The Run for the Roses
The Grade 3 Derby Trial on opening night at Churchill Downs produced yet another winner by red-hot trainer Todd Pletcher—Forty Tales—but this one is not going to be joining his five other runners in the starting gate Saturday for the Kentucky Derby.
Even with the points system now determining who winds up in the field, there will be an also-eligible list this year, and there can always be some changes in the lineup the final week leading up to the race.
Already, with the recent defection of the two Bob Baffert horses, Golden Soul and Fear the Kitten have found their way into the 20-horse field. Good luck with that!
With so many options, creating power rankings for the Kentucky Derby is a fairly good handicapping exercise to help you wrap your mind around the myriad variables and help you visualize how the race may unfold. As well, a contrarian mind can come up with different favorites than the pack, and those horses can have juicy odds.
Here are my power rankings, from bottom to top, as of this time.
2013 Highlight: Only Super Ninety Nine handled the sloppy course better than Fear the Kitten in the Grade 3, $300,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Rallying on the outside, Fear the Kitten finished a distant second but was clear of the rest of the field.
Biggest Strength: Shows an affinity for an off-track. $40,000 claim by the owner in his debut has paid off handsomely, as the horse has earned $160,715. Finished third in the Grade 3 Lecomte, as well. Won in his second start, an allowance race, at Churchill Downs, which can never be a negative. Past two starts were on artificial surfaces, and he appears to prefer dirt. Has run in five straight graded stakes races, so he knows what quality opposition looks like.
Biggest Weakness: Has never appeared anywhere near good enough to beat that quality opposition. Charismatic won the Derby after having run as a claimer, so it is possible, but this just looks like another vanity field filler.
Early Prediction: Last-second entrant likely will never be involved at any point in the race.
2013 Highlight: Made up nearly 14 lengths to finish fourth under recent Hall of Fame inductee Calvin Borel in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.
Biggest Strength: By Perfect Soul out of a Mr. Prospector mare, Golden Soul has a sensational pedigree for stamina influences, particularly for turf, a surface he has never run on. Connections clearly recognized his stout nature early because he has never run in a race shorter than a mile. Has run well over the Churchill Downs dirt: Made his debut under the Twin Spires, splitting horses to rally for a second-place finish, missing winning by a head.
Biggest Weakness: Lone board hit in a graded stakes race was a distant second to Oxbow in the Grade 3 Lecomte at the Fair Grounds. Has never shown anything remotely resembling enough quality to compete in the Kentucky Derby. Needed multiple defections—and got them, from Bob Baffert—to even have a chance to get into the field.
Early Prediction: The kind of horse that should never be in the field and wouldn't have been back in the olden days, when the Derby didn't have to have 20 horses in it every single time. Probably can pass a few tiring runners, and, with his ideal breeding, could run on to finish mid-pack.
Rosie Napravnik reunites with Mylute for the Kentucky Derby.
2013 Highlight: Came running hard from 11th place to finish second by a neck to Revolutionary on March 30 in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.
Biggest Strength: Gray colt is getting sharp at the right time and reunites with jockey Rosie Napravnik for the Derby. The one time this rising star rode Mylute, he won by 10.75 lengths.
Biggest Weakness: The worst pedigree for stamina influences in the field and unlikely to stay a mile-and-a-quarter. Three of the top four finishers in the Louisiana Derby came from 11th place or farther back. The pace collapse may have flattered this runner.
Early Prediction: In expert hands, so may get involved at some point, but not a factor turning for home.
Kelly Breen, trainer of Black Onyx
2013 Highlight: Superb effort, running wide on both turns, to win the Grade 3 Spiral Stakes on the artificial surface at Turfway Park. This is the same race that launched Animal Kingdom to Kentucky Derby glory in 2011.
Biggest Strength: Nice-striding colt has won on dirt, turf and artificial surface. He has no qualms running past horses, and his heats have consistently produced horses that win next time out. Trainer Kelly Breen has a Classic win under his belt—the 2011 Belmont Stakes.
