We've already written too many words about this race. Let's get right to the top 10.
Need to Improve. Now.
10. Whitmore. The tease horse. He's run 6 times and in 5 of them, he had a troubled trip and/or poor start. (The other? A horrible 5th place finish where the comment is a depressing "nothing left.") His best races have all been around one turn and he's a dead closer in a race without a ton of early speed. It's also tough to endorse him over horses he's been running against that have looked better than him. Take for example...
9. Suddenbreakingnews. Focus your attention on the back of the pack for this guy early on; in his three route races, he's never been closer than 10 lengths at the first call. In two of those races, he got a good pace to run into and had no trip trouble, and ran first or second. In the other, he had traffic trouble and was a beaten 5th. The two problems we see are there isn't a ton of pace in this race and he actually isn't that fast - his closing efforts have been more clunk up than a "strong move on the turn" a la Monarchos or Street Sense. He's interesting fodder for a triple or superfecta, but not particularly interesting up top.
(By the way, kudos to owner Samuel Henderson for giving him a clever name: Suddenbreakingnews' dam is named Uchitel. Who herself is out of a mare named Party Cited.)
8. Creator. It took this guy 6 starts to break his maiden, but he seems to have finally figured things out. After taking a lot of money in vain in his first five starts, he also developed into a dead closer and responded with a win-3rd-win in his last three starts. In fact, he basically has the same running profile as Suddenbreakingnews, only with a little more success and slightly better connections. We have the same reservations about pace and trip that we had with Suddenbreakingnews; we rank him a little higher because there's a chance this guy is just a pure runner. He cost $440,000 at auction despite being out of a Peruvian mare that nobody has heard of and never ran north of Panama. So maybe he's just a throwback to those great South American horses that used to come here in the late 90s-early 00s and dominate the older horse circuits (Siphon, Sandpit, Lido Palace, Riboletta). More likely, he's a good closer that doesn't quite get there late.
7. Gun Runner. It's Steve Asmussen's other starter that, to us, holds the key to the race. He has good early speed and is an actual contender, meaning what he does tactically affects the complexion of the race. There's a chance he guns from his post, challenges Danzing Candy early and sets solid fractions. We think that's suicide; more importantly, it'll give the closers a shot. What's more likely is he sits 3rd or 4th early, tracks a solid pace, and takes the lead when they approach the far turn. What we think then happens is he gets overtaken in the stretch by horses with more talent. We're also skeptical of his chances because his only bad race was also the only time he took on real contenders in this race. His other wins have been either ungraded races or stakes races against horses that aren't running on Saturday and would be 50-1 if they ran. We do think you'll hear his name a lot, but not at the end.
6. Brody's Cause. A horse for the course? Throwing out his
meaningless debut on turf, he's run two meh races when he wasn't at
Keeneland, and ran his three best races when he was at Keeneland. We
have always known that some horses prefer some tracks to others; others
have absolutely despised certain tracks. (Skip Away, a Hall of Famer, hated
Churchill Downs.) To us, Keeneland has always been one of those love
it/hate it places. And the fact that his best races have all
been at Keeneland while he's shown little that would leave you to
believe that he's great elsewhere has us skeptical of his chances.
5. Tom's Ready. Golden Soul at 30-1 in the '13 Derby. Commanding Curve at 30-1 in the '14 Derby. Tale of Verve at 30-1 in the '15 Preakness. What these horses all have in common - they were bombs that ran second in those races, and they were trained by Dallas Stewart. This year's Dallas Stewart entry: Tom's Ready, who's 1 for 9 in his career and only qualified for the Derby because he ran second (at 30-1) to Gun Runner in the Louisiana Derby in his last.
There is literally nothing in this horse's past performances that should lead one to believe that he's sitting on a big race. He lost ground in the stretch to Gun Runner and really only finished second by default. Mo Tom, who we don't like at all, has finished in front of him four times. His speed figure for the Louisiana Derby is abnormally high and looks primed for a regression. Even his breeding isn't that exciting; his sire (More Than Ready) is okay but leans more towards milers and turf horses.
And yet, Dallas Stewart has pulled this off literally each of the last three years with other horses that looked impossible to get into the exacta. Leave him out of exotic wagers at your own risk. (But feel free to ignore him in the win slot.)
4. Exaggerator. It's the horse with the highest last-out speed figure who won by 6 lengths going away in a key prep over several other contenders. Definite winner, right? Not so fast. Quite literally, everything broke correctly for Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby. The pace was extremely fast. The track was sloppy, which he loved. There was no traffic trouble. And he came into the Santa Anita Derby off a series of stellar workouts and an ideal prep race.
Here, it's unlikely that the pace is going to be anywhere as fast. We're assuming for the sake of the blog that the track is going to be fast (weather reports say it's going to be sunny and gorgeous). And yes he's working out fine. As are half of the horses in this field. We're inclined to take him over all the other closers in the field, but think he's likely to regress a little off his last, or at best, just not get a perfect trip this time.
3. My Man Sam. The upside play. We acknowledge that it takes a decent leap of faith to see a horse that's only won a maiden race at the inner track at Aqueduct covered in a blanket of roses, but this guy has a big shot on Saturday. After a completely uninteresting first start, he broke his maiden impressively at Aqueduct, making up a 15-length deficit into a middling pace to win going away by 8 lengths in a quick time. Next out was an allowance race where he ran even faster but lost to the talented Matt King Coal (who lost the Wood, albeit on a wet track we think he didn't love). Trainer Chad Brown - who's superb and is just waiting for his first big dirt horse to become known by non-racing fans - ambitiously slotted him in the Blue Grass, where he closed well despite going 8 wide on the far turn and came up less than two lengths short against Brody's Cause. We also like the fact that he seems to have consolidated his gains speed-wise in the Blue Grass - he didn't move forward, but had an effort that seems to have put him in a position to move forward in his fifth start on Saturday. What we also like is that he's getting back his original rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., who's also outstanding if unheralded. If he can keep this guy a little closer to the pace than he has been in some of his prior efforts, we can see him making a big move on the turn and threatening late, and at a nice price (20-1?).
