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Road To The Kentucky Derby

A look at contenders for the 2018 Kentucky Derby.
MENDELSSOHN (Aidan O’Brien)
A minute into the UAE Derby is more informative about Mendelssohn than the impact of his devastating 18.5 lengths win that lived up to everything expected of him on his debut on dirt.
While powering along to the beat of his own stride every single opponent can be seen behind him in desperate trouble.
High class dirt horses can do that to their foes. And make no mistake, Mendelssohn is high class!
Not a potential high class horse or a high class horse in the making - whatever happens next belongs to the future; what happened at Meydan is definitive.
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History says that winning Group races by huge margins either defines the opponents as utterly unworthy of a race of this status or it crowns a runner as a champion.
Well, this field contained rivals with official ratings of 113, 112, 111, 110, 107, 105, 104 and 101. Whatever the influence of the rail bias, whatever the impact of pace or ill-racing luck, a horse who utterly humbles a roster of triple-digit rivals by such a margin has to be 125+ on the same scale.
Mendelssohn will head to the Kentucky Derby as the best credentialled European-trained dirt horse since the wildly impressive Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Arazi started favourite in 1992.
Of course, that ended badly, as Arazi – drawn 17 of 18 – faded to finish eighth. But it must be remembered between the two races he had gone through knee surgery.
We know of no such problems dogging Mendelssohn. He has loads of early pace, two or three gears to put the race away and a really attractive lazy-but-game style that tends to make him complicit with Ryan Moore’s strategic imperative.
A clean run round at Churchill Downs is more likely if a horse has superior pace, but nothing can be taken for granted.
Let’s not get bogged down in imponderables and focus on the undeniable - Mendelssohn is one heck of a horse.
He will force most of his rivals out of their game plan in the Kentucky Derby.
JUSTIFY (Bob Baffert)
Justify vaulted into a place among the Kentucky Derby favourites with a three lengths victory over Bolt d'Oro in the Santa Anita Derby, a route taken by so many previous winners at Churchill Downs.
He looks capable now that he has won his three career starts by a combined 19 lengths for a trainer with an incomparable Derby record.
Justify led all the way under Mike Smith to claim the 100 points needed to qualify for the Run for the Roses and stands eighth on the Derby leaderboard.
He is a raw talent with room to grow and get better. If he moves forward as expected off this win it’s kind of scary to think what he will be capable
Baffert earned a record eighth Santa Anita Derby when Justify accounted for a gallant Bolt d'Oro, who chased into the stretch turn and ranged up but never seriously threatened.
His rider Javier Castellano may have said what everybody was thinking when stated: "Unfortunately, we were running against the best horse in the country."
Justify never raced as a 2YO and didn't make his debut until February when he won at Santa Anita by 9.5 lengths., He repeated on March 1 with a 6.5 lengths victory on March 1 and Baffert is now comparing him to his 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, citing the colt's imposing physical presence and his big stride.
"Justify is just a natural, and he's just learning how to run," Baffert said. "He's quick and he's light on his feet."
Bolt d'Oro was already assured of a spot in the Kentucky Derby and stands fifth on the leaderboard.
He won the San Felipe by disqualification on March 10 and won three of his four starts as a 2YO.
AUDIBLE (Todd Pletcher)
Audible’s visually impressive G2 Holy Bull win could have been one of those dirt races in which everything dropped right for the winner. However his Florida Derby win has removed all doubt over his authenticity - this is a top class colt in the making.
In a very strongly-run race set up by a first quarter in under 22 seconds, Audible never really looked in any danger.
He lost a couple of places down the back stretch but the manner in which he chewed up ground relentlessly into the turn was very impressive.
What makes this a race of considerable worth is the potential of the runner-up Hofburg, a well-bred Juddmonte colt who was asked a big question early in his development.
If he continues to thrive, he could be anything but Audible put him and the rest away with a powerful surge that makes him a banker to be suited by an extra furlong at Churchill Downs.
It helps that trainer Todd Pletcher seemed uncharacteristically enthused by what he had seen.
