Photo: Eclipse Sportswire
With the post position draw in the books, preparations for Kentucky Derby 139 are pretty much complete. Unless there is a last minute defection or a race day scratch, the field is set in stone and fans and horsemen alike can put the finishing touches on their handicapping. As for me, the draw did not change my top 5 picks, and it should be no surprise that my selections run the gamut from the morning line favorite to a 50-1 longshot. Without further ado, here are my Top 5 Derby picks.
1. Orb—Joel Rosario, Shug McGaughey, PP 16 (7-2)
Undefeated in three starts this year, it is hard to find anything to dislike about the son of Malibu Moon. His two Derby prep wins at Gulfstream Park were nothing short of spectacular. In the Fountain of Youth, he took advantage of the suicidal fractions set by Majestic Hussar and closed from well off the pace to prevail over a very game Violence. Jockey John Velazquez gave Orb a more tactical ride in the Florida Derby, keeping his mount closer to what ended up being a very reasonable pace. Orb then ran right past Itsmyluckyday to win going away. Velazquez, who rode both Orb and Verrazano to major Kentucky Derby prep wins, ultimately chose Verrazano, so trainer Shug McGaughey decided to reunite his charge with Joel Rosario. Rosario, who has been hotter than a two dollar pistol lately, rode Orb during his first five career starts. Orb has heavy stamina influences on the top and bottom of his pedigree, a red hot jockey, and the ability to sit closer to or further off the pace, depending on the pace. All this puts him at the top of my list.
This patriotically named son of Tapit put in two strong second place performances in a pair of Derby prep races at Aqueduct, missing the win by a nose to Overanalyze in the Remsen and finishing less than a length behind Verrazano in the Wood. In both 9 furlong affairs, he closed into a moderately slow pace, though he was closer to the pace in the Wood than is generally his wont. Tapit progeny have tended to be best up to 9 furlongs, but Oilisblackgold is graded stakes placed at 12 furlongs, Careless Jewel is a Grade 1 winner at 10 furlongs, and Rattlesnake Bridge is Grade 1 placed at 10 furlongs. A lively early pace coupled with Normandy Invasion’s strong closing style could spell victory for the Chad Brown trainee.
As a son of Rock Hard Ten, Black Onyx has the breeding to get the Derby distance. He is a stalker, a style of running that should theoretically keep him near the front of the pack and out of major traffic trouble. The downside for Black Onyx is that he lost by a country mile in his only start on a fast track. However, if the weather does not hold (the forecast calls for a 40% chance of rain), then Black Onyx rockets to the top of the list. Rock Hard Ten progeny like the mud, and Black Onyx already has a win and a second place finish over a sloppy track. He looked really good while winning the Spiral, and I expect him to keep his good form going forward. The rail post is far from ideal, but jockey Joe Bravo has racing in his DNA and will do everything in his power to get Black Onyx to where he needs to be.
4. Java’s War—Julien Leparoux, Kenny McPeek, PP 19 (15-1)
The bay son of War Pass has a tendency to break slowly. He is a deep closer, and the combination of breaking and racing style means that his far outside post is a moot point. He came from out of the clouds to finish a clear second behind Verrazano in the Tampa Bay Derby. He improved upon that race, which was his 2013 debut, and got up just in time to steal the Blue Grass away from Palace Malice. While the front runners are getting leg weary in the final furlong, Java’s War will be roaring up the track, ready to make his presence felt. After racing quite wide in the Blue Grass, the extra furlong should not bother him.
5. Verrazano—John Velazquez, Todd Pletcher, PP 14 (4-1)After much consideration, I decided that I needed a colt with more of a front-running style, and I landed on Verrazano as the front-runner most likely to win. It’s no secret that I was not impressed with his Wood Memorial win, but the fact of the matter is that he has done nothing wrong. He enters the Kentucky Derby undefeated, and if it weren’t for that pesky Apollo Curse lingering over his head, it would be very hard to argue against him on paper. Will he be the colt that finally breaks the Apollo Curse? Only time will tell.