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Kentucky Derby Field Takes Shape

by Jon White

April 19, 2018

The long Road to the Kentucky Derby, a series of 35 races that began last Sept. 16 in which horses earn points to get into the Kentucky Derby field, concluded with last Saturday’s Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and Grade III Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

Magnum Moon kept his perfect record intact when he won the Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles by four lengths despite drifting out several lanes to the middle of the track in the final furlong. The Kentucky-bred Malibu Moon colt recorded a career-best 98 Beyer Speed Figure. He now is four for four.

Todd Pletcher trains Magnum Moon. Pletcher also conditions three others who have accrued sufficient points to be in the Kentucky Derby field -- Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Audible, Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy and Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso.

Magnum Moon earned 100 Kentucky Derby points for his Arkansas Derby triumph.

Rallying from far back, My Boy Jack won the 1 1/16-mile Lexington by a head. The Kentucky-bred Creative Cause colt, conditioned by Keith Desormeaux, was assigned a 90 Beyer Speed Figure.

My Boy Jack’s Lexington win was worth 20 Kentucky Derby points, giving him a total of 52, plenty to secure a berth in the Kentucky Derby field. Now that he definitely is in the field, I believe My Boy Jack is a bona-fide candidate to finish third or better in this year’s Kentucky Derby. Consequently, I have put him at No. 3 on my Top 10 list this week.

Granted, My Boy Jack’s 90 Beyer in the Lexington left something to be desired. But don’t forget the Lexington was a 1 1/16-mile race. I think My Boy Jack might be crying out for the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby.

I also think the Thoro-Graph numbers that My Boy Jack recorded when he won the Southwest Stakes and finished a close third in the Louisiana Derby are plenty good enough to give him a license to make his presence felt in the final furlong of the Kentucky Derby. I absolutely loved the way he moved with a rush on the far turn while extremely wide in the Louisiana Derby. His ability to rally like that on the far turn could find him first or second with a furlong to go in the Kentucky Derby, putting him in a prime position to win the roses. The possibility that he could be first or second with a furlong to run is important to me. That’s because 52 of the last 55 Kentucky Derby winners have been first or second with a furlong remaining.

Here is my current Kentucky Derby Top 10:

1. Justify
2. Mendelssohn
3. My Boy Jack
4. Audible
5. Bolt d’Oro
6. Good Magic
7. Magnum Moon
8. Vino Rosso
9. Quip
10. Flameaway

Why don’t I have Magnum Moon ranked higher? One reason is this appears to be such an exceptional crop of 3-year-old males. I consider the six ranked higher than Magnum Moon to be outstanding racehorses, each with a legit chance to win the Kentucky Derby. And when push came to shove, I decided to put Magnum Moon at No. 7 to a large extent because I don’t think the Arkansas Derby field was all that strong and because he was drifting out during the stretch run of the Arkansas Derby. But I readily admit that I might be nitpicking to not rank Magnum Moon higher than No. 7 mainly for drifting out when he still managed to win by four lengths.

Will I be surprised if Magnum Moon wins the Kentucky Derby? No, I will not. I just don’t happen to be on his bandwagon at this point.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert originally had announced that Justify would be running in the Arkansas Derby. But Justify ended up staying in Southern California and starting instead in the Santa Anita Derby after a minor injury took the Baffert-trained McKinzie out of that race.

What if Justify had run in the Arkansas Derby as originally scheduled? Would he have won? Would he have defeated Magnum Moon? My feeling is that, yes, Justify would have won the Arkansas Derby.


Mike Battaglia makes the official morning line for the Kentucky Derby. These are my early odds for the 20 horses currently listed as in the field by Churchill Downs:

3-1 Justify
6-1 Magnum Moon
6-1 Mendelssohn
8-1 Audible
8-1 Bolt d’Oro
8-1 Good Magic
15-1 Vino Rosso
20-1 Enticed
20-1 Flameaway
20-1 Noble Indy
20-1 My Boy Jack
20-1 Quip
30-1 Free Drop Billy
30-1 Gronkowski
30-1 Hofburg
30-1 Solomini
50-1 Bravazo
50-1 Firenze Fire
50-1 Lone Sailor
50-1 Promises Fulfilled


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.

Going back to 1973, 38 of the last 45 Kentucky Derby winners have had zero strikes or one strike.

