Pros & Cons of 2015 Kentucky Derby Contenders
The Kentucky Derby post-position draw is a week away and a strong field is shaping up for the 1 ¼-mile classic.
The following are my Pros and Cons for the top 23 horses based on points.
INTERNATIONAL STAR (171 points)
Pros: Concluded 2014 with little fanfare, finishing a non-threatening fourth in Kentucky Jockey Club at 36-1, but improved significantly at age three, reeling off consecutive wins in Lecomte, Risen Star and Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. International Star earned a 107 BRIS Late Pace rating last time and Derby could set up nicely for his rally – like the finishing kick he’s displayed on the far turn and fearless colt is willing to bull his way through tight spaces.
Cons: Run style may offer appeal for bottom of exotics, but International Star will be facing a steep class hike after defeating suspect rivals in New Orleans. His BRIS Speed numbers are lower than the top contenders and must avoid getting stopped in traffic given his affinity for racing along the inside.
DORTMUND (170 points)
P: By 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, Dortmund is fast, determined and showed an affinity for Churchill Downs when crushing allowance foes last fall. Perfect from six starts, he gained valuable seasoning winning a pair of dogfights against Firing Line in his first two stakes attempts and the imposing chestnut proceeded to dominate well-regarded foes in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby, registering an outstanding 106 BRIS Speed rating in the latter. Dortmund’s terrific form looms extremely large.
C: Won’t be surprised to see him handle 10 furlongs, but broodmare sire Tale of the Cat doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence when it comes to the Kentucky Derby. In terms of trip, Dortmund doesn’t want to get caught chasing a hot pace during the early stages – the chestnut possesses plenty of speed (111 E1 and 118 E2 Early Pace ratings last time) but jockey Martin Garcia will probably look to settle and stalk the front-runners. And it will be interesting to see how the massive colt responds if forced to check or alter course in traffic -- Dortmund’s basically maintained a straight path, kept either in the clear outside (Los Alamitos Futurity) or on the pace along the rail (last three starts) in all his stakes attempts.
CARPE DIEM (164 points)
P: Far superior in both starts this year, multiple Grade 1 scorer appeared to leave plenty in the tank when taking the Blue Grass by three easy lengths last time and Giant’s Causeway colt is bred to relish longer distances with a stout female family. His tactical speed has proved to be an asset and experienced a troubled trip in only setback, rallying for second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Similar to American Pharoah, Carpe Diem leaves the impression that we haven’t seen his best yet and supporters are expecting another step forward on Derby Day -- likely third betting choice must be considered very dangerous.
C: Appears to own plenty of room for improvement, but BRIS Speed ratings this year are a little light given his reputation (96 and 102). Displayed plenty of speed in all four wins, dispatching overmatched rivals by the head of the stretch each time, but expected to change tactics Derby Day – experienced all kinds of trouble when taken out of element before. Will a pair of easy wins have him ready?
AMERICAN PHAROAH (160)
P: Couldn’t have been more impressive from a visual standpoint in the Arkansas Derby and brings an air of superiority to the mix. American Pharoah was just getting warmed up in his first two starts this year, giving the indication that he hasn’t fired his best shot yet, and if the athletic colt possesses another gear, as many suspect, there may be no stopping him. Unbeaten since career debut, reeling off four consecutive authoritative stakes wins, two-year-old champ has supporters thinking Triple Crown due to his skills. He could lead all the way or rate off a hot pace and pounce – a threat to keep dominating.
C: Long-striding colt didn’t display any distance limitations in Arkansas Derby but difference between nine and 10 furlongs has tripped up pedigree-challenged horses before. And American Pharoah hasn’t been seriously tested at any point of his four stakes victories; he’s stepping up to face more talented rivals and could face intense pace pressure in a 20-horse field loaded with early types. He’s obviously receiving plenty from sire Pioneerof the Nile, a son of Empire Maker, because his female family is built for sprint distances, which is generally considered a negative for Derby horses by pedigree analysts who prefer speed on top and stamina on the bottom. American Pharoah could prove to be the exception – a horse with his talent could make any doubts look foolish – but still has to prove it first, at expected short odds, in only the third start since September.
P: Entered year as top contender after a close runner-up in stakes debut, the Remsen, and ran well finishing second to Upstart in Holy Bull at Gulfstream. Appeared headed the wrong way fast when stopping on the lead in Fountain of Youth but underwent a minor surgical procedure to improve his breathing afterward and came back with career-best in TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial, stamping himself as a potential serious player with a two-length score and a field-best 107 BRIS Speed rating. Numerous examples of horses continuing to improve in the second start after throat surgery, including 1987 Kentucky Derby winner Alysheba, and Frosted is eligible to make his presence felt if he keeps moving forward. Stalker figures to settle near midpack and could get right set-up for his finishing kick.
