2013 Kentucky Derby – Handicapping the Field

The 2013 Kentucky Derby is, in many ways, the polar opposite of last year’s. In 2012, 9 horses that had run in the Breeders Cup Juvenile 6 months prior would line up to Run for the Roses. To many (including me), this indicated a good group of three-year-old colts. If you were counted among this group, or beat a member head-to-head, you proved your place among the line-up in Louisville.

That sentiment indicated to me that the winners of the Santa Anita Derby and the Arkansas Derby, among others, were good bets in the Kentucky Derby. I’ll Have Another and Bodemeister didn’t run in the BC Juvenile but they beat, respectively, its 3rd place finisher and the BC Juvenile Sprint champ. They were fast horses, and a bit of pedigree work indicated to me that they were two of the three best bets to win on Derby day. Turns out, last year, I got lucky – the race shaped as well as I could imagine and my prediction paid $300 on a $2 exacta bet.

This year…well, this year is a mess. Exactly zero horses have stuck around from the BC Juvenile to contest the Kentucky Derby. Not that the BC Juvenile was ever a major predictor of Derby Success, but it has been legitimately difficult to identify the competition against which this year’s prep winners have won.

The Derby points system has added a twist – by marginalizing two-year-old races, the points system has brought more stamina-laden pedigrees to the forefront. (Actually, it has done the converse, minimizing the impact of speedy, precocious horses winning rich juvenile purses towards Derby qualification). This year, much more than last, I find it much more difficult to disqualify a large group of horses on pedigree alone.

Which leaves me to actual handicapping which, by the looks of my ADW account, should not be trusted by anyone reading this article. I may only commend myself by saying that I have cared about these 20 horses much more than the hundreds that I have glanced over on my forms. With that, my thoughts.

As last year, I’m going to group the Kentucky Derby entrants into 4 tiers. The 1st group, I consider the prime win contenders. The second, I think can win but will not bet to do so – instead, I’ll put them in most of my exotic bets. Tier 3, I’ll add to the bottom of a few exactas and trifectas, mostly looking for prices. Tier 4, if they win or finish in the money, I close my laptop a loser – in a race of 20, it’s a not unlikely outcome. I’m providing what I think will be the horse’s post-time odds.

Tier 1 (Top Win Contenders):

Itsmyluckyday – 15-1 – What’s to like about the 2nd place finisher in the Florida Derby? In two January races, he was absolutely the fastest 3yo colt on the Derby Trail. In the G3 Holy Bull, he easily beat BC Juvenile winner Shanghai Bobby, who is a very fast horse (and I expect will be again in future 1-turn races). Then, he got some time off. He came back and finished 2nd in the Florida Derby to the likely Derby favorite, Orb. I think the time off was a reset button for IMLD – the FL Derby was his first effort off a layoff and horses often (usually?) perform better in their 2nd race back. Trainer Eddie Plesa has said the Derby was the target all along – I believe him.

I couldn’t get on board with IMLD if I didn’t think he had the pedigree to get 10f, at least faster than the other contenders. His sire, Lawyer Ron, had great success in 9f races and his lesser success at 10f is largely because of great winners like Barbaro, Invasor, and Curlin. He’s from the Danzig line of Northern Dancer, which has one Derby winner in Big Brown (thru Danzig’s son Boundary). His dam is a granddaughter of Seattle Slew (by Doneraile Court), his 2nd dam a grand-daughter of Mr Prospector (by Crafty Prospector), and his 3rd dam a daughter of Secretariat.

Watching his races, Itsmyluckyday runs with his head down, which may not seem spectacular, but turns out to be a very efficient way of running. This should help him in a race with 19 other horses. Speed, planning, pedigree, efficiency – this sounds likes a winning combination, and he should be in the 12- to 15-1 range come Derby day.

Revolutionary – 8-1 – Even before the announcement that 3-time Derby winner Calvin Borel was going to ride, I thought Revolutionary had the makings of a Kentucky Derby winning horse. I consider his distance pedigree to bet tops among Derby contenders. Certainly, his sire War Pass was a brilliant 2yo who flamed out as he stretched out, but the Blushing Groom line to generally considered to contribute stamina to its runners. In fact, just 6 runners in the line have made the Derby starting gate since 2000. Three, however, have finished in the money and Animal Kingdom (by champion miler Leroidesanimaux), won the 2011 Derby. Revolutionary’s damside is most impressive; his damsire is AP Indy (stamina influence) and his 2nd dam, Up the Flagpole, is the 2nd dam to BCC Classic winner and 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft. This horse is bred to go long, and I like his determination in the stretch

In my opinion, having Borel up for a horse owned by Winstar Farms and trained by Todd Pletcher (the exact combination for Super Saver winning in 2010) serves only to depress Revolutionary’s odds. The buzz on other horses (the next two specifically) will prevent Revolutionary from being too underlaid in the win pool, and in most exotic bets he’ll contribute a fair multiplier.

