I often point out the Derby is the hardest horse race to handicap. No other race in America has a field as large as 20 so there are a lot of options. The size of the field means there is a lot of traffic and bumping and many horses who might have done well have trips so troubled they have no shot. (It’s almost impossible to predict who those will be.) Last year, I correctly identified the Louisiana Derby as the key prep race. Indeed, all top runners from that race fired big in the Kentucky Derby. Unfortunately, the ultimate outsider, ultra-longshot Rich Strike beat all of them at 80-1. Somebody may have picked that winner but I’ve never found such a person.
Until the wagering opens Friday morning, the odds quoted are the projections of the track’s oddsmaker. He has made Forte the 3-1 favorite. I believe that is dead wrong. I do not think Forte will be the betting favorite and I think the odds on the actual favorite will be no lower than 5-1. After Rich Strike’s longshot win last year, lots of casual bettors will be looking for huge scores and betting on also-rans. This will result in higher odds than normal for the more-favored horses.
A dry track is forecast for Saturday. The race itself doesn’t have a lot of early speed type horses. This means there will be a lot of bunched-up traffic and the potential for a roughly run race. Whoever wins will have gotten an excellent ride from its jockey.
I have narrowed down the likely winner to one of six horses and will lay out reasons in my analysis below. Scratches are allowed up to late morning Friday. Two have already scratched as of this writing and two others have drawn into the race off the “also eligible list.” This is how Rich Strike got in last year. If there are additional scratches I will not be able to update the copy here.
I’ll assess each horse in post position order.
#1 Hit Show—The rail isn’t as awful a post position as it used to be but it’s still not great. This horse has improved its speed figure in each of its last five races and is trained by Brad Cox, the “new” Bob Baffert, who hasn’t won a Derby yet but wins everything else and is likely to have about five of them by the time he’s done.
#2 Verifying—The second Brad Cox-trained horse (more to come). This one has good tactical speed and he’ll need to use it from his inside position. Got a monster speed figure in his second place finish last out in the Blue Grass Stakes. His workouts at Churchill Downs the past two weeks have been super. Possible winner.
#3 Two Phil’s—Another legit contender. Ran a big race in his Derby prep but that was on a synthetic surface against a weak field. Trained by the guy that has dominated racing in Illinois the last few years and ridden by the jockey that has done the same. But neither has won a big national race. I expect this one to lay six or seven lengths off the early pace and avoiding traffic trouble is critical.
#4 Confidence Game—I have no confidence in my analysis of this one. He hasn’t raced in ten weeks because of issues after his last start but that was a bang-up effort. The trainer has struck again and again with longshots. History says you don’t win the Derby off such a long layoff but things are changing rapidly. I’m not using this horse but I’m wary of him.
#5 Tapit Trice—One of the “other Pletchers.” The term comes from the amazing frequency in which trainer Todd Pletcher wins races in which he has multiple entrants but the less touted of his horses wins. This is Pletcher’s best shot this year, not the hype horse Forte. This one comes from off the pace so traffic issues are again a concern but he’s won four races in a row and it looks the 1 ¼ mile distance of the race will suit him. He has looked very good on the track at Churchill this week (I watch all the works and use the services of a private clocker).
#6 Kingsbarns—The second Pletcher horse, or the other other Pletcher. This one is making only his fourth career start but his last race was a crushing win in the Louisiana Derby. He has excellent early speed and may avoid the traffic issues that could compromise so many horses in the race. The horse is very well bred. The big problem is he never raced last year as a two year old it is almost impossible to win the Kentucky Derby without having a two year old foundation.
#7 Reincarnate—This is one of those horses that was trained by the notorious cheater Bob Baffert. Baffert is banned from the race by Churchill Downs (a great thing) and transferred the horse to trainer Tim Yakteen. Not surprisingly, the horse has regressed a bit since. But his races aren’t bad. His program odds are 50-1 and that’s too high.
#8 Mage—This is a very talented horse but he didn’t start his career until the end of January and he is being unwisely rushed into this race. If his owner/trainer had waited two weeks to run in the Preakness, they might have won it.
#9 Skinner—There are a lot of reasons this horse can win including that his trainer has already won the Derby. He has a stalking style that is ideal for this year’s Derby and he keeps improving. This horse has been on my radar as a potential Derby winner for weeks and he is coming into the race perfectly. The owner and trainer made a gutsy decision and booted off jockey Victor Espinoza who has won three Kentucky Derbys. They replaced him with Juan Hernandez, who has never won the race. But right now Hernandez is a far better rider than the aging Espinoza and the upgrade in rider ability is significant. I’m just not sure if the horse is good enough but this is the most perfectly prepared horse in the race.
#10 Practical Move—SCRATCHED.
#11 Disarm—Trainer Steve Asmussen has won more races than any trainer in horse racing history! Yet he has never won the Derby. This one doesn’t look like he’ll be the one to do it. He showed ability early in his career but hasn’t improved. He does have an excellent jockey.
#12 Jace’s Road—The third Brad Cox-trained horse and seemingly the least talented. It’s possible his rider will gun him to the lead and try to steal the race on the front.
#13 Sun Thunder—The trainer is very hot right now but this horse would have to improve by eight lengths over any of his previous races to win here. Rich Strike did that last year but hardly any other Derby runner has.
