This is a wide-open Kentucky Derby. I have been obsessively watching this race for three decades, and I can’t remember a race with more potential winners and fewer clear choices than we are faced with this year.
Every major contender has big questions surrounding him, and it’s hard to eliminate more than a couple of horses from serious consideration. We’ve seen some surprising winners in recent years, and it certainly isn’t hard to imagine a long shot coming through this year.
All of that being stated, there are some horses that clearly seem to have a better chance to win than others. Here’s a look at seven true Kentucky Derby contenders. The favorite will very likely be among this group, and there is a good chance that the winner is as well:
The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year has proven to be a very strong race — as many as nine of the 13 entrants are poised to run the Derby. This nearly white horse was the winner in that field, and he’ll look to win another major race at Churchill Downs here.
He’s incredibly tough and very well-bred. His biggest issue is the distance — he just doesn’t seem suited for the Kentucky Derby distance. He’s a front-runner who will face a strong pace, and it’s easy to imagine him running out of gas before the finish line.
Still, he is tremendously classy and will be a factor here.
He had a huge two year old year before coming up just short behind Hansen in the Juvenile. He bounced back nicely with a very convincing win the Fountain of Youth to kick off this season. At that point he was poised to be the strong favorite in the Derby. Unfortunately, he suffered a setback with a very flat third-place finish in the Florida Derby.
Now the question is whether he can shake that performance and bounce back strong. His trip was lousy in the Florida Derby, but that’s not a viable excuse since a lousy trip is a serious risk in the Derby. Still, he’s probably the most talented horse in the field, and his stalking style sets up well given the amount of early speed in the race. He is a major factor.
Just thinking about this horse makes my head hurt. He has so much going for him — Trainer Bob Baffert is as good as they get at prepping Derby horses, he’s undefeated, and his Arkansas Derby win last time out was by far the most impressive performance we have seen by a three year old all year. He won that race by 9.5 lengths, and he didn’t even look to be trying. He’s also bred to run forever, so the distance isn’t the issue.
It’s not all that easy, though.
Most significantly, he didn’t race as a two year old. The last winner of the Derby who made his debut at three was Apollo. In 1882. That’s a serious trend to overcome.
He’s also a front-running horse who will be seriously challenged for the early pace. He’s easily good enough to win, but can he manage it?
Take Charge Indy
A.P. Indy is one of the great horses and great sires of all time, so it seems almost impossible to believe that he hasn’t yet sired a Derby winner. Take Charge Indy has a chance to change that.
He didn’t look particularly impressive at two — he lacked a defining win, and was fifth in the Juvenile. He just keeps getting better this year, though, and his wire-to-wire Florida Derby win was very impressive.
He needs the lead and will have to compete hard to get it, but his upside is massive, and the talent, isn’t in question. He also has one big advantage going for him — Calvin Borel is his jockey. No one has dominated the Derby like Borel has in recent years.
This Todd Pletcher trainee is another lightly-raced, unbeaten runner — though at least he ran at two.
His last win came in the Wood Memorial, and it was very impressive. He had the lead, but it seemed certain that he was going to lose it to a fast-closing Alpha. Most horses would have collapsed in the face of a challenge like that, but Gemologist dug in, ran hard, and pulled out the win. That kind of character and maturity is rare in a young horse, and is a promising sign heading into the biggest of races.
He has the breeding to succeed, and he has already won twice at Churchill so the track is an asset in his column.
I have some big concerns about this horse.
For starters, he comes from California, and it has been a while since we’ve seen a West Coast runner who has lived up to his promise. He also looked terribly unfocused in the Santa Anita Derby running for the first time without blinkers, so I really don’t like that he is again going without them in the most distracting possible race. I also don’t like that he has only won once in his last four tries.
Still, he was a solid third in the Juvenile last year, and traveling that far as a two year old is a big challenge. He also always finds a way to be close to the action at the finish line whether he wins or not. I’d love to write him off, but I just can’t.
He was a solid fourth in the Juvenile, and he beat Hansen last time out in the Blue Grass. That race was on a synthetic surface, though, so running on dirt will make things different.
He’s bred to handle the dirt, though, and he looked fine on the Churchill surface at the Breeders’ Cup. He’s the best deep-closer in the field, and if all the speed in the field materializes then that could be a very good style to have.
He also has three-time Derby winner Kent Desormeaux aboard. I don’t see him as a truly top- tier contender, but you can be sure he’ll be a big part of my exotics.
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