2018 KENTUCKY DERBY DAY: Analysis, Selections, and Tickets

Saturday is Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs, and amidst the pride and pageantry of the event is a bevy of wagering opportunities. As I did with the races leading up to the Kentucky Oaks, I’ll have race-by-race analysis, as well as three Pick Four tickets down at the bottom of the page (for the Oaks Day write-ups, click here).

It wouldn’t be fair to bury my Derby analysis, so I’ll spend some time dissecting that race up here at the top. As much as I want to go against #7 JUSTIFY, and as much as I feel that 3-1 is a short price to take on a horse that’s run three times, I think he’s the horse to beat if he runs back to his Santa Anita Derby effort. By all indications, he’s done everything right since that race, and while many factors could get him beat (I’m most concerned with how he’ll react to such a large field given that he’s faced just 14 others in his three starts to date), I don’t think the distance will be a problem.

As you can probably infer, I don’t think Justify’s a cinch, or anything close to that. I’m using him on my tickets, but I’ve got two other “A horses” and three “B horses” for exotics purposes. The value on the board could come with #6 GOOD MAGIC, who makes his third start in this form cycle. A similar pattern led to his runaway score in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and I like that he’s run well in races with very large fields. Nothing can replicate the environment the Kentucky Derby presents, but here’s a fun stat: While eight horses in this field have won races with fields of 12 or larger signed on, Good Magic’s the only horse in this field to have won two such events (additionally, he ran a close second in the Grade 1 Champagne, which also drew 12). At his likely price, I need him on my tickets.

I also need to use #14 MENDELSSOHN, the runaway winner of the UAE Derby. Yes, he probably rode a bias to that victory, but he also boasts a win in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. He had some adventures getting to Churchill Downs, and much has been made of trainer Aidan O’Brien’s struggles in this race, but with the right trip beneath all-world rider Ryan Moore, Beholder’s younger half-brother could be the one they have to catch turning for home.

My three “B horses” are all trained by Todd Pletcher. #5 AUDIBLE, #16 MAGNUM MOON, and #18 VINO ROSSO are all talented, but I think they’re a cut below my top three. Audible and Vino Rosso would certainly benefit from a pace meltdown, while Magnum Moon figures to be close to the pace. All three have a chance on their best days, but they may need perfect trips, which are tough to come by in a 20-horse field.

The main horse I’m leaving out is #11 BOLT D’ORO, and it isn’t for a lack of talent. I think he’s a very solid horse, but I’ve noticed a trend in his two-turn races. He doesn’t seem to be a fan of passing horses late, so where he turns for home is usually where he finishes. In that sense, he’s a lot like 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man, who also had a high cruising speed and was tough to reel in if he hit the top of the stretch in front, but often hung when he had some work left to do at that point. I just don’t think Bolt d’Oro will be in front turning for home, and 8-1 seems short on a horse that hasn’t crossed the wire first since October, doesn’t it?

With that in mind, let’s go through the 11 races leading up to the Derby. One reminder, and it’s the same one that was present in the Oaks preview: Even though there’s a chance of rain in the forecast, these analyses assume that all races carded for the turf stay there.

On with the show!

RACE #1: I’ll look to start off the proceedings with a bit of a price. #2 SHARE THE UPSIDE is 5-1 on the morning line, and I think he’s got a chance to be a very good 3-year-old. His debut win at Oaklawn was strong, as he dueled through fast fractions and moved away well late. That race was validated when the runner-up came back to win, and there doesn’t seem to be much other early speed signed on.

The favorite and second choice will likely be #5 CROSSWALK and #6 ONCE ON WHISKEY, and they’re well-meant. I’ll use them both in exactas with my top pick, and if the track is wet, I’ll also throw in 15-1 shot #4 ARTICULATOR, who has done his best running when the skies have opened up.

