Kentucky Derby Analysis and Picks

I feel like I say this every year, but this year, I mean it: Wow, this race is really wide open! After weeks of careful research, I finally felt comfortable with how I felt this race was going to play out. Then the post position draw happened and threw the whole race into an even murkier ball of confusion than it was to begin with. Sigh. As I always say when handicapping a race, determining the pace scenario is everything, so I again will break down each contender for the 134th Kentucky Derby by their projected placement as the race unfolds. Considering that arguably the three fastest horses in the race drew posts #18, #19 and #20 respectively, that certainly makes things trickier, but I think you still have to assume that these horses will try to go to the lead. After all, it’s a long straightaway to the turn. Overall, this is one of the first Derbys that I can ever remember where I can come up with reasons for picking just about any horse in the race. Because of that, I’ve decided to break down each horse by their pros and cons, and then weigh those out to form a conclusion. Here are my thoughts:

PACESETTERS:

RECAPTURETHEGLORY, PP#18, 102 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: He was impressive in wiring the field in the Illinois Derby and earned a speed figure that seems to put him in contention here. His connections have said that he will go to lead and if he really is that fast, who knows, he could put enough distance between himself and the rest of the field as War Emblem did in 2002. He came home in :12.2 for the final furlong in the Illinois Derby which isn’t anything to snuff at.

Cons: The track at Hawthorne had a huge speed bias and there are questions as to whether or not his race was truly as fast as it looked. He hasn’t beaten much and faces a big step up in class, and there are also distance questions based on his pedigree (Cherokee Run). Perhaps his biggest obstacle will be getting to the lead from the auxillary gate, and if he does, he might have to give up a lot of ground to get there.

Conclusion: If he wants to set the pace, he’ll have to really move quickly across towards the gate, and being forced to go that fast will likely compromise his chances at this longer distance. I see him fizzling well before the homestretch.

BOB’S BLACKJACK, PP#13, 94 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: With blinkers on, he’ll be vying for the lead for sure and should get there first since the rest of the speed is outside of him. He ran a game second to Colonel John at Santa Anita before being caught at the wire. He’s another one that is fast enough to get away and wire the field.

Cons: As with Recapturetheglory, there are distance questions with him from a pedigree standpoint. He’s also never raced on dirt and has finished behind both Colonel John and Gayego on the synthetic surface.

Conclusion: He’s worth a look since he’ll be at a decent price, but I like others better and fear he won’t take to the dirt or be able to get the distance after what is likely to be a fast pace.

GAYEGO, PP#19, 103 Beyer, 15-1 Morning Line

Pros: He’s been incredibly consistent, never finishing worse than second in five starts. His performance in the Arkansas Derby was a step forward as he went to the lead and gamely held off Z Fortune down the stretch, and he earned one of the best speed figures in the field with that effort. Many onlookers have described him as one of the most athletic colts in the field, and he’s been working effortlessly at Churchill.

Cons: He hasn’t yet beaten top competition and is bred for shorter distances (by sprinter Gilded Time). He held off Z Fortune, but might have more trouble with some of the more talented closers in this field, although his come home time of :12.7 isn’t bad. The biggest knock is that he probably couldn’t have drawn worse, as he’ll be split between two horses both trying to get to the lead as fast as they can.

Conclusion: He’s getting a lot of press since the big win in the Arkansas Derby, but I think he’s susceptible to a pace duel and have big questions about how he’ll handle the extra furlong, especially since he’ll have a tough time getting to where he wants to be. I don’t think he is quite talented enough to get the win but if he can split the speed, get behind the hot pace and hang on after some of the pace disintegrates, he could be in the mix. I see a few too many obstacles though and he looks to me like this year’s “Wise Guy Horse”, could be the fourth choice.

COWBOY CAL, PP#17, 92 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: Ran pretty well when setting the pace in the Blue Grass on polytrack, but got run down at the wire by Monba. He’s bred for the distance though (Giant’s Causeway).

Cons: There are concerns that he’s a synthetic and turf specialist, as his only effort on dirt was a dismal one. His speed figures aren’t anything special either, especially on dirt.

Conclusion: The only positives I see are that he’ll be a huge price and his pedigree says he can get the distance, but there’s too many question marks about his ability to handle to surface. There are others here I like a lot better.

JUST OFF THE PACE:

BIG BROWN, PP#20, 106 Beyer, 3-1 Morning Line Favorite

Pros: The likely favorite boasts the highest speed figure in the field, and appears to be the most talented colt here. He’s shown blazing speed and has yet to be beaten, or even challenged for that matter, and looked like a monster winning the Florida Derby in his last outing. He became the first horse to win a race at Gulfstream coming out of the #12 post since its reconfiguration. His running style fits in well here, especially if the pace isn’t blistering.

