Every sport has that one event that makes the nation drop what it’s doing, and pay attention. For one month, for one week, or for even one day, the nation stops and everyone is a fan.
For hockey, it’s the Stanley Cup. For football, it’s the Superbowl. For horse racing, it’s the Kentucky Derby.
A time honored tradition that draws the blue bloods, the elite, the wealthy and the powerful to mingle with the common man, and for those with horses in the race, be on even terms for the first time all year. Chance favors neither the rich nor the poor, and with the Derby, no amount of money spent for a yearling will guarantee a victory in the country’s biggest and most coveted race. Line after line of great family pedigree and history will not guarantee that a blanket of roses will be placed on the horse’s back. In this sense, the Kentucky Derby is the great equalizer in a sport that doesn’t always favor those without a veritable fortune to spend at an auction or those who haven’t been in the game for the last 100+ years.
Getting to the races is hard enough, as many foals never make it and end up being retired to an entire array of second professions including breeding, a second career as a riding horse, or as ponies at the races. For those that do make it, they have a constant uphill battle to make it to the starting gate on the first Saturday in May, as there is only room for 20 out of the 10,000+ or so born every year.
Now that the Derby quality horses have begun to emerge, I’ve selected the first “Dazzling Dozen” according to their best chance to win the Derby, in my mind. Keep in mind that this list will likely change and shift as the next round of major prep races arrives this Saturday. This also doesn’t take into account whether or not they’ll actually make the Derby field. Starting from the top, we have:
1.) American Pharoah (Derby Point Ranking: 5th with 60 points)
As the subject of my most recent post, this is the horse that I’m currently most impressed with overall. The track at Oaklawn Park was a very demanding one on Rebel day; a fact that was quickly posted and noted by the Twitter crowd that also happened to be watching or attending the day’s races. It didn’t help matters when Pharoah broke from the gate and essentially had to collect his body together as he scrambled around after breaking. Once he found all his body parts again, with last year’s Derby winning jockey (and the current rider of California Chrome) Victor Espinoza in the irons, he cruised to the front and never looked back as he coasted home to a deceivingly easy victory. Before his first race of the 2015 season, he was a consistent and brilliant juvenile who was made the Breeder’s Cup Juvenile (Gr.I) favorite before being forced to scratch because of injury. The only concern for American Pharoah in his upcoming final prep race is who enters into the Arkansas Derby (Gr.I) and if they will get a better post position draw than he. Word around the morning birds that watch him work is that his stride and work ethic look better than ever, so it’s not really a concern as to who will beat the Zayat home bred but more whether or not he’ll become his own worst enemy, and end up being his own undoing.
2.) Dortmund (Derby Point Ranking: 3rd with 70 points)
You’ll never not be able to see this son of Big Brown. At over 17 hands tall and a monstrous 1,300 pounds, Dortmund is one of the largest (if not THE largest horse) running on the Triple Crown trail this year and he’s got big talent to match. Both he, and Pharoah, are trained by the same man: Bob Baffert. When asked as to which horse he likes better, Baffert coyly replied that it’s like asking him to pick a favorite child. Good answer considering how immensely talented both colts are and the fact that they have different owners; both of whom are highly competitive connections. Dortmund has never tasted the sting of defeat; something Pharoah can’t say as he was beaten once -by nine lengths- in his maiden race. While his stablemate in the Baffert barn likes to draw off and devastate his opponents, Dortmund just enjoys a good dog fight. He’s gritty, he’s battle tested, and he likes to to lay it all down when the time comes calling. He also has a significant one up over American Pharoah in the fact that he has already gotten one race under his belt at Churchill Downs. It wasn’t an earth shaking performance, but it was a race none-the-less. Time will tell if his size ends up his downfall, as many large, developing horses have trouble staying sound on a schedule as tight as the Triple Crown proves to be.
