2015 Kentucky Derby – Handicapping the Field

Anticipation for the Kentucky Derby has never been higher since I’ve been a fan of the sport. It appears that this year’s group of three-year-olds has the potential to be very special, especially at the top. Even if there are two or three “freak” horses in here, the challenge of handicapping the Derby remains high. Favorites have won the Derby the last two years but >30-1 longshots have rounded out exotic tickets making for huge exactas and trifectas. What I want to look at are three things:

  • Which favorites are fairly rated or overrated
  • Which horses beyond the favorites could win if the race shapes up favorably for them
  • Which longshots could impact the exotic bets, especially the trifecta and superfecta

This year, we can turn these three statements into questions that will attempt to solve the handicapping puzzle.

  • Are American Pharoah and Dortmund lengths better than the rest of the field?
  • If so, is American Pharoah significantly better than Dormund? (AP will be the fav)
  • Does the race shape up to have a fast pace, potentially hurting the favs, who usually run close to the lead?
  • If so, who stands to benefit with stamina and a late closing kick?
  • What longshots have unique characteristics (pedigree, running style, improving form, etc) that make them competitive?
  • What do you think specifically about Carpe Diem, Mubtaahij, Materiality, and Upstart?

Tier 1 (Prime win candidates and key exacta/trifecta horses)

The Favorites

One Derby betting angle that I’ve promoted recently is the “Storm Cat-curse” wherein no horse with that great American sire in his pedigree has won the Kentucky Derby. The angle is 0-60 – even more than the Apollo curse. This year is a huge test for it as the top 3 betting choices will all be curse-breakers. In the win pool, I will be betting against the favorites because I believe I will get very good odds on the horse I like. In exotics, however, where I play $0.50-$2.00 tickets, I will be keying Bob Baffert’s charges in either first or second  on most tickets. I do think they are standouts and I’m excited to see them run.

American Pharoah (Est PT Odds: 3-1)
Pioneerof the Nile x Littleprincessemma (Yankee Gentleman), trained by Bob Baffert
The great horses in recent memory have been, in one way or another, winners of a genetic lottery. California Chrome, Wise Dan, Afleet Alex, and Smarty Jones among others have pedigrees that look decidedly average on paper but their athletic performance confounds expert pedigree analysis. American Pharoah looks like he should be a sprinter or middle-distance runner. His performance so far suggests he can run as far as he wants. Keen observers are tossing around the word “freak” with regard to his racing and training. Dominant Arkansas Derby winners of the last decade have all hit the board in the Kentucky Derby (Smarty, Alex, Curlin, Bodemeister). I give AP the best chance to break the curse, but I will bet him in 2nd and 3rd as much as on top.

Dortmund (PT: 4-1)
Big Brown x Our Josephina (Tale of the Cat), trained by Bob Baffert
The list of things to like about Dortmund is long. He’s undefeated, 6-6. He has a Graded Stakes win over the Churchill Downs surface and two G1 wins besides. He’s an imposing colt, standing 17 hands, with an enormous stride. His sire won the Kentucky Derby. He’s trained by 3-time winner Bob Baffert. He’s beaten twice several in this field including the well-regarded Firing Line. His BRIS speed figures have improved in each of his last four races. The big question: “is Dortmund the best horse in his own barn?” Baffert has kept Dortmund at Santa Anita while shipping American Pharoah to Arkansas, and they’ve easily captured more than a million in purses between them. His pedigree doesn’t scream improvement with distance. He’ll see a much faster pace than the one he’s set in all his efforts so far. He’ll be a deserving 2nd choice behind AP, though, and I love his chances. I’ll be using him on a lot of tickets.

My Pick

Frosted (PT: 12-1+)
Tapit x Fast Cookie (Deputy Minister), trained by Kiaran McLaughlin
I love Frosted for reasons most people do not. In the Fountain of Youth, he stopped at the top of stretch then came back with a huge run in the Wood Memorial, getting the top BRIS speed figure of any prep (a 107. Dortmund has a 106). This pattern, many say, could produce a “bounce” in the Kentucky Derby. I’ll ask this – what if the Wood was a bounce? The FoY pace was faster than the Wood, and he was rolling around the turn. Then, all of a sudden, Frosted couldn’t breath. He had displaced his palette, limiting airflow to his lungs. He galloped on for 4th. He had a very common throat surgery and he won the Wood under no urging. His pedigree is fantastic; he’s by Tapit, the best dirt stallion at stud today. His damsire is Deputy Minister, who I would argue is the best source of stamina in pedigrees today (damsire of Curlin and Rags to Riches, among others). He can make a mid-pack run as well, like he did in the Wood. I expected him to be only 12-1 or so, but the steam on the favorites is substantial and he could drift up. I love him at anything double-digits and will be my main win play.

