From time immemorial, I have struggled with procrastination. Here it is, the night before our first window is open and I am just sitting down to write All The Pretty Horsies. Not only that but for the last hour, I’ve been screwing around on Twitter and chatting with my boss’ boss about work and doing nothing related to actually writing this tome that takes hours of reading Past Performances and distilling them down to what I hope are semi-hilarious findings, none of which should be the basis for any bets you place on any horse.
And this year, nature conspired against me in sending a lung eating virus to infect everyone in the household and it is only through the wonder of my Wolverine-like immune system that I’m even able to function today. But enough about excuses, I suppose we should get down to the writing. This quote from last year’s entry should remain at the top of your mind as you read along:
One thing you should keep in mind at all times while reading the following is that I have almost no idea what I’m doing. You will forget this at your own peril. I know next to nothing about horse racing other than what I have gleaned from reading the Daily Racing Form over the past years and while that is likely infinitely more than you know, you should still not trust anything I say. As the evening wears on and the bourbon takes effect, I may become more witty or engaging or funny but at no time will I become a better judge of horse flesh. You have been warned. Horses are followed by odds as of this evening along with trainer and jockey.
If you are a patron of Darly Downs and not a random passerby caught in the glare of the following prose, you should also remember that it’s quite possible one or more of the horses below won’t make it into the Derby, either because of injury or the owner’s failure to pay the requisite fees. If you bet on a horse that doesn’t get in, it’s a donation. In 2015, Stanford was a pretty solid favorite and he got scratched on Wednesday after everyone put their money on him. A word of advice, don’t put all your money on one horse. But then, that goes exactly contrary to one School of Handicapping in another related document so what do I know.
We’ll start with the current favorites and move our way down the list. In the 7 or 8 years I’ve been running this pool, I have yet to write about all 20 likely entrants. In some years, this has caused me great despair like when Mine That Bird and Animal Kingdom won as 50-1 long shots. In other years, like 2016, it just meant I didn’t write about the horsie that came in second (Commanding Curve). I will try to write at least something about all horses but we’re already 500 words and 2 fingers of rum in without any words about horses.
Horses are listed by name then opening odds then trainer then jockey.
Justify 3-1 (Baffert/Mike Smith) – Sigh, I suppose we had to have a Baffert trained horse rise to the top some year but it’s been nice of late hearing less of him. This horse is fast. Really fast. Fastest of the year if you are going on the Beyer numbers in which he ran three triple digits this year including fastest of the year at 107 in his last win at Santa Anita. It’s Baffert so he knows how to win the Derby. Mike Smith is a good jockey though he hasn’t had much luck at the Derby, winning once in 2005. All of that means he should win right? Not so fast. The most damning evidence against this horse is that he wasn’t raced as a 2 year old. Racing a two year old? That sounds like child abuse. But in horse racing, it’s a heuristic that tells you how experienced a horse is. This horse is as green as the Jolly Green Giant. The Derby hasn’t been won by horse that didn’t race as a two year old since 1882. It’s called Apollo’s Curse. The data minded amongst you are mumbling about small data sets and maybe you’re right. But the real problem with unexperienced horses is that the Derby is like nothing man or horse has ever experienced. According to the DRF Derby Fan guide, it says this horse got distracted by commotion on the infield. There were 40K spectators then. At the Derby, there will be 160K all screaming and spilling their juleps and generally being obnoxious. Not to mention, the Derby has 20 horses in it. He’s going to get bumped and crashed into and have dirt kicked in his face a little probably. Maybe this horse has value at 6-1 or something but I just don’t see him being the one that breaks Apollo’s curse.
Mendelssohn 5-1 (Aidan P. O’Brien/Ryan Moore) This horse is a half brother to Justify, both sired by Scat Daddy. If you’re a bloodline bettor, that is probably a good thing. This horse has the second fastest Beyer of the year at 106, run at the UAE Derby. The UAE Derby is run in the United Arab Emirates (hence the UAE) and no horse that’s won there has ever been particularly competitive at the actual Derby over here in the Land of the Free. I like to think that’s because God is a horse bettor but I may be biased. Really what it is is that the UAE Derby is a metric shit ton of miles away from Louisville and there might just be something to the idea that flying a huge horse over here to race isn’t that great for them. This horse, like Justify, has to overcome some serious history to win at the Derby. On the upside, he won the UAE Derby by 18.5 lengths against subpar competition so at least he didn’t let up. His trainer is one of the best if not the best in the business. On the downside, I don’t think you should name your horse after a romantic composer. This horse is talented but not sure there’s much value for him in our pool.
