With less than two weeks to go before the first Saturday in May, the prep races are done and we have a grip on the top contenders for this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Last year’s class of 3-year-olds never did sort itself out completely. And we’re going into another Derby without a pre-eminent favorite. But the good news is the potential contenders acquitted themselves well during prep season, so the parity comes from a place of strength rather than weakness.
Right now, we’re looking at an unusually accomplished top six :
Justify: Here’s your likely Derby favorite, after he bested Bolt d’Oro in the most anticipated showdown of the prep season last weekend. He’s undefeated, trained by Bob Baffert and ridden by Mike Smith — a pretty ideal résumé. Some traditionalists will always be wary of a Derby contender who didn’t run as a 2-year-old. But with the modern trends in scheduling, we’re going to see more and more lightly raced stars. Other skeptics will note that Justify moved to the lead too easily in the Santa Anita Derby and has little shot of repeating such a comfortable trip at Churchill Downs. Fair enough, but he showed real command in withstanding a challenge from the more battle-tested Bolt d’Oro. His talent is unquestionable.
Audible: Tell me if this sounds familiar: Versatile horse trained by Todd Pletcher wins the Florida Derby and looks set to peak at Churchill Downs. That was the story for 2017 Derby champion Always Dreaming, and it appears to be the scenario for Audible as well. He’s done everything right this year, and has shown he can win big races either by stalking the pace or coming from well back. He might be the second or third betting choice on Derby day, but he’ll have many advocates.
Mendelssohn: Here’s your intriguing wild card. We’ve learned to be skeptical of Derby contenders coming off superficially impressive victories in Dubai. But Mendelssohn opened a lot of eyes with the 106 Beyer Speed Figure he earned for his March 31 romp (by 18½ lengths) in the UAE Derby. His trainer, Irishman Aidan O’Brien, is one of the best in the world. And he will be the rare international horse treated as a serious threat at Churchill Downs.
Magnum Moon: Anything good you can say about Justify, you can also say about this Pletcher-trained star, who handily won the Arkansas Derby to stamp his resume for Churchill. He went to the lead easily at Oaklawn and was never threatened, even as he drifted wide approaching the finish. Magnum Moon did not run as a 2-year-old, but he’s now won four races this year, including another promising effort in the March 17 Rebel Stakes. He hasn’t beaten a horse as good as Bolt d’Oro, and his speed figures have been a touch below the best of the three horses above him. But he belongs right in the top group.
Bolt d’Oro: This California contender hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations thrust on him as the favorite in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He finished third in the Juvenile, then second to the since-injured McKinzie in the March 10 San Felipe Stakes (he was pushed to first by a disqualification) and second to Justify at Santa Anita. On the other hand, he’s run well enough against the best competition in this class to suggest he cannot be written off at the Derby. Trainer Mick Ruis has said Bolt d’Oro will be better at the Derby’s 1 1/4 miles, and his experience could benefit him in the more tactically complex 20-horse race.
Good Magic: The 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner came out flat in his first race as a 3-year-old, the March 3 Fountain of Youth Stakes. But he put himself back on track with a solid win Saturday in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. The Blue Grass certainly didn’t feature the best field of the prep season, and skeptics will note that Good Magic has not shown the brilliance of some contenders above him on this list. But trainer Chad Brown does an excellent job of having his horses ready to run in the big races.
Vino Rosso: Yet another Pletcher-trained contender, and no one’s better at steering his horses through Derby prep season. Vino Rosso (co-owned by Always Dreaming’s co-owner, Vinnie Viola) stamped his candidacy with an upset victory over Enticed in Saturday’s Wood Memorial. A disappointing start to his 3-year-old campaign had pushed him off many Derby buzz lists, but Pletcher felt his talent was always there in training and that he would thrive at longer distances.
Noble Indy: The fourth contender in Pletcher’s Derby quartet. His victory in the March 24 Louisiana Derby was a mixed bag. He showed great guts in taking the race by a neck. But should he have needed to fight so hard to beat middling competition? His owners had previously described him as a “brat” on race day, so overall, the victory was a step in the right direction. A big enough step, given the Derby competition? We shall see.
Enticed: This Kiaran McLaughlin-trained contender might have won the Wood Memorial if Vino Rosso hadn’t bumped him, though he still had every chance to outrun his rival and couldn’t do it. The speed figures say he can’t hang with the top contenders, and he also faces questions about how well he’ll handle the distance at Churchill.
Quip: The Arkansas Derby runner-up’s connections announced Monday that he’d skip Churchill Downs on May 5 and point to the May 19 Preakness.
Honorable mention: inexperienced Florida Derby runner-up Hofburg and the Baffert-trained Solomini, who always grinds out a solid effort but can’t run with the top horses in the class.