Orb – 5-1 – This horse has completely grown on me. Normally, I would downgrade an AP Indy or a Storm Cat-line colt because they have performed so poorly in the Derby, despite multiple starters. But Orb…Orb has made me a believer that, not only can he win, but that he may be a very special horse indeed. A homebred by the Phipps family, Orb is by Spendthrift Farm’s Malibu Moon, who I believe to be both the most versatile and underrated son of AP Indy at stud. (Malibu Moon is also one of the only horses I’ve “met”, on a private walking tour of Spendthrift. You are warned I may be biased.) Orb is inbred to Mr Prospector, his dam a daughter of Unbridled, the last horse to both win the Kentucky Derby and sire a Derby-winner. Damascus and Bold Ruler both sired members of his female family, the latter in a pairing with the dam of the great(est) filly Ruffian.

Those who speak of trainer Shug McCaughey do so with reverence and awe and Orb is his best shot ever to win. On his best, he has beaten one of the best in Itsmyluckyday. Jockey Joel Rosario has been winning everything this past month and will certainly give the horse a great shot. Orb won’t be a great price as the likely favorite but a victory by him would be a victory for the sport, and some of the best people in it. Personally, I’d like to put the AP handicapping angle to bed, and Orb is the best bet to do it.

Tier 1a – (Strong Win Contenders):

Verrazano – 5-1 – The horse that seemed a sure fire favorite does seem to be getting overlooked a bit, and probably by me as well. He’s an undefeated 4-for-4 with his first start on January 1st of this year. He beat the winner of the Blue Grass Stakes, Java’s War, in the Tampa Bay Derby and several graded winners in the Wood Memorial. He has a fairly strong pedigree for the distance: the Turn-To line (of which sire More than Ready) is part is respectable as a stamina influence and Verrazano is suspended on his dam side by such names as Giant’s Causeway, Mr Prospector, Blushing Groom and Dr Fager. He seems nearer to the type of horse that Todd Pletcher is famous for training (brilliant early, fragile late) but it’s quite possible we haven’t yet seen what this horse is capable of.

Connections and top jockey John Velzaquez mean this horse cannot be ignored, but I do think he is underlaid at any price below 10-1. Still, I cannot ignore that he consistently wins and he is very fast. I often remind myself that all horses can “get the distance” but it takes special ones to do it quickly. I’m not particularly excited about Verrazano, but I have to respect him, and may need him on the top of a few exotics in order to cash.

Java’s War – 12-1 – Java’s War was my sneaky longshot horse until he went and ruined that by winning the Blue Grass. At least he showed his capability that day, and like the other son of War Pass in here (Revolutionary), I think he’ll have no problem with the distance. Java’s War may have an even better pure stamina pedigree being in-bred to Blushing Groom top and bottom (by a BG-line sire out of a BG-line mare). Others have described him as having a more “grassy” pedigree and I cannot dispute that – he has won on all three surfaces. There’s no doubt in my mind he can make a winning run if he can get into contention by the 3/8ths pole. Jockey Julien Leparoux will need to do a nice piloting job to avoid a number of horses backing up while not going too wide.

I’ve already committed to parlaying my $5 win ticket on Java’s War in the Blue Grass to a $29 worth of win and exacta tickets with him on top, so I’m hoping for 12- to 15-1. Probably will get it, but he won’t be supercharging any exotic tickets like he might have at 30-1.

Tier 2 – Top Exotic Plays:

Palace Malice - 15-1 – This horse has already run 3 times in 8 weeks and is the biggest enigma of Pletcher’s contenders. He finished a good 3rd in a weird Risen Star, then a bad trip 4th in the Louisiana Derby in which he looked the equal (or better) to stablemate Revolutionary. But, he wheeled back to get a good 2nd to Java’s War in the Blue Grass in which he did most of the hard work stalking the leaders to just miss to the fast closer. By 2007 HOY Curlin, winner of multiple classic races and grandson of Mr. Prospector, his distaff side includes several distance influences that are more associated with turf success. He does, however, have one overlooked angle: this year’s Derby is run on May 4th, Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you) and he’s the only runner to have 1986 BC Classic winner Skywalker as a sire of direct female relative. I have invented worse reasons to bet a horse and I’d love to see Curlin have a live one.