C: All three wins have come at Aqueduct and faced a suspect field last time – can he continue to raise his game against elite company at Churchill Downs? His propensity for 10 furlongs and ability to handle kickback have been questioned and doubters will label Frosted as a regression candidate due his massive career-topper last time.
P: Fitness won’t be an issue, with five starts since December 31, and 10 furlongs appears ideal given his long-distance breeding and a pair of strong performances at 1 3/16 miles. Posted a spectacular eight-length victory in U.A.E. Derby winner and Mubtaahij is by far the most imposing Kentucky Derby shipper ever from Dubai. Opinions differ on the quality of rivals he was facing last time, with some observers praising its depth, and Mubtaahij’s eye-catching turn of foot left the competition in shambles. World-renowned trainer Mike De Kock, who has won or placed in all six U.S. starts, appears dialed in to the process and Mubtaahij could challenge for it all if he shows up with his best on May 2.
C: ‘Who did he beat?’ is a common refrain as well as the miserable record of Dubai shippers in the Kentucky Derby. The “prove-it-too-me-first” mentality is often a smart play for bettors and this could be the wrong year for a good horse from Dubai given the top-heavy competition. Mubtaahij will have little margin for error at Churchill Downs – can he keep moving forward while stepping into a new environment and facing the congestion of a 20-horse field?
P: In previous years, a horse of Materiality’s talent would be getting a lot more attention as the first unraced two-year-old to possibly win the Kentucky Derby since 1882. He’s good, perhaps really good, and earned an excellent 105 BRIS Speed rating stretching his unbeaten record to three in the Florida Derby. Like how he took the best shot from Upstart and won going away under the wire last time and son of Preakness and Belmont hero Afleet Alex is bred for the 1 ¼-mile distance. History is against him but Materiality is not out of the question as a win contender – front-runner remains eligible for further improvement.
C: Lacked of juvenile foundation isn’t the only question facing him – speedy colt has never been worse than second at any point of call. Materiality could still show speed despite a preponderance of early types in the field, registering 103 E1 and 115 E2 BRIS Early Pace ratings last time, but what happens if he winds up being forced back during the opening stages? He’s never faced deep competition or a large field, and never been keen on horses racing exclusively at one location (Gulfstream) before the Kentucky Derby.
EL KABEIR (95)
P: Captured the Kentucky Jockey Club wire to wire at Churchill Downs last November and will be re-united with three-time Kentucky Derby winner Calvin Borel. El Kabeir has adapted successfully to rating tactics in recent starts, a positive given that he’ll probably look to make one run in the Derby, and three-time stakes victor hasn’t finished off the board in last six starts. Gray colt has shown the willingness to lay his body down and his gameness could help him outperform expectations.
C: He was never a serious threat when stretching out to nine furlongs with a third in the Wood and extra furlong in Kentucky Derby doesn’t appear favorable. Was able to avoid top company in New York during the winter/spring but severe class hike awaits and difficult to imagine him making much of an impact with added ground. He’s got a chance to make a lot of money this summer/fall in races like the Ohio Derby, West Virginia Derby and Indiana Derby.
P: After a solid juvenile season, including placings in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Champagne, Upstart established himself as a top 5 contender when opening the year with a smashing 5 ½-length victory in the Holy Bull, registering a superb 105 BRIS Speed rating. Luster started to wane when being disqualified to second in the Fountain of Youth, with his Speed rating dropping to a 95 as they crawled home over a tiring track, and Upstart faltered as the even-money favorite when catching another grueling oval in a Florida Derby runner-up. The latter, behind an impressive front-running Materiality, was certainly no disgrace and Upstart could actually benefit from those tough efforts if he catches a much faster surface on Derby Day as expected. He’s a seasoned, hard-hitting ridgling who could show up with his best and the quality performer may be a little overlooked in the betting. Intriguing to say the least.
C: Upstart is an enigma – don’t know whether he peaked too soon this season or has enough left in the tank after a potential bottoming performance. And despite a suitable pedigree at first glance (by Flatter and out of a mare by Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold), there is plenty of speed in his female family, with his second dam being by champion Housebuster, leading to speculation that 10 furlongs may not be an optimal distance at this point of his career. He’s risky to dismiss but mixed feelings surround his chances.
FAR RIGHT (62)
P: Late runner broke maiden over the track and owns a 3-1-1-1 mark at Churchill Downs. Far Right opened sophomore campaign with victories in the Smarty Jones and Southwest and tuned up for Kentucky Derby with a runner-up in the Arkansas Derby. The confirmed closer will be included underneath in many exotic tickets given pace projections and he’s never been off the board in five route starts. Chestnut will attempt to make a bold statement in the final furlongs.