2. Mor Spirit. There are some shades of Silver Charm here. 6 starts into Silver Charm's career, he was never out of the exacta, culminating in an excellent second in the Santa Anita Derby, where he contested a strong pace and couldn't hold off a surging Free House. The tables turned in the Kentucky Derby where Silver Charm had a pace to sit just off of, and he moved forward and held off Captain Bodgit in a truly excellent rendition of the Derby.
Mor Spirit has a ways to go before hitting Silver Charm's heights, but his career so far has been similar: trained by Bob Baffert, stabled on the West Coast, 7 starts, 7 finishes in the exacta, and a second place finish in the Santa Anita Derby. Unlike Silver Charm, though, he didn't run particularly well in his last, as Exaggerator ran right by him with little effort. Which begs the question: has he plateaued, or did he just hate the slop? (Or both?) If he just needed a tightener for the big race, then the Santa Anita Derby is nothing to worry about, and we expect a big effort tomorrow, as he's well-bred, fast, and has the best connections in the sport. But we're concerned that we've already seen his fastest race, which is why we're going with...
1. Destin. ...a pick that we acknowledge looks contrary to everything we've written about the Derby over the last 9 years.
We have recited the "Derby Rules" time and again on this blog, and have discussed why some are irrelevant (e.g., a gelding can't win the Derby) and why others matter (e.g., The Apollo Rule). And there have been a few that we have deemed essential. A horse must have raced as a 2 year old. Must have 2 starts this year. Must have at least 4 career starts. Must have competed in a recent prep race. Must be in good form.
By and large, these rules have held true, and there's really only been two exceptions. The first was Mine That Bird, who broke the laws of the Kentucky Derby and common sense to win at an underlaid 50-1. The second was Big Brown, whose talent was obvious, but was coming into the Derby off of only three lifetime starts.
What did both of these horses have in common? They competed against subpar groups of horses. The second place finisher in Big Brown's Derby was a filly; had she run in the Oaks, Big Brown would have won the Derby by at least 8 lengths. Subsequent races validated the mediocrity of the class - the best of the 18 colts that ran behind Big Brown was Court Vision, whose success was one the turf. Mine That Bird's crop was no better: the best horses that year were Quality Road and I Want Revenge, neither of which made the Derby.
In case our analysis of the last 19 horses hasn't made it clear, we are completely unimpressed by this crop of horses. Almost everyone has proven to be slow. The vast majority have no early speed. Horses have plateaued as the distances have gotten longer. The couple that we thought were very good before their final preps (Mohaymen, Cupid, Matt King Coal) completely flopped. We're not saying this is as bad as the 2008 group, but we think it's clearly a substandard group of horses.
We see three likely outcomes from this. The first is that a horse that has already shown good talent does actually take the next step forward and dominates the Derby. The best candidates for that are Mor Spirit and Exaggerator. The second is that someone who has shown flashes of talent but hasn't put it all together yet makes The Leap and wins. That's My Man Sam. But we're siding with Outcome #3: somebody breaks a rule and wins, because what should be a negative actually doesn't matter that much when competing against 19 flawed opponents.
And that's Destin. He's trained by best-in-the-biz Todd Pletcher and is extremely well bred for 10 furlongs (by Giant's Causeway out of a mare that won 5 graded stakes including the Grade 1 Apple Blossom, and also yielded the good Creative Cause). He won his maiden race impressively at Belmont last fall, then shipped to Gulfstream for a solid second in an allowance race, followed by a meh 4th in the LeComte. He absolutely flourished when Pletcher sent him to Tampa Bay Downs, where he won the Sam Davis with ease, followed by the Tampa Bay Derby in a good time (while having a bad trip), beating Outwork and Brody's Cause in the process.
Normally a win in the Tampa Bay Derby would lead to a final prep race somewhere else, like the Wood Memorial or the Blue Grass. And that's what Outwork and Brody's Cause both did afterwards - and won. Destin, however, was held back to train up to the Derby, meaning he'll be making his first start in 8 weeks. Why? One of his owners is an adherent to the "Sheets" - an advanced form of speed analysis that we won't get into here - which showed that Destin's Tampa Bay Derby was so good, he needed a little extra time to recover so he could run back to that race in the Derby. Ergo, the rest.
Pletcher's tried this before: in 2007 he held back Circular Quay from the final round of preps and trained him up to the Derby. That didn't work out so well. Normally, this would make us skeptical and look elsewhere (as we did with Circular Quay in '07). But again, we don't see this as the swiftest group of horses ever assembled on the first Saturday in May. And we know he's fast and well-bred. And has already beaten two of the key contenders in the field. And is working out well. And should be at least 12-1. We're willing to hold our nose a little on his issue and take the plunge on him at a solid price.
How to Wager
If you're anti-Nyquist, just bet on your horse to win. We don't think a single other horse will be lower than 6-1, heady odds for a good race. We also think there's going to be a ton of value in the exacta because the betting is going to be spread out with money wasted on horses that we think have little chance. Just be wary of taking a closer-closer exacta: that's come in once in the last 15 years (Orb-Golden Soul). Some speed/stalker is almost certain to stick around for a piece.
Good luck and enjoy the Derby!