2016 Kentucky Derby Horses: Ranking Every Contender at Churchill Downs
What a difference one year makes. Last year, the Kentucky Derby boasted eight different runners in the field of 18 who went into the starting gate having achieved Beyer Speed Figures of 100 or higher, but there were still two clear-cut favorites in eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and his stablemate Dortmund, who finished third.
In the murky yet thinner soup being served this year at Churchill Downs, only four of the runners have reached 100—the standard benchmark of excellence in the sport. On paper, there is also far less of a gap between the most accomplished runner in the field, the undefeated Nyquist, and the least accomplished, Trojan Nation, who has yet to win a race.
Along with the competitive makeup of the field, there is also the significant question of who will make the pace and whether it will be enervating enough to benefit the abundance of late closers entered. Only potential long-shot Danzing Candy has proved to be a committed front-runner, but because of that, other fast horses who normally stalk the pace may be asked to seize the initiative.
The 142nd Kentucky Derby has the potential for a wild result, but sharp and attentive handicapping skills can still help identify the strongest contenders.
The following Kentucky Derby power rankings, fluid right up until post time, are based on past performances, Beyer Speed Figures (via Daily Racing Form), visual observation of videotaped workouts and gallops on the TwinSpires YouTube page, and virtually every race the horses in the field have run. It also takes into account the use of Progressive Handicapping's Sire Ratings: 2015-2016 and PedigreeQuery.com for pedigree analysis. The rankings are not meant to predict the race results, but rather to give an assessment of each contender's quality and talent.
Odds courtesy of Daily Racing Form.
20. Oscar Nominated
Notable wins: Spiral Stakes (Grade 3)
Well-bred for class and stamina. He has shown it racing on the turf and in the Spiral victory on the synthetic track at Turfway Park.
The slowest horse in the field based on speed figures has also never raced on dirt. He likes to stalk from just a few lengths off the pace and doesn't figure to be able to keep up. His presence in the race makes little sense other than the fact he has the points to qualify.
19. Mo Tom
Notable Wins: Lecomte Stakes (G3), Street Sense Stakes (at Churchill Downs)
Consistent stretch-running son of red-hot sire Uncle Mo, who has three sons in the race. Trainer Tom Amoss wins at a torrid 32 percent clip (22 percent in stakes races).
Here are the chart caller’s (abridged) comments for Mo Tom's past three starts: "Hit gate, bumped early"; "Checked sharply 3/16"; and "Checked badly 3/16-1/8."
This horse could walk into a wall in an open field. Favored in the Louisiana Derby, he wound up fourth, in trouble along the rail in the stretch. Fans keep making excuses and betting him, but he still has never reached a Beyer Speed Figure of 90, which should just about eliminate him from contention immediately. His pedigree and class ratings are also low. Nothing about this horse says he is ready to make an impact.
18. Trojan Nation
Notable Wins: None
One of the best-bred horses in the field, he is out of millionaire mare Storm Song, who won the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and finished third in the 1997 Kentucky Oaks.
The Maiden runner nearly stole the Wood Memorial with a flying charge up the rail at odds of 81-1 on a muddy surface that favored closers. His Beyer Speed Figure of 93 for the race was 19 points higher than his prior best. He has competed in tough California maiden heats, but believers should be doing a rain dance.
Notable Wins: UAE Derby (G2)
The Japan-based gray runner is by leading sire Tapit out of a mare by the 1989 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence, who single-handedly revitalized Japanese breeding.
No horse from the United Arab Emirates race has ever won the Kentucky Derby. This runner went to his knees when the gate opened and still recovered to win impressively. He has already won at 1 1/8miles and 1 3/16 miles, so the distance should be no problem.
Mikio Matsunaga’s training methods are inscrutable. Who else works five furlongs in a creeping one minute, six seconds and calls it perfect? Lani seems up against it, but Japanese horses have been on the rise on the world stage.
16. Tom’s Ready
Notable Wins: None
Bred for class and stamina. He has finished second in two graded stakes races in Louisiana despite troubled trips.
He gave up a clear lead to Mo Tom in the Lecomte. His 1-9 record does not inspire confidence, nor do his short-striding gallops this past week at Churchill Downs. Trainer Dallas Stewart finished second with Golden Soul at odds of 34-1 in the 2013 Derby and second the following year with Commanding Curve at 37-1.
The price figures to be similar, and Tom's Ready finished ahead of a nice horse in Dazzling Gem when he took second in the Louisiana Derby. He rallies from nearer to the pace than the deep closers, so he could be teasing when turning for home.
