April 4, 2018
By: Jonathan Stettin
We have three major Kentucky Derby preps this Saturday in three different states across the country. The Wood Memorial in New York, the Santa Anita Derby in California, and the Blue Grass in Kentucky. Unfortunately, all three are in danger of being run under less than ideal conditions. Poor weather is hovering around all of those races. This really puts the connections, who have waited for these spots to get the points they need to get into the Kentucky Derby, up against it. The following Saturday we have the Arkansas Derby and Lexington Stakes that will wrap things up and set the stage for the first Saturday in May.
Since the inception of the point system in 2013 all the Derby winners were undefeated in their three-year old campaigns. I don’t believe that was by accident or coincidental. Starting back in 2013 and through last year Orb, California Chrome, American Pharoah, Nyquist, and Always Dreaming all went through their respective three- year old campaigns leading to the Derby without a hiccup on the racetrack. The obvious conclusion is the point system doesn’t really allow for pointing for a race with steady progression and not being fully cranked from the onset.
Of all the horses trying to get to the Derby this Saturday none has more hype than Justify. This fast and talented colt will get his first real class test in the Santa Anita Derby when he faces Bolt d’ Oro, who was a leading two-year old and is also considered by many to be a top three-year old. Justify is two for two in his brief career and both starts came at three-years old. That means he has to buck the long-standing Apollo curse if he is to win the Kentucky Derby. Although that dates back pretty far by any standard, all these trends and statistics eventually go the way of the dosage index and go down. In reality, how many horses who did not race at two went into the Kentucky Derby with a legit chance? Maybe Pulpit or Curlin recently, but historically probably not that many. If you are a Justify believer I wouldn’t be worried about Apollo.
Justify has gotten the hype of being Bob Baffert’s best Kentucky Derby hope since he made his debut at Santa Anita in February, winning at 7 furlongs in 1:21.4. That’s fast at any track. He came back just about a month later to win at a mile over a muddy Santa Anita track in 1:35.3. He has yet to face the quality of Bolt d’ Oro but he does have that mud win and all the hype with him. Additionally, his stablemate is McKinzie. If we are to believe the hype, he is better than McKinzie and that runner gave Bolt d’ Oro all he could handle. He also has Bob Baffert in his corner. That can only help in any big race.
Bolt d’ Oro is battle tested. He had a rough go of it in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He literally had a war with Mckinzie last out, what resulted in McKinzie being disqualified. The two bumped turning for home and again nearing the wire but what sticks out to me is it never looked like Bolt d’ Oro was going to get by. Despite being carried out, which I remain cognizant of, I don’t believe the incident cost Bolt d’Oro the win.
Mick Ruis has done a fine job training Bolt d’ Oro thus far. He is now at the point on the Derby trail where things start to change. This is his first run and he does not have the experience that his chief rival, Bob Baffert, has in winning these types of races. I think that can play a part come Saturday.
I am a long way from handing the roses to Justify, or anyone else for that matter. There is plenty of time for that. The race on Saturday has not even been drawn yet so no detailed homework has been done. Strictly by the naked eye and experience, I will be a lot more surprised to see Bolt d’ Oro in the Santa Anita winners circle on Saturday than I will Justify. I think it is likely Justify punches his ticket to Louisville with a win and heads to town looking to bump Apollo as an undefeated three-year old with no starts at two. Getting that done is another matter altogether.