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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Monday, April 16, 2018 at 1:38 PM

With the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn and the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland now in the books, the final prep races have been run and the field has more or less been set for the Kentucky Derby. Six of the 20 horses in the starting gate will be trained by Todd Pletcher (4) or Bob Baffert (2).  Pletcher will enter the race as the defending champion trainer, having won last year with Always Dreaming, while Baffert is likely to go postward with this year’s favorite, Santa Anita Derby winner Justify.

The Arkansas Derby was another tour-de-force performance by Todd Pletcher’s undefeated Magnum Moon, who took the field wire-to-wire and drew off late to win by four lengths with a 98 Beyer speed figure. He ran the final quarter mile in :11.99, giving Pletcher an amazing streak of 5 straight Saturdays with a major Kentucky Derby prep race victory.  Pletcher’s streak started on March 17 when Magnum Moon took the Rebel Stakes, and continued with Noble Indy’s victory in the Louisiana Derby on March 24, then with Audible’s win in the Florida Derby on March 31 and with the score by Vino Rosso in the Wood Memorial on April 7.

The 2018 Kentucky Derby field of 3-year-olds is shaping up to be one of the strongest crops in recent memory. Magnum Moon, who is a perfect 4-for-4 with back-to-back Graded victories, would surprise nobody if he won the Derby. Yet Magnum Moon might not even be one of the first five choices on the tote board at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. He may or may not even be the top Derby contender in Pletcher’s stable.  In the opinion of many, that distinction goes to Audible, who earned a 99 Beyer figure for his dominant three-length win in the Florida Derby. Jockey Javier Castellano, who had the mounts on both Audible and Bolt d’Oro, chose to ride Audible in the Kentucky Derby.  The mount on Bolt d’Oro will go to three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Victor Espinoza.

Besides speed and connections, Audible also will have something else going for him in the Kentucky Derby – pace.  So many of this year’s top Derby contenders are front runners, it makes sense that a late runner like Audible might enjoy a pace advantage, especially at 1 ¼ miles.  In addition to Magnum Moon, major contenders such as Justify and Mendelssohn will also want the lead, as well as speedball Promises Fulfilled and possibly others. That should guarantee a fast pace in the Derby, and perhaps provide an edge to off-the-pace runners such as Audible.

In the Arkansas Derby, Magnum Moon got away with only a moderate pace, which certainly was a factor in his strong finish.  Runner-up Quip chased the pace the whole way and was able to narrowly hold on for second. He had already earned a Kentucky Derby berth on the strength of his March win in the Tampa Bay Derby.

Two others in the Arkansas Derby field, however, Baffert’s Solomini and Steve Asmussen’s Combatant, needed the qualifying points offered by the Arkansas Derby.  Both horses ran well from off the pace considering the fractions to finish third and fourth, respectively, in a close photo behind Quip. Solomini’s third was enough to secure him a berth into the Derby field. Combatant, meanwhile, is on the bubble, currently sitting in 21st place in terms of Derby qualifying points. He’ll need a defection in the following three weeks leading up to the Run for the Roses to get into the race. Based on recent history, he is likely to get it because late injuries, illness, or training setbacks often occur amongst the 20 contenders in the weeks leading up to the race.

The other last-minute prep race that had an impact on the field for the Kentucky Derby took place at Keeneland with the running of the Lexington Stakes. My Boy Jack overcame post 12 and beat a lesser field in that race with relative ease to secure a spot in the gate at Churchill Downs. The Beyer speed figure of 90 he earned in that race, however, indicates he is not likely to be one of this year’s major Derby contenders.

Taking a look back at the 2018 Kentucky Derby prep season as a whole, certain of the races stood out more than others.  In terms of the best visual performances of them all, that honor certainly could go to Mendelssohn’s 18-length win in the U.A.E. Derby in Dubai.  Some of the preps seemed like weaker fields, such as the Louisiana Derby, while others like the Florida Derby seemed to have much tougher fields.

To many, the standout prep race of them all this season was the Santa Anita Derby. Despite the late drop-out of McKinzie due to injury, that race turned out to be a doozy anyway with Bolt d’Oro running a big race but still falling short to the lightly-raced Justify, who earned a 107 Beyer figure when drawing off to a strong win and solidifying his credentials as the likely 2018 Kentucky Derby favorite.

Also notable was Good Magic took the necessary step forward when winning the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland to got back on track for trainer Chad Brown. Still, Good Magic’s performance was workmanlike and seemed to lack the “magic” we saw in the impressive wins by Justify, as well as Mendelssohn, Audible, and Magnum Moon.

Noel Michaels’ Kentucky Derby Top 5 Contenders
(as of April 16)

1.         Mendelssohn
2.         Justify
3.         Audible
4.         Magnum Moon
5.         Good Magic

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