2018 Kentucky Derby Preview and Saturday Stakes Selections

We’ve been following the trail all the way, but now, the Kentucky Derby is finally here.  The field is drawn, with twenty main entries plus one also-eligible.  The field is competitive, with a little something for everybody: fountains of raw talent yet to be forged in the fire, hard-trying and plucky sorts who have yet to prove best against the big boys, and everything in between.  (Well, except for a filly, anyway…Rayya had 40 points on the strength of a second-place finish in the UAE Derby, but she’s off to Friday’s Kentucky Oaks instead.)

Below, we dive into the Kentucky Derby field, horse by horse, and let you know our top picks and longshot.  Below our Derby analysis, there is a chart with selections and longshots for all seven stakes races at Churchill on Saturday.  We have Friday stakes picks, and full horse-by-horse analysis of the Kentucky Oaks, in a separate piece.  If you have any questions, or want to chat about any of the races, post a comment or tweet to @picksponderings!

NBCSN will offer preview coverage of the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby on Thursday, May 3 from 4:00pm-6:30pm EDT.  NBCSN will broadcast the undercard of Kentucky Derby day at Churchill from 12:00pm-2:30pm EDT; from 2:3opm-7:30pm EDT, coverage will shift to the flagship NBC station.  Horse Racing Radio Network will present audio coverage of Kentucky Derby Day, as well.  Their coverage of the undercard will run from 2:00pm-5:00pm EDT on Sirius 219, XM 201, and free on their website.  Their coverage of the Kentucky Derby will run from 5:00pm-7:00pm, streaming on their website as well.

Selections for the Distaff Turf Mile, American Turf, and Turf Classic are for turf only.

Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 5

Race 12: Kentucky Derby (G1), three-year-olds, one and one fourth miles on the dirt, post time 6:50pm EDT