Biggest Weakness: If you believe in Beyer Speed Figures, Black Onyx simply has not run fast enough to make an impact on the Kentucky Derby.
Early Prediction: This horse may better his rating when the real running begins. He debuted at a mile and a sixteenth and has never shown any stamina issues. Could be picking up the pieces late for a mid-pack finish.
Charming Kitten, center, finishing third in the Blue Grass Stakes.
2013 Highlight: Relentless ride by jockey Joe Bravo landed Charming Kitten in third, beaten just a half-length, in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes on the Polytrack at Keeneland.
Biggest Strength: Except for lone off-the-board finish in the Grade 1 Breeders' Futurity last October, when bumped hard, this colt has shown a consistent willingness to run hard in the stretch. In the powerful stable of trainer Todd Pletcher.
Biggest Weakness: Has never run remotely fast enough to threaten in the Derby. Pedigree, particularly on the sire's side, is slanted heavily toward racing on turf and artificial surfaces. Has never tried dirt.
Early Prediction: His entry in the Derby looks like a vanity project for owners Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey, who love the excitement and ability to participate in the biggest events. Likely never gets involved.
Aidan O'Brien, trainer of Lines of Battle
2013 Highlight: Powerful run through the lane for victory in Grade 2 UAE Derby over the artificial surface at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.
Biggest Strength: In world-class hands with trainer Aidan O'Brien, master of Ballydoyle Stables in Ireland.
Biggest Weakness: No horse has prepped in Dubai for the Kentucky Derby and won. Lines of Battle has never raced on dirt, and his pedigree is weighted heavily toward the turf. Drifted out and then in through the lane at Meydan, suggesting fatigue and distance limitations.
Early Prediction: Certainly a wild card in the field with nearly unfathomable form. You can assume he is a quality animal, but the Kentucky Derby is a unique and extremely demanding race, and his preparation does not appear optimal. Would not be shocked if he makes an impact, but it is doubtful.
2013 Highlight: Trailing well back and in the clear on the outside, Vyjack surged with tremendous power through the lane to win the Grade 3 Gotham by 2.25 lengths at Aqueduct.
Biggest Strength: An excellent combination of speed and power. Won his first four starts before finishing third, just a length behind Verrazano in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial. Received a huge vote of confidence when top-shelf jockey Garrett Gomez signed on to ride him in the Derby.
Biggest Weakness: Defeat in the mile-and-one-eighth Wood strongly suggested distance limitations. Sire Into Mischief was a West Coast miler type. Vyjack's damsire is European champion sprinter Stravinsky. Trainer Rudy Rodriguez recently exited a suspension for a drug overage in one of his horses. His barn at Churchill Downs is under extra video monitoring—at his request.
Early Prediction: Have a sneaking suspicion Vyjack is a candidate to finish near the back of the pack. He is likely to find the mile-and-a-quarter Derby beyond his scope. Gomez gives believers hope because he is good enough to time Vyjack's one big move perfectly. Don't see him in the final eighth of a mile.
2013 Highlight: After two complete duds at Gulfstream Park this winter, Frac Daddy started to put it together with his second-place finish at nearly 24-1 in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. Ran wide throughout the race and didn't disgrace himself through the lane.
Biggest Strength: Unlike in his starts in the Holy Bull and Florida Derby, Frac Daddy showed the ability to cruise up close in a stalking position in the Arkansas Derby. Gray runner showed a gameness lacking earlier.
Biggest Weakness: Has not run remotely fast enough to be a threat in the Derby. With one win in six starts, his desire can be questioned. Pedigree leans toward turf.
Early Prediction: Another contender to finish at the back of the pack, if not in last. His ability to stalk and finish is simply not proven. Expect him to be placed forwardly, mid-pack, and fading badly in the drive.
2013 Highlight: Won the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis in front-running fashion in his first start of the year at Tampa Bay Downs.
Biggest Strength: Route speed is always a valuable tool, and he has been on or near the lead in all three of his starts this year.
Biggest Weakness: No one has ever looked at Falling Sky and said, "Wow, he's scary fast." Has a terrible penchant for weakening in the drive. Beyer Speed Figures are not inspiring.
