 32 years, every Derby winner but one (Triple Crown winner American Pharoah) had faced a 10+ field size at least once before the Derby. The largest field Justify has ever faced is 7. Those that also faced short pre-Derby fields this year are: Audible, Noble Indy and Vino Rosso. The good news is that Justify will be the favorite in the Derby and favorites have won the last 5 Kentucky Derbies. The bad news is that favorites haven’t won six consecutive times since 1896! Whew! That’s an awful lot to consider. Let’s make it simple. Justify appears a special horse in a modern age when Derby winners don’t race nearly as often as they used to. If he breaks alertly, he’s got enough speed to clear the first-turn mosh pit and stalk anticipated leader Promises Fulfilled. From there he should unleash that impressive stride and be very difficult to catch. Remember, the last 4 Derby winners had pace-pressing trips; never worse than third. If he breaks a bit slowly, things become more complicated. That long stride becomes a bit of a handicap and the jostling and bumping, plus the volume of dirt in his face will be a new and possibly confounding experience. How will he react? No one knows. That’s why many say that a 3-1 price is too low for a win wager, especially in a very deep and contentious lineup. No matter the price, he absolutely can win. And remember that the Apollo Jinx only applies to winning the Derby. After the race you definitely don’t want to be holding an exotic trifecta ticket two-thirds correct but minus Justify. Include him in whatever you do, including to win. 8. Lone Sailor (30/1) - Tom Amoss / James Graham Here’s an interesting Derby runner that requires a bit of imagination. He’s the kind few experts will ‘like’ because he hasn’t really accomplished that much. In fact, he’s won just 1 race in eight starts and that was as a 2-year-old at Saratoga in the slop. However, this horseplayer believes that Lone Sailor is improving at the right time and just might run the biggest race of his career in the Kentucky Derby at huge odds. Will it be enough to win the race? Probably not. But this son of Majestic Warrior just might rock the exotics. He made the lead in the Louisiana Derby and then appeared to be ‘lost.’ No wonder, he hadn’t been in that position in months! He then was re-passed on the inside by Noble Indy. Jockey James Graham said that when Lone Sailor saw Noble Indy he took off after him again, but it was too late. He races from far back in the pack and will be looking to find a way through a maze of horses. He’ll need pace up front and luck, too. He worked very fast at Churchill two weeks before the Derby and came back with another acceptable move Derby week. If you’re looking for a Derby bomb, this one could be it. 9. Hofburg (20/1) - Bill Mott / Irad Ortiz Jr. Here’s a lightly-raced (three starts), extremely well-bred colt with sterling connections. That he’s even in this race is a tribute to his talent. Owner Juddmonte Farms Inc. and trainer Bill Mott have been inoculated for ‘Derby Fever,’ so the only reason this colt is in the race is because connections feel like he deserves a shot. He enjoyed a pace set-up when second behind Audible in the Florida Derby, in just the third race of his life. Mott reports the colt has bounced out of that effort well and he’s trained forwardly at Churchill. One of his pre-Derby works at Payson Park in Florida did not go as well, however. When asked to move inside a workmate he seemed tentative and that’s not a great sign heading into a crowded Derby field. Everything considered (he broke maiden from the 11-hole at Gulfstream), Hofburg has much to like but would join exclusive company with a win. There have been only two Kentucky Derby winners with three career starts before the Derby: Regret (1915) and Big Brown (2008). We consider him a ‘use’ on exotic tickets. 10. My Boy Jack (30/1) - Keith Desormeaux / Kent Desormmeaux Here’s another interesting exotic candidate with some interesting DRF Beyer figs. In nine previous starts My Boy Jack had never taken a backward Beyer fig step until his last race—the Lexington, which he won. He comes from far back and has Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux aboard. They’ve combined for two wins and a close third-place finish in their last three races. This guy spent most of last season racing at one mile on the turf and posted a win and three seconds, as well as a close seventh-placing in the BC Juvenile Turf. He has a win over an ‘off’ track, too. He will be moving from the back of the pack, needs some pace help and has to get lucky. His price makes rolling the dice worth it. Use him in exotic plays. 