Dissecting The 2015 Kentucky Derby

April 29, 2015

Graham Motion wins Kentucky Derby

Regardless of the outcome of Saturday’s 2015 Kentucky Derby, it will go down as one of the most hyped editions in memory, if not ever. We have heard all along how this is a fine crop of three year olds, one of the best to come along recently. That may be true. Look at it this way: we have the winners of all the major Derby preps coming into the race in fine form. We have Frosted, The Wood Memorial winner, International Star, The Louisiana Derby winner, Materiality, The Florida Derby winner, Carpe Diem, The Bluegrass winner, Dortmund, The Santa Anita Derby winner, and American Pharoah, The Arkansas Derby winner. If that was not enough to pretty much guarantee living up to expectations, throw in Firing Line, The Sunland Derby winner, and Mubtaahij, The UAE Derby winner.

The Kentucky Derby is often not won by the best horse. There are reasons for that. The 20 horse field, with an auxiliary gate, makes trip crucial. The reaction to the large crowd, and the noise they generate first time down the stretch, can affect horses differently. The riders are pumped up with adrenaline flowing, that can play a part on when and how they move. This is especially true with younger and first time riders. The horses are usually going further than they have before, creating another question mark. There is just so much that can happen which can affect the outcome. Your jockey can even stand up before the wire.

While arguably always a jockey’s race, it seems to be more so than usual this year. We have a lot of quality pace horses, and also some quality pace pressers. You have to think some of those riders are going to feel loaded early in the race and put their horses in the game. Not only is a fast pace likely, but also a contested one. The interesting handicapping angle to me is, that while the race flow screams closer, the speed horses and early pressers seem a little bit better. The pace scenario can change that quickly though if it plays out as I suspect it will. Every now and then a race with a lot of speed doesn’t materialize the way it looks and someone gets out and takes it to them.There appear to be a few horses good enough that if left unattended can make an awful lot of noise come Saturday. All this makes for an intriguing contest, and definitely a rider’s race.

The pace scenario can change that quickly though if it plays out as I suspect it will. Every now and then a race with a lot of speed doesn’t materialize the way it looks and someone gets out and takes it to them.

For purposes of dissecting the 2015 Kentucky Derby, I am going to break the horses down into three categories, contenders, fringe players, and pretenders. Contenders will be the top choices and most likely winners. Fringe players will be a slight cut below but eligible to improve enough to win if things go right. Pretenders are just that, pretenders. We are looking for and talking about the winner so it’s winning chances I am concerning myself with. I’m not talking horses that can round out exotics.

With the field pretty much set, and the weather looking like it won’t be much of a factor, post position is the one factor we’ll have to work around as the race is not yet drawn. I think we have already seen that just about every post can be overcome with the right ride and trip with possibly the exception of the dreaded rail. The rail is tough, especially for a stalker, but really for anyone who is not ridden by Angel Cordero and doesn’t beat the gate when he has to. Angel could do that. Bang, he’s out by two in the first jump and the rail is negated. Considering he isn’t riding, the rail must be factored and the horse who draws it downgraded. Not thrown out necessarily but surely looked at with some added skepticism. There is a long run down the entire stretch the first time and the horse on the rail is faced with edging out a tad as they leave the chute across the far turn and pick up the rail again. This less than ideal configuration is required to accommodate the twenty horses and auxiliary gate. It’s about the bottom line, not what’s best for the horses or dare I say bettors. I’m not all that wild about the 2 and 3 holes either for similar reasons. Unless you are out clear there is in evidently a crunch towards the inside down the stretch the first time. Once we start getting mid-range and even outside I’m less concerned with post. The outside drawn horses have plenty of time to get over.

