by Angela Hermann
Derby weekend features variety in more ways than one – Types of wager, types of races, and of course the most fun part: Difference of opinion. While we can all agree that this is one of the deepest crops of three year old colts in recent times, deciphering which one is in the right place at the right time is a unique and enjoyable puzzle that comes but once a year. Derby exotics pay much higher than they should and the undercard lines up a host of events that on any other card would be the centerpiece….let us begin. There are many opportunities for pick four players (yours truly) to dive in throughout the day, but the last four races are the focus here:
Race 10 – The Woodford Reserve Turf Classic – 3:44 CT – G1 – 1 1/8 Miles on Turf
Wise Dan’s absence leaves this race looking a bit different than it has in recent times…wide open. Without a clear pace scenario, lots of bases have to be covered to prepare for any kind of fractions. Ken Ramsey has three entrants in the Turf Classic but the obvious class stands as his mare against the boys, Stephanie’s Kitten. She adores Churchill grass and could not have started off her six year old campaign better, albeit against much softer than entered in this spot. Thing is, she’s six. Her career isn’t going to last forever and should she ever go up for sale; a race like this on her resume would raise her price tenfold. This scenario is a no-lose – You beat the boys or you lose to the toughest out there. She doesn’t lose anything in defeat and gains a ton with a victory. However, she may take more money than she really should and could hike the price on some nice males….and there’ll be a lot on this ticket.
One of the other Ramsey runners, Coalport, is a hard read with his inconsistent style but seems better when he’s close to the lead. He could very well inherit it with the lack of speed to his inside. Graded stakes haven’t always been his cup of tea though, and his Grade 3 two back was over an Arkansas-bred that came over to Oaklawn to defeat statebreds later in the spring. Obviously he knows how to win, but the questions of class and why he’s thrown in repeated duds on this turf remain. His main pace pressure, Chocolate Ride, was a nice claim but steps up again. Cox changed up everything a few months ago (hard to think that he was gelded the same day that he won his first race for him, but that’s neither here nor there) and a win streak’s been going since February. He should have the tactical advantage to the outside of Coalport but will that be enough? The field size is doubled from last time and the water is a lot deeper.
Chocolate Ride slightly edged Slumber last time and this is one of the pricier options in the pick four. He’s quite the tease isn’t he? There’s some issues in any seven year old with only 19 lifetime starts but there’s also a ton of talent and some short margins between victory and defeat. He sort of seems like the type that will pop up with a big race when you least expect him to, and with the pools on Derby day he’s not one you want to lose to at a big number. To his right, Grand Arch got some class relief last out after a string of five graded races but posted a solid figure en route to the winners’ circle. Obviously neither of the posts will help these two but with plenty of stretch to maneuver before the first turn Grand Arch should be able to scoot a bit closer to what may be a tepid pace. He’s been strictly a miler for the past year and he’s made plenty of money in that occupation, but maybe he’s just a sharper horse this year and can handle the extra furlong.
Seek Again had a much better spring and summer last year than fall, but he’s been tested against this sort and passed when he’s on his game. Long rest seems to suit him just fine and though he’s not known for it, Mott can have a good horse ready to fire. He’ll probably get overbet but he deserves to get support to rebound bigtime. The last two on my ticket, Jack Milton and Umgiyo, are far apart in price but similar in that they’ll need to run a career best to win. Jack Milton may be going further than he naturally wants to in this spot, but earned his ticket at Keeneland last time around. He wouldn’t mind an off course either, and not everyone in here can handle such grass. These races almost never come off the turf even if it pours, and should something completely unexpected sweep in he could capitalize. Umgiyo is strictly a trainer play, as everything De Kock brings to North America has a chance and the distance suits him.
Race 11 – The Kentucky Derby – 5:34 PM CT – G1 – 1 ¼ Miles on Dirt
For a field this deep, it shouldn’t be the shortest leg in the sequence – but it is. Baffert is loaded with his two stars, and if you don’t think he wins it with one of them you open up your options to WAY too many. Most of the contenders have a similar style and want to be in the same spot, so why not just bite the bullet and take what look like the two most talented of that group? Dortmund & American Pharoah have taken different approaches to this, but from the perspective of what I’d like to see personally Dortmund is the horse. The victories haven’t been AS flashy, the margins haven’t been AS massive, but everything has gone according to plan. As hard as it is to win a race with a horse at all, think about the probability of mapping out a campaign that involves shipping to Churchill at two, stretching out progressively at home from different posts with different tactics, hitting every work in between and making the gate in the Kentucky Derby. He’s hit every beat along the way and that could be his greatest advantage over the rest. Garcia has to get after the mammoth chestnut for a good part of the race, but once he’s rolling he just keeps going. He can survive a battle, run away from horses, stalk, close and get himself into position. He didn’t draw obnoxiously wide and sits outside of the horse most thought would set the pace before any posts were established. Too many arrows point this way.