Notable Wins: None
Jockey Victor Espinoza has won the Derby three times, including the last two with California Chrome and American Pharoah. Whitmore consistently produced a strong late run in all three prep races in Arkansas. He has tremendous presence on the track and his body language shows an unmistakable self-regard.
Whitmore submitted after ranging up to challenge Cupid in the Rebel Stakes on March 19 and then loomed menacingly in the Arkansas Derby before again settling for a minor award. He only has two wins that came sprinting, and despite running two of his preps on tracks that favored closers, he still could not get the job done.
Notable Wins: Gotham Stakes (G3)
Top-class breeding by sire Bernardini and the female family of 2001 Hollywood Starlet (G1) winner Habibti and long-winded multiple stakes winner Eldaafer. Shagaf won his first three starts for top trainer Chad Brown before finishing fifth on a sloppy track in the Wood Memorial.
Jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. rode Shagaf in all four of his starts and also the first three starts of Brown’s other entrant, My Man Sam. The Blue Grass Stakes was held the same day as the Wood, and Ortiz stayed with Shagaf. The rider switches now to My Man Sam for the Derby. Shagaf looks like the second-stringer in the barn and is probably being pushed into this race.
13. Danzing Candy
Notable Wins: San Felipe Stakes (G2)
Danzing Candy turned in a stunning gate-to-wire victory in the San Felipe Stakes over Mor Spirit and Exaggerator, two of the top contenders in this field, on a Santa Anita course that favored closers. He has natural speed to clear a field within a quarter-mile and has Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith. From the family of turf marathoner Better Talk Now, who earned $4 million.
Danzing Candy's performance in the subsequent Santa Anita Derby was a disaster. He led by three lengths after a half-mile on a sloppy track and disintegrated. His sire, Twirling Candy, is a potent producer of off-track runners, so his loss in the Santa Anita Derby suggests he may have distance limitations. Horses rarely bounce back to win the Kentucky Derby off of poor efforts.
His speed is legitimate, but the pressure of the pace and the moment likely will crack him.
Notable Wins: Tampa Bay Derby (G2), Sam F. Davis (G3)
After being bumped at the start, Destin set the stakes and track record in winning the Tampa Bay Derby, earning a 100 Beyer Speed Figure. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, has won seven Eclipse Awards, while his rider, Javier Castellano, has been named leading rider in the country each of the past three years. Full brother to millionaire Grade 1 winner Creative Cause, who was fifth in the 2012 Kentucky Derby.
Pletcher made a suspect call not to race Destin again after he won the Tampa Bay Derby on March 12, so he goes into Kentucky off seven weeks rest with no 1 1/8-mile races under his belt. He is an obvious contender off speed figures alone, yet he has looked ordinary in his morning works, needing to be urged to complete his gallops.
Destin had been on a clockwork schedule of four races spanning a month apart until now, so there's some fear of him not going in at his best.
Notable Wins: Southwest Stakes (G3)
Suddenbreakingnews displayed a wicked turn of foot to rush from last to first and win the Southwest. He did it again to finish second in the Arkansas Derby, circling widest of all in the field. Final workout of five furlongs in 59 3/5 seconds for the Derby had the backstretch buzzing. Trainer Donnie Von Hemel has not raced a horse in the Derby in 27 years. He is not here to feed his ego. Stamina-oriented pedigree.
If you like deep closers, here is your guy. His come-from-the-back style, however, got him in trouble in the Rebel. When he was forced to check the moment, he began his move.
Clear sailing will be critical, and a 20-horse field with horses tiring and weaving in front of him will create a slalom course to navigate. The best horse he has beaten is likely Whitmore, who has not won past six furlongs.
Notable Wins: None
Magnificently bred for class and stamina, Majesto is a half-brother to 2013 Arkansas Derby winner Overanalyze, who was 11th that year in the Kentucky Derby. He has raced 1 1/8 miles three times and finished second to Derby favorite Nyquist at 21-1 odds in the Florida Derby, his first start outside of the maiden ranks. The second- and third-place finishers in his maiden victory on Feb. 27 both came back to win.
Majesto has never run a Beyer Speed Figure above 89, but he should strike fear into the hearts of all opponents. He is physically imposing, has a long stride and is indefatigable.
Trainer Gustavo Delgado, not exactly a household name for casual racing followers, gave Majesto an old-school, one-mile stamina-building workout on April 21 before shipping to Churchill Downs. While he doesn’t race with the leaders, Majesto has been poised within 3 3/4 lengths of the front after a half-mile in his past three starts.
When speed horses tire, he continues on. He's blooming at the right time, but he still needs a sizable step forward.
