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Kentucky Derby handicapping: Fierceness is dominant but an enigma

Updated May 2, 2024 - 10:47 am

Picking the winner of the Kentucky Derby boils down to a deceptively simple question: Can the fastest horse run his best race under the toughest circumstances he has encountered?

The fastest horse is undoubtedly Fierceness, conqueror of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a 2-year-old and more recently the winner of the Florida Derby, a key prep race for the Kentucky Derby. Both wins were dominant and earned speed figures well above those recorded by his rivals, which is why he is the 5-2 morning line favorite in Saturday’s 150th renewal of the Run for the Roses.

Fierceness, who has Hall of Fame connections in trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey John Velazquez, is expected to face 19 rivals in the 1¼-mile race for 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, with also-eligible Mugatu waiting in the wings in the event there are additional scratches by Friday morning following the departure of Encino on Tuesday.

Fierceness’ talent is unquestioned. He whipped the best 2-year-olds by 6¼ lengths in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November at Santa Anita and showed that he had matured at age 3 by cruising to a 13½-length victory March 30 in the Florida Derby in his final prep.

But he also has left several questions unanswered during his ascent to the top of the 3-year-old division.

The biggest has to do with his ability to overcome adversity.

In his three victories, he has secured perfect trips on the front end and easily put away his competition in the stretch. But in his two losses, he failed to fire his best shot when everything didn’t go his way.

There was a 20-plus-length defeat as the 2-5 favorite in last year’s Champagne Stakes at Aqueduct, when he raced over a sloppy track for the first time, and a third-place finish at 1-5 in his 3-year-old debut in a slowly run Holy Bull Stakes after a troubled start.

It’s too soon to conclude that the son of City of Light is faint of heart, but it would be nice to have some indication that he has grit to go with his physicality given his expected short price in a race in which troubled trips are more common than smooth ones.

Fierceness’ prominent early running style also could pose a problem given his outside draw (16th after Encino’s scratch). With need-the-lead horses Dornoch and Track Phantom to his inside expected to set a quick early pace, Velazquez will be trying to get Fierceness closer to the rail while securing his preferred position just off and outside the front-runners.

The problem is there are numerous other horses in the field with similar tactical speed whose riders will have designs on that same spot. That could result in Fierceness being caught wide rounding the first turn and cost him precious ground or prompt Velazquez to use the colt early to try to get the jump on the other pressers.

The weather also could present an obstacle. As of Wednesday afternoon, the National Weather Service forecast called for a 50 percent chance of showers and thunderstorms Saturday following an 80 percent chance Friday, raising the possibility that the Derby will be contested over an “off” track. Since Fierceness seemed to hate the sloppy track he encountered in the Champagne, a soggy Churchill Downs track could be expected to compromise his chances of wearing the roses.

With 5-2 odds implying a 28.6 percent chance of winning, many horseplayers are likely to conclude that Fierceness still offers decent value given the superiority of his “A” races. But I’m taking a glass-half-empty view and looking elsewhere for the winner.

With a faster-than-average early pace likely given the prevalence of speedsters and pressers in the field, the race should set up well for off-the-pace runners. The obvious beneficiaries of such a scenario are the second and third choices in the morning line: Sierra Leone (3-1) and Catching Freedom (8-1). Both horses have demonstrated consistent improvement and appear ready to reach new heights Saturday. I consider them nearly evenly matched, but will focus on Catching Freedom in my bets given the significant price deferential.

There also are a number of intriguing long shots capable of adding plenty of sizzle in exactas, trifectas and superfectas. Those that will find their way onto my tickets are:

Forever Young (10-1), the most accomplished Japan-based horse yet to contest the Derby;

Just Steel (20-1), the most experienced runner in the field with 11 starts and trained by Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, a four-time Derby winner;

Honor Marie (20-1), making his third start off a layoff and a two-time winner over the Churchill Downs oval;

Just a Touch (10-1), a lightly raced colt who finished right behind Sierra Leone in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on April 6;

Resilience (20-1), winner of the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on April 6 and conditioned by Hall of Famer Bill Mott.

If the track is wet, I will elevate Mystik Dan (20-1) and include him on a few tickets.

Mike Brunker is a retired Review-Journal editor who now spends a good amount of time lounging poolside with the Daily Racing Form.

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