C: Pedigree raises red flags for the 1 ¼-mile distance and would’ve preferred to see him run fast in preps given the class hike he’s facing – BRIS Speed ratings of 92-93-93 this season are among the worst in the field.
P: Won his first two starts at Gulfstream before being elevated to first in the Fountain of Youth after being interfered with in the stretch. Didn’t fire in Florida Derby, but Lemon Drop Kid colt is better than he showed last time and has earned triple-digit BRIS Speed ratings (102 in his second start) previously. Itsaknockout will try to make an impact from off the pace.
C: Todd Pletcher had the option to ship elsewhere – he had Materiality pointing to the Florida Derby – but Itsaknockout took a significant step backward last time, never a positive sign heading into the Kentucky Derby. He’s two for two at one-turn distances but hasn’t run as fast in a pair of route attempts, and a lack of experience outside of Gulfstream won’t help him Derby Day.
FIRING LINE (58)
P: The talent is there if he can get the distance. Firing Line pushed Dortmund to the limit in his first two stakes attempts, finishing a head second in the Los Alamitos Futurity and Robert Lewis, and rolled to a confidence-building 14-length tally in his final prep, Sunland Derby. Three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens is high on the speedy colt’s potential, saying he learned a great deal about how to ride him after picking up the mount in the Lewis, and Firing Line’s BRIS numbers are increasing nicely. Could easily get lost in the shuffle in such a deep field but may be foolish to count him out.
C: Would be a more viable win contender at nine furlongs, but 1 ¼-mile distance threatens to derail his chances. Also has to work out a trip after racing on the front end in his last three outings and could be wanting to run early following a six-week freshening. He tries hard and it will be no surprise to see Firing Line in a prominent spot turning for home, but don’t know how much he’ll have left for the stretch drive.
DANZIG MOON (45)
P: Rates as a sleeper in his third stakes appearance. Danzig Moon registered a 104 BRIS Late Pace rating when posting a visually-impressive maiden win three starts back and gained seasoning next out finishing fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby. Improved significantly with a rallying Blue Grass second, earning a career-best 99 Speed as well as a 102 Late Pace number, and he’s familiar with the Churchill Downs oval, training over the surface last year and recording a fast-finishing second in his juvenile finale. Still has plenty of upside and will be running late – one to consider underneath at long odds.
C: Won’t dismiss his chances for part from off the pace – Derby could set up well for a closer – but Danzig Moon facing an extreme class check and could still be at least a race away from his best. His numbers are far from overwhelming and no guarantee the high-strung colt will show up with his best in difficult environment.
WAR STORY (44)
P: Based at Churchill Downs with Tom Amoss, War Story posted a sharp maiden score at first asking under the Twin Spires. Finished second to International Star in first two stakes attempts at Fair Grounds and was bet down to 2-1 in the Louisiana Derby, but appeared compromised by a wide trip behind a moderate pace in a third-place showing. Figures to make one run from off the pace in a speed-laden Derby field and late-running longshots offer exotics appeal – hard-trying gelding has never finished off the board in five career starts.
C: Did not face top company at Fair Grounds this winter/spring and disappointing to see his worse performance come at nine furlongs, leading to both quality and distance concerns. He possesses only a career-best 96 BRIS Speed rating and not sure if he’s headed in the right direction presently.
P: Exits a much-improved showing in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial, looking strong as he surged to the lead leaving the far turn before being run down by Frosted, and earned an excellent 105 BRIS Speed rating finishing a clear second. That marked his third stakes attempt, and second with blinkers, and improving New York-bred has a shot to grind his way to a respectable finish.
C: He’ll be severely tested for class while making his first start outside the friendly confines of Aqueduct, and Tencendur must avoid a regression after earning a Speed rating 14 points better than his previous career-best. And 10 furlongs is a concern given his speed-oriented female family.
P: Finished second to Materiality (dq’ed for interference) in first two-turn start and followed with a career-best second in the Louisiana Derby, leading all the way until deep stretch. Improving colt possesses a favorable pedigree for the 1 ¼-mile distance and is being readied by leading trainer Todd Pletcher
C: He’s performed well displaying speed since stretching out to a route but got away with moderate fractions both times and will receive no such luxury in the Kentucky Derby. Still figures to be sent – it’s his only chance to be a significant factor – but may not be ready to handle steep class hike given his lower BRIS Speed ratings.
P: Concluded his juvenile season on a high note, finishing only a neck back of Dortmund when third in the Los Alamitos Futurity, and has four-time Kentucky Derby-winning conditioner D. Wayne Lukas in his corner. Sophomore season has featured some lows, including a bolting episode that cost him a likely victory in the Southwest and a last-place effort in the Louisiana Derby, but could be headed back in the right direction following a third in the Arkansas Derby. His lone victory came at Churchill Downs.