Six of the last 45 Kentucky Derby winners have had two strikes: Cannonade (1974), Ferdinand (1986), Sea Hero (1993), Funny Cide (2003), Giacomo (2005) and Always Dreaming (2017).

Only one horse in the last 45 years has won the Kentucky Derby with more than two strikes. That was Mine that Bird, who had four strikes.

As I noted last week, Justify has three strikes. Not surprisingly, it’s his lack of a race as a 2-year-old and overall lack of racing experience that triggers the three strikes.

What are Justify’s three strikes? He gets one strike in Category 1 for not having run in a graded stakes race before March 31. He also gets a strike in Category 6 for not having at least six lifetime starts before the Kentucky Derby. And his third strike comes in Category 8 for not having started as a 2-year-old.

Can Justify win the Kentucky Derby even though he has three strikes? He seems to be such a prodigious talent that I think so. I certainly would not have him ranked No. 1 if I didn’t think he could possibly do it.

But do I view Justify’s three strikes as a concern? Yes. It calls attention to the fact that, any way you slice it, it’s very difficult to try and win the Kentucky Derby with zero starts as a 2-year-old and only three lifetime starts.

Magnum Moon, like Justify, gets strikes in Categories 6 and 8. In the case of Magnum Moon, at least he has just two strikes, instead of three like Justify.

No question one of the more fascinating aspects to the 2018 Kentucky Derby is that two contenders, Justify and Magnum Moon, both did not race at 2. Since Apollo in 1882, 135 straight Kentucky Derby winners have raced at 2.

“But this long streak appears to be in serious jeopardy this year, thanks to a pair of seriously talented colts, Justify and Magnum Moon,” I wrote here in my Xpressbet.com column on March 21.

Since I wrote that on March 21, Justify has gone on to win the Santa Anita Derby by three lengths on April 7, followed by Magnum Moon’s Arkansas Derby victory by an even bigger margin last Saturday.

Since 1937, horses unraced as a 2-year-old are a combined 0 for 61 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; and Battle of Midway, third in 2017.

These are the strikes for the 20 horses currently listed as in the Kentucky Derby field by Churchill Downs:


Audible (Category 6)
Bolt d’Oro (Category 4)
Enticed (0 strikes)
Flameaway (0 strikes)
Free Drop Billy (Category 3)
Good Magic (Category 6)
Mendelssohn (0 strikes)
My Boy Jack (Category 4)
Quip (Category 6)
Vino Rosso (Category 6)


Bravazo (Categories 4 and 5)
Firenze Fire (Categories 3 and 5)
Lone Sailor (Categories 2 and 4)
Magnum Moon (Categories 6 and 8)
Solomini (Categories 2 and 3)


Gronkowski (Categories 1, 2 and 5)
Hofburg (Categories 1, 2 and 6)
Justify (Categories 1, 6 and 8)
Noble Indy (Categories 3, 6 and 7)
Promises Fulfilled (Categories 4, 5 and 6)

Here are the strikes for each Kentucky Derby winner going back to 1973:

1973 Secretariat (0 strikes)
1974 Cannonade (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 4
1975 Foolish Pleasure (0 strikes)
1976 Bold Forbes (0 strikes)
1977 Seattle Slew (0 strikes)
1978 Affirmed (0 strikes)
1979 Spectacular Bid (0 strikes)
1980 Pleasant Colony (0 strikes)
1981 Genuine Risk (1 strike) Category 1
1982 Gato Del Sol (1 strike) Category 3
1983 Sunny’s Halo (1 strike) Category 1
1984 Swale (0 strikes)
1985 Spend a Buck (0 strikes)
1986 Ferdinand (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 4
1987 Alysheba (1 strike) Category 2
1988 Winning Colors (0 strikes)
1989 Sunday Silence (0 strikes)
1990 Unbridled (1 strike) Category 3
1991 Strike the Gold (0 strikes)
1992 Lil E. Tee (0 strikes)
1993 Sea Hero (2 strikes) Categories 3 and 5
1994 Go for Gin (0 strikes)
1995 Thunder Gulch (0 strikes)
1996 Grindstone (0 strikes)
1997 Silver Charm (1 strike) Category 4
1998 Real Quiet (0 strikes)
1999 Charismatic (1 strike) Category 5
2000 Fusaichi Pegasus (1 strike) Category 6
2001 Monarchos (0 strikes)
2002 War Emblem (0 strikes)
2003 Funny Cide (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 9
2004 Smarty Jones (0 strikes)
2005 Giacomo (2 strikes) Categories 2 and 5
2006 Barbaro (1 strike) Category 6
2007 Street Sense (0 strikes)
2008 Big Brown (1 strike) Category 6
2009 Mine That Bird (4 strikes) Categories 1, 4, 5 and 9
2010 Super Saver (1 strike) Category 4
2011 Animal Kingdom (1 strike) Category 6
2012 I’ll Have Another (1 strike) Category 6
2013 Orb (0 strikes)
2014 California Chrome (0 strikes)
2015 American Pharoah (1 strike) Category 6
2016 Nyquist (0 strikes)
2017 Always Dreaming (2 strikes) Categories 1 and 6