Will Take Charge & Oxbow - 20-1 – I put these two D. Wayne Lukas trainees together as I think they have equal shots for different reasons. Will Take Charge has two stakes wins this year, the latter in the Rebel Stakes being what I thought was Oaklawn’s best field. That the connections skipped the Arkansas Derby or Blue Grass is strange, but it sounds like he might have had a growth spurt and has looked good in training. He likes to travel in mid-pack and knows how to pass horses. He is in the Unbridled line from Mr Prospector which has been very successful in the Derby, and his distaff side boasts notable distance influences Rubiano, Blushing Groom and Swaps. His dam is multiple G1 winner Take Charge Lady. Big shot.

Oxbow, on the other hand. seemed to peak early on the Derby trail, winning in January, placing in February in March then coming off the board in April. Looks like he’s going the wrong way. A couple things to note: in all but the win, he drew the outside post. He has had a different jockey in every race this year – (his winning jock is on his stablemate, but gets newly unretired Hall of Famer Gary Stevens as a consolation prize. Not bad.) He is likely to be forwardly placed in a moderately paced race – his preferred runstyle. His pedigree is virtually identical to last year’s Belmont Stakes 2nd place finisher Paynter. Their sire Awesome Again is one of the best influences for success at the 10f distance; however, most of those wins have come in older horses. A horse like Oxbow you need a price on and you’re likely to get it.

Frac Daddy – 50-1 – My first big reach, but bear with me. I don’t consider this horse a major win contender based on pedigree (sire Scat Daddy being of the Storm Cat line) but I acknowledge he checks a lot of other boxes. He’s had success at Churchill, breaking his maiden here, and finishing 2nd in the Kentucky Jockey Club stakes at 2. His 1st race back, he tore off half his foot (horses do this, apparently) and still finished the Holy Bull (albeit well back of Itsmyluckyday). His next start, he roped Orb and IMLD in the Florida Derby. His trainer (Kenny McPeek of Java’s War) had enough faith in him to ship to Arkansas where he finished a close 2nd to Overanalyze. Frac Daddy is a big horse with a large stride who is looking at a peak effort at a big price – he may not hit the exacta, but is a horse I’ll feature in multiple trifectas and superfectas to get one of those legendary Derby payoffs. I think you’d get at least 12-1 on a show bet with him, if that’s your thing.

Vyjack – 15-1 - I have bumped this horse up from a low tier 3 horse to my lowest tier 2 horse because I think he’s got some guts. Other handicappers I respect are very high on him based on his pre-Wood Memorial form. He apparently had an illness the week preceding the Wood, didn’t run his best, but still got 3rd. His illness has been treated and should be able to give good effort. I’m not high on his pedigree (by Into Mischief, of the Storm Cat line) but he may be positioned well enough to sustain a run that gets him in the money. As a gelding, Vyjack may well be a horse that makes noise in the handicap division for years, but don’t think today’s his day. Respect nonetheless.

Tier 3 – Reluctant Exotic Plays:

Goldencents – 8-1 – He is underlay #1, primarily because of the combination of trainer (last year’s winning trainer Doug O’Neil) and part-owner Coach Rick Pitino (of the national champion Louisville Cardinals). The national story should translate into some local love and some dumb money on a horse that hasn’t seen any horses like those above. That’s actually unfair, however, as Goldencents does have a few things in his favor. For one, he’s fast, and he ran an excellent Santa Anita Derby against the best that the West Coast had to offer (which was much worse that last year’s contingent). He did so employing a different running style than this previous wins (off the pace instead of front running), which shows some versatility. He had considerable success at 2, seems sound enough, and Doug O’neil demonstrated last year that he knows how to prepare a horse for the Derby. I cannot get past Goldencents’ pedigree which, like Vyjack, has Into Mischief on the top and not much else on the bottom. Think running near the front gives him his best chance to hang on for a piece, an outcome I can neither rule out nor endorse for the low price I’ll get for betting it.