C: BRIS Speed ratings dropped precipitously this year from his juvenile campaign and Mr. Z has lost ground in the stretch of all four outings this season, never a positive sign for a Kentucky Derby contender. He’s never been worse than third at the first call of his last nine starts and tough to envision him working out a favorable trip on Derby Day. No surprise if he winds up overmatched once again.
OCHO OCHO OCHO (30)
P: By 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, Ocho Ocho Ocho posted commendable BRIS Speed numbers (101 and 104) when capturing his first three starts last year and we can draw a line through his troubled eighth in the 2015 bow. He came back with a decent third in the Blue Grass, setting the pace before giving way to Carpe Diem in upper stretch, and that effort could toughen him up for his third start off the layoff in the Kentucky Derby.
C: Despite pedigree, smallish colt has arguably seemed better suited to distances less than 10 furlongs and may get caught chasing a hot pace on Derby Day given that he’s never displayed much of a finishing kick. Prefer to see Derby horses run back, or exceed the Speed numbers they earned at two, but that isn’t the case with speedy Ocho Ocho Ocho, who registered only a 93 when weakening in the Blue Grass stretch.
P: Made his mark initially on turf, posting sharp wins in a maiden special weight and the Eddie Logan, and ran well when trying dirt in the San Felipe, beaten only 1 ¾ lengths in third behind Dortmund. He experienced a wide trip throughout before gutting out a third in the Santa Anita Derby and isn’t a hopeless longshot based upon those efforts, registering BRIS Speed ratings of 100 and 98, respectively. Bolo is bred to relish longer distances and possesses some tactical speed – he’ll attempt to advance into a favorable position turning for home in his third start off a layoff.
C: Trainer Carla Gaines didn’t sound optimistic about his Kentucky Derby chances when telling the Daily Racing Form after the Santa Anita Derby, “(Bolo) is actually better on grass. He has a different way of going on grass.” And this isn’t a good year to be taking a chance given the level of quality among the top contenders. Can’t be completely dismissed from consideration for a minor award, but may be best to wait until he presumably returns to turf next time out.
P: His form improved when stretching out to two turns, easily breaking his maiden at Gulfstream before a 1 1/8-mile allowance tally, and was transferred to Todd Pletcher prior to the latter. Recorded an encouraging second behind American Pharoah in the Rebel, easily outfinishing Bold Conquest after being on even terms in midstretch, and connections hope he will continue to improve upon an even fourth in the Arkansas Derby.
C: Did not show the needed improvement last time to merit positive expectations in the Kentucky Derby, equaling a career-best with a dismal 91 BRIS Speed rating. May develop into a nice one going forward, but stalker appears overmatched at this stage of his career.
KEEN ICE (22)
P: Broke his maiden at Churchill Downs last fall, making up eight lengths in the stretch drive, and is trained by Dale Romans, who has placed in two of the last five Derbys. Distance looks like no issue for the son of Curlin and Keen Ice’s finishing kick will offer exotics appeal behind a possible hot pace.
C: Entered the year with decent expectations following a late-running third in the Remsen but failed to make a significant impact in three preps, including a disappointing fourth last time in the Louisiana Derby. Tough to imagine his BRIS Speed ratings this year (92-94-92) getting it done and Keen Ice has failed to register a triple-digit Late Pace number in 2015. Supporters will be hoping for massive improvement.
P: Has shown flashes of promise, including a late charge for third in the Fountain of Youth, and two-time Kentucky Derby winning trainer Nick Zito believes his charge is improving at the right time. Dedicated closer may receive the right set-up and his BRIS numbers (Speed and Late Pace) have increased in each start this year. Frammento is only a maiden winner but hopes to emulate the last two runner-ups, Golden Soul and Commanding Curve, huge longshots who turned in career-best performances on Derby Day.
C: Despite modest appeal as a late runner, Frammento is facing much deeper competition than Golden Soul and Commanding Curve the past two years and his form warrants little enthusiasm – he was no threat to the top three in the Blue Grass most recently and is arguably too slow to challenge.
BOLD CONQUEST (17)
P: Finished a neck second in the Iroquois Stakes last September and concluded juvenile season with a pair of stakes placings. Has posted triple-digit BRIS Late Pace ratings and could receive a favorable set-up with a hot and contested pace up front.
C: Beaten only a half-length for third in Arkansas Derby but fifth-place effort was disappointing given the talent drop-off behind American Pharoah. Has displayed little improvement at age three and appears unlikely to make an impact if he gets in the field.