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Can Baffert Be Beat in Kentucky Derby 2015?

American Pharoah by Coady Photography

By @MizPostParade

On Saturday, the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby will take place, and this handicapper agrees with the masses.  There are two horses that have legitimate shots to win the Kentucky Derby and there are reasons to jump on the bandwagon for both of them.  One thing is clear:  It’s good to be Bob Baffert on this first Saturday in May 2015.  He trains the two favorites, Dortmund and American Pharoah.

Last year at this time, there was a clear favorite for the Kentucky Derby: a big chestnut named California Chrome.  There was little discussion as to which horse would win the Kentucky Derby, but that left most handicappers searching for a horse to beat California Chrome.  This year, the debate seems to be not on how to beat the favorite, but which favorite will win — Dortmund or American Pharoah.

The slightly more favored of the two is the California speedster, American Pharoah.  This son of Pioneerof the Nile was sidelined early on the road to Kentucky, but has emerged with lightning quick speed for Zayat Stables and Baffert.  American Pharoah has speed to spare.  He puts in bullet works nearly every training session.  He beats his competition showing no mercy.  His impressive win in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn led veteran tack announcer Frank Mirahmadi to exclaim during his race call, “that is one special horse.”

The other favorite on Saturday will be the big, chestnut colt from California, Dortmund, who has proved himself as a frontrunner for the Derby in all of his prep races.  He is undefeated in six starts.  Dortmund is the son of one of my favorite horses, Big Brown.  Dortmund has a Cali Chrome style of running.  He is big, and strong, and if you find yourself in front, be prepared to feel the thunder because Dortmund will be coming for you.  He uses his strength to carve up the track with each powerful stride.  His huge size is his advantage and his detriment.  Dortmund has trouble on the turns and in a group of 20 he might be annoyed with the all the traffic.  With a horse this big in a field this size, his jockey, Martin Garcia, certainly won’t be looking for a seam. He’ll be looking for a way out. Fortunately for Garcia, Dortmund has a way of picking up momentum on the last turn.

The Kentucky Derby is obviously no ordinary race.  It is the best of the best.  This race has the best field of 3-year old colts this country has to offer (and one from the UAE Derby), the best jockeys, the best trainers, and the mile and 1/4 is not an issue for any of these runners.  For me, it becomes a matter of congestion.  The Derby field is 20 entries.  All these colts have run this distance before, but never in a field this large.  American Pharoah is used to being close to the front and if he gets there, I don’t believe anyone will catch him, not even the thundering Dortmund.  He’s fast, very fast.  But, he needs daylight.  His jockey is Victor Espinoza, California Chrome’s jockey.  Victor is an experienced Derby jockey and knows this horse well.  If American Pharoah shakes loose, he’s gone.  American Pharoah has won four of his last five races, all Grade 1 (with the exception of the Rebel) and all with Victor Espinoza to guide him.  He has won all his graded stakes races by more than three lengths.  His debut was the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity where he beat Calculator by over 4 lengths; he beat Calculator in the Frontrunner by more than 3; he came to Oaklawn for the Rebel and beat Madefromlucky by 6, and then stuck around in Arkansas to win the Arkansas Derby over Far Right by 8 lengths.

Beyond the two favorites, there will be two horses coming quickly down the stretch, International Star and Carpe Diem.  International Star has been unflappable in his Derby campaign.  Maneuvering the size of the Derby field will not be a problem for his jockey, Miguel Mena, since International Star has raced mostly in Florida, where they boast large fields in nearly every race.  Mena is a talented jockey with a bright future and is familiar with International Star’s running style.  Since Mena got in the saddle for Mike Maker and Ken and Sarah Ramsey, International Star won the Louisiana Derby, the Risen Star and the LeComte.  International Star is a rare non-Kitten for Ken and Sarah Ramsey.  He is sired by Fusaichi Pegasus.  His successful campaign has landed him at the top of the Derby points list.

El Kabier has been somewhat inconsistent and has never been around horses like Dortmund and American Pharoah.  And the jockey switch from C C Lopez to Calvin Borel is the biggest reason for me to back off this horse.

Frosted had a lot of trouble with Upstart in previous races, but Joel Rosario gets in the saddle and he wins the Wood Memorial.  Frosted has been on a grueling Derby campaign, but has gained much-needed experience along the way.  This ghostly gray son of Tapit has been moving through the Derby preps like an apparition finishing behind the leaders in Holy Bull and the Remsen.  Rosario may take the competition by surprise when all the attention is on the freakish speed horse American Pharoah and the freight train Dortmund.

Todd Pletcher trainee Carpe Diem is a horse that I won’t overlook.  He is a contender. In 2015, he won the Bluegrass Stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby to stamp his spot in the gate at Churchill Downs on Saturday.  Carpe Diem has five starts and four wins.  His only loss was a second place finish to Texas Red in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.  John Velazquez has been aboard for all five starts and will get in the irons again on Saturday for WinStar Farms and Pletcher.

