Handicapping the Kentucky Derby: A closer look at all 20 horses in Saturday’s field

By Ben Roberts - Lexington Herald-Leader

This year’s road to the Kentucky Derby was one marked by sustained success and young stars. Emerging from the prep season was a group of talented 3-year-olds that has handicappers buzzing about this being one of the deepest — and, therefore, most difficult to sort out — Derby fields in years.

The lack of upsets in any of the major Derby prep races means more than a half-dozen colts come to Churchill Downs this week with a viable claim to this race, and bettors are likely to spread the love around at the wagering windows Saturday.

Atop the morning line are three contenders with intriguing talent but serious questions.

Early favorite Justify — trained by Bob Baffert — has only three races on his light resume, and he’ll be trying to break the “Curse of Apollo” and become the first Kentucky Derby winner in 136 years to win the race without having run as a 2-year-old. The third choice on the morning line, Magnum Moon, is in the same boat.

And there’s second-choice Mendelssohn, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf champ last year who romped in the UAE Derby by more than 18 lengths last time out. He has impeccable credentials, but also much history to overcome.

Among the other major contenders are Florida Derby winner Audible, Blue Grass Stakes winner Good Magic, Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso and Santa Anita Derby runner-up Bolt d’Oro — all possessing the necessary talent to wear the roses.

As always with the Derby, the pace will be important.

Promises Fulfilled seems the most likely to take the early lead, and how fast he goes — and who chooses to follow — will play a major part in the finish. Many of the favorites Saturday like to be on or near the lead, too, but energy must be conserved to finish the 1-mile distance against this impressive field.

Here’s what you need to know about each of Saturday’s contenders:


1. Firenze Fire (50-1)

Need to know: He actually beat 2-year-old champ Good Magic in the Grade I Champagne Stakes last fall before losing to him by 20 lengths — finishing seventh — in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Firenze Fire never got anywhere close to the lead in the Wood Memorial despite an all-out effort. His best Beyer Speed Figure this year is 86, worst in the field in that category. Paco Lopez rides him for the first time Saturday (and it’ll be Lopez’s first Derby mount).

A good bet? There’s nothing to suggest he is. His last three Beyers — 81, 79 and 83 — are far below the norm for this field. Should go off as one of the longest shots on the board.

2. Free Drop Billy (30-1)

Need to know: Billy broke his maiden at Churchill Downs in his first career start last June, but he’s won only once in seven races since. He was no match for Audible in the stretch of the Holy Bull Stakes in February. He was placed third in the Blue Grass Stakes after his path was impeded near the finish, but he was highly unlikely to catch winner Good Magic that day.

A good bet? He’s always running hard into the stretch, and his style means he won’t be caught up in any speed battle. Could pick some horses off at the end or could find trouble in a race that’s often rough. Intriguing, but there are better choices among the 30-1 group.

3. Promises Fulfilled (30-1)

Need to know: Here’s your speed horse. Promises Fulfilled will surely go straight to the lead and hope to stay there for the entire mile and a quarter. Two races back, he held on for the win (beating Good Magic by nearly 5 lengths). Last time out, he set a blistering pace in the Florida Derby and faded badly, finishing ninth and last, 35 lengths behind Audible. He’s unlikely to get away with a soft pace Saturday.

A good bet? He’ll come screaming out of the gate, but it’s hard to see how he lasts with talents such as Justify, Mendelssohn and Magnum Moon likely sticking close, and others breathing down his neck. Can’t see him finishing in the money.

4. Flameaway (30-1)

Need to know: Perhaps the most likely to be chasing Promises Fulfilled out of the gate, Flameaway is a try-hard horse with consistent Beyer figures (93-92-93) over his last three starts. He was a never-give-up second to Good Magic in the Blue Grass. Worth noting: The only time in nine starts that he’s finished more than 3\ lengths off the lead came in his only start at Churchill (beaten 12 lengths in September).

A good bet? If you’re looking for a bomber on your trifecta ticket, he isn’t a bad choice. Flameaway doesn’t back down, even when he looks beaten — and that tenacity could be big in the stretch Saturday.

5. Audible (8-1)

Need to know: His victory in the Holy Bull was one of the most visually impressive of the early prep season. His win in the Florida Derby came from off the pace and showed his versatility. Audible got a 99 Beyer for both races. In other years he might be the favorite, but he hasn’t been getting much hype this week.