Tier 2 (Include with key horses in exactas/trifectas)

Danzig Moon (ML: 30-1)
Malibu Moon x Leaveminthedust (Danzig), trained by Mark Casse
This colt’s name is a decoder ring as to why I like him a lot for the 2015 Kentucky Derby. His sire is Malibu Moon, sire of Orb, Derby winner in 2013. He’s the best son of champion AP Indy at stud and a great stamina influence in his own right. Danzig, his damsire, has consistently one of the best speed and stamina influences in recent years, with great colts like Big Brown (by Boundary) and Hard Spun in his line. Not to be outdone, his 2nd damsire is Mr Prospector, the most common name found in Derby pedigrees the last 25 years. (When I look at pedigrees, the closer the “marker” for success, the better) His female family includes greats Inside Information, Educated Risk, and the recently-deceased Smuggler. From a racing standpoint, he certainly looks to be improving, passing horses to close the gap on Carpe Diem in the Bluegrass. His jockey Julien Leparoux has a reputation for being, shall we say, overly patient in his riding style but that may actually help in a race like the Derby. I like his chances to hit the board, and will use as a key exotic play.

Materiality (PT: 15-1)
Afleet Alex x Wildwood Flower (Langfuhr), trained by Todd Pletcher
This potential Apollo-curse-breaker exits a strong win in the Florida Derby that gives him one of the top speed figures (105 BRIS) in the field. Usually Todd Pletcher’s lightly-raced speedballs boast pedigrees that suggest more success at sprint/mile distances, so to see Afleet Alex siring a half-brother to MGSW dirt router My Miss Sophia makes me believe Materiality isn’t another Verrazano. He’s beaten good horses in Upstart and Stanford and has already run twice at nine furlongs. I don’t see him breaking the curse this year, but he’s faster than most in here.

Mubtaahij (PT 12-1)
Dubai Millennium x Pennegale (Pennekamp), trained by Mike de Kock
Mubtaahij may be the best horse to come to Kentucky via the UAE Derby in a long time, maybe ever. He’s a horse that his connections thought would be good on grass but proved only average. He totally woke up on dirt – the only issue is that his competition in Dubai all had the same characteristics. He’s already run twice at 9.5f, just 110 yards shorter than the Derby distance. He beat his competition impressively, and his fractional times in Dubai make him competitive (within 2-3 lengths) with top US horses California Chrome and Lea in the 10 furlong Dubai World Cup. Renowned international trainer Mike de Kock doesn’t d*** mess around when it comes to shipping to the US – his charges are 6-6 to hit the board stateside. Mubtaahij is one of those in-or-out type horses that you will either decide to toss or have to include in spades, because his odds will be in the 10- to 15-1 range. He’s in for me on most of my exotic tickets, and will use sparingly on top of some.

Upstart (PT 15-1)
Flatter x Party Silks (Touch Gold), trained by Rick Violette
I’ll fully admit to not knowing what to do with Upstart. Several handicappers I respect really like him and he’s finished races really well. (The Fountain of Youth DQ was more a jockey issue, in my opinion). He’s been running at Gulfstream, and there’s been a pattern of horses improving as they ship north. He missed a little training a couple weeks back, but doubt his fitness is really in question. I don’t love the depth of his pedigree – Touch Gold hasn’t been as good a distance influence as his sire Deputy Minister and 2nd damsire Housebuster is a sprint sire. His odds, however, will be right for inclusion in exotics. Definitely a factor because he always turns in the effort.

Tier 3 (3-4 spots in minimum bet trifectas, superfectas)

International Star (PT: 15-1)
Fusaichi Pegasus x Parlez (French Deputy), trained by Michael Maker
This horse has improved dramatically since his two-year-old season, and has a pedigree that makes sense for that development. (Fusaichi Pegasus debuted late in his 2yo season, and steadily improved before winning the 2000 Derby). This is reflected in his speed figures, and might expect a 101-102 BRIS fig if trend continues. That seems like it’d be good enough for 3rd or 4th this year (Commanding Curve ran a 101 for second last year). The one thing many handicappers don’t like was jockey Miguel Mena’s aggressive use of the whip in the Louisiana Derby stretch drive. If he was all out to beat front-running Stanford there, do we see him going eye-to-eye with much better. This Ken Ramsey runner seems usable to me, but only for a minor piece.

