It’s the best time of the year, Derby! As a citizen of the Commonwealth, The Kentucky Derby is a national holiday. If it fell on a weekday, the state most certainly would have the day off of work. As a University of Louisville Equine program alum, former Keeneland employee, and overall horse obsessed person – the Derby is like Christmas to me. For one day, the rest of the world cares about horse racing. So lets get to this year. The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby is a pretty evenly matched field – something that we haven’t seen in awhile. That means that anything can happen, there isn’t a clear dominant player. So let’s get to my picks for the big race.
Mendelssohn – 14
My top pick in this race is Mendelssohn. It’s an emotional pick, but all of mine are, that is why I’m not a good handicapper – I follow my heart. Mendelssohn has a blue blooded pedigree, this son of the late (and great) Scat Daddy is by Leslie’s Lady. Leslie’s Lady is the dam of the Grade I winning Into Mischief who brings a stud fee of $100k and super mare Beholder whose lifetime earnings tops $6 million. This family history helped Mendelssohn command $3 Million at the Keeneland September Sale as a yearling (I actually saw him sell in person). He was purchased by Coolmore, who shipped him to Ireland to train. He came back to the US in the fall and won the Grade I Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf. His three-year-old season started with a win on poly track in the Patton Stakes. Then he was shipped to Dubai to run in the UAE Derby on dirt where he won by 18 1/2 lengths and he punched his ticket to the Kentucky Derby.
This horse is incredibly impressive. At 3, he’s already won on all three surfaces. He has traveled all over the world and it hasn’t affected his performance. He has an amazing pedigree. But the European’s have never won a Kentucky Derby. To be fair, they don’t enter many horses – but still, Europe rules the turf and Americans rule the dirt. Luckily – Mendelssohn is an American-bred. He also only has one start on dirt. It was an impressive win but there are questions about the class of horses he faced. Is he ready to take on the best three-year-olds on dirt? I don’t know. Either way, I think we are going to be hearing a lot about this horse this year and I hope he gives a good showing in this race.
Bolt d’Oro – 11
Next on my emotional picks list is Bolt d’Oro. Like Mendelssohn, Bolt has an amazing pedigree. He is out of mega-sire Medaglia d’Oro by an AP Indy mare – Globe Trot. Medaglia is known for his fantastic fillies, most notable – Rachel’s Alexandra and Songbird. Bolt was the horse to talk about last year. After breaking his maiden first out, he won the Grade I Del Mar Futurity and the Grade I FrontRunner stakes. Heading into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he was the heavy favorite. He finished third behind fellow KY Derby contenders Good Magic and Solomini. In an upset, he also lost the Eclipse Award for Two-Year-Old of the year to Good Magic. He ran in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes to start out his three-year-old year and lost to repeat rival Mckenzie – but the stewards elevated Bolt to winner of the race due to interference. Then Bolt faced hot newcomer Justify in the Grade I Santa Anita Stakes and came in second.
Bolt was super hot last year and all evidence shows that he’s trending downward in a time where he needs to be trending upward. But I can’t give up on this colt yet. He’s never finished less than third and he probably has the most experience against this level of competition. He doesn’t quit, this colt has grit. He reminds me a lot of Classic Empire who won three graded stakes as a two-year-old and won the Eclipse Award for Two-Year-Old of the Year. After a win in the Arkansas Derby at 3, he never won again. He was also regally bred – out of Pioneerof the Nile (sire of American Pharoah). Classic Empire never found his footing again but I’m hoping Bolt can. I’m not ready to give up on him yet.
Justify – 7
And that leads me to morning line favorite – Justify. Justify is also out of the late sire Scat Daddy. He didn’t make his first appearance on the track until February where he broke his maiden first out by 9 1/2 lengths. He then won his next start in an Allowance race. His rise to power couldn’t have come at a better time for trainer Bob Baffert. Baffert had been campaigning Mckenzie, the colt who repeatedly challenged the talented Bolt d’Oro but he got injured and wouldn’t be able to continue on the Derby trail. Enter Justify. Baffert entered the colt in the Santa Anita Derby where he easily beat Bolt d’Oro. His undefeated record has him as the favorite for the Derby.
I have very mixed feelings. To be honest, I don’t want this horse to win this race. But, in my office Derby Draw (we draw horses blindly out of a hat), I drew Justify. So if he does win, I get a nice payout. But aside from that – I’m over Bob Baffert. He has more Derby and Triple Crown glory than he knows what to do with so I’d be good for a new face. Also, it feels really lucky that when his top contender gets injured, he has the perfect replacement. Justify’s performances have been stellar. But he only has 3 starts, and only 1 against this caliber of horses. He will also have to overcome the curse of Apollo. No horse has won the Kentucky Derby that hasn’t raced as a two-year-old since Apollo won the race in 1882. But he has talent, a great post position, and veteran jockey Mike Smith in the irons. He’s the favorite for good reason.
Honorable Mention to Magnum Moon, Audible and Good Magic
I hope you celebrated Derby with some good bourbon – May your horse be fast!