Cons: He’s very lightly raced with only three career starts. He’ll also be coming off a long layoff that is often (but not always) a disadvantage in the Derby. It’s also been debated that his Florida Derby wasn’t as good as it looked, as the following allowance race that day produced a track record from an unknown horse. He’s also won his races easily on the lead and has yet to “look another horse in the eye”, and will have to work a little harder to position himself coming out of the widest post. His come home time of :13.0 in the Florida Derby wasn’t awe-inspiring, but then again, he was under a hand ride. He has also had trouble with tenderness in his hooves, which could be a factor on a fast Churchill track.

Conclusion: His odds are going to be too low to bet him outright with all of the obstacles he faces in this 20-horse field, but he appears too talented to leave out of exotic bets in any way. He’ll most likely have the lead as they make the turn for home, and whether or not anyone can run him down will depend on how fast the pace is early and how gassed he is after making the long run from the far post to the rail.

COOL COAL MAN, PP#1, 98 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: He won the Fountain of Youth wire to wire in somewhat of an upset and came home in :12.5. He also won an allowance race at Churchill last year, so we know he likes the track.

Cons: He benefited from a ground-saving trip in the Fountain of Youth from the #1 post and isn’t likely to have it so easy this time around. Although he will be coming out of that post, there will be a lot more speed this time and if he tries to go with it, he’ll be fried. He threw in a clunker in the Blue Grass but a lot of strange things happened in that race. Despite his relatively impressive come-home time, he actually lost ground to the place and show horses in the Fountain of Youth, which poses questions about the distance. He’s also never run a Beyer over 100, which is usually a red flag.

Conclusion: I don’t see enough here to include him in my picks. He figures to lurk in the middle and hang in my opinion, so I’m going to look elsewhere, although I’ll admit that he has a chance if he can rate in the second flight of horses and wait for an opening.

Z HUMOR, PP #11 , 96 Beyer, 30-1 Morning Line

Pros: His pedigree bodes well for the Derby distance (Distorted Humor) and he’s been improving with each race, most recently in a third place finish in the Illinois Derby. He seems to be working well at Churchill.

Cons: He has yet to win a race or really even factor in a race this year, so he faces a big step up in class here. His Beyer figures don’t jump off the charts.

Conclusion: There are too many better arguments for others, and he’ll be one of the longest shots in the field. Pass.

SMOOTH AIR, PP #12, 98 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: He ran a respectable second in the Florida Derby and has never finished out of the money.

Cons: He has been plagued with fever since arriving at Churchill which can’t be good for his already questionable chances. He’s bred for sprint distances (Smooth Jazz) and hasn’t even beaten any horses of much quality. He wasn’t exactly closing ground in the Florida Derby, and it would be tough to imagine that he wants more distance.

Conclusion: I can’t really see a scenario where he factors, and the health issues are the icing on the cake. Throw out.

STALKERS:

TALE OF EKATI, PP#2, 95 Beyer, 15-1 Morning Line

Pros: He won the Wood Memorial last time out closing modestly, albeit slowly. The female side of his pedigree (Silence Beauty, grandsire Sunday Silence) bodes well for the distance, and he’s been improving steadily leading up to the race.

Cons: As I said, the Wood Memorial time and speed figure were both surprisingly slow, and he’ll need to go a lot faster to have a chance to hit the board here. He’s also likely to run into traffic trouble or get boxed in behind the leaders as he starts near the rail. The male side of his pedigree (Tale of the Cat) would seem to indicate a preference for shorter distance, so we’ll have to see how it plays out.

Conclusion: I’ve never really thought of him as a distance horse and was honestly pretty surprised that he won the Wood Memorial. But he didn’t quite do enough in that race to jump on his bandwagon. I like others more and see him mid-pack for most of the race, and don’t think that he has quite the turn of foot that some of the other stalkers and closers have. I hope I’m not sorry, but 1:52 and change at 9f leaves something to be desired.

Z FORTUNE, PP#6, 102 Beyer, 15-1 Morning Line

Pros: He ran a very game second in the Arkansas Derby, losing by less than a length after a wide trip. He’s improving in a hurry and gets a great post to stalk the pace and make his move. He should benefit if the track is wet as well, and seems to qualify as a sleeper here. His stretch run with Gayego at Oaklawn added some toughness, and the 102 speed figure he earned in that race puts him right there with the best here.

Cons: He hasn’t exactly been consistent this year, and his 5th place finish in the Rebel two starts back still raises questions. He had every chance to pass Gayego at Oaklawn and appeared to hang, although probably would have won that race with a better trip than that one, which he should get here. He’s yet to face (or beat) top competition, so he faces a step up in class, and his pedigree (Siphon) poses some questions about whether or not he wants the extra furlong, although his daddy did wire a couple of 10f races.

