It's almost impossible for the run-up to the Kentucky Derby to be devoid of intrigue. So many hopes, so much money and such deep uncertainty collide on the first Saturday of May at Churchill Downs.
But there are better and worse years, and 2018 is shaping up to be a doozy.
Derby prep season is often a war of attrition, with as many dispiriting twists as thrilling turns. But aside from an injury to Bob Baffert-trained McKinzie, the news has been shockingly good this spring. The top contenders have met and often exceeded expectations, and at least half a dozen will converge on Louisville with solid arguments to capture the hearts of fans and bettors.
So as we prepare for the 144th running of the Derby, here are five storylines to watch:
Is this a historically good field?
It's a foolish question on some level, especially in this era when contenders arrive with only four or five races on their resumes, and the best horse in the class often does not emerge until after Triple Crown season.
But this is the season for speculation and fantasy, so let's at least humor the premise. Handicappers last sounded this bullish about a 3-year-old crop in 2015, and we know what American Pharoah did that year.
None of this year's contenders inspire quite the same reveries we heard from observers who watched Pharoah's development. But the depth at the top is striking.
Baffert is back with another likely favorite in Justify. His rival, Todd Pletcher, will saddle Audible and Magnum Moon, two horses that have answered every question asked of them this year. There's Chad Brown-trained Good Magic, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. There's Bolt d'Oro, the favorite for many analysts until he lost to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. And for a tinge of the exotic, there's Mendelssohn, who dusted the competition in Dubai to such a degree that even skeptics believe he could break the glass ceiling that has always existed for international horses coming to Churchill Downs.
All of these horses ran well in their final preps, and for the most part, they have not faced one another. They represent the greatest trainers and some of the most successful owners in the sport.
The only thing missing is a true underdog story. But the field looks terrific.
Can Justify or Magnum Moon break the Curse of Apollo?
The Derby is an event rife with superstition, and there's no better example than Apollo, the 1882 champion and the last horse to win after not running as a 2-year-old.
This curse isn't just about dark magic. Many handicappers have believed that if a horse does not develop some foundation at age 2, he can't be ready for the 1 1/4-mile distance or the competition at the Derby.
But times are changing, and contenders race less and less in preparation for the Triple Crown series. We've seen worthy challengers such as Curlin in 2007 and Bodemeister in 2012 try to break the curse and just miss. It seems inevitable the streak will end, and this could well be the year.
Justify has raced just three times, but he handled the more battle-tested Bolt d'Oro with ease at Santa Anita. Magnum Moon has won all four of his races this year and was much the best horse in the two Arkansas prep races. Their trainers, Baffert for Justify and Pletcher for Magnum Moon, know as much as anyone about preparing a contender for the first Saturday in May.
So yes, after 136 years, Apollo might want to prepare for company.
Which of Pletcher's horses is the best?
He does it so often that we take it for granted, but Pletcher will again have an enormous hand in the race as he saddles four horses in the field of 20. He's actually outdone himself, because each of the four won a major prep race.
We've already discussed Magnum Moon, who won the Arkansas Derby. But Florida Derby winner Audible is just as serious a contender, following a similar path to that of 2017 champion Always Dreaming, though he's actually more tested against graded stakes fields. He has demonstrated the kind of versatility that tends to play well in the Derby.
Vino Rosso has been less consistent, but thrust himself into the contending picture with a solid win at the Wood Memorial. He'll have Pletcher's signature rider, John Velazquez, aboard.
And then there's Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy, who's generating comparatively little buzz because he beat so-so competition.
Baffert might have the favorite, but Pletcher has the most viable shots.
Can Mendelssohn bring a welcome international flavor to the winner's circle?
Make no mistake, American racing officials would love to see an international horse win the Derby and bring added overseas betting money and fan interest to the Triple Crown series. That's a major reason why victory in the UAE Derby conveys just as many Derby qualifying points as wins in the traditional American preps.
But handicappers and fellow trainers tend to greet the overseas winners skeptically, and with good reason. Mubtaahij finished eighth in 2015. Lani was a tempestuous mess and finished ninth in 2016. Thunder Snow didn't finish at all in 2017. Really, the doubts go all the way back to the French horse, Arazi, who was the sensation of Derby week 1992, only to finish eighth.
No one fathomed that Mendelssohn might change the narrative when he finished eighth in his debut last summer in Ireland. But he announced himself on the American scene by winning the Breeders' Cup Turf Juvenile in November. And he startled everyone when his 18 ½-length victory in the UAE Derby earned an outstanding 106 Beyer speed figure (a statistic that accounts for track conditions and the speed of the field).
Mendelssohn's trainer, Irishman Aidan O'Brien, is one of the best in the world. And the $3 million price he fetched as a yearling speaks to his pedigree.
So the excitement over this international contender is real.
Are we foolishly overlooking Good Magic and Bolt d'Oro?
With all these fresh sensations storming the field, it seems the two best prospects from last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile are afterthoughts.
Though the Juvenile essentially crowns the best 2-year-old, it has not been a great predictor of Derby success. Only Street Sense in 2007 and Nyquist in 2016 completed that particular double. So when Good Magic came out flat in the March 3 Fountain of Youth Stakes, it was easy to say he was just another horse who peaked early.
But he came back with a solid win, albeit against a mediocre field, in the Blue Grass Stakes. And you know Brown, winner of the last two Eclipse Awards as the nation's best trainer, is going to win his first Derby one of these years.
Bolt d'Oro, meanwhile, finished third as the favorite in the Juvenile. Then he finished behind McKinzie in the March 10 San Felipe Stakes (though he technically won by disqualification) and could not catch Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. So you can look at his record one of two ways. Either he can't quite beat the best horses in this class. Or he's the contender who has faced the best competition, and he's just waiting for the right setup to have his day in the sun.
Either way, Good Magic and Bolt d'Oro have performed too well on significant stages to be dismissed.