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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Thursday, April 21, 2016 at 2:53 PM

MICHAELS DERBY PREVIEW: Pletcher, Asmussen Stalkers Hold the Edge

There is still plenty of time to make the important handicapping and wagering decisions before the 2016 Kentucky Derby, which will be run this year on Saturday, May 7.  The prep race season is over and the field for the 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby is now taking shape, so it's definitely not too early to start thinking about the Run for the Roses and the horses that figure to be the contenders and pretenders on the first Saturday in May.

The process of trying to weed-out the eventual Kentucky Derby winner from a field of literally hundreds of hopefuls that have aspired to it since last fall usually tells handicappers just about everything they need to know. Standouts always emerge, and the rest of the slots in the 20-horse starting gate are filled by horses that have accumulated points in the Derby prep race process thanks to good finishes in meaningful stakes races.

The 2016 field of Kentucky Derby contenders, in my opinion, is a very weak one compared to other recent years. To me there's no doubt about it - this is an exceptionally "iffy" crop of 3-year-old colts and geldings (the fillies, on the other hand, are strong, led by Beholder, but she's a story for another day). The field is also totally wide-open, so if you are looking for longshots, this year's Kentucky Derby will be right up your alley.

Looking at the field of likely starters for the 142nd Kentucky Derby, two factor seem to be key in determining this year's top contenders - pace and connections.  First, the pace. The race this year is loaded with deep closers, but there are only a few pace horses to help set-up the race for a horse coming from so far behind. That means pressers and stalkers will have the edge.

The second factor that stands out in this year's Kentucky Derby field is the number of major contenders trained by just two conditioners - Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher.  Asmussen will saddle two of the top six betting choices (Gun Runner, Creator), and Pletcher will saddle another two of the top six betting choices, Outwork and Destin. Perennial Derby/Preakness/Belmont major player Bob Baffert seems like a fringe contender this year after taking the 2015 Triple Crown with American Pharoah. His barn is having a bit of a letdown in the 3yo department this season, and he will be represented only by Mor Spirit, who failed to win in his final two preps without an excuse.

Sure, unpredictable things happen in horse racing, particularly when you start talking about things like the trifectas and superfectas, etc. However, if you are looking for the winner (and perhaps the entire exacta) of the 2016 Kentucky Derby, the search very well might begin and end with horses hailing from the stables of Asmussen and Pletcher.  Beyond that, this year's Derby looks like a prime race to have giant longshot closers come from far back to be third and fourth.

In the 20-horse field taking shape for the 2016 Kentucky Derby, we have only one clear favorite in the bunch, and that is the game and undefeated 2-year-old champ, Nyquist, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and then went 2-for-2 in his 3-year-old preps with victories in the San Vicente over Exaggerator and in the Florida Derby over Mohaymen. Nyquist will be the heavy Kentucky Derby favorite at post time. The one knock on him, however, if that the 1¼-mile distance of the Kentucky Derby might push Nyquist just a little too far, based on his pedigree.

That uncertainty surrounding clear favorite Nyquist makes the 2016 Kentucky Derby a wide-open race, and if Nyquist loses, we might be looking at at-least one or more major longshots in the Derby exactas, trifectas, and superfectas.

Beyond Nyquist, the second-tier of contenders for the 2016 Kentucky Derby includes a long list of horses that won at least one major Derby prep race and looked very solid but perhaps not spectacular. This group that includes Arkansas Derby winner Creator (Asmussen) and runners-up Suddenbreakingnews and Whitmore, plus Wood Memorial winner Outwork (Pletcher) and close second Trojan Nation, Louisiana Derby winner Gun Runner (Asmussen) Fountain of Youth winner Mohaymen, the Santa Anita Derby winner Exaggerator, the Tampa Bay Derby winner Destin (Pletcher), the San Felipe winner Danzing Candy, and the Blue Grass winner Brody's Cause.