Conclusion: He seems to be improving steadily and sitting on a big race. If the pace completely disintegrates, he could be in pretty good position to grab a piece of the board, although I don’t think he can win. I’ll be using him underneath in exotics as a live longshot.

EIGHT BELLES, PP#5, 100 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: She’s shown a great turn of foot in winning her last four races against the girls. She’s large enough to compete here and her speed figure in her last race is competitive. Her stalking style should benefit her coming out close to the rail.

Cons: She tends to have problems breaking from the gate, which might be a small detail against lesser competition, but in the Derby it can mean curtains immediately. She also might not take well to being banged up by the boys, and is certainly taking a giant step up class-wise. She’s never even run a 9f race, so going all the way to 10f is asking a lot. And of course, fillies winning the Kentucky Derby are a rarity, the last being Winning Colors in 1988.

Conclusion: A lot of people like her but I think she’s close to a toss. I just can’t bring myself to support a horse that is going to be running so much further than it has ever run before, filly or not. I’ll be shocked if she is near the board, but crazier things have happened. I just don’t think she has proven enough class-wise to compete here; she doesn’t look like the next Rags to Riches to me.

MONBA, PP#14, 92 Beyer, 15-1 Morning Line

Pros: He closed nicely to win the Blue Grass on polytrack last time out. He has an allowance win at Churchill as well, and his stalking style is well-suited to the probable pace scenario.

Cons: He might be better suited to synthetic surfaces. His Blue Grass reminded me a bit of Dominican last year, who closed to win on the polytrack but never fired in the Derby. In the Fountain of Youth, he finished last after suffering a leg bruise out of the gate. His speed figure numbers leave a lot to be desired, and there’s no real reason to think that he will excel at 10f. He doesn’t usually train well, and his workouts at Churchill have been average at best.

Conclusion: I’m sticking with the Dominican analogy. There’s too much uncertainty about his ability to win on the dirt against top competition, and even if there wasn’t, how many consecutive Blue Grass winners have bounced in the Derby? It sure seems like a lot.

ANAK NAKAL, PP#3, 87 Beyer, 30-1 Morning Line

Pros: He looked talented last year, threw in a few clunkers this year but has been steadily improving.

Cons: He hasn’t really factored this year, and finished 5th in a very slow Wood Memorial. His top speed figure is the lowest in the entire field, and he’ll need to improve it nearly 20 points to be in contention. That isn’t likely.

Conclusion: If I don’t like the horse that won the Wood, it’s hard to like him. There just isn’t a logical reason to use him, one of my few tosses.

CLOSERS:

COLONEL JOHN, PP#10, 95 Beyer, 4-1 Morning Line

Pros: He closed quickly in winning both the Santa Anita Derby and San Felipe on a synthetic surface, powering home in :12 or less in both of the final furlongs, the two fastest come home times in the field. He’s never raced on dirt, but his pedigree (Tiznow) suggests he should move up and relish the added distance of the Derby. He worked a bullet :57.4 workout Sunday which seemed to ease any questions about his ability to handle the dirt. He’ll break from the middle of the pack and should benefit from a good trip and should have every opportunity to make his move if the pace melts down.

Cons: He hasn’t yet run a speed figure above 100, which is usually a red flag in this race, although all of the polytrack figures seem to be lower than the dirt figures in these preps. He’ll also be switching to dirt for the first time.

Conclusion: After seeing Gayego improve from 92 to 103 after making the switch to dirt, I can only imagine what the Colonel is going to do (consider that he’s more likely to move up on dirt than that one, but even an equal jump would put him at a 106 Beyer, which would tie for tops in the field). I think he’s just dying to run that extra furlong and I’m not worried that he’s not fast enough after his workout. His post position couldn’t be better for his running style, and boy did I love his daddy. The pick.

PYRO, PP#9, 105 Beyer, 6-1 Morning Line

Pros: He showed a commanding turn of foot in winning his first two starts this season, the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby, beating such contenders as Z Fortune, Visionaire and Take of Ekati. He showed talent and versatility in those races, overcoming traffic trouble and finishing powerfully. He posted strong numbers during his two year old campaign and is well seasoned. He’ll benefit from his post and should be in the third or fourth pack of horses before he makes his move. On the dirt, he’s never missed the board.

Cons: His last outing was a confusing showing in the Blue Grass. He finished a hapless 10th, which left most handicappers scratching their heads, even with the polytrack excuse. He’s also never run past 8.5f on dirt, and despite his strong closing kick there isn’t a ton of classic pedigree here (Pulpit), although he does have some A.P. Indy blood in him.

Conclusion: Good horses don’t become bad horses overnight. Maybe it was the polytrack, maybe it was a fluke, or maybe Steve Asmussen had his reasons for holding the horse back in the Blue Grass. I’ve loved him since I first saw him run last year, and he’ll be ready to fire Saturday on the dirt.