Magnum Moon 6-1 (Pletcher/Luis Saez) – This is another horse that is fighting the Curse of Apollo, not having raced as a juvenile. He’s been pretty good in his last 4 races though winning all four without much challenge. He’s run different styles (fast, pace, stalker) and won them all which bodes well for the Derby. But it’s that experience thing that always comes back to worry me. The Derby is a unique experience. We don’t typically wonder what it’s like to be a horse but imagine coming from your quiet little race track at the Arkansas Derby where you kicked dirt in the faces of the other 8 horses you face and then being led out into the craziness of the Derby where 160,000 people will be yelling at you and 19 other horses will be trying to kick your ass. I just don’t see it happening.
Audible 8-1 (Pletcher/Javier Castellano) Despite being named after an Amazon buyout victim or maybe something Peyton Manning used to do a lot, this horse has some potential, especially at 8-1 or higher. He’s won four straight and has gotten faster with each race. He ran a 99 Beyer in winning his last race, the Florida Derby. Always Dreaming, last year’s winner, also won the Florida Derby, was trained by Pletcher and ran a similar 97 Beyer. This horse hasn’t raced since March 31st so he’s well rested. The main drawback is that he hasn’t really beaten any other horsies of note. Lots of his competition was crummy and so it’s hard to think he’s going to change that here where all the talent is in the same race. Additionally, he’s in the 5 Post which makes it really hard without a good jump to have a decent trip. Both Justify and Mendelssohn have better post positions and so unless Audible can get to the front without being collapsed on, he might get stuck.
Bolt d’Oro 8-1 (Mick Ruis/Victor Espinoza) – Every year somebody’s got to go name their horse something cute like Bolt of Gold. In his defense, his sire was Medaglia d’Oro which roughly translates to Made His Owner A Shit Ton of Money At Stud. This horse has Rachel Alexandra in his bloodline which is a good thing. He also doesn’t violate the Stupid Horse Names Don’t Win the Derby though he slightly flirts with it. The Golden Bolt finished second at Santa Anita to Justify recording a 103 Beyer and was a very strong two year old. This horse was the early Derby favorite but has largely been forgotten by the betting crowd and that’s a good thing. I don’t know who Mick Ruis is (this is his first Derby) but Espinoza has won 3 Derbies, most recently aboard American Pharaoh in 2015. I like this horse at somewhere north of 10-1 and he might get there in our little field of 20 bettors. This horse has heart and heart wins the Derby a lot.
Good God, an hour of writing, two bowls of Rice Chex, a large glass of wine, 1500 words and we’re only 5 horses in. This is why we can’t have nice things. The Royal we of course since I’m the only one reading any of this at this point.
Good Magic 12-1 (Chad C. Brown/Jose Ortiz) – This horsie has heart in spades and will be flying way under the radar after being an early Derby favorite. I hope all of the other fine patrons of Darly Downs has fallen asleep and don’t get too interested in this horse. He had a Beyer of 100 in the Breeders Cup Juvenile way back in November and then had a disastrous trip in the Fountain of Youth where he basically looked like a mob victim in cement shoes. He rebounded in winning the Bluegrass Stakes with a reasonable 95 Beyer and looks to be improving. The notes from the Bluegrass say he came out strong and drove clear which is just what he’ll need to do in the 6 Post at the Derby. The Brown-Ortiz combo is a formidable one and he has Curlin as a sire who has been throwing off sperm that wins big races since 2013. Gregor Mendel might have been on to something with this genetics thing.