Australia’s win machine did it again.

Once again rallying from far back, wonder mare Winx won last Friday’s Group I Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick by 3 3/4 lengths. It was her 25th consecutive victory. That tied undefeated Black Caviar for the longest winning streak in the history of Australian racing. It also was Winx’s 18th Grade I/Group I win, which is the world record for such victories on the flat. America’s legendary gelding John Henry is second with 16 Grade I/Group I wins. The Irish hurdler Hurricane Fly won 22 Group I races in Europe from 2008-15.

The longest winning streak in the history of Thoroughbred racing is held by Camarero, who won 56 straight in Puerto Rico from April 1953 to August 1955. Camarero, who became Puerto Rico’s first Triple Crown winner in 1954, was victorious in 73 of 76 career starts.

Kincsem, foaled in 1874, holds the record of 54 consecutive victories by a female Thoroughbred. Kincsem raced in Austria, England, France, Germany, Poland and Romania in addition to her native Hungary. She won 10 races as a 2-year-old, 17 as a 3-year-old, 15 as a 4-year-old and 12 as a 5-year-old. Extraordinarily versatile, Kincscem was victorious from a half-mile to 2 5/8 miles.


Heavenly Prize will be the lone contemporary inductee into Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame this year from a ballot of 10 finalists. The Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be on Aug. 3 at the Fasig-Tipton sales pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Owned and bred by Ogden Phipps and trained by Shug McGaughey, Heavenly Prize won nine of 18 career starts. The daughter of Seeking the Gold was a Grade I winner at ages 2, 3 and 4. She was voted a 1994 Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly.

A finalist needed to receive 50.1% approval from the voters for induction this year. I thought the 50.1% threshold probably was too low. But it’s obviously not too low inasmuch as there will be just a single contemporary inductee this year.

The nine finalists this year who did not get into the Hall of Fame are jockeys Robby Albarado, Corey Nakatani and Craig Perret; trainers Mark Casse, John Shirreffs and David Whiteley; and horses Blind Luck, Gio Ponti and Havre de Grace.

Unfortunately, with those nine finalists not getting into the Hall of Fame this year, it will be even more difficult for anyone else to get onto the ballot in 2019. And that means there is an excellent chance that Rags to Riches -- the only filly to win the Belmont Stakes since Tanya in 1905 -- again will not be the ballot next year. Rags to Riches first became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2013. In my opinion, not only does Rags to Riches richly deserve to be in the Hall of Fame, it is reprehensible that the Nominating Committee so far has yet to even deem her worthy of being on the ballot.


The book “Big Red of Meadow Stable: Secretariat, the Making of a Champion,” is located within easy reach of the desk in my office at home from which I am typing these words. Passages from that book, a masterpiece that chronicled Secretariat’s racing career, have been quoted numerous times by yours truly here at my Xpressbet.com column.

Sadly, William Nack, the author of that book, died last Friday at his home in Washington, D.C. He was 77.

Sports Illustrated reported that Nack died of complications from the cancer that he had been fighting for several years. Nack covered horse racing for Sports Illustrated from 1978 to 2001.

In the obituary Bill Finley wrote for Thoroughbred Daily News, he noted that Steve Crist, a longtime horse racing writer for the New York Times who later became publisher of the Daily Racing Form, said that Nack’s work on Secretariat “was the best turf writing ever done.”

Nack also covered other sports with distinction, most notably boxing. His remarkable profile of chess genius Bobby Fischer was brought up Sunday morning to Mike Willman by Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman on the radio program Thoroughbred Los Angeles.

“That was one of the greatest pieces of journalism, of writing, of reporting that you’ll ever read,” Privman said.