The fractions were 21.95; 24.42; 25.31; 25.28 and 12.52 for a final time of 1:49.48, reasonable as the track was a little slow by Gulfstream standards.
He received a Beyer Speed Figure of which, if you factor in ground loss, would come out very similar to Mendelssohn’s rail-skimming 106 at Meydan.
Just as he did in the Holy Bull Audible enjoyed a pause mid-race as he raced prominently before he cracked out those closing splits while racing four wide on the turn.
Looks alone don’t win on the first Saturday in May, but Audible certainly won’t come up short in that regard.
He seems to have a perfect all-round game with the pace to contend early and the change of gear off his cruising speed to run huge splits to the furlong pole.
The Florida Derby has been won by a raft of good horses – Unbridled, Holy Bull, Thunder Gulch, Unbridled’s Song, Monarchos, Empire Maker, Barbaro, Scat Daddy, Big Brown, Quality Road, Orb, Nyquist and Always Dreaming.
The Derby field looks vintage this year but this colt has a big shot at
GOOD MAGIC (Chad Brown)
Breeders Cup Juvenile champion Good Magic got back on track with a popular win in Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes that put him right back in the frame for Churchill Downs.
Brown was impressed, describing this win as an “outstanding performance" and "very professional”.
It erased any doubts after his disappointing third in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream in his 3YO debut.
The dual G1 winner made the clubhouse turn three to four wide after breaking from post 11 in this full field. He began to advance on the outside entering the far turn and kept his momentum rolling into the stretch and was never seriously threatened to win with authority.
The colt overtook Flameaway entering the stretch to win by 1.5 lengths and moved to the top of the Derby leaderboard that determines the 20-horse field with 134 points.
Behind him the G1 winner Sporting Chance veered out sharply in the final stretch, interfering with Free Drop Billy and was relegated from third to fourth.
Brown had admitted that Good Magic was “a couple of works short” when he resumed in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream.
“This horse came out of that race bigger, stronger and has had some impressive workouts since. We were pretty confident coming into this race. I love the way he did it.”
VINO ROSSO (Todd Pletcher)
Vino Rosso turned around his disappointing fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby with a fine win in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct to add more depth to Todd Pletcher’s Derby bid.
Vino Rosso made steady headway up the backstretch and made a four-wide sweeping move on the far turn to round up the favoured Gotham Stakes winner Enticed and win going away after the pair came together and bumped.
There was an inquiry but Pletcher dismissed the incident in the home stretch and felt it made no difference to the result.
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There is no doubt Vino Rosso has the talent to play a hand in the Derby, showing here that he has been looking for the mile and an eighth and further.
It was a much sharper performance by the Curlin colt than his lacklustre effort in the Tampa Bay Derby when he raced with blinkers added.
Vino Rosso survived a stewards' inquiry to win the $1 million Wood Memorial and earn 100 points toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.
Vino Rosso moved to fourth on the Derby leaderboard with 107 points.
NOBLE INDY (Todd Pletcher)
The Louisiana Derby was the first of the 100-point bonus races for Kentucky Derby qualification and catapulted Noble Indy up the point standings.
The son of 2012 Florida Derby winner Take Charge Indy strengthened Todd Pletcher’s Derby hand, headed by Audible, Vino Rosso and Rebel Stakes hero Magnum Moon among others.
Noble Indy had played up in the paddock prior to his third in the Risen Star. Fitted with blinkers, he responded well to get the better of a driving finish with Lone Sailor, the latter becoming the latest runner to bolster the form of last year’s G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes where he finished fifth to Godolphin’s Enticed.
Noble Indy deserved the win but he probably would not have got a shot at it had third placed My Boy Jack saved ground instead of sweeping about as wide off the home turn as any contender for a Derby trial has in the last few years.
My Boy Jack was upsides a furlong out but the effort had to take its toll and he had nothing left to repel the first and second pair who had raced along the rail.
The geometry of the race is clear. On a track like Fair Grounds, a horse loses about a length for every horse-width off the rail around the 180 degree home turn.