Finally, we have the third-tier of 2016 Kentucky Derby challengers, which under normal circumstances would have very little reason for consideration, but this year all have fighting chances due to the lack of high quality atop the field of contenders. This group includes UAE Derby winner Lani, Baffert's Mor Spirit, Spiral Stakes winner Oscar Nominated, Gotham winner Shagaf, Louisiana Derby runner-up Tom's Ready, Blue Grass runner-up My Man Sam, Florida Derby runner-up Majesto, Lecomte winner Mo Tom, and various other hopefuls who may or may not make it into the field including Fellowship, Adventist, Laoban, Dazzling Gem, etc.

This group fails to inspire, but when you really look at it with an eye toward the odds, how much really separates the top level contenders from the bottom ones in this field?  The answer . . . not much.

This means the 2016 Kentucky Derby could end up being a longshot bomb players' dream, especially if the doubts about Nyquist's distance abilities prove to be true.

Read on for my own Kentucky Derby ratings for 2016, as of late April, for a look at my list of contenders and pretenders in the projected field of 20 horses. My ratings are based on a 100-point system, where 90-100 is a standout contender, 80-90 are legitimate contenders, 70-80 are fringe contenders for the exotics, and less than 70 are horses that need to significantly improve.


1Nyquist92Perfect 7-for-7 and the 2yo champ. All he does is win
2Gun Runner89Rapidly improving La. Derby winner for Asmussen
3Destin86Pletcher Tampa Dby winner beat Wood winner Outwork
4Exaggerator85Demolished the SA Derby, but has lost to many of these
5Outwork84Pletcher's Wood winner has upside and Johnny V.
6Mohaymen83Didn't like the track in Fla. Derby loss. Can rebound
7Creator82Closed from far back to take Ark. Derby for Asmussen
8Suddenbreakingnews81Another deep closer didn't lose Ark. Derby by much
9Brody's Cause80Got benefit of hot pace, won weak Blue Grass. Likes Kee
10Whitmore80Always shows up, but doesn't win. Use in Ky. exotics
11Mor Spirit78Baffert's lone hope lost twice in a row. Ran well at CD
12Danzing Candy77Wire-to-wire in San Felipe. Likely Derby pace-setter
13Trojan Nation75Just missed Wood win at 80-1. Best chance is mud?
14Lani74Won in Dubai. By Tapit, but foreign Derby win unlikely
15Oscar Nominated73Never on dirt but won Spiral (polytrack). Supplemented
16Shagaf72Looked good until Wood Memorial flop
17My Man Sam71Chad Brown horse charged late for 2nd in Blue Grass
18Mo Tom69His best selling point is CD win for trainer Tom Amoss
19Majesto66Suck-up second in Florida Derby got him into Derby
20Tom's Ready65Can trainer Dallas Stewart run 2nd at a big price again?
21Laoban64Speed horse cooked in Blue Grass. Price chance if in
22-25Fellowship, Adventist,
Dazzling Gem, Cherry Wine
All need improvement

When taking a look at my chart of Kentucky Derby contenders, it becomes apparent that the list 2016 Kentucky Derby contenders is overloaded with deep closers. Among these are Exaggerator, Brody's Cause, Creator, Suddenbreakingnews, Oscar Nominated, Whitmore, Tom's Ready, My Man Sam, Majesto, Trojan Nation, Mo Tom, etc.

On the other end of the spectrum there will be a limited number of pace horses in the race, yet still no horse that will be able to benefit from a lone speed type of situation.  That's because likely pacesetter Danzing Candy will be kept company up front by speedy horses like Nyquist and Outwork. That's not a ton of pace to set up all those deep closers, but it is still enough to make it difficult for any of those three front runners (Danzing Candy, Nyquist, Outwork) to go all the way.

To me, this will put the pace pressers and stalkers with tactical speed in the catbird seat in the wide open 142nd running of the Kentucky Derby on May 7 at Churchill Downs.  From a perfect pace standpoint, this group holding the advantage will include Gun Runner, Destin, and Mohaymen.  Those horses, including one from Asmussen (Gun Runner) and one from Pletcher (Destin), and one wild card (Mohaymen, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin)

Whoever you go with in the upcoming running of the Kentucky Derby, I wish you best of luck.  Enjoy the most exciting two minutes in sports, and don't miss it!

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