Looking deeper down the list of the Top 20.

Keen Ice will have a lot of work to do if he wants the roses on Saturday. Keen Ice has only hit the board in 3 of his 7 starts.  He barely got into the Derby by collecting his points on a third place finish in the Risen Star.  And speaking of stars, all Keen Ice has ever done is follow International Star around at Fair Grounds.  Keen Ice has raced with International Star, Stanford, War Story, Upstart, Frosted, Mr. Z and Carpe Diem and has never passed any of them.

Bolo is another California shipper.  Bolo was doing great until Dortmund hit the California dirt and then, well, Bolo could only settle for third in his last two races.  Ocho Ocho Ocho (another California shipper) had a faltering campaign, and then it got even worse when along came Dortmund, and Ocho x3’s Derby trail got dusty.

Mr. Z is the third Zayat Stables’ horse in the Top 20.  He got his Derby points by finishing third in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, but American Pharoah beat the field by 8 lengths that day.  Mr. Z has had 9 different jockeys in 12 starts.  Maybe it’s not the jockey.

Tencendur and Stanford got their Derby points by finishing second in Derby prep races.  Tencendur finished second to Frosted in the Wood Memorial and Stanford finished second to International Star in the Louisiana Derby.  I really don’t have much to say about either one of these horses.

Poor War Story and Tom Amoss.  War Story has only raced at Fair Grounds and just cannot get past International Star.  I don’t see that he can get past him in this field of 20 either.

Danzig Moon, on the other hand, can’t get past Carpe Diem, and got his points by finishing second to Carpe Diem in the Bluegrass Stakes.  If he can’t get past Carpe Diem, he certainly can’t get passed American Pharoah.

Firing Line is my sneaky longshot play.  Firing Line is coming off a win in the Sunland Derby (yes, yes, I know), but Firing Line has finished second to Dortmund … twice, and both of those losses were by a minimal margin, and both at a mile and 1/16th.  Firing Line is yet another California shipper coming out of races at Del Mar, Santa Anita and Los Alamitos.  I see Firing Line having two major problems (1) shipping to Kentucky and (2) Dortmund.  Basically, the other California horses are just better, but at least Firing Line has been in races with Dortmund and finished second.

Itsaknockout is another Pletcher horse, he won the Fountain of Youth, and those are the only points this horse received towards the Derby.  He achieved those points because he and Upstart got too close right at the wire, and Upstart was disqualified in the Fountain of Youth. Itsaknockout came back in the Florida Derby, but he couldn’t best Upstart this time.

Far Right was doing just fine at Oaklawn until the traveling freak show American Pharoah rolled into town and cleared the field by 8 lengths in the Arkansas Derby.  Far Right is a good horse, no complaints.  But he has the same problem that Firing Line does, except his problem is named American Pharoah. But similar to Firing Line, at least Far Right has been on the same dirt with one of the favorites.

Upstart is kind of a wild card.  I’m not exactly sure what’s going on with this colt. Once Texas Red was sidelined, Upstart seemed to prevail, winning the Holy Bull, and being disqualified in the Fountain of Youth (even though he won) and finished second to Materiality in the Florida Derby. I think he had a bad day in the Florida Derby and won’t hold that against him, but there’s just nothing here that says he can win the 141th Kentucky Derby.

Materiality has a better chance of hitting the board at a price (another Pletcher trainee).  Materiality got his Derby points by besting Upstart in the Florida Derby.  Materiality is also unbeaten, but unfortunately only has three starts in his young career.

The dark horse is the UAE Derby winner, Mubtaahij. He has only raced at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.  His past performances are hard to decipher but he appears to be a stalker and a good closer … using words like “moved to the lead,” “gained to lead comfortably,” and “ran on well” are all good words to describe a horse’s performance!  But the green grass of Kentucky is a long way from the dirt in Dubai.

Basically, this race will come down to thunder (Dortmund) and lightning (American Pharoah).  Money will be made with the exotic wagers as these two will be bet too low to make a profit.  Go deep in your bets and play several exactas using Dortmund and American Pharoah on top.  I will be playing a West Coast Tri to start:  American Pharoah, Firing Line, Dortmund.  After that, a multiple of combinations using Dortmund and American Pharoah with Firing Line, International Star, Carpe Diem, and Upstart.

By the numbers:

Trainer Todd Pletcher has 4 horses in the Derby: Carpe Diem, Itsaknockout, Materiality, and Stanford.

Trainer Bob Baffert has 2:  Dortmund and American Pharoah.

Zayat Stables has 3: American Pharoah, El Kabeir and Mr. Z.

Number of West Coast invaders:  5


Advance wagering at Canterbury Park on the entire Derby and Oaks programs begins Thursday afternoon.