3.) Firing Line (Derby Point Ranking: 6th with 58 points)
You can’t win a Derby prep race by almost 17 lengths and not expect to end up being close to the top of many people’s lists. Firing Line did just that and dominated an over-matched Sunland Derby (Gr. III) field to toss (or hurl) his hat into the ring with all the big boys. This Kentucky bred son of Line of David has finally gotten his moment in the sun after playing second fiddle to Dortmund in his previous stakes tries against him in the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III). To emphasize how much the best the top two were in the Lewis, the third place horse came in 21 1/2-lengths behind them. Firing Line came second to his enormous rival both times by only head, and not because he wasn’t trying his hardest. He fought bravely and barely lost to a horse that has the obvious stride, size, and foundation advantage. He’s also fought off the gritty Mr. Z (who never seems to win despite always showing up), who will be taking on the current 2nd place Derby ranking horse, International Star, in the Louisiana Derby (Gr. II). It also doesn’t hurt that he picked up the Hall of Famer Gary Stevens as a jockey. If that doesn’t pop up a giant “He’s Live” banner in terms of what the opinion about him among the community is, then I don’t know what will seeing as Stevens has tasted his fair share of Kentucky Derby success.
4.) Carpe Diem (Derby Point Ranking: 4th with 64 points)
Carpe Diem could not have been blessed with better connections on the path to Kentucky Derby success even if he actively tried looking. But with Todd Pletcher as your trainer, Winstar and Stonestreet Farms as your owners and John Velasquez as your rider, why would you want to look? Todd Pletcher has teamed up with Winstar before and they’ve had great success with Super Saver representing both in the 2010 Kentucky Derby when he wore the roses. Winstar also happens to have Belmont success as well with Drosselmeyer winning the 2010 edition; the same year that Super Saver won the Kentucky Derby. Stonestreet is no slouch either, as their super filly, Rachel Alexandra, won the 2009 Preakness Stakes. John Velasquez rode Animal Kingdom, the 2011 Derby winner who roared down the stretch in his thrilling rendition, and now he’s the rider for this talented son of Giant’s Causeway. This strong colt was the OBS topper for Stonestreet (who shelled out a handsome $1.6 million in 2014 to get him) and he quickly rewarded them with a victory in the 2015 edition of the Tampa Bay Derby (Gr.II) by a breezy five lengths. He’s got the pedigree and the connections to go forward in the year in good style; the racing gods must now remain kind.
5.) El Kabeir (Derby Point Ranking: 1st with 75 points)
The Zayat stables are yet again in another position where they hold a few of the top contenders for the Triple Crown races in their barn. Along with American Pharoah and Mr. Z, El Kabeir will join the parade of blue and gold on the Churchill Downs track should all three make the Derby. This gorgeous grey son of Scat Daddy, as long as he continues to remain healthy, has virtually assured himself a spot in the starting gate. The tough Florida bred colt just keeps dominating New York and getting the job done right. He has since defied many of the critics that pushed him out of the picture for various reasons, and continued to prove them wrong. The ability to adapt and overcome is always important but never more so than in the Derby. A sudden crush of 20 horses means that someone will not get the trip that they want, and if their horse can’t accommodate that, it will not be them standing in the winning picture. El Kabeir has done that and more with a tough, workman-like attitude that rivals Dortmund’s mentality: don’t win by much but run out of your skin if it means winning a dog fight. He’s on the upswing and that kind of momentum is never a bad thing.
6.) Upstart (Derby Point Ranking: 8th with 36 points)
Upstart was the first horse to cross the wire at Gulfstream Park in the Fountain of Youth (Gr.I) but he still finished second. The talented son of Flatter ended up being DQ’ed after it was determined that he impeded upon the second place finisher, Itsaknockout (also on this list but lower), and cost him a better placing. Many have theorized that the drifting had occurred because he could potentially have distance limitations. So far, he hasn’t raced at the classic distance and there isn’t much stamina on his dam’s side. Flatter’s crops can barely manage an average winning distance of about seven furlongs, and this spooks some people. It’s also why he isn’t higher up on the list than he is because I also share this concern. He was drifting around a fair amount and the final quarter times weren’t all that dazzling either. Still, he’s shown enough talent in his races to make me believe that when he figures out what his job entails, there is no reason to believe that he won’t outrun his pedigree. After all, he doesn’t know that he isn’t supposed to be able to run that long. Despite that, his trainer believes that he’ll produce a top quality effort in his next start in the Florida Derby. So much so that he already has his eyes fixed firmly upon the Derby. A confident trainer is never a bad thing.