11. Bolt d'Oro (8/1) - Mick Ruis / Victor Espinoza He’s one of just three runners in this Derby field to have cracked the elite 100 Beyer Speed Figure barrier. The other two are Justify (3 times out of 3) and Mendelssohn (in Dubai). Bolt has tripped the triple-digit mark three times. First, as a 2-year-old in winning the Grade 1 FrontRunner (103), next in the Grade 2 San Felipe (101) when second (placed first via disqualification) to McKinzie and finally, when second to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby (102). Critics will note that Justify’s triple-digit figs and Bolt’s trio all came at Santa Anita Park. Perhaps that track is conducive to fast Beyer figs? Or perhaps, this year it’s been home to the fastest group of horses in the nation? The only real blemish on Bolt d’Oro’s resume is a third in the BC Juvenile behind Good Magic. That afternoon Bolt raced extremely wide around the track and lost his best chance as an odds-on favorite. He also may have reacted to a huge winning effort in the FrontRunner. Make no mistake, this guy is serious. He had a brief setback in early 2017 with a muscle injury, but he’s come back in fine form for below-the-radar trainer Mick Ruis. Three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Victor Espinoza will ride. We respect this guy a bunch and expect a good effort from him. 12. Enticed (30/1) - Kiaran McLaughlin / Junior Alvarado This well-bred son of Medaglia d’Oro hasn’t quite lived up to expectations this year and has been a bit inconsistent. 2 of 3 career wins in 6 starts came at age 2—one in a muddy maiden Saratoga score and another in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. The latter has developed into a bit of a key race and has had several runners return to win stakes at 3. Enticed won the Grade 3 Gotham over Free Drop Billy (third) at one mile, but before that was a well-beaten fourth in the Holy Bull behind Audible and Free Drop Billy. Last out Enticed was clear second to Vino Rosso despite being bumped hard by that foe in the lane. He really needs to step up his game to have a shot at a decent prize in the Kentucky Derby. 13. Bravazo (50/1) - D. Wayne Lukas / Luis Contreras This colt by Awesome Again won an allowance race at Oaklawn and then out-finished Snapper Sinclair at 21-1 in a one-two battle around the track. He lugged out on the final turn of the Louisiana Derby in his last race. He’ll need to really turn things around to influence this outcome. He’s not for us. 14. Mendelssohn (5/1) - Aidan O'Brien / Rryan Moore Purchased for $3 million as a yearling at Keeneland, expectations have been high on Mendelssohn’s ever since the ink on the check dried. He lived up to some of that hype when he shipped across the pond from Ireland to win the BC Juvenile Turf. That’s turned out to be a key race as many runners have returned to win races and graded stakes. But Mendelssohn’s crowning achievement so far has been his scintillating score in the UAE Derby at Meydan in Dubai. In his first dirt start he skipped through the desert night and won by 18 ½ lengths over Rayya, a filly entered in the Kentucky Oaks Friday. The track record-setting performance garnered a 106 Beyer Speed Figure and a startling negative 4 on Thoro-Graph—a ridiculously fast figure! Based on that effort alone Mendelssohn should be favored in the Kentucky Derby. However, the Meydan track boasted a significant inside speed bias and a comfortable early pace and a less than stellar field may have contributed to Mendelssohn’s facile triumph. What worries this horseplayer most about his chances in the Kentucky Derby is how he will react following such an awesome performance. The last horse we remember running an incredible race in Dubai and then returning to the States to race was never the same. You might remember him. His name was Arrogate. Out of sheer respect for his talent we will use him defensively. 15. Instilled Regard (50/1) - Jerry Hollendorfer / Drayden Van Dyke At one point in the prep season this guy was all the rage. He won the Lecomte at Fair Grounds impressively and seemed headed for stardom. Unfortunately, he never put it all together again. Last out in the Santa Anita Derby he was up against a pace-less scenario and made little impact on Justify or Bolt d’Oro. At that point he was removed from Derby consideration and then later reinstated when an opportunity to join the field materialized. Last year, Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and his charge Battle of Midway finished third to destroy our trifecta ticket. Let’s hope lightning doesn’t strike twice. We don’t see it happening, but we didn’t see it happening last year either. Pass on him. 16. Magnum Moon (6/1) - Todd Pletcher / Luis Saez Like Justify, Magnum Moon is unbeaten and did not race as a 2-year-old, so he’s also facing the Apollo Jinx. Unlike Justify, Magnum Moon does not appear to have as much upside. Also, unlike Justify, Magnum Moon has drifted out in the stretch of his last two races. He’s won each of 4 starts by at least 2 lengths. However, he really hasn’t faced the best of the division, beating Quip (not in the Derby), Solomini and Combatant (both big prices in here) home in his last two races. Only three previous horses have won the Derby off four starts: Animal Kingdom (2011), Exterminator (1918) and Alan-a-Dale (1902). We’re not using this one on the ticket. 