Early Prediction: Made all the pace in the Arkansas Derby before fading to fourth. Must stay up close to have a chance, but, truthfully, he appears to have none at all. Expect him to be stalking and finished by the far turn.
2013 Highlight: Straightened himself out late in the lane and closed to finish second, beaten just three-quarters of a length, in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial.
Biggest Strength: Highly regarded from the very beginning of his career by rising trainer Chad Brown, Normandy Invasion is a stout runner with Beyer Speed Figures to contend for top honors. Riders have shown the confidence to allow him to drop back in his races and finish powerfully.
Biggest Weakness: Head was cocked to the right through most of his run through the lane in the Wood. It probably cost him the race, although Brown insisted in a conversation with me that he saw no problem and would not be tinkering with him. There are distance limitations in the bloodlines, particularly on the dam's side. Just one win in five starts, and twice he has failed to close the deal in major races he could have won. Does not appear particularly tactical.
Early Prediction: Expecting this horse to take a ton of betting action, but the mile-and-a-quarter Derby distance won't do him any favors. My hunch is his late kick will not be as effective at this distance, and a mid-pack finish is likely.
Revolutionary, on the outside, works at Churchill Downs in preparation for the Kentucky Derby.
2013 Highlight: Stormed from 12th place, circling five wide on the far turn, to run down the leaders and win the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby.
Biggest Strength: Exemplary finisher proved he wasn't just an inner-track wonder this winter at Aqueduct by scoring in the big race at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Showed a willingness to navigate traffic when bulling his way between horses in an electrifying Withers victory. The ability to run between horses should never be underestimated in a field as crowded as the Kentucky Derby. Most horses do not like it.
Biggest Weakness: Has continued to drop farther off the pace in each of his past two starts. Took four tries to break his maiden. The victory in the Louisiana Derby may have been exaggerated because the front-runners collapsed, leaving the door open for the horses that came from far back.
Early Prediction: Extremely puzzling contender. You would not expect a Todd Pletcher-trained top Derby prospect to be wintering over the inner track at Aqueduct, yet there he was against moderate competition in the Withers. Must maintain his clearly developing form, and he should be expected to employ the same tactics as in Louisiana, dropping back off the pace and accelerating on the far turn for home. He has run a big number, so he may better this rating. Wild card for the roses or nothing at all.
Java's War, left, wins the Blue Grass Stakes by a neck.
2013 Highlight: Having shown a fondness for the Keeneland Polytrack as a two-year-old, Java's War ran in the Blue Grass Stakes and uncorked an insane rally from well back in last place, seven-wide, and nailed the victory in the final jumps.
Biggest Strength: Made up 10 lengths when second two starts back in the Grade 2 Tampa Derby, so we know he can rally on either surface. That Tampa race also produced his top Beyer Speed Figure, a 96.
Biggest Weakness: Some distance limitations in the pedigree, as he is by sire War Pass, a son of top sprinter Cherokee Run. Has never won on dirt. Has had his problems getting out of the gate at the start and is largely devoid of early speed.
Early Prediction: Like Normandy Invasion, a strong closer who may have his impact blunted by the extra eighth of a mile in the Kentucky Derby. A race that doesn't have any significantly fast-pace players sets it up as a possible cat-and-mouse game between the jockeys up front, which would harm Java's War considerably. With his gate issues, lack of speed and traffic in a 20-horse field, it's hard to see him hitting the board.
D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Will Take Charge
2013 Highlight: Extracted himself from traffic and ran down stablemate Oxbow in the final jumps at odds of 28-1 to win the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Biggest Strength: Game finisher with a relentless drive. Ran the fastest race of his life in his most recent start, suggesting he is blossoming at the right time. In the hands of a master, Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas. Has the ability to race on the lead or from off the pace. Consistently ignored at the betting windows and has paid some fat prices. His dam, Take Charge Lady, was a relentless running machine.
Biggest Weakness: The long odds mean he is not highly regarded. Lukas placed him in two ungraded stakes races this past winter before trying the Southwest, in which he was beaten by 18 lengths in the slop. Was demolished by 25 1/2 lengths in his only start at Churchill Downs, as a two-year-old.
