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Submitted by Noel Michaels on Tuesday, May 1, 2018 at 9:37 AM

Kentucky Derby 144 is finally here and after months of prep race ups and downs all over the world on the road to the Triple Crown, a field of 20 horses are now ready to take to the track at Churchill Downs for “the most exciting two minutes in sports” on Saturday, May 5.

The 2018 Kentucky Derby is shaping to feature one of the strongest fields in years, and handicapping the race is going to be challenging and fun, for sure. In most other years, any of this season’s five or six top contenders could be Derby favorite, but in this year’s Run for the Roses, that distinction is expected to go to Santa Anita Derby-winner Justify, trained by Bob Baffert.  Justify went wire-to-wire and knocked-off hard-hitting multiple Grade 1 winner Bolt d’Oro in the process at Santa Anita, and in the process earned the Kentucky Derby field’s highest speed figure, both on BRIS and the Daily Racing Form Beyer figures.  Justify is undefeated, but the main question mark for him is his lack of experience, and whether he will be worth betting as the post-time favorite with only three lifetime races under his belt after making his career debut only 2 ½ months ago.

Top Contenders

The list of challengers to Justify will be deep and talented, and heavily-weighted towards horses trained by last year’s Derby-winning trainer, Todd Pletcher, who will saddle not one, not two, not three, but four major contenders for the race. Pletcher’s best chance is likely to come with Florida Derby-winner Audible, who is has been completely untouchable in his current four-race winning streak that also included a win in the Holy Bull Stakes. Audible racked-up big speed figures at Gulfstream and has solid pace-pressing tactical speed, but also showed a valuable new dimension in his Florida Derby victory, sitting farther off a fast pace and then passing several horses en route to an easy and impressive three-length victory.

Pletcher’s other top Derby contender is the undefeated Magnum Moon, who reeled off back-to-back wins in Oaklawn’s major prep races, the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby. Magnum Moon would potentially be the Derby favorite most other years, but he may or may not even be one of the first five choices on the tote board at Churchill Downs at post time. Behind Justify, the next five choices on the tote board probably will be Audible, Magnum Moon, Bolt d’Oro, UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Blue Grass Stakes winner Good Magic (all likely between 5-1 and 12-1), but in which order they fall in terms of favoritism is anyone’s guess

Magnum Moon went wire-to-wire in the Arkansas Derby after getting away with an easy pace and drew off late to win by four lengths with only a 98 Beyer speed figure. If there is a knock on Magnum Moon it is also his lack of seasoning – he ran greenly in the stretch in the Arkansas Derby. Yet he still completed the final quarter mile in :11.99 seconds in what was his fourth career start since making his debut less than four months ago on Jan. 13.

Todd Pletcher’s other two contenders, the Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso and the Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy, are no slouches, either, adding even more depth to this marvelous year so far in the 3-year-old division.

The horse we’ve hardly touched-on so far, Mendelssohn, might be the best Kentucky Derby prospect of all. But we just don’t know because he’s mostly an x-factor coming from overseas and mostly having raced on turf so far.  Even after Mendelssohn won last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, prominent trainer on the world stage Aiden O’Brien said he’d always believed Mendelssohn would be better on dirt than turf and would be pointed to the Kentucky Derby (on dirt) instead of the English classics (on turf).

After watching Mendelssohn crush a solid UAE Derby field in his dirt debut by 18 ½ lengths, it would be hard to argue. Mendelssohn, a half-brother to the champion filly Beholder, is bred to be a dirt monster and won big on dirt at 1,800 meters – about 1 3/16 miles.  He may have taken advantage of a speed-favoring track in Dubai on the World Cup undercard, but he has been able to rate throughout his seven-race career and doesn’t need the lead to win. To me, that makes him a better Kentucky Derby contender than either of the more traditional choices with front-running success and only three and four races under their belts – Justify and Magnum Moon, respectively.

Fringe Contenders

The 20-horse Derby field will be filled-out by a number of other horses, each with his own list of plusses and minuses. The biggest knock against this group is that they’ve come along in a year where any of six or seven other horses could all be the real deal, and they’ve all been beaten soundly by at least one of the horses in that top group.  The choice of Derby longshot picks will include Gotham winner and Wood Memorial runner-up Enticed, Blue Grass and Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Flameaway, Arkansas Derby third-place finisher Solomini, Arkansas Derby fourth-place finisher Combatant, Blue Grass fourth-place finisher Free Drop Billy, Florida Derby runner-up Hofburg, Lexington Stakes winner My Boy Jack, Risen Star Stakes winner and runner-up Bravazo and Snapper Sinclair, Louisiana Derby runner-up Lone Sailor, speedy Fountain of Youth winner Promises Fulfilled, and European qualifier Gronkowski.

