So here we are with the majority of the 139th Kentucky Derby field set. It’s taken years of optimism, months of hope, four
last-gasp qualifiers (and maybe another
next week) and more time, money and prayer than you or I will ever know. The
makings of a Derby champ are founded in speculative markets mirroring the price
of pork bellies and grounded in rudiments of animal husbandry. Take a flyer on a
$225,000 Lion Heart colt at a spring sale or pair your mare with the just right
crosshairs of ancestry, stamina and speed and who knows?
What we do know is the odds are against even the most
well-bred equine athletes or those picked up a bargain-basement prices with less
than perfect confirmation to make a May trip to Louisville. Given this year’s
crop of freshly groomed (or doomed never to win) three-year-olds number just
north of 27,000 (a down year by Thoroughbred breeding standards), having one of
the 20 to enter Churchill’s Derby gate conjures up a just right recipe, equal
parts management, magic and good health.
In stark difference to the recent history of graded stakes
earnings during a horses’ two- and three-year-old seasons, either intended or
not, Churchill Down’s newly anointed point system placed a stronger emphasis on
three-year-old form and far less on precocious, juvenile winning. While a Grade
I stakes win at Oaklawn or Keeneland guaranteed a Derby start in any year, a straightforward
point system created a greater sense of drama in the Blues Grass Stakes and
Arkansas Derby. There really should be no complaint in asking if all Derby
entrants earned their way in this year.
One only has to look back a few years to Homeboykris and his
much maligned, oft-suspended and Derby-winning trainer, Richard Dutrow to see
the excesses in running a regressing three-year-old based upon a graded stakes
win during his two-year-old season. Dutrow admitted to running Homeboykris
simply because he could based up a big juvenile stakes winning score during the
previous October. In the days before the Derby some speculated (or hoped) he
might convince his owners or himself not to run the overmatched colt – one that would finish a distant 16th out of 20 and who now toils in the claiming and starter allowance ranks.
Since the actors in Derby 139 set are nearly cast, it’s time
to take our first cursory look at the possibilities for the one colt that will
be delivered his bouquet of roses on the late spring afternoon of May 4.
Orb– tied for leading point earner, closer/stalker and Florida Derby winner who
inherits a new and stoking hot rider in Joel Rosario
Fun Fact – the last time his trainer, Shug McGaughey,
came this way, he had the overwhelming Derby favorite in Easy Goer, who was upset
at odds on in 1989.
– like Orb, one of four, two-time graded stakes winners at three, but this Todd
Pletcher trainee is also undefeated, so it’s somewhat of a surprise that his luster
has worn off with only a decreasing
3/4-length win in the Wood.
Fun Fact – Pletcher won’t help his Derby-winning
percentages, as Verrazano is one of four or five heading for Louisville for this lifetime
23 percent winning trainer, but who also has just 1 win from 31 Derby starters.
Goldencents – another of two-time stakes winners, his only 2013
blemish was a fading fourth place finish in the San Felipe after engaging
in all out speed duel with Flashback going through sub-23, 46 and 1:10 fractions,
but he was redeemed a few weeks later with an easy Santa Anita Derby win.
Fun Fact – sure NCAA basketball champ Rick Pitino owns only
a percentage, but more importantly it seems trainer Doug O’Neill is following his
breadcrumb trail back to Louisville looking for back-to-back Derby wins.
Revolutionary – the last of the two-time graded stakes
winners, who cut his teeth with a late move behind tiring horses before
splitting two foes in deep stretch in a Withers win followed by a
determined final furlong through the Fair Grounds stretch.
Fun Fact – the last Louisiana Derby winner to create some
noise 700 miles north and six weeks later later was Peace Rules, but the best
he could do was a third-place finish in 2003.
Java’s War – closed stoutly in two consecutive starts,
including a Grade I Blue Grass win and previously as a runner up to Verrazano in the Tampa
Bay Derby – his dramatic last-to-first Keeneland finish is going garner him
lots of attention and possibly co-favoritism on May 4.
Fun Fact – his sire, War Pass, is one of the 27 other
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners that failed to take Derby glory the following
year, with only Street Sense completing the impressive double.
Overanalyze – ran back to his two-year-old form beating a
suspect Arkansas Derby field just as he won his Remsen last year against
a similarly weak field.
Fun Fact – owner Mike Repole, he of Vitamin Water and Uncle
Mo fame, is one of the few horse players on the planet that can single-handedly
effect the Derby betting pool with his wagers – meaning Overanalyze is likely
to be third choice at worst.
