With a race like the Kentucky Derby, there’s always a lot of unpacking to do, whether you had a rain-soaked sojourn in Louisville or not.
Everyone will have their own view of what went down at Churchill Downs on Saturday, but here are a few of my takeaways:
You have to hand it to Justify. Despite his inexperience and difficult racing conditions, he took it to ’em. In addition to ending the “curse of Apollo” by winning the race without the benefit of 2-year-old experience, he ran some of the fastest opening fractions of any Derby winner in the past 50 years, sitting just off Promises Fulfilled as he led the way in 22.24 and 45.77 seconds. The only horses during the period that ran that fast early and were still around at the finish were Bold Forbes in 1976 and Spend a Buck in 1985.
That’s pretty heady company, and Justify might soon show he is one of the “greats,” but I’m not ready to anoint him just yet. “Sloppy” tracks often produce skewed results, and the son of Scat Daddy also pretty much had things his own way Saturday, keeping his face clean and staying out of trouble.
Also the pace of the race became progressively slower after those scintillating opening fractions, slowing to 25.24, 26.34 and 26.85 seconds for the final three quarter-miles. The final time of 2:04.20 and the winner’s Beyer speed figure of 103 also were rather pedestrian for a Derby.
Finally, the sloppy track also likely prevented some other contenders from running their races. Mendelssohn is the poster child, but there were undoubtedly others who didn’t handle the slop or had valid excuses in a race that often resembles rush hour in Mad Max’s world.
To find them, I recommend watching replays (preferably the track feed rather than the herky-jerky NBC Sports broadcast), studying the chart (the corrected version, not the one published right after the race that had the errors in the margins between horses) and reading the postrace quotes from trainers and jockeys.
But if you liked a horse heading into the Derby and he didn’t fire, don’t necessarily hold that against him. You can often “draw a line through” a race like that the next time your horse surfaces in fairer circumstances.
#RJhorseracing featured races
Next week we’ll focus on the Preakness, but first the #RJhorseracing handicapping crew is taking on Saturday’s $350,000 Peter Pan Stakes, a Grade 3 test at 1 1/8th miles for 3-year-olds, and the $700,000 Man o’ War Stakes, at 1 3/8ths miles on the inner turf course at Belmont Park.
In the Peter Pan, the main local prep for the Belmont Stakes, the ’cappers are locked in a triple dead-heat for the win among Core Beliefs, the 2-1 morning line favorite, Blended Citizen (6-1) and High North (4-1).
I like the latter two, along with King Diamond (7-2), who might scratch to run in the Preakness next week instead. Either way, I’ll box the ones that run in an exacta.
In the Man o’ War, the crew likes 5-2 favorite Hi Happy over Sadler’s Joy (3-1) and One Go All Go (6-1).
“Won last in second off layoff, and looks tough again here; 6/9 on turf and 7/12 lifetime,” writes regular contributor Mas Yoshinaga of the crew’s pick.
With what figures to be a fairly lively pace for this marathon distance and the possibility of a softish track, I’ll go with Bigger Picture (12-1) to win.
Join the fun next week. Email me or follow me on Twitter and let me know you’d like to join the gang each week as we seek out the most challenging handicapping puzzles around.
Ellis Starr’s Peter Pan Stakes analysis
Just Whistle earned the best last race Equibase Speed Figure in the field, 106, when winning last month at Keeneland. That was his second start of the year and a big improvement off his runner-up effort one month prior which followed six months away from the races. As a son of Pioneer of the Nile (sire of American Pharoah, among others), there is little doubt Just Whistle can successfully negotiate the mile and one-eighth distance of the Peter Pan. As a horse on a pattern for significant improvement in his third start off a layoff, he appears to be the one to beat in this race.
High North earned his first win last fall in his third career start, then tried stakes company and was not disgraced when fourth of 14 in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. Given time off over the winter to mature, High North returned in the Risen Star Stakes and finished fifth of nine without threatening. He then ran poorly again when seventh in the Rebel Stakes one month later. One month later, High North added blinkers for the Northern Spur Stakes and returned to top form, earning a 105 speed figure when drawing off by two and one-half lengths in a field of eight. Trainer Brad Cox is still on a high from winning the Kentucky Oaks with Monomoy Girl last weekend and his 30 percent success rate with back-to-back winners in dirt routes over the past two years is another reason his colt could win his second stakes race in a row.
Blended Citizen needs a hot pace in front of him to succeed, as occurred in March when rallying to win the Jeff Ruby Steaks by a neck with a 109 figure. In the Peter Pan, with the prospect for a hotly contested pace unlikely, Blended Citizen may be hard pressed to pass the field to win but it is not an impossible task and so he will round out the three horses with the best chance to win this year’s renewal.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.