Analyzing Magnum Moon's Arkansas Derby Victory

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

April 16th, 2018

If the fabled “Apollo Curse” is ever going to be broken, 2018 could certainly be the year.

No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a two-year-old, but times are changing and it’s possible that the two favorites for the 2018 Derby will be colts that went unraced as juveniles. Last week, Justify put his name in the mix with an impressive victory in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), and on Saturday, Magnum Moon joined him with a front-running triumph in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn Park.

Trained by Todd Pletcher, Magnum Moon has done little wrong since his January debut. In fact, he’s gone unbeaten in four starts at three different tracks, dominating the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn last month before coming back with an even more decisive victory in the Arkansas Derby. After setting the pace, Magnum Moon had plenty left in the tank to leave his rivals behind in the homestretch, sprinting the final three furlongs in a rapid :36.47 seconds (and the final furlong in a remarkable :11.99!) to win by four lengths while stopping the clock in 1:49.86.

However, there are a few reasons why I hesitate to take Magnum Moon’s performance at face value. For one, the main track at Oaklawn was playing reasonably fast on Saturday, as evidenced by the talented older horse City of Light clocking nine furlongs in a quick 1:48.26 while winning the Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II). As a result, Magnum Moon’s speed figures came back a bit slow compared to some of the other prep races—he received a 98 Beyer and a 99 BRIS speed figure, well below the figures of 107 and 114 posted by Justify in the Santa Anita Derby.

Secondly, Magnum Moon received a perfect trip in the Arkansas Derby, carving out slow fractions of :23.34, :48.60, and 1:13.39 while saving ground every step of the way. Those fractions were much slower than the numbers of :22.97, :46.63, and 1:11.53 posted in the Oaklawn Handicap, a race that nevertheless featured similar closing fractions of :36.73 for the final three furlongs and :12.12 for the final furlong.

But the thing that struck me most about Magnum Moon’s performance is that he changed to his right lead prematurely on the far turn, causing him to drift out exiting the turn. He continued to drift outward until approximately the eighth pole, at which point he was racing wider than any horse in the field.

Magnum Moon also drifted out in the homestretch of the Rebel Stakes, though his drift in the Arkansas Derby was much more pronounced. It might not prove to be an issue, but the fact that he’s done it twice in a row is a bit concerning, as is his premature lead change in the Arkansas Derby. A similar move coming off the far turn of the Kentucky Derby could be problematic.

For the above-listed reasons, I may lean against Magnum Moon in the Derby and try to beat him with horses offering better value, though with just under three weeks until the first Saturday in May, there's time for me to change my mind.

As for the other top finishers, Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) winner Quip ran well while finishing second, though he also benefited from being close to the slow pace and just barely managed to hold off the late-running pair of Solomini and Combatant, who endured wide trips from off the pace while finishing third and fourth. In terms of speed figures, they need to step up to be competitive in the Derby, but betters trips down the road could help them achieve better results.

What are your impressions from the Arkansas Derby?