With the Kentucky Derby returning to its normal spot at the First Saturday in May, so do fans underneath the twin spires. Louisville will be the center of the sports world once again as 19 three-year old colts line up with the chance of a lifetime on the line. The favorite, the juvenile champion Essential Quality for Godolphin and quickly rising young trainer Brad Cox. Winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November, Essential Quality has extended his undefeated streak to five with wins in the Southwest and the Blue Grass. His top foe could come right to his outside in Rock Your World, who rocked Santa Anita with his win last out in his first career start on dirt. Elsewhere, perhaps it is Irad Ortiz Jr getting his first Derby win with Pletcher & Known Agenda, or maybe Medina Spirit giving Baffert win number 7, or the Asmussen family connection with Super Stock.
Race 6 – Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2)
1:14pm ET | $500,000 | 4YO and Up F&M | 1 mi Turf
Although Chad Brown has been the big name in turf stakes races the last many years, it has been Brad Cox that has dominated this race as of late – winning last two with Beau Recall. But there is no Cox here and two Brown runners – She’s Got You and Blowout. I prefer the latter, (6) Blowout, who has been an unlucky cookie in her last two, getting nailed at the wire by Viadera in the Noble Damsel and Matriarch; but now she gets away from her rival, gets time off, and looks to find her way wire to wire in this mile affair. Her figures are the best in this field and her style should let her get away early and not look back. Additionally, look for the longshot (7) Abscond to improve in her second start off the layoff. The form cycle she is currently in puts her well in the top company and gets Joel Rosario who has been hot as of late. (4) Zofelle is hard to leave off any tickets even after last out, where she lost to Got Stormy after being wide throughout – this may be a better trip for her to put her into contention.
Race 7 – Derby City Distaff (G2)
1:56pm ET | $500,000 | 4YO and Up F&M | 7 Furlongs Dirt
The last thing I want to bet against is (4) Gamine as lone speed going around one turn. The Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint champion makes her seasonal debut in a race that she should win by five lengths or more. I’ll take (3) Bell’s the One right behind, as she has been one of the closest to Gamine in the past and loves Churchill Downs, and (5) Hibiscus Punch who looks to be in form right now.
Race 8 – Pat Day Mile (G2)
2:48pm ET | $500,000 | Three Year Olds | 1 mi Dirt
This is a wide open edition of the old Derby Trial – with no true standout, this is the race to find an excellent price. I start with (5) Prevalence, who ran well to start the Wood Memorial but ultimately couldn’t go that long. He now heads back to one-turn and this well bred Godolphin looks to jumpstart big things with a win here. His early speed and draw should help and his recent workouts have been lights out. I then pull in the outside pair to complete my top three. (12) Joe Frazier had a great tune up last out and is peaking at the right now for Brad Cox and Florent Geroux; he keeps finding more as the races get tougher. (11) Noble Reflection should improve on the cut back down in distance and fits well in this spot.
Race 9 – American Turf (G2)
3:40pm ET | $500,000 | Three Year Olds | 1 1/16 mi Turf
The son of Sky Mesa, (13) Scarlett Sky, is a must use in one of the toughest races to handicap this weekend. While nothing here is a sure thing – this race is wide open – Scarlett Sky’s win in the Transylvania last out was one of the most visually impressive turf wins of the year thus far, showing a huge turn of foot to just get up late after being wide and showing nothing for the most part elsewhere. In a race where there is a ton of speed signed up, it looks to set up for him as long as he is on his game. I’ll also be taking (1) Excellent Timing, who will be making a big step up after two straight wins by six or more lengths against NY-bred company; perhaps its too easy to pick a Chad Brown on turf who is crushing foes, but he seems to fit. Lastly, Brad Cox has an interesting runner in (6) Royal Prince who is exiting the Bayou City at Sam Houston. His last two races have shown he is on the improve and may finally fit in this class. His tactical speed and turn of foot makes him a solid choice and at a price.