American Pharoah is a brilliant animal I had the pleasure of viewing this spring, but he presents more questions to me and the Derby is not the time to find out if your horse can handle some things. Can he fight? Can he close? Can he get this distance? I keep hearing about the “relaxed” journey he enjoyed in Arkansas, but the strategy of the last place finisher was very obvious – They simply went for it on the front end and wilted. The lead fell into this horse’s hands. And while he wins with his ears forward and it appears he has a whole bucket more in the tank….who’s to say he does? How do we know that this horse doesn’t do it on his own and tries his hardest each time? I would have to think that a horse that figures out the game as quickly has he did at two knows what his job is. He knows that he’ll be asked with a whip if he doesn’t try his hardest to get to the front. If I had his ability I’d probably run my hardest without urging too. He certainly seems to enjoy being a racehorse and it only makes sense that he’d run in high gear every time. I respect the three year olds that make it into any graded race on the Triple Crown trail, but he really should have beaten the fields he beat by a ton. They’re not in his league. A few in this Derby are. If I’m wrong and he wins by a pole that’s fine – He’s on the ticket.
Race 12 – $75,000 Optional Claimer – Three Year Olds – 1 1/16 Miles Dirt
There’s far less to go on with the last two races of the day but the 12th presents a distinct lack of pace for such a group. Guapo Man should take plenty of dough off his recent romp but that was only a maiden effort and it came against an obviously overmatched group of six others. I like Florent Geroux on a speed horse like this and without much pressure he may be able to withstand a stiff test for his second career score. Jack Tripp and Pioneerof the West both have route speed but they may not pressure this colt early. Should there be an honest clip going up front, many closers will be vying for position behind them to get first run on the turn, and the favorite should be among them. Comfort was picked out to join the Pletcher stable and immediately entered the wolves’ den in the Lexington, but this is a much more logical spot to try and win again. Pletcher is extremely good with knocking out a horse’s conditions, and though his record recently hasn’t been stellar at Churchill he can win here and the horse drew well to track his competition with ample run to the first turn. Two closers that will need to show more are Quality Bird and Raagheb, but especially the latter is intriguing to me. Quality Bird is more of a connections play than anything, as the jockey-trainer tandem doesn’t get together outside of the circle very often. There must be something more than meets the eye and the price will be right. Raagheb is better than he ran last time, and if he’s matured at all will be a handful down the lane. I am not quite sure why he was advanced all the way to the lead halfway through the race last time, but his kick was compromised after that point and it’s understandable that he finished without oomph. He can be a bit of a goofball down the stretch and he may cause his own problems, but for some reason Mike Smith wants to ride him and should fit him perfectly. That man may be the reason he’s undervalued but let’s hope not.
Race 13 – Maiden Special Weight – Three and Up – 7 Furlongs Dirt
Seven panels can always be a testing distance, but for a group of newbies it can be a bit further than some want to go in their initial try. There are some angles to follow here and if you’re not in favor of singling likely favorite Bent on Bourbon (maybe on one ticket, but for the sake of writing not on all of them) it could be the leg to obtain a price. The reasons are obvious to be the morning line choice and Eddie Kenneally has a runner on his hands. He was a modest buy in comparison to the rich blood all over this race card, but his pedigree is a pretty nice one and the distance may be just what the doctor ordered after just missing in start two. He backed up the money that was thrown his way after his first race at Gulfstream and he’s hard to ignore. This race, though, like the 12th looks a little lacking in the pace department with only Starbound sticking out as confirmed speed. His two races at Churchill could not have been more different but he showed early pace in both. Graham’s been on him for his two best recent races and wants to try again, so why not? He may have already shown us his best and that may not be good enough, but against a paceless bunch he’s a threat.
Oaklawn runner Sail Maker is the only four year old in the field. He’s taken boatloads of money his entire life but hasn’t lived up to it yet without many real excuses. Maybe the cutback will change things and maybe it won’t, but he’s probably going to be a better price than he’s ever been before. Two first timers are thrown in for good measure because you just never know – Some owners live to unveil a star in front of a large crowd. The Wests have been firing with expensive young horses in the past month and many have been running extremely well. Their Coaches Challenge has been working out for an awfully long time for Wayne Catalano, but he’s waited to race until Derby Day. The drills all say “Ready” but we’ll see if the maturity is there in start number one…..Bejarano doesn’t ride often for this barn but sees fit to hop in the saddle. Cat Ride has an interesting family tree – His sire, dam and grand-dam won their debuts and he’s been working very quickly for his first try. He was actually working well at Woodbine last summer before stopping and picking back up again in Florida, but seems to have progressed quickly enough to make this spot. Bridgmohan may have had some options in here and wants to ride this one…..hmmmm.
My ticket will look like (or similar to) this: 3,7,8,9,10,11,12/8,18/2,4,6,12/6,7,9,10,11 – $120
It’s pricey but it’s the Derby – Good luck to all!