Kentucky Derby offers plenty of intrigue yet again

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Ted Black

May 6th, 2016

Tomorrow afternoon the entire thoroughbred racing world will focus on the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky as the historic oval hosts the latest edition of the Grade I, $2.4 million Kentucky Derby, America's most famous horse race and the often-dubbed most exciting two minutes in sports.

Of course, with the absence of a genuine super horse in the Derby, the running time will likely be considerably slower than the two minutes that so few winners of the run for the roses have been able to attain. Nevertheless, this year's edition of the Derby features last year's two-year-old champion who arrives with an unblemished record and the obvious public choice.

Nyquist has won all seven of his lifetime starts for trainer Doug O'Neill, jockey Mario Gutierrez and owner Reddam Racing LLC, the same trio that launched I'll Have Another to Kentucky Derby and Preakness scores. A sophomore son of Uncle Mo, Nyquist heads into the Derby following a three-length score in the Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park in which he trounced previously undefeated Mohaymen on that one's home course. Although he yielded the favorite's role to Mohaymen in the Florida Derby, Nyquist will be the solid 5-2 choice when the gates open on Saturday evening.

Coincidentally, just to his outside is Mohaymen, whose perfect record suffered its first blemish when Nyquist thumped him in the Florida Derby on a day when the Kiaran McLaughlin trainee was the 4-5 favorite. But after settling for fourth following a wide journey, Mohaymen will easily drift up to anywhere from 8-1 to 12-1 on Saturday. The Tapit colt had been considered the future book favorite for the Derby prior to being trounced at Gulfstream Park, but he could be relegated to the third or fourth choice tomorrow evening.

Trainer Steve Asmussen has won virtually every major race in the sport except the Kentucky Derby and tomorrow evening he will saddle a pair of logical contenders. Creator rallied from far off the pace despite traffic trouble to capture the Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park last month, while Gun Runner arrives off a pair of Grade II victories at the Fair Grounds. Creator needed six tries to break his maiden, but he has won two of his last three outings while Gun Runner won at first asking and has scored in four of five tries.

Trainer Todd Pletcher often arrives in Louisville with a handful of Derby starters, but this year he will saddle only two. While Pletcher has had unmistakably limited success in the Derby - Super Saver is his lone victor - he will send out a pair of logical horses tomorrow. Destin won a pair of graded stakes at Tampa Bay this winter, while Outwork captured the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in determined fashion after running second to Destin in the Tampa Bay Derby and Javier Casetllano stuck with him when the two met at Tampa.

One year after guiding American Pharoah through a successful Triple Crown campaign and eventually a Breeders Cup Classic score as well en route to being horse of the year and the future book favorite for horse of the decade, trainer Bob Baffert will only have one runner in the gate tomorrow. Mor Spirit was the beaten favorite in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby last out after finishing second in the Grade II San Felipe one start prior. Mor Spirit has actually been favored in all seven of his lifetime starts, but he will be anywhere from 10-1 to 15-1 on Saturday.

Perhaps the one horse that many observers give the best chance to topple Nyquist tomorrow is Exaggerator, sharp winner of the Grade I Santa Anita four weeks ago over a sloppy main track. Exaggerator had finished second to Nyquist in their respective tthree-year-old debuts in the San Vicente then he was third behind Danzing Candy and Mor Spirit in the San Felipe. His jockey, Kent Desormeaux, is no stranger to winning the run for the roses, but his brother, trainer Keith Desormeaux, is in quest of his first.

Another logical sort who is fresh off a Grade I score is Brody's Cause, who rallied from far off the pace to capture the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. A  Giant's Causeway colt trained by Dale Romans, Brody's Cause was seventh as the 2-1 choice in the Tampa Bay Derby in his sophomore debut, but rebounded right away to prevail in Kentucky. In fact, his four best efforts have come in the state, including a maiden special weight score at Churchill Downs and two wins at Keeneland, plus a third-place effort in the Breeders Cup Juvenile behind Nyquist.

One of the more intriguing runners in the field is Lani, a Japanese-based runner who arrives off a determined score in the Grade II, $2 million UAE Derby. A Tapit colt trained by Mikio Matsunaga, needed three starts to garner his dilpoma in Japan, but he has performed well on dirt tracks. Legendary Japanese jockey Yataka Take will make the journey to compete in his second Kentucky Derby, roughly 25 years after having his lone prior mount in the run for the roses.

Danzing Candy settled for fourth in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby after winning the Grade II San Felipe in wire-to-wire fashion for trainer Clifford Sise, but he will break from post 20 tomorrow. Suddenbreakingnews, Oscar Nominated, Shagaf and Mo Tom boast Grade III victories this year, while Trojan Nation, My Man Sam, Whitmore, Tom's Ready and Majesto have yet to attain a stakes victory of any type. Trojan Nation is still a maiden from six starts and was second in the Wood at 81-1 and could be an even higher price tomorrow.

While many will back Nyquist with considerable confidence tomorrow, my guess is the unbeaten colt who is the best of a subpar group of sophomores will taste his first setback. But there are numerous tempting option other than Grade I winners Creator, Exaggerator, Outwork and Brody's Cause, all of which will be lower prices than expected because of their recent tallies. Three of them were not even favored in their prep races.

Horses such as Trojan Nation, My Man Sam, Whitmore, Tom's Ready and Majesto appear obvious tosses based on class, while Mo Tom, Lani, Destin, Tom's Ready and Gun Runner all prepped six weeks ago. So, for me the value evolves around horses that ran well in Grade I stakes last out but tasted defeat - Suddenbreakingnews, Mor Spirit and Mohaymen. All three will be very generous prices tomorrow heading into the Derby off setbacks, but all three are poised for a big effort. So my top three picks are Mor Spirit, Suddenbreakingnews and Mohaymen, with the Baffert trainee prevailing by a head in 2:02.87.