RACE #2: This morning line puzzles me. #2 SUMMER LUCK and #1 GRAY SKY are 5/2 and 3-1 respectively, and they’re a combined 3 for 49. Needless to say, I’m not a fan of either horse, and I’ll focus on two others drawn toward the outside.

#6 BIG GRAY ROCKET is my top pick. He went to the Al Stall barn earlier this year and has run against a number of strong horses. The added distance should be to his liking, and I think he’ll be flying late. I’ll also be using #7 SUPER DERECHO, who may inherit the early lead by default. He lost all chance at the break in his last start, and he may be the one they have to catch turning for home.

RACE #3: This is another spot where I’m against several horses that may take money. #8 LOOKIN AT LEE, of course, ran second in last year’s Kentucky Derby, and #5 SONNETEER ran in that race as well. However, they’re a combined 4 for 37, and I hate betting horses like that.

I prefer the other two likely choices. #4 HOLLYWOOD HANDSOME was a good second two back in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap, while #6 IRISH FREEDOM may simply hate Santa Anita and could relish the surface switch for new trainer Brad Cox. On wider tickets, I’ll also throw in #3 LANGDARMA, who could outrun his odds if he repeats his two-back effort.

RACE #4: I can’t get past two runners in here. I’m most impressed by #3 DING DONG DITCH and #9 IRISH TERRITORY, and that’s the pair I’ll rely heavily on. Both likely needed their returns off of long layoffs, but repeats of their races two back would make them tough to beat. Irish Territory is my top pick, as that effort was a runner-up finish behind Catholic Boy in the Grade 3 With Anticipation at Saratoga.

I’ll throw #2 MIDNIGHT TEA TIME and #4 UNBRIDLED REBEL underneath. The former showed some talent in his debut before going to the sidelines, while the latter was a close second in back-to-back races at Gulfstream Park.

RACE #5: The big story in this allowance is the return of #8 MCCRAKEN, who is using this race as a prep for next month’s Grade 1 Met Mile. He’s my top pick, but this clearly is not the goal, and it wouldn’t be stunning if the three-time graded stakes winner tasted defeat here.

The other horse I think you need to use is #6 BEHAVIORAL BIAS, who was a close-up fourth in the Grade 3 Commonwealth last time out. I think he’ll like the extra furlong he gets in this race, and he may be a bit of a price to boot.

On wider exotics tickets, I’ll also use #1 SIEM RIEP, #9 DAZZLING GEM, and #10 ROYAL SQUEEZE. Royal Squeeze ran the best race of his career at this route. It was against weaker company, but at his likely price, I need to have him in some capacity, just in case the return to his favorite track wakes him up.

RACE #6: Graded stakes action starts here with the Grade 1 Humana Distaff. Many runners in here exit the Grade 1 Madison at Keeneland, and while I’m using that race’s winner (#1 FINLEY’SLUCKYCHARM), I actually prefer a filly that ran a colossal race in defeat.

That’s #8 AMERICAN GAL, who was making her first start since last summer. She was sent to the lead, raced through wicked fractions, and was beaten just a neck. As mentioned leading up to that race, I felt she may have been the best 3-year-old filly in the country last year when she was healthy, and she could very well move forward off of her Madison performance.

Finley’sluckycharm certainly fits here, and I’ll use her. I also need to throw #5 LEWIS BAY onto my wider tickets. She showed a new dimension in the Madison, when she came flying late and missed by a head. If the pace proves hot, she could be the main beneficiary.

RACE #7: Good freaking luck, folks. This is the Grade 2 Distaff Turf Mile, and the race is completely wide open. I’ve gone seven-deep in the middle Pick Four in this race, and if you can narrow it down further than that, more power to you.

Most of the speed is drawn to the outside, and the main pace threat is likely favorite #11 LA CORONEL. However, she’s no cinch, as longshot #10 PSYCHO SISTER has one way of going and could make it difficult for the Grade 1 winner to clear. If the pace gets fast, it could set things up for the likes of #1 MADAM DANCEALOT, #7 RES IPSA, and #9 ON LEAVE, all of whom could come flying late as the race falls apart.