Early Prediction: Ample odds will be on display again for this runner. His positioning in the race is unknown. Lukas may have him mid-pack or up close, but it is unlikely he will try to launch a rally from the back of the pack. Has never been beyond a mile and a sixteenth, and the leap to a mile and a quarter is substantial. Not seeing much impact.
Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze
2013 Highlight: Ran in the clear in seventh behind a pack of horses and circled wide to score in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.
Biggest Strength: Sort of a lumbering performer who nevertheless is aggressive enough to want to win. With victories in the Grade 2 Futurity, Grade 2 Remsen and Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, his class should not be questioned. In the Todd Pletcher army.
Biggest Weakness: Has only run one Beyer Speed Figure (a 99 as a two-year-old in the Remsen) good enough to make him a threat in the Kentucky Derby. Has won every other race in his career and is sitting on a loser. Does not appear particularly tactical.
Early Prediction: He stalked in second in the Remsen and raced in seventh in the Arkansas Derby. His positioning in the Kentucky Derby is not clear. He could find himself farther back than ever before. See more athletic competitors get the best of him, but expect a good try and a top-10 finish.
Verrazano's trainer, Todd Pletcher, at the Derby two years ago.
2013 Highlight: Stalked a cheap, long-shot front-runner, took over and held off Normandy Invasion to win the Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
Biggest Strength: Undefeated in four starts, Verrazano electrified racing fans with a 16 1/4-length allowance victory in February at Gulfstream Park. He legitimized his talent with subsequent victories in the Tampa Derby and the Wood. Speedy and bred to go the distance, he survived his toughest test in the Wood.
Biggest Weakness: Did not put away 78-1 long-shot leader Chrisandthecapper until the top of the lane in the Wood. Another speed horse in the race, Freedom Child, was held by a starter in the gate, changing the complexion of the pace. The Wood was not particularly fast, with a crawling 49.62 opening half-mile, yet Verrazano appeared to struggle to exert his superiority. Perhaps the most hotly debated race on the Kentucky Derby trail.
Early Prediction: Verrazano is an unquestionable talent but lightly seasoned, having not raced as a two-year-old. He will be forwardly placed in the Derby, without a doubt, and will have to deal with the likes of Goldencents looking to get the same tracking trip. Expecting the undefeated run to end here with an out-of-the-money finish.
2013 Highlight: Blasted undefeated two-year-old champion Shanghai Bobby by two lengths with a fast running of the Grade 3 Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park.
Biggest Strength: One of only two runners entering the Derby with two Beyer Speed Figures above 100 (the other is Verrazano), Itsmyluckyday is proven to be legitimately fast. When stalking clear on the outside, as he did in the Holy Bull, he is extremely dangerous. A willing battler, his five victories lead the field.
Biggest Weakness: Distance limitations in the pedigree may have shown up when he made the lead in the Florida Derby before being swept past by winner Orb. May have peaked over the winter.
Early Prediction: His speed and ability to cruise should serve him well, as long as he can find clear running room early. The Derby often features horses making their bids at different times, in waves, and Itsmyluckyday must be able to resist these charges and maintain a comfort zone. See him as a factor into the far turn and maybe to the top of the lane before tiring.
Biggest Strength: Bred for excellence by owners Stuart Janney III and the Phipps Stable, Orb has blossomed in the superb care of trainer Shug McGaughey, renowned for training Easy Goer. Orb has won both his races at a mile and an eighth and stamina should not be an issue. Consistently circles four-wide and runs down his opposition. Rides a four-race winning streak into Churchill Downs. Has defeated two runners of unquestionable quality, the since-injured Violence and Derby contender Itsmyluckyday.
Biggest Weakness: If you want to get nit-picky, it would have been nice to have seem him crack 100 at some point on the Beyer Speed Figure ratings. Not as athletic as some other runners; Itsmyluckyday put a length-and-a-half on him on the turn in the Florida Derby after they had been running on even terms. Orb, of course, ran him down.