That said, It is often a mistake to factor ground loss into a performance abstracted from the pace of the race.
On dirt, the tempo is higher early more than late on 99 percent of occasions. Racing wide on the first turn always hurts whereas racing wide on the second can be less deleterious, especially to a closer who has set up far off the pace.
In summary, the Lousiana Derby form isn’t going to win none of the first three a Kentucky Derby. Improvement is necessary but there is some potential to bridge the gap, especially in the case of the wide-running third-placed My Boy Jack.
At least we can be sure an extra furlong won’t be a problem – he tackled that here.
BOLT D’ORO (Mick Ruis)
The seven runners in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita were winners of three Grade a Grade 2 and two Grade 3s - this was a genuine pointer on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
Mckinzie, the G1 Los Alamitos Futurity and G3 Sham Stakes winner, faced a much stiffer task and upped his game to get the better of a protracted bumping battle with Bolt D’Oro.
The stewards deemed Mckinzie culpable and so he was taken down, even though justice would hardly have been served worse had he been allowed to keep the race.
Mckinzie looked a bit of a character at various stages. He put his ears back early when ridden to get a position, and came off a true line under pressure, but his resolution in the finish could not be doubted.
Mckinzie is a very smart colt and could line up at Churchill Downs as one of the first few in the betting, without a doubt.
So does Bolt D’Oro have more to offer? This was his return and he was forced to come round Mckinzie on the apex of the turn.
He got tired in the closing stages and looked as if he had given his all, but it would be churlish to criticise him.
When Bolt D’Oro won the G1 FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita last September he earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 103 and the 101 earned here is a very good number, but we don’t know which way he is going.
ENTICED (Kiaran McLaughlin)
Godolphin colt Enticed won Aqueduct’s Gotham Stakes, a Derby trial that can be all over the map in terms of its influence.
Since the 2011 winner Stay Thirsty went on to win the Travers Stakes, horses like Hansen (2012), Vyjack (2013) and last year’s winner J Boys Echo, have put together uneven careers which subsequently fell short of the top league.
And now that the Gotham has been reduced to its former distance of a one turn mile its influence could fall further still as the leading classic aspirants will be pointed towards two-turn contests at this stage.
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That said Enticed is one horse who could do the race some good, even if he is not poetry in motion with his choppy stride and rakish head carry.
In a back stretch move reminiscent of last year’s subsequent Preakness winner Cloud Computing, Enticed showed he has a serious engine for this distance is surely on the short side for him yet he clocked a decent time of 1:38.24.
It took Enticed a long time to get there however with his rivals subdued, Enticed coasted over the line. Had you viewed only the last few seconds it looked like the end of a tour de force.
When Enticed won the G3 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in November, it didn’t look much of a race and this opinion seemed justified after his tame effort behind Audible in the Holy Bull.
Now that race looks a lot better - in addition to Enticed, third-placed Promises Fulfilled rubber-stamped it in the G2 Fountain of Youth and Quip shocked in the G2 Tampa Bay Derby.
Enticed followed up with an unlucky second to Vino Rosso in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
He is an improving colt with plenty of ability who will be suited getting around two turns. He just has to convince he has the mid-race explosion to live with the best when he gets in a more dynamic event.
QUIP (Rodolphe Brisset)
It is not often that the word ‘unranked’ appears next to a trainer’s name in Kentucky Derby discussions but here we have 34-year-old Frenchman Rodolphe Brisset, a second-season trainer with less than 100 starters to his name.
Instantly the trainer of the Tampa Bay Derby winner Quip becomes the Cinderella story of the 2018 race to the Derby.
And whatever Brisset’s capabilities with a classic horse turn out to there is at least one reason to put your faith in him – Quip is raced by industry leader WinStar Farm.
Unlike some colts on the Derby trail, Quip has a really nice way of going. He races enthusiastically without pulling hard, runs the turns with good balance, and extends his neck and head in a linear fashion when asked to stretch.
That is a plus going forward but Quip has got to find plenty more to stamp himself a blue-chip contender for Churchill Downs.