I also need to use a few others. #2 THUNDERING SKY has tactical speed and is drawn well compared to the other pace factors, #5 DREAM DANCING had a very wide trip last time out and gets Javier Castellano, and I’ll reluctantly throw in #3 DREAM AWHILE, simply because I can’t allow myself to be knocked out of a wager by a Chad Brown-trained turf horse in a wide-open race given how hot that barn has been lately.

RACE #8: This is the Grade 2 Churchill Downs, and it’s drawn one of the top sprinters in the country. That’s #3 IMPERIAL HINT, whose lone loss in his last seven starts was a close second to Roy H in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint. His 2018 debut was a fine prep for this race, and there’s a chance he’s much the best. That being said, his one start at Churchill Downs was horrible, and he won’t be alone on the lead.

Because of these facts, I’ll also use #7 LIMOUSINE LIBERAL, who likes Churchill Downs as much as any other horse in training. He won four stakes races here last year, and he could sit a dream trip just off the speed. If he gets that sort of trip, he could make the 4-1 morning line odds look like an overlay.

RACE #9: The Grade 2 American Turf starts off an all-stakes Pick Four ending with the Kentucky Derby, and it’s a doozy. I can’t fault the logic of those going very deep in this race (or even buying it), but since I’m trying to put together an affordable ticket, I’ll take a bit of a stand and go two-deep.

My top pick is #11 UNTAMED DOMAIN. This was one of the best 2-year-old turf horses around last year, and he was beaten just a length by Mendelssohn in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. He likely needed his first race back, and the Tampa Bay Derby is a complete throw-out because Untamed Domain is not a dirt horse. I think we’ll see him on his A-game Saturday, and those last two races mean we may get a bit of a price.

The other horse I have to use is #3 THREEANDFOURPENCE, who accompanied stablemate Mendelssohn to the U.S. and will be ridden by all-world jockey Ryan Moore. He’s been competitive with Mendelssohn on turf and gets Lasix for the first time, and like Untamed Domain, he’s not a dirt horse, so that thumping last time out in Dubai is easy for me to ignore.

RACE #10: The Grade 3 Pat Day Mile drew a strong field, including a few runners that wouldn’t have been ridiculously out of place in the Kentucky Derby. The 14-horse field should ensure bettable prices all around, although I’d be pretty surprised if my top selection went off at his morning line price.

That’s #8 MASK, who was getting rave reviews following two straight impressive wins to start his career. He was briefly sidelined with an injury, and while he hasn’t run since January, anything close to the form we’ve seen would make him a major player. I doubt we’ll get 4-1, but 5/2 or so wouldn’t deter me from betting him.

In case Mask needs a race, I’ll also use #1 NATIONAL FLAG, who is 2 for 2 this season and exits an impressive win in the Grade 3 Bay Shore. He may need a better break than the one he had that day, but he’s a certain contender with a clean trip, and if Mask doesn’t show up, National Flag strikes me as the most logical winner.

RACE #11: I’ll end this portion of my analysis by taking a stand against the likely favorite in the Grade 1 Turf Classic. That’s #10 BEACH PATROL, who won a pair of Grade 1 races last year and was second in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. He makes his first start of 2018 here, and he’ll likely be a heavy favorite.

Having said that, I have serious reservations about him. He’s at his best going much longer than this nine-furlong distance, and there’s a chance he needs this race off of a six-month layoff. I’m leaving him off of my Pick Four tickets and solely opting to use him in saver doubles that end in the Kentucky Derby.

My top pick is #7 SYNCHRONY, who’s gotten exceptionally good since Joe Bravo hopped aboard two starts ago. He most recently won a Grade 2 at Fair Grounds, and while he’s got a strong turn of foot, he’s also shown a bit of tactical speed and shouldn’t have to rally from out of the clouds.