Overanalyze – 15-1 – I don’t love Overanalyze but the Arkansas Derby winner should always be considered a threat. Still, this year’s renewal seemed a cut below, especially with Oxbow and Bob Baffert’s contingent laying an egg, and a slow final time. Pedigree is fair on top (by Dixie Union, sire of last year’s Belmont winner Union Rags) but doesn’t have much on the bottom. Hard to recommend at the price, but he is a grade 1 winner that may be sitting on his best race. Will consider for Uncle Mo’s former connections.

Black Onyx – 25-1 – The Spiral Stakes winner hopes to take the same path that Animal Kingdom did to victory in 2011, but I cannot say he’s as good a fit on top as that one was. Still, Went the Day Well hit the superfecta last year and Black Onyx has pedigree enough to be a factor. Having shipped to Churchill Downs right after his win, he’ll have a familiarity with the surface, though works do not seem to point to him like they did to Animal Kingdom. Again, price is important, and you’ll get it.

Mylute – 15-1 – The second major underlay candidate, since female jockey Rosie Napravnik will be riding him. Now, I firmly believe that Rosie gives Mylute his absolute best chance to win, but doesn’t turn a 40-1 horse into a 15-1 shot. Still, in this guy’s favor, he is one of a handful of the Mr Prospector line runners in here and looks to be running late. He gave Revolutionary all he could handle last out, but think the situation favored him that day. Good story, may move up on wet track; tough for me to endorse.

Lines of Battle – 25-1 – UAE Derby winner with a pretty terrific pedigree for the distance. I have a hard time supporting a horse, however, whose connections ship him half way around the world four days before this race on a less than favored surface. Pedigree play, because War Front up top, Arch below can win a 10f race (though that race is usually on grass). No jockey has yet been named

Tier 4 – (They finish in the money, I lose):

Normandy Invasion – 8-1 – Underlay #3. Eventually, we all have to take stands against perceived good horses and Normandy Invasion is my stand against this year. His late charging 2nd in the Wood Memorial has everyone holding him up as the “wiseguy” horse, thinking his late kick will mean a victory with another furlong to run. I have doubts that his pedigree will allow him to get the distance. His sire, Tapit, has been remarkably productive getting stakes winners at 2 and 3, but that success appears to top out at 8.5 furlongs. His distaff side appears speed oriented as well. His Wood Memorial placing may ultimately have been a product of Vyjack being sick and the rest being simply outclassed. He’s going to take a lot of action, just not mine.

Golden Soul -  50-1 – Charles Fipke owns both Golden Soul and Java’s War, but this is the lesser of the two entries. This runner has a pretty solid pedigree that looks best suited to grass, but should get the distance comfortably, if slowly. He’s by Perfect Soul, a son of all-time great sire Sadler’s Wells, and out of a Mr Prospector mare. I honestly think this horse will beat half the field on pedigree alone, but lack of speed will prevent him from threatening the top contenders.

Charming Kitten – 40-1 -  Popular owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey send out Charming Kitten and, like Golden Soul, he threatens a mid-pack finish. Sire Kitten’s Joy is also from the Sadler’s Wells line but his progeny also do their best running on grass and artificial surfaces. This is Todd Pletcher’s lowest rated entrant and I get the feeling that the Ramseys are just happy to have a shot. They cleaned up over at Keeneland, so they’ll have no problem affording tickets for their friends and family to pack the winner’s circle, or the bar at the Mansion.

Falling Sky – 50-1 – Poor Falling Sky – I’ve never given this grade 3 winner enough credit. He won the Sam Davis, then finished 3rd to Verrazano and Java’s War in the Tampa Bay Derby. He got more points for a 4th in the Arkansas Derby. His sire, Lion Heart, is a solid performer if not a stamina contributor. His dam sire, Sea Hero, won the Derby and there’s some distance influence beneath that. He just seems a horse that’s going backwards and unlikely to move forward on Derby day.

Giant Finish50-1 – Clearly a case of the owner wanting a horse in the Derby, as he was pointed toward an allowance race at Belmont before it was clear he’d be the 20th in. He is 2 for 3 on New York dirt, but he’s up against it here. Be thankful for horses like these, however – they improve the odds on everyone else.

AE – Fear the Kitten – 50-1 – Another Kitten’s Joy with a couple placings on dirt to get in. His best race, in Oaklawn’s Southwest, came in the mud. A lot to like from his damside, with Dynaformer, In Reality, and Arts and Letters contributing. The fact that he underperformed on Polytrack may indicate he is more suited to dirt and could be a surprise at a big price. A lot has to fall apart for that to happen, however.

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