Bolo (PT: 30-1)
Temple City x Aspen Mountain (Chief Seattle), trained by Carla Gaines
Connections believe this one to have more potential on grass, but he has requited himself with two 3rd-place finishes in Derby-qualifying races. The most appealing quality to Bolo for me is that the same pedigree that makes him a better grass horse makes him a better distance horse as well. If he can work out a trip, stay out of trouble, I expect him to be in contention for an in-the-money finish.

Carpe Diem (PT: 8-1)
Giant’s Causeway x Rebridled Dreams (Unbridled’s Song), trained by Todd Pletcher
Once-defeated Carpe Diem is Todd Pletcher’s big horse this year, and looks to be the third betting choice behind the Baffert tandem of American Pharoah and Dortmund. The main issue for me is how much Carpe Diem fits the profile of a typical Pletcher Derby horse: speedy, precocious, lightly-raced. Pletcher’s atypical Derby horses seem to be the ones that run well: Super Saver, Revolutionary, Danza. Those colts all sported stamina-favoring pedigrees and a mid-pack running style. Carpe Diem really likes to be close up. Similarly, his pedigree has a lot of brilliance in it (Storm Cat line crossed with Unbridled’s Song), but not a lot of depth in stamina. There’s some evidence (gate issues) that he’s a bit high-strung. Still, hard to knock his results so far, and his inherent speed. I think he folds in the stretch here, but I could be really wrong about him.

Far Right (PT: 25-1)
Notional x Zindi (Vindication), trained by Ron Moquett
I cannot say that this horse has done anything wrong thus far on the Derby Trail. He won the Smarty Jones and Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn to announce his presence, then had a clear second-best finish in the Arkansas Derby. The only problem was the eight lengths he finished behind American Pharoah. I expect the betting public will love that Mike Smith, the best big-race rider in the business, will continue to ride Far Right in the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, Far Right’s pedigree is not one I see stretching out to the 10F. Notional is a relatively unknown sire, but this sire line (incl Caro, In Excess, Indian Charlie) has had little Derby success – it’s much more oriented to sprinting and shorter routes. Still, I like how this colt gives his best every race. Not a win contender to my mind, but a patient ride could position him for an exotic score.

Stanford (PT: 30-1)
Malibu Moon x Rosy Humor (Distorted Humor), trained by Todd Pletcher
Stanford has two interesting races on his PPs that are worth considering. The first is the 9f stake on March 6, in which he lost by almost 6 lengths to stablemate Materiality. He still earned a solid speed fig (94 BRIS) for the effort. He came right back and got a 99 fig for his front-running 2nd in the Louisiana Derby, staying on against a very good horse in International Star. His pedigree suggests that he should like the Derby distance – both his sire and damsire have sired Derby winners. His early speed is his best asset, but he won’t get the lead easily Saturday evening. Best case for him is to control a modest pace through ¾ of a mile then tap into his stamina to hang on for a piece. I would not consider that the most likely scenario, but it’s not impossible. I’ll use underneath on bigger tickets.

Tier 4 (Big budget players can include these on some tickets)

Itsaknockout (PT: 30-1 – underlaid b/c of connection to Mayweather-Pacquiao)
Lemon Drop Kid x Stormy B (Cherokee Run), trained by Todd Pletcher
Here’s a horse who hasn’t finished in front of others since early January, but has shown speed in the past. I wonder if Pletcher wasn’t gearing down Itsaknockout while gearing up Materiality in the Florida Derby, knowing he was already qualified for Louisville. 3rd place may have been the best case scenario that day, so why not point to May 1? Again, no major disqualifiers on this one from a pedigree standpoint, but Pletcher seems on the fence about running him and Madefromlucky and Stanford. Maybe he saves one for the Preakness – hard to get a read on these prep flops. My gut tells me this horse is better than his last race and hasn’t missed training. Horses coming from the track at Gulfstream have been running faster times/figs elsewhere. He’s a price bounce-back contender in deeper exotics.

