Top contenders for the 2018 Kentucky Derby


By Childs Walker - The Baltimore Sun



With less than a month to go before the first Saturday in May, we’re solidly within range for speculation on this year’s top Triple Crown contenders.

Last year’s class of 3-year-olds never did sort itself out completely. And we’re going into another Kentucky Derby without a pre-eminent favorite. The good news is that many potential contenders have acquitted themselves well during prep season, so the parity comes from a place of strength rather than weakness.

With only Saturday’s Arkansas Derby left among the final round of prep races, here’s a look at the top 10 Derby horses to follow:

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• 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 resume. 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 18{ 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.

• 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\ miles, and his experience could benefit him in the more tactically complex 20-horse race.

• Magnum Moon: Here’s Pletcher’s other top contender. He’ll have another chance to add to his case in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby. Magnum Moon did not run as a 2-year-old, but he’s already won three races this year, including an extremely promising effort in the March 17 Rebel Stakes. If he’s as good or better this weekend, he could vault up the list of contenders.

• 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.

• Solomini: Baffert lost his second elite contender when McKinzie was sidelined with a leg injury. But Solomini should join Justify in the field at Churchill Downs, assuming he performs well in the Arkansas Derby. He’s inconsistent in training but Mr. Consistency in his results — always pretty good, not good enough to win against top competition. He’ll need to step forward Saturday at Oaklawn for anyone to take him seriously in the Derby.

• Quip: Here’s another horse who could move up with a good performance in the Arkansas Derby. He’s run only once in 2018 but delivered an easy career best in winning the March 10 Tampa Bay Derby. He’s part of a loaded Derby crew from WinStar Farm that also includes Justify, Audible and Noble Indy.

• Honorable mention: inexperienced Florida Derby runner-up Hofburg, Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Wood Memorial runner-up Enticed, nine-race veteran My Boy Jack.

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By Childs Walker

The Baltimore Sun

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