7.) Far Right (Derby Point Ranking: 11th with 22 points)
This Notional colt has also been doing his impressing in the slop. When he splashed his way to a victory in the Southwest Stakes (Gr. III) at Oaklawn Park, the track may have actually been in worse condition than it was for American Pharoah in the Rebel. This brave chestnut found himself behind a wall of horses at the top of the stretch and when Hall of Famer Mike Smith asked him to go, he went from a 9 3/4 length deficit to passing Mr. Z in the stretch for his second stakes victory. Should he continue to progress forward and make the Derby field, he will be bring experience and a solid foundation that many horses this year will be lacking. The connections are very high on him after he showed his ability to overcome horrible conditions and get up to win despite having to launch a bid from the very back and giving almost seven pounds to the rest of his competitors. The trainer didn’t seem to be too worried as he made clear that his little horse is strong and only gets stronger towards the end. If the pace that so many people are predicting will unfold in the Kentucky Derby actually happens, then this is going to be his most deadly weapon in his arsenal. While he doesn’t have a fashionable pedigree, rest assured that if it pours in Kentucky, Far Right will be more than happy to motor past the rest that will be spinning their wheels in the stretch.
8.) International Star (Derby Point Ranking: 2nd with 71 points)
Ken and Sarah Ramsey are taking over the world, one Kitten at a time. While this particular color-barer is by Fusaichi Pegasus, it still stands that the iconic red and white silks are taking the world by storm. International Star is as tough, gritty and experienced as the best of them. He’s going to be heading to Kentucky with hard fought victories in the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) and the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) all while beating the same horse, War Story, both times. When looking for a horse with surface experience, International Star is the picture in the dictionary. By the time he entered into the starting gate for the Lecomte on January 17th, he had already run six times! Five of those starts were at the stakes level at five different racetracks on almost every surface North America can offer: dirt, grass, and Polytrack. It also stands to reason that he has no problem traveling (which is frequently a worry for some horses) and that he can roll off of a four hour plane flight as if it was a fifteen minute ride across town. I like seeing this in horses as how he looks when he arrives on grounds is often very indicative of what his performance might be on the big day. Many will say that he hasn’t been facing much at the Fairgrounds in comparison to other contenders and how well they take traveling doesn’t make a difference if he isn’t the more talented horse. I say that it does matter because if the “classier” horse has a meltdown on the plane or takes traveling badly and never ends up in the starting gate in the first place, class won’t make the slightest difference then, now will it?
9.) Itsaknockout (Derby Point Ranking: 7th with 50 points)
Our “winner via disqualification” of the Fountain of Youth has only been working positively toward his big rematch with Upstart in the Florida Derby (Gr.I). Thanks to Upstart’s DQ, Itsaknockout’s perfect record has remained in tact heading into the big rematch. All reports from Pletcher indicate that he’s been training well, and that the trainer believes that the colt’s adaptable running style will make for an “up-in-the-air” guess as to where he’ll be in the race. That isn’t a bad thing at all, as the Derby either ends up with a heck ton of speed or none at all, and being able to adapt is an important part of being successful, especially if American Pharoah is going to the front. We all know what happens when you let him have his way, and the likelihood of catching him gets slimmer the longer he has his way. This Lemon Drop Kid son has every reason to be able to make the Derby distance and remain a sound horse. He certainly looks the part, and if he runs to his looks on Florida Derby day, Upstart is going to have his work cut out for him.