Lines of Battle - UAE Derby winners have struggled to break the top 10 coming from the Middle Eastern desert
paradise to the Kentucky bluegrass, never mind win.
Fun Fact - Trainer Aiden O’Brien, a European contemporary to
Pletcher who has won just about every thing across the pond has yet to smell Derby
roses, of course he hasn’t sent that many to Churchill.
I’ll Take Charge – closed fast and furiously in catching
stable mate Oxbow in the 8 ½ furlong, Rebel Stakes, but
strangely for a Lukas Derby horse, he is training up to and not racing up to
the First Saturday in May.
Vyjack – seemingly distance challenged and excuse laden
after faltering to third in WoodMemorial – likely to go, but probably should stay home
Fun Fact – his trainer Rudy Rodriguez has made the difficult
transition from journeyman jockey to leading NYRA circuit trainer, something
Hall of Famer Angel Cordero had trouble managing.
Itsmyluckyday – appeared to be a monster-in-the-making when
he easily dispatched last year’s two-year-old champ, Shanghai Bobby, whilst
breaking Gulfstream Park’s track record time in the Holy Bull Stakes only to
have some shine wear off in losing to Orb in the Florida Derby.
Fun Fact – like most trainers who reside outside the orbits
of Bob Baffert, Lukas and Pletcher, Edward Pleasa Jr. gets just his second
chance with a Derby starter, the first was a filly who finished last.
Governor Charlie – a decent sort who comes off his Sunland Derby win and faces tougher company and oh, by the way, the Derby will be his 4th lifetime start, ugh.
Fun Fact – last year’s Sunland Derby winner and 10th
place Derby finisher, Daddy Nose Best, is still winless since his First
Saturday of May start and the only Sunland Derby runner to affect the Kentucky
Derby outcome was long shot winner Mine that Bird, the fourth place Sunland Derby finisher that year.
Frac Daddy – the second of trainer Kenny McPeek’s last-ditch
qualifiers, this one due to a second place Arkansas Derby finish.
Fun Fact – McPeek who has had his hands on some fine equines
branched out into the entrepreneurial world of Internet businessman, developing
and marketing an on demand horse racing system called Horse Racing Now – check it out here...
Black Onyx – from allowance turf winner to Kentucky Derby
qualifier with a Spiral
Stakes victory – quick tell me two other runners from Turfway Park’s
signature Derby prep.
Fun Fact – Jersey Joe Bravo – the across the river not ready
for prime time jock is getting his chance in the Derby spotlight, cue soft music,
slow motion and network puff piece – bet on it.
Palace Malice – from Dogwood Stables, one of the pioneers in
the horse racing partnership world, comes with maybe their best chance for a Derby
win in more than 20 years with a horse that showed he could run well when not in trouble in a Blue
Grass runner up finish.
Fun Fact – Dogwood’s Summer Squall placed second in the 1990
Kentucky Derby behind Unbridled before turning the tables on the eventual three-year-old champ in the Preakness Stakes.
Normandy Invasion – comes out of the same Remsen as
Overanalyze and same Wood Memorial as Verrazano – finishing second both times
and a leading candidate for a Wise Guy Horse in Churchill.
Fun Fact – owner Fox Hill Farms has come close to earning
the Derby trophy with second place finishes in 2007 with Hard Spun and 2008
with Eight Belles, who tragically broke down soon after the finish line.
Mylute – his Derby start with be the 10th of his
career which makes him in an outlier in this day and age of limiting starts so
an under raced and fragile animal faces 19 foes and 150,000 screaming fans with
limited experience going 10 furlongs for the first time…sorry getting off soapbox now
Fun Fact – Fair Grounds-based trainer Tom Amoss knows his
way around a race track, winning close to 3,000 times with more than $71 million
in purses, in his 25 plus years. This is his first real Derby threat
Oxbow – a horse who owns remarkable bad luck in drawing the
far outside post in his last three starts, occurring traffic trouble in all
three, as well, and finally, getting caught at the Rebel Stakes finish line by
I’ll Take Charge.
Fun Fact – his human connections are ridiculously successful
– trainer D. Wayne Lukas, of winning just
about every important race in America and rider Gary Stevens, who is a
three-time Derby champ.
Other entrants could include, Falling Sky (not enough stamina) and Charming Kitten (recent third
place Blue Grass finish) or some senses may rain down from the Derby gods and the
Churchill gate may hold less than 20 starters.