Race 10 – Churchill Downs (G1)
4:31pm ET | $500,000 | 4YO and Up | 7 Furlongs Dirt
Some very familiar foes line up in the Churchill Downs Stakes, being held for only the second time as a G1 as it was skipped during 2020. The ageless Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Whitmore returns, although Churchill Downs has not been kind to him in his five career starts here under the Twin Spires, having only won once and finished dead last in his try at the Kentucky Derby. With both an unfavorable course and distance, Whitmore regretfully has to be a toss for me, as much as I’ll be rooting for the old man. Instead, I go to a youngster in (5) Tap It to Win, who had seen some success last year when trying to make it to top quality three-year old races, like the shortened Belmont Stakes and the H. Allen Jerkens. He got time off after the Pat Day Mile last September and came back with a tune up in the NYRABets Sprint at Tampa Bay Downs in state-bred company. While not a tough field, he drove home and pulled away down the stretch after having a very troubled trip. With Mark Casse runners, that is the type of return you want to see. He is coming in sharp and should love the one-turn seven furlong distance. Underneath, I’ll use (4) Flagstaff, who just finished behind Whitmore two back before winning last out impressively in the Commonwealth at Keeneland. His figures aren’t where I’d like them to be, but his form is sharp and should continue to improve – especially at his preferred distance. Finally, I’ll take the other seven furlong specialist in (11) Hog Creek Hustle who, although slightly outclassed here, is eligible to improve with the return to Churchill Downs.
Race 11 – Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic (G1)
5:27pm ET | $1,000,000 | 4YO and Up | 1 1/8 mi Turf
The Pegasus World Cup Turf winner (3) Colonel Liam has been one of the top turf horses in the world thus far, showing impressive turn of foot in that race and then easily coasting home in the Muniz Memorial Classic to get to this spot. He is a stand out here. He is my top pick as he towers over this field, but watch out for (1) Masteroffoxhounds, who is really coming into top form. Last out in the San Luis Rey was just too long for him – he gets a cut back in distance to a much more favorable nine furlongs. And I’ll be throwing in the South American import (4) Ivar who makes his return to racing after having last been seen finishing fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. The slightly longer distance should do him well; will be in the mix if he returns off the layoff well.
Race 12 – Kentucky Derby (G1)
6:57pm ET | $3,000,000 | Three Year Olds | 1 1/4 mi Dirt
1- Known Agenda (Irad Ortiz, Jr./Todd Pletcher): beat a huge field last out in the Florida Derby; didn’t show much last out early – got break of not getting caught in traffic; moved up on the backside; small compared to the field; fought valiantly but was a big green in victory last out; needs to grow up a bit; did not take to the TB surface; prefers a more tepid pace; didn’t take to wet ground; may be a horse for course at Gulfstream; blinks on was something he needed
2- Like the King (Drayden Van Dyke/Wesley Ward): slow breaker; short stride; been a horse for course at Turfway; got lucky late with a bunched up field last out; came on strong in last few strides; still pretty green; gets going after a bunch of pushes; needs a lot of help and urging; once gotten going though, he has dangerous speed; could be a live longshot; improving on figures.
3- Brooklyn Strong (Umberto Rispoli/Daniel Velazquez): sharp breaker; little thin; makes solid moves down backstretch against slow pace; performs much better on off track; may do better at longer; ran his race in Wood but not pace of lead pack; no late run last out; working well; may improve second off layoff; right now – no chance
4- Keepmeinmind (David Cohen/Robertino Diodoro): does not break well; tends to lag behind the field; real late mover; passes tired horses; never pace of the winners; no chance
5- Sainthood (Corey Lanerie/Todd Pletcher): breaks well; great pedigree; really game closing kick; probably should’ve own last out; been working well; live longshot
6- O Besos (Marcelino Pedroza/Gregory Foley): strong pedigree; not pace of winner last out but still tried; snuck along live pace in Louisiana Derby to make up ground; definitely a cut below
7- Mandaloun (Florent Geroux/Brad Cox): championship pedigree; quick early speed; sharpened up first after getting blinkers in Risen Star; just empty last out – odd; perhaps not comfortable with fast pace; doesn’t fit on dosage index; toss