#14 Angel of Empire—The fourth Brad Cox-trained horse and the likeliest to give him his first Derby win. There are no knocks on this horse at all. He’s coming off an impressive win in the Arkansas Derby and keeps getting better as the races get longer. He may improve again here. He has one of the best riders in America in Flavien Prat whose great strength is positioning horses to get clear runs and that is critical here because this one will come from off the pace. His Churchill Downs workouts have been very strong and effortless. He looks good.
#15 Forte—Until a few weeks ago he was my pick (and everybody else’s) to win the Derby. He’s won six in a row and is last year’s two year old champion. But I was at the Florida Derby this year and watched Forte, for the first time, struggle and show not so much an explosive burst but a grinding all-out run to the finish line. He won but he won ugly. I think the horse has peaked. He has been the best horse in this field so far but the Derby is in the future and not the past. I’m taking a big stand against him despite the fact that he is trained by the great Todd Pletcher and ridden by hands-down the best jockey in the United States, Irad Ortiz.
#16 Raise Cain—Upsets happen. And if this one wins, it’ll be a big upset.
#17 Derma Sotogake—I will spend a long time writing about this horse because there is a lot of evidence both for and against him. I’ll start with the positives. He’s a Japanese based horse and Japan horses are the best in the world, especially on dirt. Japanese horses rarely run in the United States but they have taken down some of our biggest races in recent years and are killing it in Europe and the Middle East. Second, Derma’s win last out in the UAE Derby was by far (I stress that) the best performance by any of the Derby horses in a prep race this year. He got a huge number on the private Thoro-Graph speed figure system. In short, he’s run better than anybody and comes from the toughest and best racing circuit in the world. Now, the negatives and there are a lot. 1. No horse has ever used the UAE Derby as a prep to win the Kentucky Derby. 2. No Japan based horse has ever won the Derby or even finished in the top three. 3. His sire was a sprinter and so was his sire’s sire. The Derby is the opposite of a sprint. 4. His jockey, one of the best in Japan, has no experience with the rodeo that is the Kentucky Derby and the unique pace and traffic challenges. 5. He’s looked so-so at best in his appearances on the Churchill Downs track the last two weeks and has resisted his rider’s urges to settle and not run off. Reasons 3, 4 and 5 actually trouble me. Reasons 1 and 2 do not. The reason no horse has come from the UAE Derby to win is that most horses from that race are second tier. This one is at the top of the first tier. As for reason number two, while no Japanese horse has ever won the Derby, few have tried and most were not top caliber. I swear, if you did nothing all year but bet Japanese horses in races somewhere other than Japan you’d come out ahead. One other point: this horse has excellent tactical speed and if properly ridden (a giant if) can avoid trouble and cruise away in the stretch. Don’t be shocked if this horse is the betting favorite. Lots of people agree with me on him and Japanese bettors are known to bet lots of money.
#18 Rocket Can—Well, I suppose Rocket can. But maybe he can’t. He’s going to be gunned toward the front from his outside post position and will have identical running style to Derma Sotogake.
#19 Lord Miles—SCRATCHED. Trainer Saffie Joseph has been banned by Churchill Downs. Good riddance.
#20 Continuar—This is another Japanese based horse and if you read above you know what I think about that. The trainer has run two horses in United States stakes in his career and won both of them. But this horse has looked absolutely terrible in his training and was annihilated by Derma Sotogake in a joint workout.
#21 Cyclone Mischief—He draws into the race because of Practical Move’s scratch. He hasn’t done enough to suggest he’s a win candidate. in if there’s a scratch.
#22 Mandarin Hero—This horse draws in because of the two scratches. He is a contender to win the race. He is a Japan-based horse and was unbeaten there but ran on a minor league circuit and not the top tier Japan Racing Association. In his only American start he finished a very close second in last month’s Santa Anita Derby. His wide post position hurts but his American race merits respect and any top horse from Japan must be closely considered in an American race.
#23 King Russell—Needs an additional scratch to draw into the race. If he does and if he wins, it will be as big a shock as Rich Strike’s victory last year. Needs three scratches to get in and that is almost certain not to happen.
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
|#17 Derma Sotogake
|#14 Angel of Empire
|#5 Tapit Trice
|#22 Mandarin Hero
These are listed in order of preference. The very best value and smallest house edge on bets in the Derby is old fashioned win place and show.
Adjust dollar amounts to your budget. My numbers are simply a ranking for evaluation purposes
A large bet to win place and show on #17
A bet half that size to win place and show on #14
$4 exacta box 2-5-9-14-17-22 ($120)
$3 exacta 17 with all ($57)
$2 exacta All with 17 ($38)
50 cent trifecta box 2-5-9-14-17-22 ($60)
In the Kentucky Oaks, I like #6 Botanical (4-1), #4 Southlawn (8-1), #7 Wet Paint (5-2) and #1 Mimi Kakushi (20-1) in that order. Also Friday, I like #9 Undervalued Asset in Race 2, #1 Smokin T in Race 3, #2 Search Results in Race 9, #5 Preliminary and #11 Revalita in Race 10 and #1 Curl Girl in Race 12. Longshot Play: Race 1 Friday take a small stab at #4.
BETTING AND TV
To legally bet, you need to establish an account with one of the many legal US-based companies. In no particular order, some are: Xpressbet, 1stBet, NYRA Bets, DRF Bets, FanDuel and Twin Spires. Coverage of the races throughout the day Friday and Saturday is on Peacock (a streaming service). The Derby itself airs on NBC (Channel 4 in Milwaukee).