10.) War Story (Derby Point Ranking: 10th with 24 points)
When he ran into International Star for the first time in the Lecomte, War Story had only two lifetime starts to his credit. The second time he faced the tough Fu. Peg runner, he had been vanned in from Oaklawn Park after an aborted trip to run in the Southwest; a week before the Risen Star was suppose to be contested. While this doesn’t seem like all that much to some, it’s a lot for a young horse to travel to another state, barely really have time to get comfortable before being vanned back all in the expanse of about three weeks and then being asked to run against a seasoned veteran. That would have been the equivalent of taking a rookie NBA player straight off of a plane and throwing him into a game against a player that’s been in the league for three years the next day. It’s not going to happen. However, this chesnut gelding of Northern Afleet hopes to get Looch Racing into the Derby for the very first time, and it’s not too hard to see with how he has been impressing people with his starts. What is most impressive was how close he got to winning both times! He was taking over the lead before he got run down in both races, so it’s not inconceivable to think that, with more experience now, he just might turn the tables on International Star and stamp his ticket into the Derby gate too.
11.) Prospect Park (Derby Point Ranking: tied at 12th with three others at 20 points)
This home bred son of Tapit, for Pam and Martin Wygod, also stands in Dortmund’s enormous shadow. After putting in a runner-up effort, the trainer Clifford Sise Jr, reported that not only did he come out of the race fresh and ready to go again, but that they would gladly take on Dortmund once more in the Santa Anita Derby (Gr. I). Reports from the trainer also confirm that the owners/breeders believe that their colt could run all day, and that isn’t too far-fetched a statement. He’s a Tapit, which alone gives him a shot, but he’s also out of a Bertrando mare. He’s been training up an absolute storm and he’s been the picture of health in the mornings. He’s been rundown by Dortmund a few times, so it’s questionable whether or not he can put in an effort that would top the giant chestnut by Big Brown. He certainly won’t have it easy, as many of the horses above him on this list will also be point toward the Santa Anita Derby with a few hot shot new comers that are also gunning for that coveted spot in the gate thrown in to make things interesting.
12.) Far From Over (Derby Point Ranking: tied for 23rd with nine others at 10 points)
This bay ridgling by Blame probably commands the best pedigree on this list. His sire, the infamous Blame of 2010 Breeder’s Cup Classic fame, is himself a son of the great, late sire Arch. He proved his mettle at the classic distances and his son looks to be the same. It certainly helps him that he’s out of an A.P. Indy mare on top of being by Blame: A.P. Indy/Arch crosses have done relatively well in the past. His fourth dam is the great broodmare Courtly Dee, who was awarded Broodmare of the Year in 1983. Since then, her family has done wonders on track and in the breeding shed. Stamina not being the question, the problem lies with time. He’s transitioning from the inner track to the main track at Aqueduct in the Wood Memorial (Gr.I), and he’s going to try to stamp his ticket to the Derby via that route after only three career starts. The last horse to do that since 1915 was Big Brown. That’s it. He also hasn’t had enough time, or a good enough start, to establish what his running style is since he had to do some major improvisation in the Withers. Pedigree not a question for him, but rather everything else, and that’s why he’s at the bottom. Not because he’s not good enough but simply because the question marks and the aura of the unknown that surround him are too great for me to place him higher right now. I’ll know better after the Wood Memorial.
On the Verge of the Dozen:
-Ocho Ocho Ocho
Next Potential Starts:
Santa Anita Derby (Gr.I): Dortmund, Prospect Park, Bolo, Ocho Ocho Ocho
Louisiana Derby (Gr.II): International Star, War Story, Mr. Z, Keen Ice
Wood Memorial (Gr. I): El Kabeir, Far From Over
Arkansas Derby (Gr.I): American Pharoah, Far Right
Florida Derby (Gr.I): Upstart, Itsaknockout
This all stands until this Saturday, where if no one everyone runs according to how I believe they’ll run, there will likely be some shifting to do for the next “Dazzling Dozen”. So please, for the the sake of all things holy (mainly my poor eyes) don’t make me have to retype all of this and please run to form. A not crazy Triple Crown trail would be just as nice as a crazy one but most importantly, a safe one is best. Best of racing and good luck to everyone this weekend. Maybe the odds (and the grace of the racing gods) be ever in your favor.