Reilly’s Kentucky Derby horses of interest

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May 4th, 2018

If trying to handicap the Kentucky Derby (G1) is an annual exercise fraught with peril for me, Saturday’s 144th running is all the more so. I cannot remember another year with this strength in depth, where any of the first seven on my Top 10 list can not only win in theory, but would be totally logical. In other words, the pool of serious win candidates is larger and not so easily whittled down. 

Logic demands that I keep playing the game of trying to beat the favorite, especially with no shortage of appealing alternatives. But there’s another kind of logic – call it gut instinct or being swayed too powerful a visual impression – that prevents me.

Top picks:

#7 JUSTIFY (3-1) - Although there are no marks for originality on this one, and 136 years of history weighing down the scale against an unraced two-year-old in the Derby, I simply can’t escape the immense presence of this beast. Even the gaudy 114 Brisnet Speed rating he earned in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) was accomplished as though on cruise control, not a flat-to-the-boards effort that would leave concerns about regression. It goes without saying that he’ll face by far the toughest test, but the same goes for his 19 rivals. With his high cruising speed, and remarkable ability to race in his own zone, responsive to the rider but not over-aggressive, Justify should be able to work out the right trip. If his pedigree is no slam dunk for 1 1/4 miles, his physique and racing manners make me wonder whether he’s a “genetic sport,” a freak of nature eclipsing what might be expected from a Scat Daddy out of a Ghostzapper mare.

#6 GOOD MAGIC (12-1) – I’m keeping faith with this son of Curlin because he’ll get the best set-up since his career-best performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). That too represented a step up in trip in his third start, and resulted in a leap forward to a 105 Brisnet Speed rating. In the Derby, Good Magic stretches out to the classic distance he’s bred for, and receives the strong (or at least honest) pace that he’s lacked in both outings this term. If his 98 Speed ratings in the Fountain of Youth (G2) loss (that he plainly needed off the bench) and Blue Grass (G2) victory (despite a wide trip) are uninspiring among this group, I prefer to read that as a pattern similar to his first two starts at two – presaging another substantial improvement here. Considering that he achieved more than his pedigree entitled him to as a juvenile, we probably have not seen him at the peak of his powers yet.

#11 BOLT D’ORO (8-1) – This beautifully bred son of Medaglia d’Oro and an A.P. Indy mare has been top-class his entire life, and his typical effort would put him right in the frame. His masterpiece in the FrontRunner (G1) feels like a lifetime ago – never mind the Del Mar Futurity (G1) – but he’s been a victim of circumstances since. Can we forget that he was the 3-5 favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, when put in a hopeless position before uncorking a 104 Brisnet Late Pace rating for third? His well-documented muscle pull around New Year affected his training schedule and his prep plans. Yet Bolt d’Oro still came out and gave his all in a gut-wrenching slog with McKinzie (remember how highly he was ranked!) in the San Felipe (G2). And he tried his best again when vainly pursuing Justify around the track in the Santa Anita Derby, and putting up a career-best 110 BRIS Speed rating in the process. If Bolt d’Oro had skipped town for any other prep, and ran that same race, isn’t there a great chance he wins?  I’m not giving up on a horse who shows up every time and has a string of triple-digit BRIS Late Pace ratings.

The one I fear most:

#14 MENDELSSOHN (5-1), the strongest international to attempt the Derby, would have them in trouble if he repeats his monumental UAE Derby (G2), but he faces an entirely different scenario here. In Dubai, he just had to use his considerable early foot to get to the front, and from there it turned into a time trial on a surface that was playing very fast. By no means did he need the track bias that day – he would have won on the proverbial broken glass – but the time and the ridiculous margin were influenced by the conveyor belt carrying speed. Now Mendelssohn will have a different dirt experience in likely tracking the pace with several other key rivals. For a horse who’s mentally been a little behind, how will he react? In most Derbies, his talent might well help him get away with any imperfections. This year he probably won’t have that luxury. For that reason alone, I’m envisioning a feast-or-famine result. I won’t be surprised if he wins outright or if the occasion gets to him.

I want to like but with a caveat:

#16 MAGNUM MOON (6-1) is in a similar category in that he’s been impressive, but I’m not sure how he will respond to the unique challenge that is the Derby. It’s not so much his bearing out in the Arkansas Derby (G1) that puts me off (although any wayward behavior is worth heeding). Rather, it’s the vibe I get from him early. If Magnum Moon was supposed to learn to relax from his Tampa Bay two-turn excursion, he may not have taken the lesson to heart. Maybe it was just the lack of pace in the Arkansas Derby, or maybe he reacted a little too well to Luis Saez’s smooching, but Magnum Moon did not strike me as a horse switched off comfortably on the front end. It obviously didn’t matter in a race where he was controlling speed, but if he’s too aggressive early here, he’ll pay for it late. If the speed helps him relax a few lengths back, the blueblood bred like 2013 Derby hero Orb would perform a lot better. Like Mendelssohn, he shapes as a feast-or-famine prospect. He’s a worthy winner if he adapts, or he could find himself out of his rhythm.

Exotics key:

#17 SOLOMINI (30-1) just never looked comfortable in either the Rebel (G2) or Arkansas Derby, and I think it’s because he was held up off a moderate pace, and just doesn’t have the gears to quicken off that set-up. Still, the dogged grinder find a way to place in both. A faster pace here stands to help him revert to his top juvenile form when second in the FrontRunner and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and the disqualified first-past-the-post in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1). Granted that he’s not as naturally gifted as the main players, but he’s never been off the board while competing in the best company, and his never-say-die attitude can get him a minor award.


 #15 INSTILLED REGARD (50-1) - As I was see-sawing between Lone Sailor and My Boy Jack – both likeable – it dawned on me that their Fair Grounds form through Noble Indy correlates with Instilled Regard. Why not this $1,050,000 son of Arch, and grandson of Heavenly Prize, who looked like an exciting up-and-comer over the winter? Remember that he held his own between Solomini and McKinzie in the Los Alamitos Futurity, and strode away with authority in the Lecomte (G3). Maybe it was shipping twice from California that left him flat next time in the Risen Star (G2), and maybe he’s ready to move forward off his Santa Anita Derby fourth where it was difficult to make up ground.

In case you were wondering….

Vino Rosso has struck me all along as more of a Belmont S. (G1) type. Judging by how much time he wasted tackling Enticed before finally drawing off in the Wood Memorial (G2), I’m inclined to see him as one who gets up for a piece of the superfecta rather than a win candidate – unless he’s improved more mentally than I’m giving him credit for. In what could be an appalling error in judgment, for some reason I’m not really warming to the Gulfstream Park form. Audible’s BRIS Speed ratings (107 and 105) must be respected, but he’s meeting a far deeper crowd here. That’s the same reason why I’m hesitant about Hofburg. Exquisite Juddmonte pedigree, a rapidly progressive type, what’s not to love? Maybe a lightly raced colt trying to maneuver from well back in a 20-horse field, conceding first run on a few good ones. Like Vino Rosso, Hofburg could be the ideal Belmont horse – or one for Saratoga. I could also be underestimating Flameaway and Noble Indy, both admirably gritty types, but their on-the-engine style will put them in the crucible for the duration.

Good luck in what should be a fantastic Derby 144!