Keen Ice (PT: 50-1)
Curlin x Medomak (Awesome Again), trained by Dale Romans
The last to draw into the race, there’s a great deal of buzz surrounding Keen Ice making his way into the Derby field. Most of that buzz is related to the 2nd-place finishes garnered by Louisiana Derby placers Golden Soul and Commanding Curve hitting the Derby exacta the past two years at long odds. Keen Ice has a great distance pedigree and a plodding style that would seem to suggest a top 10 finish is reasonable. I contend, however, that this son of Curlin is not as fast as either Golden Soul or Commanding Curve, and would need more improvement than they needed to get a Derby placing. I understand what everyone’s getting at with Keen Ice, but I’m not in love with chances relative to others.

Mr. Z (PT: 40-1)
Malibu Moon x Stormy Bear (Storm Cat), trained by D. Wayne Lukas
This well-bred colt has run 4x this season, accumulating enough points from 2nd- and 3rd-place finishes to earn his way into the Derby starting gate. His 5f work on 4/22 got mixed reviews, barely catching an average turf router in a company drill. Malibu Moon has sired a Derby-winner but Storm Cat has never appeared in a Derby-winning pedigree, despite passing on a penchant for fast routers. His female line includes the dam of Mr Prospector, Gold Digger, making him inbred 3×3 to that mare in addition to other pedigree superstars Secretariat and Bold Ruler. His pedigree has more appeal than his current form, but I have to consider both. Lukas’s charges have been finishing mid-pack in the Derby recently, but keeping fit for later-season runs. A cut below here.

El Kabeir (PT: 25-1)
Scat Daddy x Great Venue (Unbridled’s Song), trained by John Terranova
I’ll just flatly say I don’t think this horse will get the Derby distance. The soft-paced Wood offered a perfect setup for him but he could only manage third. From a betting perspective, the inclusion of Calvin Borel to his team guarantees he’ll get bet more than he ought, and will be hugely underlaid in the win pool. I think he’s a strong contender for a bottom five finish – it doesn’t mean he’s a bad horse, he’ll certainly win his fair share going forward if he stays sound, but I don’t see him having the stamina to contend. A toss for me.

Firing Line (PT: 20-1)
Line of David x Sister Girl Blues (Hold the Gold), trained by Simon Callaghan
Firing Line’s biggest qualification is that twice he went toe to toe (eye to eye, nose to nose) with Dortmund in the LosAl Futurity and the Robert Lewis, both two-turn races at 8.5f. Then, he destroyed the Sunland Derby in the easiest effort of any prep race. He likes to stay pretty close to the pace, but probably does not need the lead. Firing Line is actually the horse that I will disagree with most other commentators on – I think his pedigree will restrict him from being a factor much beyond the mile pole. The Sunland win at 9f was simply too easy to count as a distance test. I’ll allow this one could surprise me, but I’m going to apply my pedigree filter like I am with El Kabeir, and leave this one off my tickets.

Tier 5 (Only bet when the ticket says ALL)

Tencendur (PT: 30-1)
Warrior’s Reward x Still Secret (Hennessy), trained by George Weaver
His surprise 2nd-place finish in the Wood probably had more to do with a favorable pace setup than anything else. Despite a relatively slow pace, he was the primary closer (even though winner Frosted moved even later). Frosted moved by him with ease. Though a hot pace may seem to favor his style, I suspect his sprinty pedigree won’t allow him to track that pace closely enough to be effective late. A toss for me.

Ocho Ocho Ocho (PT: 50-1)
Street Sense x Winner (Horse Chestnut), trained by Jim Cassidy
By Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, this colt seemed one to follow last fall after a nice Super Derby win. He just doesn’t seem the same horse at 3, qualifying with a unthreatening 3rd to Carpe Diem and Danzig Moon in Lexington, but getting trounced out west before that. I wouldn’t disqualify him on pedigree, but can’t place him in the top 5 for any good reason. Think his connections are there for the party. Leaving off my tickets.

War Story (PT: 50-1)
Northern Afleet x Belle Watling (Pulpit), trained by Thomas Amoss
There are some things to like about this horse (running style, hot connections), but this horse has been pretty slow relative to this field and was pretty far behind Stanford and International Star in the Louisiana Derby. A recent lackluster workout had trainer Tom Amoss saying that was pretty typical for the horse, but it didn’t improve any opinions. His pedigree does not have a ton of depth (Pulpit as damsire solid, but Housebuster as 2nd damsire is not) that would suggest a breakout at 10 furlongs. Commanding Curve turned a 3rd place LA Derby finish into a Kentucky Derby exacta finish last year, but he showed more speed than this one going into the race. War Story is a pass for me.