Picking Derby winner might come down to whose negatives you can accept

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

April 26th, 2016

While I admittedly stood against them because I generally don't like backing favorites in the Kentucky Derby (G1), both American Pharoah last year and California Chrome in 2014 had, in my opinion, few if any negatives going into their respective races. Even when plopping money down on a rival, I always felt in the back of my mind those races would ultimately go through them.

Nyquist, the undefeated juvenile champion and current Derby favorite, I don't feel the same about at all. Perhaps I'll be proved wrong about that. Although deserving of his present status, he still hasn't run a truly fast race around two turns and his pedigree (Uncle Mo out of a Forestry mare) is still a sticking point in regards to his ability to be more effective than others at 1 1/4 miles.

Normally by this time, 10 days or so out from the Derby, I will have zeroed in on at least a few horses I'm seriously considering. For various reasons, this year's Derby is inscrutable as any I can think of among those of the last 20 years, perhaps on par with 2009. Before final works, post positions and weather are taken into account, my process of elimination is likely to come down to whose negatives I'm able to accept more than others.

Oscar Nominated, who eked out a win in the Spiral (G3), appears unlikely to pull an Animal Kingdom and win the Derby in his first dirt attempt. Lani, likewise, has not met a field this good and his UAE Derby (G2) victory was far from overwhelming. And does Majesto even run second in the Florida Derby (G1), and thus qualify for Kentucky, if not for the complete dud thrown in by the favorite? I'm guessing no.

What about the colts who repeatedly fell short in their prep races? Tom's Ready and Whitmore have been found wanting throughout the winter and spring, and now face a field that's even more loaded than what they encountered at Fair Grounds and Oaklawn, respectively. And then there's Trojan Nation, who's on the improve but has never won a race. No Derby has been won by a horse with that kind of baggage since Brokers Tip in 1933's "Fighting Finish."

Deep closers are always popular in some respects. Sure they can get the distance, but often not as fast as people think. There is no shortage of them here: Mo Tom had some troubled trips in New Orleans, but is he really fast enough to beat all of these even with a smoother journey? Creator and Suddenbreakingnews are come-from-the-clouds types who got some help on the front end of the Arkansas Derby (G1). Can they possibly get that kind of set-up again? Brody's Cause and the improving My Man Sam are generally consistent, but that Blue Grass (G1) was one of the slowest preps of the year.

Speaking of slow, that Wood Memorial (G1) won by Outwork was the most tepid in its history run at 1 1/8 miles. I give him credit him for hanging tough after doing much of the dirty work pace-wise, but it would have been nice if there were actual evidence of him being able to settle. One horse definitely not doing that is Danzig Candy, who looked really good winning the San Felipe (G2) on the front end and not so much when setting an unnecessarily fast pace in the Santa Anita Derby (G1). With their styles, I'm not so sure either is cut out for 10 furlongs. Shagaf probably is, but his Gotham (G3) was no great shakes and he had every right to do better in the Wood and couldn't.

Destin produced some of the best efforts during the prep season taking the Sam F. Davis (G3) and Tampa Bay Derby (G2), but an eight-week layoff is still eight weeks. Talk about having to literally blow up an ironclad "Derby Rule." There's no knocking Mor Spirit's consistency, yet Bob Baffert's previous Derby winners had more speed rating power going in or were winning their preps with relative ease.

Mohaymen proved some of his skeptics right by not showing up in the Florida Derby. Can he actually take the step forward off his juvenile form that many thought he would have done by now? He'll have to pull a Thunder Gulch, who bombed in his final prep after winning twice in Florida, to do so.

Gun Runner and Exaggerator, along with Nyquist, are the top three points earners. There is much to like about Gun Runner, especially his tactical foot and ability to put some distance between himself and the others at crucial points. However, Fair Grounds traditionally has not been a breeding ground for Derby winners and we've already raised concerns about some of those he was beating. Exaggerator has shown he's got a real nice turn of foot and an ability to accelerate when well-timed, yet how much can we take away from a Santa Anita Derby that set up perfectly for him in regards to track condition and pace?

There's still lots to decipher and a week and half to figure it out. Here's hoping more negatives become apparent to help whittle down the list of contenders.