Friday, May 1, 2015

2015 Kentucky Derby Preview Part II: The Upper Crust

Click here for Part 1 of our preview.

If you haven't heard elsewhere, this year's crop of three year olds portends to be a good one.  Bill Finley, who is usually cranky about this sort of thing, has said this is the best Derby field ever, topping one that included Secretariat, Forego and Sham.  Mike Watchmaker, who generally thinks every horse since Easy Goer is a dog, has compared two of the entrants to Seattle Slew and Affirmed.  Dick Jerardi, who has never seen a horse outside of Pennsylvania that he's actually liked, thinks this is the fastest crop of horses in ages.

We're tapping the brakes a little bit on these plaudits.  We're not sure there are multiple Hall of Fame horses in this race - hell, if we had one, that would be neat.  But this does look like an above average group of horses.  The best have run pretty fast in the prep races, have good breeding, and have avoided the injury bug.  This isn't 2008, where everyone besides Big Brown looked terrible, or 2009, where everyone got hurt and left the field wide open for an upset.  This looks like the best group we've seen since 2007, which included Curlin, Street Sense, Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun.

Our biggest takeaway from that Hot Take is that we're less inclined to back horses that don't check off a lot of the traditional boxes for Derby contenders.  Big Brown won the Derby off 3 starts because his competitors were garbage. Giacomo and Mine That Bird took the race because there were only 1-2 good horses in the race.  This isn't the case this year.  If you're a horse with flaws, you're going to need to overcome them and beat 5-7 horses that would be good choices most years.  Which is why we're not picking...

This Would Defy History

10.  Mubtaahij.  We've said it many times before and will say it again - the first horse from the UAE Derby that wins the Kentucky Derby will come at our expense.  This guy's a little more interesting than the prior winners because he won the UAE Derby on dirt (rather than synthetic) and is trained by Mike de Kock, who's great in South Africa but almost never comes to the USA.  But still - he's traveling half the world to take on better bred horses that have run on US tracks against better competition.  And there's chatter he'll be the 4th choice in the race (ignore his 20-1 morning line price, that's just wishful thinking).  No thanks.

9.  Materiality.  And then there's the Curse of Apollo.  We're getting to the point where we can write the same copy every year.  Or just point you to our takes on Verrazano, Bodemeister, Curlin, and Dunkirk.  In fact, this horse is Dunkirk version 2.0 - a well-bred Pletcher 3 year old with no juvenile experience but oozes potential.  We were impressed by his win in the Florida Derby, and we'd consider deviating from the Curse of Apollo in a less talented year.  But this year?  Not interested.

Not Out of It, But We're Against

8.  Frosted.  Beware the Horse for the Course.  It's a well-known fact that some horses like some tracks better than others and run their best races at certain locales.  Well, here's Exhibit A, a horse that has 2 wins and a second on Aqueduct's main track, but is winless elsewhere in 4 starts.  More problematically, he never came close in two Florida starts against logical contender...

7.  Upstart.  ...who we acknowledge has a shot but we're not loving in this spot.  This New York-bred dominated his first start then won a state-bred race handily in a very fast time.  Trainer Rick Violette - who we've always liked - aggressively pointed him to the Champagne and BC Juvenile, where he ran 2nd and 3rd respectively, running pretty well both times, but never really threatening the winners.  After a good Holy Bull to start out this year, he ran a DQ'd-into-2nd in the Fountain of Youth, then a beaten 2nd in the Florida Derby.  More importantly, his speed figures have stagnated in his last two races.

So was he just ahead of the class early last year?  There are some interesting excuses in each of his last two races, but the bottom line is that he hasn't developed as the distances have gotten longer.  To top it off, he missed training time last month with an illness.  While the connections say he's back in shape and he's worked out fine, we're not in love with horses that come in to the Derby with any hiccups.

6.  Dortmund.  He's undefeated, has won a pair of Grade 1 races, and has beaten some pretty good horses.  And he could win easily on Saturday and prove us wrong.  But we've got a couple of concerns.  First, his running style is on or close to the lead.  Now this is great in 5-7 horse races where you can control the tempo and take racing luck out of the equation.  But we don't see that as the case here because there is a TON of speed in this race - we expect that all of Materiality, Ocho Ocho Ocho, and 1-2 others will want to go fast early.  If he chases all of them, he's going to be in a world of trouble.  It's a little reminiscent of Bellamy Road in 2005, who came in off a world-beater front running performance in the Wood, and was absolutely fried after 6 furlongs.  Dortmund may fall into that same trap.

Second, and a bit more esoteric, we join many people's concern that this horse is, well, too big.  The horse is 17 hands high and while powerful, isn't the most manuverable horse because of his size.  There is something to be said for being a steed that won't get knocked around by the rigors of the race but there's also something to be said for a horse that can adjust quickly if he gets in trouble.

Look, we acknowledge we could be dead wrong and that this guy may turn out to be a blossoming star.  He's never lost, isn't poorly bred, and looked great in the Santa Anita Derby.  He's trained by Bob Baffert, who's second to none when it comes to the Derby.  But we're concerned that we're seeing another horse that has looked better than he is because he's repeatedly gotten easy leads that have allowed him to control the pace.  That certainly won't be the case on Saturday.  We think he challenges early but isn't in the picture at the end.