Early Prediction: Orb will not be in the first, or maybe even second, flight of horses, which will require him to stay out of traffic trouble. His steady gallop should keep him immune to the vagaries of the push-button athletes, but he must not allow runners with sharp moves to get too far away from him. Expecting a Top 5 finish, and he might go off as the favorite.
Doug O'Neill, trainer of Goldencents
2013 Highlight: Ran terrifically fast when breaking down the pace-setter with a close-up stalking trip and then holding off the late run of Flashback to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.
Biggest Strength: Trainer Doug O'Neill won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness last year with I'll Have Another, and Goldencents has proven very fast in winning four of six starts. Has never been farther back than second place at any time in his races. Has shown the ability to apply crushing pressure when another horse attempts to run with him and still have something left for the drive.
Biggest Weakness: His pedigree is geared toward speed, not stamina. Got caught up in a suicidal pace war in the Grade 2 San Felipe and finished a courageous fourth.
Early Prediction: Should have a huge say in how this race is run and must be expected to be right up on the lead. Almost certain to be bidding for victory heading into the far turn, the early pace war will determine what is left in the tank when the closers come calling. Must not hold too much speed in reserve. His jockey, Kevin Krigger, is confident but untested in Triple Crown events. Expecting him to make a lot of noise.
Palace Malice, inside in the green and yellow, gets nipped by Java's War, outside, in the Blue Grass Stakes.
2013 Highlight: Shifted off the rail at the top of the stretch and opened a clear lead in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes, only to get run down in the final strides by last-to-first Java's War and get beaten by a neck.
Biggest Strength: Touted as the top two-year-old in the powerful Todd Pletcher barn last summer at Saratoga, and the trainer won just about all the baby races up there. Began to put his game together with a third-place finish, beaten just a half-length, in the Risen Star, then ran into all kinds of trouble with a horrible inside trip in the Louisiana Derby. Pletcher called an audible and wheeled him back on short rest in the Blue Grass, and the colt ran extremely well on a Polytrack surface he had no business being on. Has the ability to pounce on the leaders on the far turn, or wait patiently until the stretch to attack. Athletic and bred to run all day.
Biggest Weakness: Has only one victory in six lifetime starts and has been beaten on the line in two of his primary races. Has not run Beyer Speed Figures as high as some of the other top contenders.
Early Prediction: Appears to have a sizable edge in athleticism against many of his opponents lined up for the Derby. Expect him to sit stalking, on the inside or outside, about seven lengths off the pace. Has the services of Kentucky Derby-winning rider Mike Smith, who likely will move as soon as he senses weakness among the pace-setters. Would not want to be trying to haul him in if he opens up by two lengths. Looms one of two upset specials.
Oxbow's Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas
2013 Highlight: Went right to the front in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes at the Fair Grounds and, when confronted at the top of the lane, crushed his competition by 11.5 lengths.
Biggest Strength: Beautifully compact galloper with an economy of movement that wastes no energy. Despite tough beats on the line in the Risen Star and Rebel Stakes, appears to have a huge stamina reserve. Quick and tactical, he has shown the ability to overcome the worst post-position draws of any three-year-old this year. Has Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas at the controls. Has picked up the masterful veteran Gary Stevens to ride.
Biggest Weakness: Exits a miserable performance, where he inexplicably raced at the back of the pack in the Arkansas Derby and finished a non-threatening fifth in his first try under Stevens. Or was it a prep without the intention of winning? Beaten by his stablemate Will Take Charge on the line in the Rebel. Gave up the lead but ran on gamely in the Risen Star.
Early Prediction: Could easily go off as high as 20-1 in the race, yet has every right to give Lukas his fifth Kentucky Derby victory and first since 1999. In a race lacking a true speedball, it would not be surprising to see Stevens, after the dawdling run in Arkansas, ambush the field and go right to the front. The Lecomte victory could be key and a reversal of tactics are in order. Super fast workout Monday screams "All systems go!" If he can get away with manageable fractions, Oxbow should be running powerfully down the lane for a gigantic upset special.