Finding holes in the current Kentucky Derby Top 20

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

July 21st, 2020

Handicapping and betting a horse race is sometimes like entering a voting booth. You can be genuinely enthusiastic about backing a particular horse or candidate, but often times you wind up taking a "lesser of evils" approach in your final decision-making.

Emphasizing the negatives, rather than the positives or an equal balance of the two, is not a bad way to dissect a race.

Anything that can speed up the process of elimination and finding the true "win" candidates is generally a good thing.

We're a little more than six weeks from the Kentucky Derby (G1) and the field is close to being finalized. We don't yet know what the points cutoff will be, but it's safe to say the options are increasingly narrow for those without sufficient points now to earn them over the next few weeks, especially when races like Shared Belief S. on Aug. 1 and the Travers (G1) on Aug. 8 figure to have heavily-backed favorites.

While the current Top 20 leaderboard below doesn't yet include horses many observers expect will eventually qualify (e.g. Uncle Chuck), here's a look at the top 20 U.S. point earners as the field now stands with an emphasis on the "cons." Starting at the bottom...

20. Anneau d'Or (32) was a photo-finish away from being the champion of this division at two, but has simply not built on that respectable juvenile form this season with three consecutive unplaced finishes in graded stakes.

19. Thousand Words (33) went from near the top of the Bob Baffert pecking order at the beginning of the year to a spot much farther down the list. Initially usurped by the now-sidelined Nadal and Charlatan, he's since been pushed aside by Uncle Chuck, who beat him handily in the Los Alamitos Derby (G3).

18. Storm the Court (36) ran an improved third in the Ohio Derby (G3) last out but that, and the rest of his record this year, just shows him to be one of the weaker juvenile colt champions of modern times.

17. Major Fed (38) has been hindered by some less-than-ideal trips of late, but overall has the look of a second tier 3-year-old and doesn't appear quick enough.

16. Rushie (40) is not yet nominated to the Triple Crown so technically is not this far up the leaderboard. However, connections surely will consider off recent thirds in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Blue Grass (G2). Speed-wise seems more of a threat for the lower-rungs of the exotics.

15. Max Player (40) has raced only twice since December, so hard to get gauge on how good he is and how much he's improved. Accepting the bare form as is, he still has a lot of ground to make up.

14. Shivaree (40), by virtue of his second in the Florida Derby (G1) at odds of 80-1, might still make the Derby lineup, thus helping to ensure a proper pace. Anything beyond that would be a complete shock.

13. Swiss Skydiver (40) is unlikely to try the boys again and instead will point for the Kentucky Oaks (G1). Although it would be interesting to see her in this spot, she doesn't strike us as the next Winning Colors, whose speed and physique made her an imposing presence against males. Nor does this race seem as exploitable as the 1980 version won by Genuine Risk, when arguably the two best colts (maybe more) in the crop weren't among the entries.

12. Enforceable (43) will offer appeal to bettors as the stereotypical closer that should relish 1 1/4 miles more than some of the others, but has yet to run a race fast enough to be considered more than fringe exotics fodder.

11. Country Grammer (50) is now 2-for-2 over 1 1/8 miles following a victory in last week's Peter Pan (G3), but will get a sterner test in the Travers where he'll get a chance to show whether he's a legit prospect or better suited to a softer spot.

10. Mischevious Alex (50) has not yet run beyond a mile on the main track, and while still officially on the Derby trail, it's hard to see him successfully stretching out around two turns in the near term.

9. Modernist (70) has fared poorly in back-to-back runs in the Belmont S. (G1) and Peter Pan, and pressing on to the Derby would seemingly be hard to justify at this point.

8. Ete Indien (74) ran out of gas dueling with Shivaree in a Gulfstream allowance in early June, and a recent setback forced him to miss last Saturday's Haskell (G1). Hard to envision him being more than a pace factor based on what we've seen lately.

7. Dr Post (80) ran two similar races on the speed-figure scale in the Belmont and Haskell, and certainly didn't have the pace to run at in the latter. Could be an intriguing price option come Derby Day given his upward trajectory, though long gap from the Haskell might work against him to some extent.

6. King Guillermo (90) seemingly has the talent to make a splash against other division heavyweights, but the obvious cause for pause is that he's being trained up to the Derby having last run on May 2 in a division of the Arkansas Derby (G1). That's the equivalent of turning in your final prep for a conventionally scheduled Derby on the first Saturday in January. Not impossible, but likely bucking at least a century of history trying to win it that way.

5. Art Collector (100) is one of the more obvious beneficiaries of the Derby being postponed four months as he's come on incredibly strong this summer. Blue Grass was fast and suggested an extra furlong will more than be in his wheelhouse. Not sure what to make of the decision to prep once more in the Ellis Park Derby on Aug. 8. You don't really want to have your last prep eight weeks ahead of time, but the benefits of dealing with the sauna of Henderson, Kentucky, in August would seem minimal by comparison.

4. Ny Traffic (110) has been a hard-luck sort this year with three straight runner-up finishes, all by diminishing margins. Clearly much improved as the spring and summer have progressed, but relatively camera shy (2-for-9) and perhaps more of a "use underneath" type.

3. Honor A. P. (120) would likely go off second choice if the Derby were held today given how impressive he looked in the Santa Anita Derby. Will have one more spin, in the Shared Belief, before heading to Kentucky. Has been treated with kid gloves by John Shirreffs, who's won this race before but with a different type of horse, which makes one wonder whether it's been by design or out of necessity.

2. Authentic (200) will train up to the Derby after barely scraping by in the Haskell. Has often given the impression of being a sort that is reaching the uppermost of his ability at 9 furlongs and wouldn't want much part of a 10th, though Baffert has hinted it's more to do with his tendency to lose focus and fall victim to distraction. Definitely a talented runner, but risky at a short price.

1. Tiz the Law (272) is hard to find flaws with at this point. Has been dominant in all three outings so far this term, is plenty fast, and will have had a successful and well-spaced campaign leading up to Louisville if he happens to ace his next intended test in the Travers. Keep in mind, though, he was underwhelming in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) in his only previous try at Churchill and the form of that race, besides him, hasn't panned out long term. He'll also have just four weeks between back-to-back 10-furlong races. This is an unprecedented year, but how often do we see horses three and up successful in back-to-back mile-and-a-quarter races on the main track in this country anymore, much less see it at all?