A good bet? He’ll need to take another step forward to win this one — he seems capable of that — and he’s so talented and versatile that it’s tough to leave him out of the exotics. Hard to not like him, though John Velazquez did choose to ride Vino Rosso instead, implying he thought Vino was better suited for the distance. Hmm.

6. Good Magic (12-1)

Need to know: He’s the reigning 2-year-old champ after winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall, and he comes to Churchill Downs after winning the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland last month. This week, he’s been the buzz of the backside, where his current fitness has trainer Chad Brown in a good mood and media types touting his chances to come up with the victory Saturday. Brown — the two-time reigning trainer of the year — clearly thinks Good Magic is sitting on a big race.

A good bet? Given his credentials and the amount of late hype surrounding this colt, it seems unlikely he goes off at 12-1. Will be difficult not to play him, but like the chances of some of the other top-tier contenders better.

7. Justify (3-1)

Need to know: No horse unraced at 2 years old has won the Derby in 136 years. Big Brown is the only horse in the past 100 years to win the Derby with only three previous starts. The fact that Justify fits both categories and is still the favorite in this dynamic field is testament to his talent. He put away Bolt d’Oro with relative ease in the Santa Anita Derby, his first stakes race and first race of more than a mile.

A good bet? History says no. Eyeballs say yes. Even in this field, Justify looks like he could be a standout. The way he turned back Bolt — maybe the second-best colt here — in the Santa Anita was impressive. If he has room to run Saturday, look out.

8. Lone Sailor (50-1)

Need to know: Lone Sailor made a nice move in the Louisiana Derby before drifting in the stretch — but still running hard — and finishing a close second to Noble Indy. He hasn’t done much in his other starts against top competition, and his 95 Beyer in Louisiana is 17 points higher than any other start in his eight-race career. This is the first Derby mount for jockey James Graham.

A good bet? He’s clearly coming off the best race of his career, and he’s been working well over the Churchill track these past few weeks. If you must play one of the five 50-1 shots in your exotics, this one appears to have the most upside.

9. Hofburg (20-1)

Need to know: He did race at 2 years old, but — like Justify — he has only three career starts. His first against stakes competition came in the Florida Derby, where he was an impressive second to the more-seasoned Audible. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott is known for his caution, but he’s a big believer in Hofburg’s talent and clearly thinks he’s capable of competing in this field. Hofburg is the only son of leading sire Tapit in this year’s race.

A good bet? If a true long shot is going to win this thing, he looks like the one. He’s generated lots of buzz this week and is clearly a colt with a bright future. Don’t leave him out of your exotic bets.

10. My Boy Jack (30-1)

Need to know: With 10 career starts, My Boy Jack is the most-seasoned contender in this race. His four prep races this year have come in four different states, the final one a come-from-behind victory in the Stonestreet Lexington Stakes. That’s his running style, and the move he made in the Louisiana Derby was among the most impressive — and mind-boggling — of the prep season. He finished third that day, earning a career-best Beyer of 94.

A good bet? Wager on him to win at your own risk, but of the dozen horses at 30-1 odds or longer, he looks the most likely to finish in the money. If he gets a decent trip, he should be coming at the end.

11. Bolt d’Oro (8-1)

Need to know: Before Justify put him away in the Santa Anita Derby, there were plenty who believed Bolt was the best in this 3-year-old crop. In fact, there are plenty who still believe that. He was clearly the best 2-year-old in the country until a troubled trip — and third-place finish — to Good Magic in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He endured a thrilling stretch drive against McKinzie — and was placed first through disqualification — in his first start this year. Justify is the only other in the field with three 100-plus Beyers.

A good bet? Barring a rough trip around the Churchill track — and that can happen to anyone — it’s difficult to see Bolt not being around at the end. Don’t ignore him.

12. Enticed (30-1)

Need to know: The well-beaten favorite in the Holy Bull Stakes recovered to win the Gotham and then fought with Vino Rosso in a rough stretch duel before fading and finishing second in the Wood Memorial. Speed figures are middle of the road for this horse. He is 1-for-1 at Churchill, taking the track’s signature 2-year-old race last fall. His trainer, Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin, is looking for his first Derby win.

A good bet? Enticed is a big, impressive-looking colt with some grit, but the Derby distance might be an issue for him Saturday. Other long shots look like better bets.