Vino Rosso 12-1 (Pletcher/John Velazquez) – This horse has great bloodlines just like Good Magic, his half brother on the sire’s side. His dam is a half sister to Commissioner who was a great long distance racer. So he has the heritage to win this race. He improved greatly in his last race, the Wood Memorial. Alas, he seems to have had trouble with crowds before that and they put new blinkers (the things on the horses head to keep them looking forward, not turn blinkers. They only turn left in the Derby anyway) on him in the Wood. Jittery horses that need blinkers to win the Wood do not engender confidence on my part in the Derby. Plus his name is pretty lame. On the good side, Pletcher and Velazquez won last year’s Derby so maybe they are on a hot streak.
Hofburg 20-1 (William I. Mott/Irad Ortiz Jr.) – This horse is inexperienced but improving. He has a world class trainer and might be a really good value at 20-1 especially in boxes or trifectas or other exotic bets. The problem is, none of those pay off at Darly Downs. We only like winners and for this horse to be a winner at the Derby, he’s going to have to dramatically improve on his second place finish at the Florida Derby where he was beaten by Audible. His sire is Tapit who is known for siring Belmont Stake winners, the much longer race in June. All that said, he seems to be making great leaps towards figuring out how to run races and might be worth a shekel or two at higher odds. But keep him in mind for the Belmont in a month where I really like his chances especially if he skips the Preakness.
Promises Fulfilled 30-1 (Romans/Lanerie) – On the upside, Corey Lanerie knows the Derby and this horse has an affinity for the track. He’s a fast horse who might be aided by a slower pace that he could rest on early and sprint to the finish. Unfortunately, in his tune up race at the Florida Derby, he ran a 47 Beyer (which is as slow as that character from Flowers for Algernon) and decided to start walking in the final turn. Hint: Horses that like to walk in final turns only win the Derby if there’s been a fortunate meteor strike. If you think the pace might be slow for this Derby (which is not the consensus opinion), he has value as a 50-1 longshot. Otherwise, save your money for more important things like dentures or something.
Flameaway 30-1 (Mark Casse/Jose Lezcano) – Flameaway is probably a throwaway but he has won 5 of his last 9 and was second once to the far more talented Good Magic. His Beyer times are increasing rapidly which is a good thing for horsies in the spring and the Derby but there doesn’t seem to be much in his bloodline (though he is another offspring of Scat Daddy making him a half brother to a couple of our favorites) that says he’ll be good at this distance and he struggled in his only start last year at Churchill. However, he is improving and worth a shekel or two at the odds you might see here at Darly Downs.
My Boy Jack 30-1 (Desormeaux/Desormeaux) – His mom’s name is Gold N Shaft which is what I call your mom when we fight. Or something. This horse has a bad case of the thirds. As in that’s pretty much where he finishes most of his races. He’s a closer which is good for the Derby but he hasn’t shown enough heart to make anyone think he can close at the length of the Derby. He is the most experienced in the field (which is also what I call your mom) at 10 races but 10 races of mediocrity does not a Derby contender make. He’s in the field because we need 20 horses, not because he might win.
Enticed 30-1 (Kiaran McLaughlin/Junior Alvarado) – This horse is enticing at 30-1 because he has the speed and chops to win this assuming he makes a big jump in speed. He wasn’t there yet in his last race but he won the Gotham with a 95 Beyer before that and then came in second (lost in Ricky Bobby voice) to Vino Rosso in the Wood Memorial. There is probably zero chance he makes the leap but with the right trip and a decent pace, he could show some heart and win it as a big underdog.
Solomini 30-1 (Baffert/Prat) – This horse hasn’t decided what he wants to be when he grows up. Right now, he’s been flunking out of school on trust fund money but has shown some flashes of deciding he wants to become a valedictorian with a late flourish. Personally, I don’t see him making the leap until he has a couple more races under his belt but it’s the Derby so you never know. At > 30-1, you’d hate to see him come through with you having nothing on him.
Noble Indy 30-1 (Pletcher/Geroux) – 30-1 coming from post 19? No thanks. Still, he won the Louisiana Derby and has been steadily and consistently improving his speed in his last four races (77, 86, 91, 95). He’s going to have to have a magnificent trip, either a quick first step (which he’s actually had trouble with in several races) or making a beeline for the rail and getting lucky enough to get through the crowd late.
That’s 14 of 20 horses and covers all but the longshots at 50-1. Calling it quits before I die of tuberculosis which is what it feels like I have.