The first three were clear but this is form to be filed under ‘solid’ and not ‘spectacular’.
MAGNUM MOON (Todd Pletcher)
The way that Magnum Moon took command of the Rebel Stakes marks him down as a very good colt in the making. If only he had run straight to the line enthusiasm for his prospects would be unbridled.
A final time of 1:42.68 for the distance of eight and a half furlongs isn’t a truly brilliant mark - it was awarded a Beyer Speed Figure of 97 - but is plenty good enough for an unbeaten colt having only his third start.
This romp was not a shock to anyone. The son of Malibu Moon – who got 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb – started a solid second favourite to Solomini after a Tampa allowance win which he turned into an exercise gallop.
In the Rebel Magnum Moon was fully three-wide on the first turn where the extra energy a horse has to use while wide exceeds that which it might waste on the second turn because the early tempo of dirt races is faster.
Not only did Magnum Moon overcome this, when he hit the front early in the straight he basically did not have much to do after and began his wayward meandering.
This liberates the analyst to add a good length or two to his numbers, but why he did it is a more vexing question.
Some are inclined to mark it down as an imponderable but when a horse bears out and flicks its tail, as Magnum Moon did, it tends to stick in the memory.
When you think about the adrenaline a horse must experience during a race, the fact it can focus on something else other than full-out effort speaks to an outsized talent. But you just don’t know if it also means the beginning of a chronic issue?
For now, the sage thing to do is note that Magnum Moon did it and move
Of this we can be more certain - this colt is very good.
Solomini’s defeat left questions not only about him, but also those featuring in his past performances.
The overriding impression here was that he simply isn’t the same model as Magnum Moon. The son of Curlin will drop down the boards because of this race – and so he should.
PROMISES FULFILLED (Dale Romans)
The return of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic in the Foundation Of Youth at Gulfstream dominated pre-race talk and his defeat led to intense speculation as to the cause.
Did he need the run? Is the Del Mar form trustworthy?
But first things first. Beyer Speed Figures pegged the win of Promises Fulfilled at 96 – three points less than Audible’s Holy Bull.
Clearly the track was a lot slower and, as a result, as a front runner, Promisies Fulfilled distributed his energy less evenly as he had to cross and clear from post position nine – a notoriously difficult feat from a wide gate over the mile-and-sixteenth trip at Gulfstream owing to a short run to the first turn.
Prior to this Promises Fulfilled had finished third to Godolphin’s Enticed in the G2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs after he broke awkwardly and was hanging right throughout.
Hopefully, that situation does not recur, for this was a smart performance which leaves him bang in the mix.
Runner-up Strike Power, a good winner of the G3 Swale, ran a cracker up in distance chasing the winner throughout. He should continue to progress.
As for Good Magic his third as the odds-on favourite should not be written off but the probability is the strongly-run Juvenile around the tight Del Mar bends made him look a shade better than he truly
We will learn more about the veracity of that opinion at his next showing.
GRONKOWSKI (Jeremy Noseda)
The European Road To The Kentucky Derby confers a place in the starting gate at Churchill Downs for the winner. Mendelssohn won the first leg at Dundalk in Ireland before he was flown to Dubai for the UAE Derby while Gronkowski took out the second at Kempton Park.
Gronkowski held off the John Gosden-trained Court House by under a length, a margin that would definitely have been reduced had the latter enjoyed a clear run.
Then again, the winner did so much wrong and still prevailed. Of most concern was his tendency to take a strong hold that led jockey Jamie Spencer to allow him to loop the field on the turn to gain a stalking position.
Gronkowski still didn’t seem particularly complicit as he made his way home, tending to idle and wander. It was only his fifth race and his third win on end – all on synthetic - but it is surely a mountain too high between here and the winner’s circle in Kentucky.
Gronkowski’s explosive traits are much more associated with a turf horse than the stoic animal ready to run ten furlongs on dirt in little over two minutes.
The form of this race is a long way short of what is required, and in the event that a winner of the Derby resides in Europe, the chances are that he will come from the the Ballydoyle stable in Ireland.

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