13. Bravazo (50-1)

Need to know: His last race — beaten more than 21 lengths as a 5-2 choice in the Louisiana Derby — was a real head-scratcher. Before that, Bravazo appeared to be on the right track. He had won two straight and was coming off a couple of bullet workouts. In Churchill records dating to 1940, no Derby winner has ever finished worse than fifth in its final prep race. Luis Contreras rides him for the first time.

A good bet? Legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas — a four-time Derby winner — has called Bravazo a “tough” horse. It’s tough to find a reason to bet him in this field.

14. Mendelssohn (5-1)

Need to know: His 18{-length romp in the UAE Derby on March 31 was about as impressive as it gets. He also won the Breeders ’ Cup Juvenile Turf last fall, but he’ll have to overcome quite a bit of history to win Saturday. No UAE Derby winner has ever finished better than fifth in this race. No horse whose last prep race was on foreign soil has won since 1971, and no European-based horse has ever won the Kentucky Derby.

A good bet? This might look silly by Saturday night, but until a modern horse traverses the globe like Mendelssohn has and actually wins the Derby, it’ll be a tough bet. He could be a superstar, but this is a lot to ask.

15. Instilled Regard (50-1)

Need to know: Only five horses had shorter odds than Instilled Regard in the Derby Future Wager back in February, when he looked like one of the possible favorites for this race. He has two fourth-place finishes since — the most recent in the Santa Anita Derby, where he was more than 10 lengths behind Justify. His last four Beyer figures, 90-91-92-92, are consistent, but not close to what a Derby winner normally scores.

A good bet? There’s nothing to indicate we should expect more than what we’ve seen recently from him, and what we’ve seen recently isn’t enough to hit the board here.

16. Magnum Moon (6-1)

Need to know: The third choice on the morning line will also be looking to break the “Curse of Apollo,” and he, like Justify, comes to Churchill with a perfect record. Magnum Moon is 4-for-4 and has never really been challenged at the wire. He’s shown a nice turn of foot, but he’s also been a little awkward in the stretch, drifting out badly in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby (though he still won both fairly easily).

A good bet? It would not at all be surprising to see him win, but he seems more immature than Justify and doesn’t have the foundation of some other favorites. If he can run straight, his sheer talent makes it tough to leave him out of the exotics.

17. Solomini (30-1)

Need to know: Solomini has lost to Magnum Moon in each of the past two races and had some tough luck in the process, going wide in the Arkansas Derby and having to steady into the stretch in the Rebel. He often finds trouble, and that’s not a great trait going into the 20-horse Derby field. His last four Beyer speed figures are a consistent 92-92-93-93, and he’ll need a career effort to compete here.

A good bet? Bob Baffert trainees rarely go this under the radar, but Solomini hasn’t shown what it takes to be taken seriously in this group. Other long shots are more appealing.

18. Vino Rosso (12-1)

Need to know: There were high hopes for Vino Rosso early in the year, then he laid a bit of a dud in the Tampa Bay Derby — finishing 6 lengths off the winner and 5 behind runner-up Flameaway. He rebounded nicely to win the Wood Memorial, earning a 98 Beyer. John Velazquez gave up the mount on Florida Derby winner Audible to ride him for Todd Pletcher, and the two teamed up to win this race last year with Always Dreaming.

A good bet? The Wood win was impressive, and Vino has taken to Churchill Downs, turning in a bullet time in his only workout there. The 18 post might not suit his running style, however, and others in the top tier are more proven.

19. Noble Indy (30-1)

Need to know: He goes into Saturday’s race off a six-week layoff since his last start, a hard-fought victory in the Louisiana Derby. He was wearing blinkers for the first time that day and battled gamely in the stretch to hold on. Speed figures have improved from race to race — just four starts in his career. The fields he’s competed against so far have not been particularly well-regarded.

A good bet? He hasn’t really done anything wrong in his short career, but he also hasn’t shown much to make you think he’ll compete with the best here.

20. Combatant (50-1)

Need to know: He broke his maiden at Churchill Downs last October in his second career race. He’s been to the starting gate five times since but has yet to notch another victory. Combatant finished second, third and fourth in the three big prep races in Arkansas — coming in behind Magnum Moon and Solomini twice each, and getting bested by My Boy Jack once. His style is to come from off the pace.

A good bet? He could be picking off horses as they tire in the stretch, but probably not enough to finish in the money. Other closers in this field are better bets.


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By Ben Roberts

Lexington Herald-Leader