Notable Wins: Arkansas Derby (G1)
By leading sire Tapit out of the South American-graded stakes-winning mare Morena, who later came to the United States and tangled with the legendary Rachel Alexandra. He has a powerful closing kick and the athleticism to dodge traffic. From the barn of Steve Asmussen, who just was elected to the Hall of Fame.
Creator did not break his maiden until his sixth start, but he then finished third in the Rebel and won the Arkansas Derby with a 96 Beyer Speed Figure. Like his rival Whitmore, he exudes confidence on the race track.
Oftentimes, big closing kicks are compromised by the Derby’s 1 1/4-mile distance, and Creator has proved devoid of early speed. Here, he will face faster horses with equal stamina.
8. Brody’s Cause
Notable Wins: Blue Grass Stakes (G1), Breeders’ Futurity (G1)
His class cannot be questioned. He has two Grade 1 wins, and his grand-dam, Sweet Roberta, finished second to the immortal Go For Wand in the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. Broke his maiden going a mile at Churchill.
If anyone in the field appears overrated, it’s this horse. He just has not run fast, with a top Beyer Speed Figure of 91. Both his Grade 1 wins came at Keeneland on days the track favored closers.
He is a big, strong, lumbering animal, which may help him grind his way forward when other runners begin to tire, but there certainly are one or more others in this field with good stamina who are simply faster.
Notable Wins: Fountain of Youth (G2), Holy Bull (G2), Remsen (G2), Nashua (G2)
Mohaymen might have been the best two-year-old in the country last year, but he did not race in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. His trophy cabinet is full. By leading sire Tapit out of a mare who won two Grade 2 races for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. He cost $2.2 million at an auction in 2014, so he was cut out to be a superstar. Speedy and aggressive with a win at 1 1/8 miles.
Mohaymen has matched but not improved on his top Beyer Speed Figure (95) earned as a two-year-old. He was humming along this winter when he suddenly failed miserably as the favorite when he finished fourth to Nyquist in the Florida Derby. He stalked the pace on a three-wide journey in that race, loomed boldly on the turn and disintegrated in the stretch.
He appeared full of electric energy—maybe too much—in his gallops at Churchill Downs. Not a good sign for 1 1/4 miles. He certainly will be in the thick things, and it would not be at all surprising to see jockey Junior Alvarado put him on the lead and try to take them every step of the way.
Notable Wins: Santa Anita Derby (G1), Delta Jackpot (G3), Saratoga Special (G2)
He came from 16 lengths back to win the Santa Anita Derby by 6 1/2 lengths in the most eye-popping prep race of them all, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 103. His three races this year earned Beyers of 97, 96, and 103—the best sequence of any horse in the field. Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux has won the Derby three times. He has won stakes sprinting and going long.
Now for the bad news: His performance in the Santa Anita Derby—and all of his best efforts—came over sloppy tracks. He has faced Nyquist three times and lost each time. He made a powerful move in the San Felipe and appeared to hit a wall before finishing third behind Danzing Candy and Mor Spirit on a track that favored closers. He has never raced at Churchill Downs and did his significant training away from the track.
On paper, Exaggerator looks hugely impressive, but further examination of his form suggests he has much to prove going long on a fast track. Standing against.
5. Mor Spirit
Notable Wins: Los Alamitos Futurity (G1), Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3)
From the barn of the great Bob Baffert, who has saddled four Derby winners, mostly recently Triple Crown champion American Pharoah. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens has won the Derby three times. Mor Spirit has finished first or second in all seven starts, and he finished second over the Churchill Downs track at No. 2 in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2). Massive, expensive purchase in an unmistakable talent.
That unmistakable talent appears locked inside a Rubik’s Cube of a mind. He raced like a big oaf in both the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. Seemingly poised to pounce, he looked almost disinterested in delivering a finishing kick. It almost appeared as though Stevens was not trying to win those races as much as slowly building him up to this one big, maximum effort.
Yet Mor Spirit arrived at Churchill Downs and largely loafed through his gallops until brightening somewhat toward the end of last week.
Ultimately, his class and heart to fight remain in question heading into the toughest assignment of his life.
4. My Man Sam
Notable Wins: None
Started his career late (Dec. 19) but put it together quickly with an eight-length demolition of a maiden field the following month at Aqueduct. The third-place runner that day came back to win by 11 lengths.
In his next start, My Man Sam came from nine lengths back over a course favoring speed to finish second to talented Matt King Coal and earn a Beyer Speed Figure of 95. Trainer Chad Brown sent him to Kentucky for the Blue Grass Stakes, and he closed from 14th place, dead last, with the widest trip of all runners to plow his way into second.