The hype this year is really crazy. So crazy you have an undefeated Todd Pletcher trained Florida Derby winner who hardly gets a mention. You have an undefeated, Bob Baffert trained 17 hand monster, that likes to fight and is just peaking, by a Derby winner, and he isn’t even the favorite. There are plenty of talented horses totally under the radar this year when in years past they would have received attention. The reason for that is the most hyped one of all, American Pharoah. You would be hard pressed to argue American Pharoah isn’t the most hyped Kentucky Derby prospect in quite some time. And it is not just fan and novice hype we are talking about. It’s literally raves and they are coming from people who know the game. I don’t recall this type of hype, from credible racing people, since Graustark and Hoist the Flag, neither of which made the gate let alone won the race. Barring a disaster, American Pharoah will be in the gate the first Saturday in May and get his chance to live up to the hype that surrounds him. They use words like freak and phrases like freak of nature. I’ve heard he breathes different air. Jon White of HRTV and the morning line maker at Santa Anita is talking Triple Crown potential here. Baffert, who knows a thing or two about fast horses says he may be his best. He’s a clocker’s delight as everyone loves him. Now that he won a race from laying second as opposed to on the engine there appear no chinks in his armor. No doubt he’s taken the lion’s share of the hype, now it’s time for the money and roses.

2015 KENTUCKY DERBY – THE CONTENDERS:

Where else to start but with American Pharoah? I don’t see how he goes anything but favored. I’m thinking shorter in price than most people, at like 9-5, which would be really short considering the depth of the field. Those who know and follow me know I don’t go for the hype but handicap objectively and look for chinks others miss, and plusses and minuses others don’t see. It’s tough to spot a tell with this horse. He has been ultra-impressive and his Arkansas Derby was awesome. The most dominating of all the preps. He didn’t exactly rate though. Yes he won from laying second, which he hadn’t done before, but he wasn’t really rating. Another horse sprinted out front and he found himself kind of following or chasing him. To his credit he was not rank or over anxious and waited to inhale his foe on cue. Not so much a chink as an observation. We still don’t know if he can turn off covered up and lay say third or fourth and launch that powerful explosive run. We don’t know he can’t either. I’m more inclined to think he can based on what I have seen from him. A quality animal like this can adapt. Given the pace he will either have to do that or take the other approach and try and run them off their heels. I can see him going on the engine right away and just taking it to them. People question his breeding for the Derby distance, especially on the dam’s side. I am not worried about that. I think he’ll get enough from Empire Maker who never really got his chance or due as a sire. Pace and race flow is the only concern.

I thought Dortmund was a 2015 Kentucky Derby horse immediately following his debut. He has done nothing wrong and has two things I look for to go with that monstrous frame, he likes to fight, and he has won over the Churchill Downs strip. He likes it on or near the pace so faces the same challenges as his stable mate. He’s big, strong and fast and appears to be sitting on another forward move. He has won from off the pace in the past so that may give him an advantage on Saturday. It’s as hard to find a chink in his armor as the favorite.

Frosted is an interesting prospect. Following his wide post, against the bias, run for second in The Remsen he was on many 2015 Kentucky Derby lists, and near the top. He disappointed in Florida and looked like a horse that did not go forward from two to three. A palate surgery and change in tactics by new rider Joel Rosario resulted in a nice off the pace win in The Wood Memorial. I’d expect similar tactics on Saturday and that should help. He may be living up to the early promise at the right time. He’s Godolphin’s best chance yet for the elusive Derby win.

Carpe Diem is a really nice horse. He ran credibly in The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and came off the bench to take The Tampa Bay Derby and Blue Grass at three. The Tampa race had to help get him legged up and he had no trouble in the Blue Grass. He likes to be close but not on the pace so he should try to work out a cat bird kind of trip with no style adjustment. He has a kind of funny action and way of going to him but he is legit and a threat. I think we’ll see a strong effort Saturday.

I like Materiality a lot.

The problem with Materiality is there is just so much against him on Saturday and I am not talking about the Apollo curse which will go down, it’s just a matter of when. The problem with Materiality is there is just so much against him on Saturday and I am not talking about the Apollo curse which will go down, it’s just a matter of when. With just three starts this Afleet Alex colt is light on seasoning but the talent is there. He easily handled a more experienced and accomplished Upstart in The Florida Derby over an uncharacteristically heavy and tiring strip. In many years he’d be all the hype but this is no ordinary year. He likes to be on or near the pace which, with the lack of seasoning, will be tough. Johnny Velasquez had the choice between him and Carpe Diem and went the other way citing the experience factor. I’m not sure I agree with him. Javier Castellano gets the call and it just seems there has to be at least one Derby with his name on it.

