1.) American Pharoah
After what we witnessed in the Arkansas Derby (Gr. I) last weekend, it can be no surprise that my top two have not changed. I watched both the Santa Anita Derby and the Arkansas Derby (just to ensure that I got my initial impression of both races before reading about them from everyone else) and I was by far more dazzled with American Pharoah. The break in the AK Derby wasn’t the best in the world (which I liked) but it didn’t faze or discourage him one bit. He let the speedy front-runner go ahead of him, and for a bit in the race, actually had a good distance separating both horses. The final turn was even more impressive as Mr. Z began to loom on his outside and Pharoah was swallowing up the front-runner on his inside; all the while, never pinning his ears or losing any composure. He pulled away from both like they were glorified workmates and rolled home in the easiest canter without actually breaking to a trot that the jockey could manage. Keep in mind, this was the same hard-trying Mr. Z that made Dortmund work every yard for his victory in the Los Al Futurity and ran his eyeballs out in the Southwest Stakes; only to be nipped at the last second by Far Right. That same Mr. Z received a postcard from Pharoah in the AK Derby he was so far behind. American Pharoah came out of that race roaring and was shipped to Churchill Downs this afternoon along with Far Right on the same flight. If he works a storm at Churchill Downs, it’s going to be lights out for me as to whom I place a bet on in the Kentucky Derby and who I’ll be rooting for to win the Triple Crown.
His Santa Anita Derby was spectacular in its own right, and I view him as the only realistic threat to Pharoah if everyone makes it into the gate healthy and sound for an even and fairly run race. Dortmund and American Pharoah are essentially setting up this year’s Triple Crown to be a remake of ’73 when Sham and Secretariat roared through all three races after coming into them as near equals. I believe that the Triple Crown races this year will determine who is “Sham” and who is “Secretariat” between these two. Dortmund does have size and heart going for him as he has proven to revel in a good dog fight. However, I believe that Dortmund may have reached his best for this season already and that he won’t be able to reel in, or out run, American Pharoah when it comes time to see the hard running. American Pharoah has yet to be asked and Dortmund’s love of “dog fights” can lead him into trouble if he hooks up on the lead with a speedier runner and the jockey can’t bring him back down. He’s got stamina but only one horse has set legendary fractions and won; neither Dortmund or American Pharoah actually are Secretariat. Dortmund can’t run everything down into the ground forever; he will reach his limit one day. Los Al is one thing, Santa Anita is one thing, Churchill on a regular race day is one thing but Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day is a circus. The only horse that has seen roughly those same numbers in terms of attendance is American Pharoah after roughly 67,000 appeared for the AK Derby. Noise and how badly he gets riled up could also have a serious effect on Dortmund’s performance. Should he take both well, I foresee the Derby as a proverbial match race.
3.) Carpe Diem
Here is another supremely talented horse that could potentially prove a problem for Dortmund if both are out on the lead. Carpe Diem won the Bluegrass coming just off the pace after grilling the front-runner Ocho Ocho Ocho for basically the entire journey. Come Derby day, this could become a serious problem. Not only will he be surrounded by other horses with a similar style (like American Pharoah) but he also won’t be getting an easy lead. He’ll have to show a lot more willingness in terms of running style adaptation if his connections want to be standing in the winner’s circle with the blanket of roses. If he goes nuts, and forces his way to the front along with whatever other runner that wants the lead, this could be a pace meltdown that sets up well for Pharoah and the closers from the back like Far Right (who is known for making up serious ground). He’s a strong and talented horse but his limitations in terms of running style concern me. The Derby is a looong way for some horses and a fighting Carpe Diem will be a Carpe Diem that is contrary to his own name. He’s going to have to work really hard if he wants to keep up with the leaders, especially if Dortmund goes right along with him. The top three in this list could all essentially become their own worst enemies at any point during the race, and that is what is most concerning.
4.) Firing Line
This bride’s maid to Dortmund finally got his chance to shine, and he did in a big way. He hasn’t raced since he set a new track record in the Sunland Derby but he’s been working steadily up to this point. He’s been there every step of the way when fighting Dortmund and he’s shown every inch of the heart that the big horses displayed. The only difference is that Firing Line has been surrounded by horses before and he’s experienced some rough trips; something that Carpe Diem has not. If the pace up front melts down and no one is there for the running, Firing Line will be the first to lead the charge to the wire before the closers get rolling. He hails from a decently potent female line and his dam was Grade-I stakes placed. It won’t be a question of if he fires in the Derby, but whether or not he fires too late.
5.) International Star
No horse is as battle tested as International Star. No one. He pulled off a Friesan Fire and won the prep races for the Derby in Louisiana. The Kitten color parade will continue as the Ramseys are going to Churchill Downs with a seasoned veteran that not only has the pedigree to pull off the upset placing but the experience as well. He’s basically run on every surface that North American can offer and he’s won on a whole myriad of track conditions. If he gets to Churchill and trains well, then adding Churchill dirt to his resume will be only a formality. The only question is if he has the talent to get there, as the Louisiana contingent hasn’t been all that spectacular. He has beaten Mr. Z and War Story, though the latter just isn’t better than International Star. Still, the question remains if he can hang with the big boys in terms of raw talent because if heart and experience were the only things that won the Derby then International Star would pull off a Barbaro and win by eight.
6.) Far Right
He’ll be coming like a train toward the end of the Derby as the front-runners start to spin their wheels. That is a certainty in my book. He doesn’t have a hugely fashionable pedigree, but his last few races have more than made up for that little side note. He’s a distant relative of California Chrome (through their fifth dam) but they run completely differently. Far Right will make up almost 10 lengths on Mr. Z in the slop and then do the same again to grab second behind American Pharoah in the same way that Chrome could overwhelm opponents with his turn of foot: effortlessly. He’s shown that he belongs in the gate (more so than many of the horses that will likely be there) and that he can keep going when things aren’t ideal. Far Right has experienced running last to first in the slop and running on a fast track. Aside from a question of freshness, he’s more than prepared for the Churchill surface, regardless of what Mother Nature throws at Louisville.
Dangerous Dark Horse: Mubtaahij
He has a stamina rich pedigree that could spring an upset for Mike de Kock. I only question how fresh he will be and how he will react to racing with Lasix for the first time or racing without against horses that will be on it. It’s been hard on most shippers to win the Derby, but that says nothing of the quality of the horses that are sent here to try. It’s just more the fact that sometimes there are just too many factors to logically overcome them and win.