If there is a super bomb in this field to try to catch a monster payoff with, it’s My Man Sam. After running the Blue Grass with Julien Leparoux, he will be reunited with regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr. He has a perfectly weighted stamina profile, has run a 95 Beyer Speed Figure against a track’s speed-favoring bias and has proved he can sustain a long, sweeping move.
His lack of seasoning in both number of races and stakes is a substantial concern, and he should be above 20-1, but the upside comes with a tremendously talented horse and one of the very best trainers in the country.
Notable Wins: Florida Derby (G1), San Vicente (G2), Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), FrontRunner Stakes (G1), Del Mar Futurity (G1), Best Pal (G2)
You can’t have any greater strength than being undefeated in seven starts. On the pace, off the pace, tracks favoring speed or closers—Nyquist has conquered it all. He not only passed his first 1 1/8-mile test in the Florida Derby, but he widened his lead and defeated Mohaymen, whom many believed was the best three-year-old in the country.
Nyquist entered his three-year-old year as the undefeated reigning juvenile champion despite never having reached so much as a 90 on the Beyer Speed Figure scale. His relative slowness compared with past champions indicted a theme for the entire generation, and nothing has happened to change that fact. The class is slow.
Twenty-four horses have gone into the Kentucky Derby undefeated since 1915 and seven have won. The most recent two—Verrazano (2013) and Gemologist (2012)—finished 14th and 16th, respectively. In his lone race at 1 1/8 miles—the Florida Derby—two horses that were at 99-1 odds pressed Nyquist on the lead, which is no pressure at all. In the lane, he began to wander. It is fair to ask whether he was getting tired in a race in which he had everything going his own way.
In the Kentucky Derby, the pressure he faces will be far greater if he’s going to try to use his speed to get clear. He has never met anything like Danzing Candy. The pedigree is suspect for class and stamina, according to Sire Ratings.
He has looked absolutely fabulous in his training for this race, but if ever there was a short-priced favorite to try to beat in the Derby, he’s it.
2. Gun Runner
Notable Wins: Risen Star (G2), Louisiana Derby (G2)
Gun Runner has won four of five starts, with the only loss coming on a sloppy track. In both stakes wins, Gun Runner set up exactly where rising master jockey Florent Geroux asked him to go.
His controlled speed and maneuverability are possibly the best in the field. His stamina and class ratings are top shelf. He comes from the same female family as 2005 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Saint Liam.
He had a solid two-year-old campaign and improved on it demonstrably at three years old, a sure sign of a quality horse. He won his debut going a mile last summer at Churchill Downs.
Gun Runner checks off almost all of the boxes: class rating, stamina rating, a win over the track, a stakes win at 1 1/8miles with a Beyer Speed Figure above 90. But the lone knock is that speed figure: He tops out at 91, and he must improve on that to win the Kentucky Derby.
He is as handsome of a chestnut as you will ever see, and his foundation for the race should be solid enough. He projects to sit a stalking trip within 10 lengths of the lead, cruising for as long as possible before Geroux moves.
None of the horses that have hit 100 on the Beyer scale look like they can be trusted unless you are in love with Nyquist.
With Gun Runner, what you see is what you get, and what I see looks absolutely rock solid.
Notable Wins: Wood Memorial (G1)
Beautifully bred for class and stamina. Outwork’s grand-dam produced Cairo Prince, who won the 2014 Holy Bull and was an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
He's in the masterful hands of trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez, who have won just about everything in the racing world together except a Kentucky Derby.
Although lightly campaigned with just four starts, he won his debut all the way back in April of last year, showing an early maturity that has only developed. He has a dangerous combination of speed and stamina and has excelled as his races have gotten longer.
When Destin won the Tampa Bay Derby and broke the track record, it was his fourth start of the year, third at two turns. He was dead fit and set to turn in a top effort. Outwork had the one start in April last year and then didn’t race again until February because of minor physical issues. He returned and won a six-furlong sprint and entered the Tampa Bay Derby off that single effort. He should have been light years behind his more seasoned stablemate, yet Destin only beat him by a length.
Outwork earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 77 for the sprint and jumped all the way up to 98 in the Tampa Bay Derby, a tremendous leap forward. He had all rights to regress in the Wood Memorial, and indeed he did. Yet he still won.
Now in the third start of his form cycle, Outwork figures to go forward again. His final workout at Churchill last week was perfect. He should sit an ideal stalking trip near the pace-makers and be moving the same time as Gun Runner. He appears faster than that horse and should race into the winner’s circle this Saturday.
John Scheinman covered racing for eight years at the Washington Post, co-founded and edited Kentucky Confidential and contributes to the Blood-Horse. He is is also the winner of the the 2014 Media Eclipse Award for Writing in the Feature/Commentary category.