There you have the fastest and most talented runners in the race. It is likely one of them gets the roses but we’ll come back to that. Let’s look at the remainder of the field starting with the fringe players. These horses are a cut below the top ones but can improve enough to threaten or certainly get a piece.

THE FRINGE PLAYERS

International Star likes to come from out of it, which helps. He’s also pretty honest. He’s just not that fast and while he should be running late, he will have to move forward to get into the serious fight.

War Story is kind of in the same boat but not quite as good. He’ll have a tougher job.

I also think no Lasix is a mistake. You can’t argue with the percentage of foreign horses that come here and add it and win against those who don’t. His style may help get a piece but that’s about it. Mubtaahij is getting his share of respect, and some of that is because he is trained by Michael de Kock. While I share the respect for the trainer, I have not seen enough from the horse. His UAE Derby win was visually impressive but the number came back light and I don’t believe he beat the kind of dirt horses he’ll see here. I also think no Lasix is a mistake. You can’t argue with the percentage of foreign horses that come here and add it and win against those who don’t. His style may help get a piece but that’s about it.

Danzig Moon looks great on the track and has the right style for the pace. I would have wanted more from him last out. He may and likely should improve but I doubt enough.

Firing Line has done nothing but improve. I was hard pressed to not call him a contender. I don’t like that he couldn’t close the deal against Dortmund in The RB Lewis with a perfect trip. He’s improved since then though and savvy Gary Stevens is smiling a la Oxbow. He’s also run well from off the pace in the past and that may help.

I liked Bolo but Mike Smith opting for a horse I think is a pretender is a significant knock. He’ll have no trouble with the distance but likely is not fast enough to win absent a total meltdown.

THE PRETENDERS

I think the rest of the 2015 Kentucky Derby horses are pretenders and can’t improve enough, or get a favorable enough trip to win. I think Stanford will be a nice horse but not on Saturday. I thought Frammento would develop but he really didn’t. Firespike is kind of a mystery but doesn’t look this good. Many like Upstart but he did not look good to me in Florida. He looked tired at times and being sick and missing training can’t help. Far Right was harder for me to gauge. I’m calling him a pretender but he may a fringe player after all is said and done.

ANALYSIS

With all these quality horses coming in the race in top form, there are bound to be riders on loaded guns. I think it’s likely some will get their mounts in the game early as a result. I see a race and a pace with a lot of activity and race riding. Sure one of the top contenders may just go on the engine and discourage the others but I’m leaning against that scenario. I’m thinking challenges for any of the pace setters.

If it lays out that way the last three sixteenths will get interesting. The last sixteenth very interesting. Quality speed doesn’t come back so despite the contested pace I envision, I don’t see a meltdown.

It seems to me this year the race is different than in many years past, as the top contenders have really separated themselves from the others. There are plenty of years when ten or fifteen horses can win it. This isn’t one of those so I will have to make my top choice one of the top contenders regardless of price. I’ll take a shot with Frosted. I like how the race shapes up for him, and while I think there may be a few better horses in the race, the best horse doesn’t always win. I think he’ll be running at some horses who ran fast and hard early down the stretch. That may get him up in time, and that’s why it’s handicapping, not personal, not fans, not biased.

I certainly won’t be surprised by any of the top contenders and I won’t have a pick 4, 5, or 6 ticket without Dortmund on it.

American Pharoah may just be that special horse we all wait for, but he can be awfully awfully good and not win on Saturday. The Zayats know what they are doing and I won’t mind seeing them in the winners’ circle after the race. They handled some tough beats with class.

Materiality would be a special win. If he does it, down goes the Apollo thing with it and all of a sudden everything changes and a different horse is the special one. That’s what is so great about The Sport of Kings. It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.

Not that we need anything more than 2015 Kentucky Derby fever but this is truly an exciting renewal. The greatest two minutes in sports promises to be pretty great Saturday afternoon. Enjoy the day and the race and best of luck.

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