Weekend Round-Up: Who Made the Biggest Kentucky Derby Splash?

April 2, 2024

Fierceness crushes his competition in the Florida Derby (Juliana Colombo/Past The Wire)

By Laura Pugh

After weeks, no months, of more questions than answers coming from each and every Kentucky Derby prep results, we have had two weeks of clarity-providing performances. Two weeks ago, we saw a definitive performance by Catching Freedom, who threw down the gauntlet in the Louisiana Derby. 

As impressive as Catching Freedom was, the winners this weekend, especially Fierceness, showed up in a massive way. 

Florida Fierce

What happened to Fierceness in the Holy Bull at the start happened to Hades in the Holy Bull. The awkward beginning for Hades left the front open for the taking and Fierceness didn’t hesitate to take it. 

The first quarter in a moderate 24.06 seconds, and the ease in which Fierceness ran on the lead will confuse several into thinking that he had an “easy” lead, or had it his own way. In reality, Fierceness made things his way. The speed figures (Beyer 110 & TimeformUS 126) would also indicate that the pace he was running was “easy”.

The second and third quarters were run in 23.44 and 23.81, and it was that increase in pace that stretched the field, forcing those behind Fierceness to move into him. In the Holy Bull, Fierceness did have a rough trip, but he was also ridden conservatively, under a hold, forcing him to sit off incredibly slow splits. His weapon is his speed, and the fact that he can set faster splits with minimal effort, while those behind him are running out of their comfort zone in an attempt to keep up.

In the Holy Bull, he was asked to make a stretch move, after conserving his speed, and as we saw, that is not his forte. Hades and Domestic Product both had better stretch kicks. Fierceness could have had a better one if he was prepared better for the race, and had a better trip, but the fact is, this is a horse that is best when forcing others to play his game.  

Obviously, he won’t get the lead in the 150th Kentucky Derby, but he’s shown that he doesn’t need it. As long as he can roll along at his pace, which seems to be mid 23’s to low 24’s, he’ll fire. Think Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Post position will likely play a role, but this can literally be said about every other entrant, especially if they are a front-runner/presser type. 

The fact is, there aren’t many questions left for Fierceness to answer. He’s the fastest of his crop, and despite what many would like to believe, his style is perfectly suited for the Kentucky Derby. Just ask American Pharoah, California Chrome, Big Brown, and all the other pace-pressing, fast freewheeling runners that won by setting the paces or rolling along just behind it.

If you want to bet against him, cool. It’s the Kentucky Derby, anything can happen. But let’s not pretend that his style will be a disadvantage when historically, it’s been a huge advantage.

The Bold and the Baffert-less

After Muth made a mockery of Timberlake and the rest of the Arkansas Derby field, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 98 and a TimeformUS figure of 122, there was quite a bit of lamenting of the fact he would not make the field for the 150th Kentucky Derby. 

This was to be the year that the Kentucky Derby ban, imposed by Churchill Downs, on Bob Baffert would be lifted. But, the entity arbitrarily decided to extend the ban another year, and then petulantly moved up the deadline that owners had to move their horses to different barns if they wanted to be eligible to earn points in the Kentucky Derby preps. Most owners, including the connections of Muth, opted to stick with Baffert.

Thanks to all of this drama, a Fierceness vs Muth rematch won’t occur in the 150th Kentucky Derby, maybe note even until after the Belmont. 

As of now, there are no firm plans for Muth, but Just Steel (2nd), Mystik Dan (3rd), and Timberlake (4th), are all pointing to the Kentucky Derby, barring setbacks. Just Steel rebounded in a big way, off of his disappointing rebel performance. The son of Justify was over four lengths clear of Mystik Dan, who had beaten Just Steel in the sloppy edition of the Southwest Stakes. While it was still a solid run, I think it’s safe to say that Mystik Dan’s Southwest tour de force was due to the track condition. 

Timberlake, who won the Rebel Stakes, reverted back to his unruly and headstrong antics in front of the larger Arkansas Derby crowd. In the Rebel, he was the consummate professional, but this past Saturday, he appeared on edge in the post parade before dragging his jockey to the lead, by bulling his way through Time for Truth and Muth. 

At this point, it’s obvious that Timberlake does not have the mind to do well in a race like the Kentucky Derby. He lost his cool in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and now the Arkansas Derby, due the commotion from the larger crowds. The Kentucky Derby will be 10x worse for him, and I can’t see him having any sort of success. 

Forever Young Makes It 5-for-5

Forever Young victorious in the UAE Derby (Dubai Racing Club)

With five wins in as many starts, one would think that his latest victory in the UAE Derby would make Forever Young a shoo-in for the title of Kentucky Derby favorite.

He has shown the ability to win from any position, whether he’s setting the pace, pressing, stalking,or closing from farther back. He doesn’t need a perfect break, it doesn’t matter if he’s on the inside or wide, and if anything, he just gets better with more distance. He literally checks all the boxes… so what is the problem?

Well, that my friends, is that we just don’t know what he’s beating or how fast he really is. Horses coming from Japan have looked incredible in the UAE Derby, but when they come to America, their training does nothing to help prepare them for the Kentucky Derby, which is essentially speed from the jump. Japan trains for stamina, which often translates to slow early paces. The first quarter in most Kentucky Derbies is a low 23 or below.

That early speed leaves most Japan shippers looking flat-footed, and when they do try to take the speed to our American horses, they are left completely empty at the finish. Forever Young did face some American Speed in Saudi Arabia, and he had to work hard to run them down. However, that was at a mile, while the Derby will be a quarter mile longer.

Forever Young showed us, that day in the Saudi Mile, that he could run down American speed, but the Kentucky Derby will likely cause him more traffic trouble than he’s ever encountered, which could slow down that relentless drive of his.

Even with all of that, I believe he’s Japan’s best hope to date. He may not look as dominant as other have, but he’s overcome more obstacles, and due to that, has much more experience that should help him handle the pace and traffic troubles that he’s likely to encounter.

Final Thoughts

The prep races for the 150th Kentucky Derby shed a lot of light. The cream rose to the top in all three, and while Muth won’t be able to partake, I think it’s safe to say that he’ll be a major player as the year progresses. I also think Just Steel could exit that race as the top “wise guy” Kentucky Derby contender, especially if looks good in his exercises over Churchill Downs. 

As for Fierceness and Forever Young, they should be the favorites heading into the Kentucky Derby. Yes, both have uncertainties, but of the horses heading for Louisville, theirs are the smallest and least likely to impact them, unless the draw very poorly. 

Next week features the Santa Anita Derby, headed by several of Bob Baffert’s best, the Wood Memorial, and what looks like a very competitive Blue Grass Stakes. While several top prospects are pointing towards those races, I find it hard to imagine any of them running well enough to usurp the performances by Fierceness and Forever Young. 

Contributing Authors

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh

Laura Pugh got her first taste of Thoroughbred racing when she watched War Emblem take the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in 2002. At that...

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@PastTheWire you did do her justice, this is a great read on a tragic moment in the history of our great sport, thank you.

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