I’ll also use #3 KURILOV, who exits a key race won by next-out Grade 1 winner Heart to Heart, as well as #6 ARKLOW, whose turf form looks much better if you toss his two New York races from last summer. I’m hoping Beach Patrol isn’t fully cranked and wants to go longer, and if I’m right, the potential for a nice late Pick Four payoff goes way up. Speaking of which…

PICK FOUR TICKETS

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #2

R2: 6,7
R3: 3,4,6
R4: 3,9
R5: 1,6,8,9,10

60 Bets, $30

There are no singles, but I’m narrow enough early to be able to spread in the payoff leg. Perhaps McCraken wins and makes that strategy look foolish, but if he’s simply using this race to stretch his legs, I want to get paid.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #5

R5: 6,8
R6: 1,5,8
R7: 1,2,3,5,7,9,11
R8: 3,7

84 Bets, $42

This one starts where the early one ends, and I’ll opt for a different, “A-only” approach to kick it off since I absolutely need to spread in the third leg. I wish I could hit the “ALL” button in that race, but barring a significant scratch, I can’t do that and give out a ticket that stays within a reasonable budget, so this will have to do.

$0.50 Pick Four: Race #9

R9: 3,11
R10: 1,8
R11: 3,6,7
R12: 5,6,7,14,16,18

72 Bets, $36

The philosophy here is pretty simple. If I can get to the 20-horse Kentucky Derby, I feel confident that I’m going to hit for a decent sum of money (especially if one of my non-Justify horses wins the main event). Between field sizes, the massive pool we’re likely to see, and the lack of Beach Patrol on my ticket, even a somewhat formful set of results could lead to a big score, and with the time between the Turf Classic and the Derby, such a scenario would leave me plenty of time to be nervous before the Run for the Roses.

CHAMPAGNE’S CAMPAIGNS: 2018 Kentucky Derby Morning Line

I have a tremendous amount of respect for morning line makers. They have one of the most thankless jobs in all of racing. Nobody congratulates them when they correctly peg the way the public bets a race, but when they get a favorite wrong in a big race, out come the Twitter barbarians.

I’m guilty of criticizing morning lines, but it’s my view that, if you’re going to do that, you need to be prepared to make your own attempt at it. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially in races with large fields. Not only do you need to accurately gauge how gamblers will play it, but it needs to mathematically check out with a point total between 115 and 125 points (for an explanation on odds lines and point values for certain values, click here).

With all of this in mind, I’m going to take a stab at a Kentucky Derby morning line. Mine comes out to 124.2 points, which just barely checks out from a math standpoint. One disclaimer before we dive in: This is not an indication of the way I will analyze the race, nor an indication of which horse I will pick. This is my guess at the way the public will bet the race, and on that note, let’s take a look!

THE FAVORITE

Justify: 4-1

Justify will almost certainly be favored. His three races this year have all been impressive victories, including his Santa Anita Derby score over Bolt d’Oro. There’s a chance he goes off lower than this, but I couldn’t make a morning line that checked out mathematically with him lower than 4-1 (late defections could, of course, change this).

THE EASTERN JUSTIFY

Magnum Moon: 6-1

Like Justify, Magnum Moon will look to defy the Apollo Curse on the first Saturday in May. He didn’t race as a 2-year-old, but he’s 4-for-4 this year, with runaway wins in the Arkansas Derby and Rebel. The way he drifted out in his most recent start is a bit of a concern, but ultimately, I think he’s the most likely second choice.

THE OTHER MAIN CONTENDERS

Audible: 8-1
Mendelssohn: 8-1

Audible has only run twice this year, but both of those starts have been visually-impressive wins in Florida. The Todd Pletcher trainee showed versatility in the Florida Derby, when he rated well off of an insane early pace and made a big move. Meanwhile, Mendelssohn crushed an overmatched group in the UAE Derby and has shipped to the States successfully before. He’s Beholder’s younger half-brother, and while Aidan O’Brien has not won this race before, few conditioners in the world are better than he is.