17. Solomini (30/1) - Bob Baffert / Flavien Prat A maiden winner first out at Del Mar and second to Bolt d’Oro and Good Magic in his next two starts—Grade 1 FrontRunner and Grade 1 BC Juvenile, respectively—Solomini was a bright star in the Baffert stable. When he won the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity, but was disqualified in a controversial decision, the star became brighter. In two starts at 3—Rebel and Arkansas Derby—Solomini has shown a grinding, determined style, effective enough to be second and third to Magnum Moon. Solomini is not a pretty work horse (carries his head high) and hasn’t changed leads in the stretch in his last two races, but he’s talented enough to outrun some of his competition. The water gets a lot deeper in here. We’ll pass on this one from the far outside post. 18. Vino Rosso (12/1) - Todd Pletcher / John Velazquez This son of Curlin has been a barn favorite for a while but didn’t put it all together until his last race in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct when he finished clear of Enticed, despite drifting in through the stretch. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez has chosen to ride Vino Rosso over two other Pletcher Derby runners and that says something. It also should be noted that Johnny V. has a great relationship with ‘Rosso co-owner Mike Repole and that figured a bit into the decision. ‘Rosso has won 3 of 5 starts, two at Aqueduct and one at Tampa Bay Downs. That’s not a traditionally successful winter path for a Derby winner. Blinkers were added two starts back. The Wood has been a poor Derby prep. Since 2003, Wood graduates are 30: 0-0-0 in the Kentucky Derby. He has looked ok in the morning at Churchill and should appreciate the added distance. However, he will need to step it up to be an important factor in this Kentucky Derby. 19. Noble Indy (30/1) - Todd Pletcher / Florent Geroux The least heralded of the Todd Quad (Pletcher’s four Derby starters), Noble Indy, like Audible, has improved Beyer speed figures in each race, reaching a 95 last time out. He’ll also need to improve on that to win this race. His best performance this season came last out in the Louisiana Derby when he was passed in the stretch by Lone Sailor and My Boy Jack. He gamely rallied on the inside to score a neck victory. His previous pair of wins came in maiden and first-level allowance company at Gulfstream. Only three previous horses have won the Derby off four starts: Animal Kingdom (2011), Exterminator (1918) and Alan-a-Dale (1902). Regular rider John Velazquez will ride ‘Indy’s stablemate Vino Rosso in the Derby. Game as he was in Louisiana, an in-the-money finish by this one in the Derby would surprise. 20. Combatant (50/1) - Steve Asmussen / Ricardo Santana Jr. He’s won just one race in seven starts, but it came here at Churchill Downs. He’s drawn a terrible post, has no speed and probably will drop back in the early going in an attempt to save ground. He reeled off three runner-up efforts from December through February, and then was third in the Rebel and fourth in the Arkansas Derby. In the latter two races he couldn’t out-finish Solomini in the stretch even though both times that one didn’t change leads and Combatant had a head of steam. He would be a surprise anywhere in the top four. 21AE. Blended Citizen (50/1) - Doug O'Neill / Kyle Frey He’s on the Also-Eligible list and would need a defection from the main body of the race by Friday to join the field. That’s possible. However, from the far outside this one seems overmatched and not headed for a spot on our tickets. The Bottom Line The One to Beat 7. Justify The Ones That Can Do It 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic Exotic Considerations 2. Free Drop Billy, 9. Hofburg, 10. My Boy Jack, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 14. Mendelssohn Exotic Bomber 8. Lone Sailor The Wagering Strategy (3 tickets @ $56 each. Total $168) The plan is to key Justify in first, second and third. If he’s as talented as he looks he should be able to hit the board and maybe even win. Let’s get lucky! $1 Trifecta ($56)First: 7. JustifySecond: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. MendelssohnThird: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. Mendelssohn $1 Trifecta ($56) First: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. MendelssohnSecond: 7. JustifyThird: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. Mendelssohn $1 Trifecta ($56) First: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. MendelssohnSecond: 2. Free Drop Billy, 5. Audible, 6. Good Magic, 8. Lone Sailor, 9. Hofburg, 11. Bolt d’Oro, 10. My Boy Jack, 14. MendelssohnThird: 7. Justify Race On!