Nack’s tenacity as a journalist is exemplified by how long and hard he chased after Fischer to get that story.

“To find him, to see him, had become a kind of crazy and delirious obsession, the kind of insanity that has hounded other men in search of, say, the Loch Ness monster,” Nack wrote.

Nack won so many Eclipse Awards it brings to mind something trainer Ron McAnally once told me in the 1980s after he had visited Calumet Farm in Kentucky.

“At Calumet, I saw their collection of eight -- yes, eight! -- Kentucky Derby trophies,” McAnally said, shaking his head in amazement. “And while Calumet has won the Kentucky Derby eight times, most of us in racing spend our entire lives trying to win it once.”

You might say William Nack was the Calumet Farm of horse racing writers. He was honored with a mind-boggling six Eclipse Awards for writing excellence during his time at Sports Illustrated, plus a seventh Eclipse Award in 2003 for an article about trainer Bob Baffert in GQ magazine. That particular issue of GQ is, like Nack’s Secretariat book, within easy reach of the desk in my office at home.

Nack was inducted into Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame in 2010 as a member of the Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor. He also received the ESPN Lifetime Achievement Award for Literary Sportswriting in 2017 as well as the 1992 Walter Haight Award for career excellence in turf writing presented by the National Turf Writers Association, among his numerous other awards.

Another of Nack’s finest stories was the one he wrote in 1988 about jockey Robbie Davis’ struggles after a horse he was riding at Belmont Park struck and killed fellow rider Mike Venezia.

Finley wrote in his TDN obit that Nack’s Robbie Davis story is “considered one of the best and most moving articles ever written on the sport.”

Nack in 1990 wrote a story for Sports Illustrated called “Pure Heart” in which he reminisced about Secretariat after the 1973 Triple Crown winner had died on Oct. 4, 1989. “Pure Heart” was chosen as one of SI’s 60 most iconic stories.

Tim Layden currently reports on horse racing for Sports Illustrated. He did a marvelous job covering American Pharoah during his 2018 Triple Crown sweep. Layden’s story after American Pharoah’s Belmont Stakes victory was especially praiseworthy.

Following Nack’s death, Layden wrote an eloquent remembrance of his longtime colleague and friend for si.com.

“Nack was a towering figure in the history of sports journalism, a literary wordsmith and tireless reporter whose distinctive and soaring prose is revered by his peers and generations of younger writers,” Layden wrote. “He stands among the best sportswriters in the history of the genre, and in many ways, among the best writers of any kind. When he stopped typing, he was a giant personality, full of endless good charm, disarmingly well-read and, all times, given to entertain.”

I can attest to that last sentence. I was fortunate enough to have dinner at a restaurant near Santa Anita with Nack one evening in 1995. I thoroughly enjoyed his many entertaining stories that night, particularly those about Secretariat.

I especially appreciated Nack’s reaction when I handed him my high school newspaper from March 22, 1973. In it, I had written: “Going out on a limb and living dangerously, I dare say that 1973 will be a historic year as Secretariat will become the first Triple Crown winner since the great Citation in 1948.”

The big smile on Nack’s face when he read what I had written about Secretariat in a high school paper is something that I will never forget.


Here is this week’s NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 411 West Coast (28)
2. 235 City of Light (2)
3. 230 Mind Your Biscuits (3)
4. 207 Accelerate
5. 191 Unique Bella
6. 164 Army Mule (1)
7. 123 Gun Runner (9)
8. 103 World Approval
9. 83 Mubtaahij
9. 83 Roy H

Here is this week’s NTRA Top 3-Year-Old Poll:

Rank Points Horse (First-Place Votes)

1. 392 Justify (21)
2. 324 Magnum Moon (3)
3. 233 Audible (7)
4. 287 Good Magic (2)
5. 279 Bolt d’Oro
5. 279 Mendelssohn (10)
7. 133 Vino Rosso
8. 119 Noble Indy
9. 60 Enticed
10. 44 My Boy Jack


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 and Always Dreaming in 2017 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 52 of the last 55 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 and Always Dreaming in 2017. 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 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. There now have been 135 straight Kentucky Derby winners who raced as a 2-year-old. Through 2017, the score is 142-1 in terms of Kentucky Derby winners who raced at 2. Since 1937, horses unraced as a 2-year-old are a combined 0 for 61 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; and Battle of Midway, third in 2017.)

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.)