WAIT, THEY’RE DOUBLE DIGITS?

Bolt d’Oro: 10-1
Good Magic: 10-1

If I had told you, in November, that these two horses would be double-digits on the Kentucky Derby morning line, you probably wouldn’t have believed me. However, Bolt d’Oro was second to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby, and while Good Magic won the Blue Grass, memories of his dud in the Fountain of Youth could be fresh in the minds of horseplayers. It’s possible either or both of these horses come down a point or two, but I couldn’t put them below my projected top four.

IS THE WOOD STILL A MARQUEE DERBY PREP?

Vino Rosso: 15-1

First of all, can the tradition-first stalwarts among us begrudgingly admit that the graded stakes committee made the right call downgrading the Wood a few years ago? OK, good. Anyway, Vino Rosso finally took a long-awaited step forward in that race, and despite having to sweat out an inquiry/objection, he has the look of a horse that could be moving forward. He’s got a substantial distance to close on the divisional leaders, but the presence of trainer Todd Pletcher and his recent victory ensure that he won’t be an outrageous price.

THE “WISE-GUY” HORSES

Hofburg: 20-1
Noble Indy: 20-1
Quip: 20-1
Solomini: 20-1

Each of these horses has angles to like. Hofburg is still eligible for a non-winners-of-one allowance, but he ran second in the Florida Derby, which doubled as just his third career start. Noble Indy may be Todd Pletcher’s fourth-best 3-year-old, but he showed grit in taking the Louisiana Derby. Quip won the Tampa Bay Derby and was a game second behind Magnum Moon. Finally, Solomini hasn’t crossed the wire first since the Los Alamitos Futurity (which featured a controversial disqualification), but he’s trained by Bob Baffert and has a running style that hints the added distance of the Derby won’t be a problem. If you ask 10 handicappers their opinions of this race, chances are at least one or two of them will bring up one of these horses as a threat to hit the board at a nice number.

GOOD, JUST NOT THIS GOOD (AND A FANCY NAME)

Enticed: 30-1
Flameaway: 30-1
Gronkowski: 30-1
My Boy Jack: 30-1
Promises Fulfilled: 30-1

We’ll get to Gronkowski in a minute. The other four have all won races on the road to the Kentucky Derby, but they seem outclassed by the best of the best in this spot. One or two of them may drift down a few points (most likely hard-trying Flameaway and/or late-runner My Boy Jack), but I felt more comfortable putting them here than anywhere else.

Meanwhile, Gronkowski earned a spot in the starting gate thanks to success in Europe. By any conceivable measure, he’s outclassed in this spot, and on ability alone, he should be 50-1. However, I think he’ll get plenty of money from once-a-year bettors and those betting based on name. That meant I couldn’t put him with my last group, which is below.

UP AGAINST IT

Bravazo: 50-1
Firenze Fire: 50-1
Free Drop Billy: 50-1
Lone Sailor: 50-1

Bravazo and Free Drop Billy may drift down a few points, but when Magnum Moon moved forward enough to be my clear second choice, I had to drop them from 30-1 to 50-1 on my line for it to mathematically check out. Meanwhile, Lone Sailor hasn’t won in a while, and Firenze Fire will almost certainly be the longest shot on the board given his apparent distance limitations.

ALSO-ELIGIBLES

Combatant: 30-1
Restoring Hope: 30-1
All Others: 50-1

Of the horses on the outside looking in, only Combatant and Restoring Hope strike me as anything other than hopeless longshots. Combatant (21st on the list) has had some rough racing luck and could come running late, while Restoring Hope (26th) is a Bob Baffert trainee, which alone is likely enough to move some money. None of the others seem logical, and if those horses get in, they’ll be 50-1 on my line (and other horses will likely come down in price if I have enough wiggle room to do that).