Prices With a Shot

5.  Bolo.  Our longshot du jour has a bit of an interesting background.  He's obscurely bred - his sire Temple City was barely known to us beforehand, and Chief Seattle isn't exactly a fashionable damsire - but the breeding actually isn't bad for the dirt or the distance.  He ran his first three races on the turf as a 2yo and did well, winning a maiden and ungraded stakes.  Off a short break, trainer Carla Gaines (who's not bad) switched him to the dirt and threw him to the wolves in the San Felipe, where he ran greenly but still closed to a decent 3rd behind Dortmund.  He regressed a little bit in the Santa Anita Derby, but seems posed to move forward in his third start of the year.  And he has some tactical speed but we think will probably close into the strong pace.  We think he's a bit unlikely to actually win the race, but has a big shot to hit the board at 40-1.

4.  Firing Line.  When an owner spends $240,000 at auction for a horse out of a completely unproven sire (Line of David) by an unknown damsire, either he's a lunatic or the horse can run.  Fortunately for Arnold Zetcher, it's the latter, as this modestly bred colt has never finished out of the exacta and won his last start by a whopping 14 lengths.  More impressively, he fought Dortmund twice and lost both races by a mere head.  Dortmund is going to be 3-1; Firing Line is going to be 15-1.  You can guess where our interest is.

So why are we ranking him here?  His running style.  We've hinted at it throughout this preview, but we think the pace is going to be strong and may cook everyone near it.  That may well include this guy, who's done his best running within a length of the lead.  Jockey Gary Stevens is one of the best ever and may try to rate him off the strong pace, and the 10 post certainly puts that possibility in play.  Our guess is he rates just a little off the pace but doesn't have enough to pass or hold off the remaining four horses.

3.  International Star. The best closer in the race happens to actually be a halfway decent horse, rather than your standard closer with 3rd-place-itis.  He spent his winter in Louisiana - hey, there are worse ideas - sweeping the Fairgrounds races with three come from behind victories.  He's blossomed since turning into a one-run closer and this race presents the perfect opportunity to continue this tradition, since the pace should be at worst honest, and possibly blistering.  Yes he's a little slow on the Speed Figures, but his running style fits the race shape.  We look to see him closing late, but think he's ultimately a minor threat to the top 2.

The Obvious Favorite

2.  American Pharoah.  While we think any of the top 8 horses could win this race, this one is the most likely to develop into a superstar.  After a poor maiden race, Bob Baffert threw him into a Grade 1  where he responded by wiring the field at 7 furlongs and winning easily.  His next win in the Front Runner was absolutely dominating, and in it he defeated eventual BC Juvenile winner Texas Red with ease.  After time off for a minor injury, he shipped to Arkansas and won both the Rebel and Arkansas Derby with absolute ease.  He has tactical speed (though is not an uncontrollable speedball or committed front runner), should have the pedigree to make 10 furlongs, and jockey Victor Espinoza knows a thing or two about winning Triple Crown races.

Our biggest concern is that his speed figures are inflated because he's had perfect trips in all 4 wins and has never had a serious obstacle in his path.  He towered over his competition in his last two starts; they were essentially paid workouts.  It's hardly uncommon for a horse to run career best speed figures when he gets easy trips and no real competition in the stretch.  So while the possibility of stardom is here, so is the possibility of a regression.  At 5-2, we're wary of picking against, but prefer...

The Pick

1.  Carpe Diem.  Greatness has been expected from this horse for over a year and so far he's done little to dissuade people from the notion that he might be special.  This spectacularly bred son of Giant's Causeway sold for $1.6 million as a two year old, and made his first start at Saratoga, where he won at 5 1/2 furlongs over Ready for Rye, a useful sprinter.  He stretched out to two turns for his second start and utterly dominated the BC Futurity at Keeneland - other than American Pharoah's Front Runner, it's probably the best performance by a horse in this field (sorry, Dortmund fans).  He ran an okay second in the BC Juvenile; this year he's easily won the Tampa Bay and Bluegrass Derbies.  In both races he showed tactical speed, made a good move on the turn and drew off in the stretch while never really being asked.

There are basically two knocks against him.  The first are his relatively low speed figures.  We're less concerned about those because we don't think Pletcher or Velazquez have asked this guy for his best race yet this year.  It's very reminiscent of how Pletcher also managed Super Saver in 2010, who had two useful races before the Derby that hardly indicated dominance, but was primed to go on the big day.  The bigger knock is drawing the 2-post.  We don't love it, but don't think it's a big enough negative to downgrade him from the top slot.  We think he makes a huge leap forward on Saturday, sits an okay trip off the strong pace, and runs down American Pharoah in a memorable Derby.

How to Play the Race

If you like anyone besides American Pharoah and Dortmund, just play him to win!  Carpe Diem is the likely third choice and we suspect he'll be at least 6-1.  There's nothing sexy about win betting, but there's sure nothing wrong with a 600% or higher return on investment.  If you're looking to boost the price, we recommend playing International Star, Bolo and Firing Line "underneath" in exactas and triples, or looking at the Oaks-Derby double that's available on Friday.  (We like Eskenformoney, Stellar Wind, and Puca in the Oaks.) And by all means, please ignore the superfecta.

Good luck to all and enjoy the race!!

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