From this fringe group, I have noticed Hofburg getting some attention from wise guy types as a lightly-raced horse with a right to improve off his tough-trip in the Florida Derby, but my pick amongst these in the exotics at a price would be Combatant, who got no pace to run at when suffering a ground-losing trip in the Arkansas Derby for trainer Steve Asmussen. Combatant’s fourth-place finish in that race looks a lot worse than it was. He had the toughest trip against the pace, and was actually just a neck and a head out of second.

Jockeys

If you are looking for some clues about the Derby contenders from the jockeys, you won’t get a ton of help in that department. Justify (Mike Smith), Magnum Moon (Luis Saez), Mendelssohn (Ryan Moore), Good Magic (Jose Ortiz) all will have their regular riders aboard. Javier Castellano was in the enviable position of having the mounts on both Audible and Bolt d’Oro, but chose to ride Audible for Todd Pletcher.  The mount on Bolt d’Oro will go to three-time Kentucky Derby winning jockey Victor Espinoza, so certainly no harm done there to either horse.

John Velazquez rode both Noble Indy and Vino Rosso in their last-race victories, as well as Audible. Johnny V will be aboard Vino Rosso on Derby Day, leaving Florent Geroux to pick up the mount on Noble Indy.

Pace Makes the Race

Besides prep race results, speed, and connections, the key to handicapping the 2018 Kentucky derby very well might come down to the pace.  Several of this year’s main contenders have early speed, and the key to success for those horses may well be who will use their tactical speed but not need the lead to win.  The pace-setter is likely to be the very fast Promises Fulfilled, and horses like Justify, Noble Indy, and Flameaway are likely to be in hot pursuit. In this scenario, it will be incumbent on contenders like Magnum Moon and Mendelssohn to go against the front-running styles they used to win their key prep races and be able to press the pace or rate in order to have their best chances at winning.  On the bright side, both horses have indeed shown that dimension in the past. Magnum Moon laid a close fourth early in his Rebel win, and Mendelssohn has already shown the ability to rate on turf, including a run from fourth to first in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.

 

Rating could be a more difficult proposition, however, for a horse like Justify, who probably lacks the seasoning to go against his natural speed at this young stage of his career.

If you really want to use pace to handicap this year’s Kentucky Derby, however, you’d probably do best to shy away from all of the front-runner types mentioned in the previous paragraph and focus on the stalkers and late-runners. Those are the horses in the best shape from a pace standpoint this season.

This group, apparently in the prime spot, pace-wise, includes Audible, Good Magic, and Bolt d’Oro.  None of the three are flat-out stone closers that need to come from a hundred lengths back.  Rather, all of them have some degree of tactical speed, but all have shown the ability to rally from off the pace and pass horses, and none of the trio is short on talent or ability in any way.

Post Positions

Finally, you don’t want to ignore the importance of the post-position draw in the Kentucky Derby.  It’s so easy to pick almost any of the top contenders this year, and so difficult to pick against anybody amongst the top six or seven horses. One way you might be able to narrow down the contenders a bit is to pay attention to Wednesday’s post-position draw. Based on recent relevant results from the 20-horse era of the Kentucky Derby the past two+ decades, I feel absolutely comfortable upgrading the chances of horses that draw post 13 or higher (accounting for 9 of the past 17 winners). I feel even more confident downgrading any horse drawing posts 1-2-3, which have combined to go 3-for-117 the past 39 years.  A post position of 1-2-3 will be enough to remove any horse from my list of top picks, while an outside post anywhere in or near the auxiliary gate may aid a horse’s chance at getting a good trip.

 

Wrap-up

For all the best Kentucky Derby selections from all the best handicappers, make sure you check out all of the best picks and plans available here at www.NationalRaceMasters.com. Whether you are looking for Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks Day full-card selections, or just the best and most reliable money-making selections in the Kentucky Derby, National Race Masters has what you need to have a fun and profitable Derby Day. Whoever you bet, I wish you best of luck.  I hope you enjoy what figures to be a special Kentucky Derby!

By Noel Michaels

 

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