8- Medina Spirit (John Velazquez/Bob Baffert): unique pedigree for this – lots of sprinting speed; just seems to get faster and faster each furlong; visibly impressive in each race; misses the turn often; need the lead; doesn’t have a late closing kick if challenge
9- Hot Rod Charlie (Flavien Prat/Doug O’Neill): bred out of dam of Mitole and shows lots of speed in pedigree; starts well but needs more practice breaking – comes out a bit bobbled each time; runs a lot better from front end; starting to grow each time and turning into form; very strong runner; blossoming; hot right now and tough; very live
10- Midnight Bourbon (Mike Smith/Steven Asmussen): Godolphin Arabian descendant hasn’t won this race since War Admiral; very professional and mature; strong breaker; always puts in good effort; should improve late under Mike Smith; may be peaking at the right time; one to watch
11- Dynamic One (Jose Ortiz/Todd Pletcher): was all out last time; ran valiantly in Wood; been working sharp and wouldn’t be a shocker; lightly raced at the class; needs to move forward a bit to contend
12- Helium (Julien Leparoux/Mark Casse): snuck by in the Tampa Bay Derby; just had a blessed trip last out; eligible to improve second time off layoff; likely a cut below
13- Hidden Stash (Rafael Bejarano/Victoria Oliver): strong pedigree; shoots out of the gate like a rocket; settles nicely; very calm; fights each time; too much to do last out to catch leaders; needs to improve, but has exotics chance
14- Essential Quality (Luis Saez/Brad Cox): regally bred; 2yo champion; calm breaker; cruises easily through race; running style fits the bill; tactical speed; runs on any surface; may do better as a presser; can set pace well; prefers outside; has a bit of an issue changing leads; may not love the distance; sharp worker; the one to beat
15- Rock Your World (Joel Rosario/John Sadler): lots of stamina in the pedigree; gets Joel Rosario; second start on dirt; unraced as a 2yo; very muscular; sets a very strong early pace; does not let go once he finds the lead; has a bit of trouble paying attention late if not challenged; speed figures put him along the best of them
16- King Fury (SCRATCH)
17- Highly Motivated (Javier Castellano/Chad Brown): regally bred with dam of Practical Joke; not the greatest at breaking from the gate; does not like being in traffic; seems to lack the late kick you want to see; figures are deceiving
18- Super Stock (Ricardo Santana, Jr./Steven Asmussen): mature and racing a long time; improved when being ridden as a midpack/stalker; long strider; prefers to escape traffic; although passing tired horses last out, did so while driving and was very impressive; if he can stay out of traffic, should have a huge shot to upset
19- Soup and Sandwich (Tyler Gaffalione/Mark Casse): Into Mischief crossed with Tapit; lightly raced; impressive on debut and in win at Tampa against lesser; just races so easily as stalker; probably would’ve been passed earlier in the stretch last out if had not blocked; needs a target; no strong chance
20- Bourbonic (Kendrick Carmouche/Todd Pletcher): well bred; good breaker from gate; does not need fast pace; caught great run last out; longer stretch at CD should help; huge stride; major shot to hit the board or maybe even upset if pace is fast enough
For me, (14) Essential Quality has been the best horse in every start, and while he hasn’t peaked yet this year, he has done everything he needed and some to win his last two as a three-year old. Really hard to get past what looks to be one of the best favorites in some time. After him, (10) Midnight Bourbon is a hard trier whose best is yet to come – I love his majority each start and should be getting better with the added distance; plus getting Mike Smith aboard is an instant boost. Finally, the other Asmussen may be the biggest shocker as (18) Super Stock is peaking at the right time and his Arkansas Derby win sets him up well; the most experienced horse in the field (in what is the least experienced field for a Derby on record) may be the one to wear the garland of roses.
The way the pace is setting up makes Super Stock seem like the top contender, and should be a must use on all tickets behind Essential Quality and Midnight Bourbon. Hot Rod Charlie is hot right now, though I have doubts that he can get the distance at this pace. Going to be using Known Agenda, Hot Rod Charlie, Dynamic One, Hidden Stash, Rock Your World, Bourbonic, Like the King, and Sainthood in a variety of trifectas and superfectas in the 3rd and 4th spot.
Personally, a part of me really hopes that Midnight Bourbon wins – a win in the Kentucky Derby would make history as the first Godolphin Arabian descendant to win the race since War Admiral; the dying sire line’s last hopes rest in the progeny of Tiznow and this may be his best if he can win. A Derby win would put him as a potential top sire going forward.