Scully’s virtual Kentucky Derby: Triple Crown Showdown analysis

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April 29th, 2020

The Kentucky Derby has been postponed to Sept. 5, but NBC Sports will televise a virtual Kentucky Derby: Triple Crown Showdown on the first Saturday in May. Tune into Churchill Downs’ virtual “Kentucky Derby at Home” party on NBC on May 2 from 3-6 p.m. ET.

Post positions and morning-line odds have been revealed for the 13 Triple Crown race winners, and I will analyze the field in order of selection:

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#3 SECRETARIAT (7-2 morning line): The one to beat with his best, Secretariat broke track records winning all three legs of the Triple Crown handily, shattering the world mark for 1 1/2 miles when taking the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths, and a strong argument can be made that he’s greatest horse ever to sweep the three-race series. His versatility was amazing, but Secretariat didn’t always show up with his best, losing 3-of-10 dirt starts in 1973. He had excuses every time, but inconsistent form lines can’t be dismissed outright. Not against this stellar cast of hard-hitting opponents, with his main rivals never losing twice at age 3. Secretariat remains the most likely winner, but supporters will have to settle for a short price – Secretariat was odds-on in 16 of his last 17 starts.

#8 CITATION (4-1): Powerful stretch runner capable of making his presence felt. Citation romped in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, winning 19-of-20 starts during a magical 1948 season, and easily defeated three future Hall of Famers while stringing together an incredible 16-race win streak at the peak of his powers. “I never saw a better one,” said Jimmy Jones, who trained the great Calumet homebred with his father, six-time Kentucky Derby winner Ben Jones.

#5 SEATTLE SLEW (5-1): Serious wire-to-wire threat. When it comes to pure speed horses at a route of ground, Seattle Slew was among the best ever. The imposing dark bay uncharacteristically broke badly in the 1977 Kentucky Derby, spotting the field several lengths, and sped through traffic in the blink of the eye to contest an opening half-mile in :45 4/5 before drawing off to an easy win. Two weeks later, Seattle Slew dueled with a speedball through :22 3/5, :45 3/5 and 1:09 4/5 fractions, recording the fastest mile in Preakness history at the time (1:34 4/5) before winning under wraps. Seattle Slew established a 7-furlong track record at age 3, eclipsing the 6-furlong record at Hialeah (1:08) en route to stopping the teletimer in 1:20 3/5, and he was all-out for the lead from the start of every race. With his legendary resolve, Seattle Slew could prove difficult to get past in the latter stages.

#10 WHIRLAWAY (8-1): Given his late kick in a speed-laden field, Whirlaway rates as a win contender. The Calumet Farm homebred could be a head case, losing numerous starts because he would bear out badly on turns, and the chestnut warhorse (58 starts over three seasons) couldn’t afford to blow either turn here. However, Ben Jones equipped his pupil with custom-made blinkers for the 1941 Kentucky Derby, and Whirlaway cornered perfectly at Churchill Downs while rallying from far back to score by a widening eight-length margin.

#11 COUNT FLEET (6-1): His speed should guarantee a prominent spot tracking the pace from an ideal outside post. Known simply as “The Count,” Count Fleet captivated the nation in 1943 with a dazzling display of superiority, winning the Triple Crown by a combined 36-length margin. There’s no telling how far his dominant 10-race win streak would’ve stretched if the smallish colt hadn’t sustained a career-ending injury obliterating the track record (2:26) and win-margin record (25 lengths) in the Belmont Stakes.

#6 AMERICAN PHAROAH (6-1): Should be well-positioned from the start and with his turn of foot, American Pharoah is eligible to be in a favorable spot turning for home. The first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, the Bob Baffert-trained colt wasn’t seriously tested in most starts, but it always exciting to see American Pharoah humble the competition while winning with plenty in reserve. A top three finish could be within his grasp, but the front-running colt did not run his best race at Churchill Downs, posting a hard-fought victory in the Kentucky Derby.

#1 AFFIRMED (5-1): Drawing the rail post may compromise his chances. Affirmed finished first in 10 consecutive starts, winning 14 Grade 1 stakes under the direction of Lazaro Barrera, and the chestnut was famous for his tenacity, turning back eventual Hall of Famer Alydar in their last five meetings. However, Affirmed did his best running on the engine, proving less effective when utilizing stalking tactics, and there’s serious speed to his outside in the starting gate. He wasn’t fast enough to run with Seattle Slew in a pair of fall starts at age 3.

#12 JUSTIFY (15-1): Chestnut wouldn’t be able to overpower foes with raw skills, and Justify probably lacks the seasoning to thrive on the massive class hike. Front-running dynamo raced over only a 112-day period, having everything his own way by the far turn in 5-of-6 starts, and he would have to find a way to negotiate a trip in the speed-packed field. He did draw a favorable outside post, though, to avoid taking an abundance of kickback for the first time.

#9 WAR ADMIRAL (8-1): Slow starts a legitimate concern for confirmed front-runner. War Admiral was able to overcome fractious behavior at the starting gate against short fields or suspect competition, with his final 10 appearances coming against five rivals or less, but he would have no margin for error here. Owner Samuel Riddle was so concerned about gate issues, he insisted that “The Match Race of the Century” take place without a starting gate. Seabiscuit promptly outsprinted the slow-starting War Admiral to an early four-length advantage.

#7 GALLANT FOX (20-1): The first of two Triple Crown winners for William Woodward’s Belair Stud and trainer “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, Gallant Fox lost only once from 10 starts during his Triple Crown sweep in 1930. His final times weren’t fast compared to counterparts, and the front-running colt loved longer distances, winning a trio of important events at 1 5/8 miles or more. Closing from off the pace was not his game, and Gallant Fox may not be fast enough to carve out a reasonable trip in the top half of the field.

#2 ASSAULT (20-1): His form remains inferior to most in the stellar field, but Assault has the right off-the-pace run style to beat at least a couple of rivals on the first Saturday in May. King Ranch homebred won five of his first six starts in 1946, including the Triple Crown, and Assault counted convincing tallies in the Suburban and Brooklyn Handicaps among five straight stakes wins to open 1947. Throughout his career, Assault ran his best races in the spring/early summer before tailing off at the end of year.

#13 OMAHA (20-1): Consistency was not a staple for the Belair Stud homebred, who won 9-of-22 career starts. After losing his first eight stakes attempts, Omaha broke through in the 1935 Kentucky Derby. He posted fast times sweeping all three legs of the Triple Crown, but lost the Withers between the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Omaha didn’t factor in his lone start against older horses at age 3, finishing a well-beaten third to Discovery.

#4 SIR BARTON (20-1): Would likely find himself overmatched in this spot. Winless from six starts at age 2, Sir Barton broke his maiden when opening 1919 in the Kentucky Derby. He lost three of his final six starts during his 3-year-old season, and Sir Barton was better at age 4 before being injured in late summer.