ADRIANO, PP#15, 92 Beyer, 30-1 Morning Line

Pros: He showed an impressive turn of foot in winning the Lane’s End on a synthetic surface, and will be running late. He has a strong dirt and distance pedigree (A.P. Indy) but hasn’t proven himself on the dirt. He’s somewhat of an enigma. Jockey Edgar Prado chose to ride him over Monba and Take of Ekati, and he knows something about horses.

Cons: In his only outing on the dirt, he finished a distant 9th in the Fountain of Youth. He’s also been known to be a bit temperamental, so it’s uncertain how he’ll handle the atmosphere of such a big race and field. His form during his workouts hasn’t been exceptional, as his leg action is reported to be more suited to turf running. His speed figures don’t really fit in with this field either.

Conclusion: I was interested in him early, and might take a small shot if his odds are higher than his morning line, but overall I think there are just too many question marks in a field where other horses have less. I will say that I’ll trust Prado and place him above Monba and Tale of Ekati, but probably like a few other horses better for the bottom of my exotics. Prado’s move probably did more to talk me out of those two than to talk me into Adriano.

BIG TRUCK, PP#7, 93 Beyer, 50-1 Morning Line

Pros: His claim to fame is a surprising win at the Tampa Bay Derby, a race in which the 1-5 favorite War Pass finished a perplexing last. He has some closing kick and could benefit from a pace meltdown.

Cons: He hasn’t really beaten anyone of quality since War Pass clearly wasn’t himself that day. He faces a big step up in class here and his speed figures aren’t very inspiring. The Blue Grass was a strange race and a lot of horses didn’t fire, but he may have been worst of all.

Conclusion: He’s listed as the longest shot in the field. While I’m not sure I agree with that exactly, he’s certainly going to be up against it, and I think there are much better value plays out there.

DEEP CLOSERS:

COURT VISION, PP#4, 90 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: This is a one-run grinder, the type of horse that can really benefit from a pace meltdown like Giacomo did a few years back. He’s been training marvelously at Churchill and there’s reason to believe that we haven’t yet seen his best. He was closing ground in the Wood Memorial to finish third, and also put in a marginal third place finish in his previous start in the Fountain of Youth in similar fashion. He should be knocking off horses down the stretch, the main question will be how far back he is when he starts to.

Cons: He had every chance to win the Wood Memorial after fast fractions, but could only come home in :13.3. This has led to some speculation that he is simply not fast enough to compete with these. His speed figures would seem to back up that assessment.

Conclusion: There’s always a surprise closer that makes his way into the superfecta after underachieving in his previous races, and this could be the guy this year. I like the way he’s been training, and I think with a little improvement, he could slip into the superfecta or even hit the board. Winning seems like a stretch, but I like him as a longshot at a price.

VISIONAIRE, PP#8, 98 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: His most impressive race came on a sloppy track, where he closed quickly to win the Gotham. Since then, he’s been beaten by Pyro after running too close to the pace, which isn’t his ideal style. He made a decent run down the stretch in the Blue Grass on the polytrack.

Cons: Despite his preference to make late runs, there’s nothing in his pedigree that suggests he wants to go any further than 9f, and this distance could be a serious stretch. He also hasn’t beaten a single contender here and has lost to more than a few, as there wasn’t much in the Gotham.

Conclusion: I’m going to look elsewhere unless the track turns up sloppy, and considering I drove into Louisville last year on Friday during one of the most terrential downpours that I’ve ever witnessed, I’m not counting on that. I like the other closers a bit better.

DENIS OF CORK, PP#16, 96 Beyer, 20-1 Morning Line

Pros: He has showed his talent early in the year, closing from off the pace to win the Southwest Stakes. He’s been among the sharpest workers at Churchill and has a maiden win here to his credit. He likes to come from way back.

Cons: He’s been very lightly raced, and finished an uninspiring 5th in the Illinois Derby after a 2 1/2 month layoff. It’s questionable whether or not he got what he needed out of that race, and his fitness is still a concern.

Conclusion: He has undeniable talent, and sometimes when that is the case and the workouts are going as well as his are, you have to take a leap of faith. I like closers in this race, and will be using him underneath in my exotics.

PICKS SUMMARY:

  1. Colonel John
  2. Pyro
  3. Big Brown
  4. Z Fortune
  5. Court Vision
  6. Denis of Cork
  7. Gayego
  8. Adriano
  9. Cool Coal Man
  10. Tale of Ekati
  11. Monba
  12. Bob Blackjack
  13. Eight Belles
  14. Visionaire
  15. Recapturetheglory
  16. Cowboy Cal
  17. Big Truck
  18. Smooth Air
  19. Z Humor
  20. Anak Nakal

Now that the easy part is over, I’ve got to figure out how to bet this thing!

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