  1. FIRENZE FIRE (50/1) – With Paco Lopez in the irons, I’m curious if he’s going to show any of the early speed he showed in his first few races.  But, beyond his possible role in the pace?  It’s hard to consider FIRENZE FIRE much further, since his Derby prep record implies distance limitations.  He’d be a contender in the Pat Day Mile, but he’s a toss in the Derby.
  2. FREE DROP BILLY (30/1) – He should love a mile and a quarter: his dam Trensa has produced a pair of winners going even longer than the Derby distance (G1W Hawkbill, as well as Trensita), and even his sire Union Rags had a first-crop baby hit the board in the Belmont last year (Patch).  He also has a win at Churchill, another positive.  The relative inside post is a mild concern, but with his closing style, he can settle off the pace and save every inch of ground.  With some pace to run at (and no Sporting Chance to mug him in the lane, unless he lurks in the infield after the Pat Day Mile (G3)), FREE DROP BILLY could have a say in this at long odds.  Do not leave him off your tickets.
  3. PROMISES FULFILLED (30/1) – He will likely set the pace.  But, the speedball won’t have the easy time up front that he had in the Fountain of Youth (G2), and his pedigree suggests a mile and a quarter will not suit him in the least.  PROMISES FULFILLED will ensure pace for the closers (like his stablemate Free Drop Billy), but won’t be in the picture late.
  4. FLAMEAWAY (30/1) – He has epitomized grit and consistency through the Derby season.  Though he is probably just a notch below the best, he always tries, he can survive on or close to a contested pace, and he doesn’t back down from a challenge.  The biggest concern was the poor outing in the Iroquois — but given his better work has come from closer to the pace that his early trouble that day allowed him to get, he can have a mulligan.  At long odds, it would be no surprise to see FLAMEAWAY fight on for third or fourth.
  5. AUDIBLE (8/1) – There are things to like about AUDIBLE: Gulfstream has been a live spur of the Derby trail in recent years, and he dominated there this prep season.  He also has some tactical versatility, which gives Javier Castellano some flexibility in carving out a trip.  But?  Questions loom, too.  Even though John Velazquez (trainer Todd Pletcher’s “A” rider) rode Audible in his decisive Florida Derby (G1) victory, he still opted to ride VINO ROSSO instead.  And, nothing about AUDIBLE’s pedigree suggests he wants a mile and a quarter.  Though he overcame a bit of adversity in his debut, rallying after a bad start to get third, it’s hard to say he has actually been through the wringer, given how easy all four of his victories have been.  All in all, the cons outweigh the pros with AUDIBLE, and it makes sense to look elsewhere.
  6. GOOD MAGIC (12/1) – Let’s get one thing out of the way first: that 12/1 morning line on GOOD MAGIC is not happening.  That is a colossal Battaglia Special, on a level we haven’t seen since he put Rosalind at 15/1 on the morning line for the 2014 Ashland, and she went off 7/2.  Even so?  GOOD MAGIC deserves a prominent place on any Kentucky Derby tickets.  Though Gulfstream didn’t suit him in his seasonal debut, he did exactly what he needed to do in the Blue Grass (G2): win with confidence.  His running style suits the Derby: off pace, but not too far off, a tactical stalking-to-midpack type.  And, he is by a proven Classic sire in Curlin.  There is a lot to like, and GOOD MAGIC is one of the top contenders.
  7. JUSTIFY (3/1) – JUSTIFY enters this race unexposed.  People talk about whether he needs to lead, but that’s a canard; he showed in his N1X win that he doesn’t.  But, the only time he raced anyone of Derby calibre (BOLT D’ORO in the Santa Anita Derby (G1)), JUSTIFY did get it as easily as he wanted up front.  And, whether his debut came in February or December?  He still hasn’t been in any sort of race that put his feet to the fire.  All three of his wins have been romps.  With that, you have to make a choice: do you trust that his talent will overcome the fact that he has only had three races, and no tough tests?  Or, do you make him prove his mettle on the First Saturday in May?  With Justify so likely to go off the chalk, and other talented and better-tested horses in the field, the value lies in playing others, and making this son of Scat Daddy JUSTIFY the hype.
  8. LONE SAILOR (50/1) – LONE SAILOR has meshed well with jockey James Graham, with whom he ran a tenacious second behind NOBLE INDY in the Louisiana Derby (G2).  It was the best race of his career by a good margin, making one wonder if he’ll regress.  That also wasn’t the strongest prep; third in that race was a horse who ran like he doesn’t want nine furlongs, MY BOY JACK.  Also of concern?  LONE SAILOR’s only win came in the slop at Saratoga, where he romped against a bunch of washed-off turf horses.  Joe Hirsch would be rooting for this horse — he wanted to see the horse with the best story win, and LONE SAILOR doing this for the late Tom Benson would be a great story.  But, from a handicapping perspective, he’s a longshot for a reason.
  9. HOFBURG (20/1) – Watch the tote on HOFBURG, since he has become the wise guy horse — well, him and VINO ROSSO, but the Vino Train seems to have lost steam ever since he was marooned in the 19 hole.  But, if the board gives HOFBURG fair value?  He makes all the sense in the world.  He ran a strong second behind AUDIBLE in the Florida Derby, and on pedigree, HOFBURG is the one out of the Florida Derby who has upside to improve at the distance.  That comes from both sides of his pedigree: he is by Tapit out of Soothing Touch, a Touch Gold mare who also produced the top-class racemare Emollient.  Finally, he hails from the barn of Bill Mott, a trainer who doesn’t tend to put horses in tough spots unless they’re up to it.  A win in the Kentucky Derby may be a lot to ask, but a spot on the podium could happen.
  10. MY BOY JACK (30/1) – MY BOY JACK looked full of horse coming into the lane in the Louisiana Derby, but he stalled out.  A cut back from nine furlongs to the eight and a half of the Lexington (G3) got him back in the winners’ circle, and punched his ticket to the Derby.  But?  Now he stretches back to a mile and a quarter.  Even with pace likely in front of him?  He’ll sputter out in the late stages.  Hard pass.
  11. BOLT D’ORO (8/1) – A Derby horse needs both talent and seasoning, and BOLT D’ORO has an exemplary mix of those factors.  He has six starts underneath him, a pair of grade 1 wins, and tactical versatility.  BOLT D’ORO also proved he could fight with a good horse, as he held his own in a round of fisticuffs with McKinzie in the San Felipe (G2).  Of course, he’s not without some questions.  He was well beaten by JUSTIFY in the Santa Anita Derby — but, he did run fast, and no one was going to catch a horse as talented as JUSTIFY loose on the lead.  BOLT D’ORO will get more to run at here.  Trainer Mick Ruis is sending a horse to the Derby for the first time, and you never know how a first-time Derby trainer will handle the circus.  But, his rider has no shortage of big-time Derby experience: Victor Espinoza rode California Chrome and American Pharoah as well.  On race day, his presence could temper Ruis’s inexperience.  Looking at the big picture?  BOLT D’ORO is fast, battle-forged, and the top selection in a competitive Kentucky Derby.
  12. ENTICED (30/1) – It’s hard to either love or hate ENTICED.  Always one of the better in his class, he moved past a flat Holy Bull with a sparkling victory in the Gotham (G3) — a race in which he beat FREE DROP BILLY, though that foe was routed there at the last minute and is not a miler by any means.  He ran into a somewhat rough trip in the Wood (G2), where he finished second to VINO ROSSO.  He’s neither markedly slow nor one of the fastest.  He ran well in his last two preps, but on a Derby Trail spur that hasn’t been particularly live lately.  Can we bet that ENTICED finishes tenth?
  13. BRAVAZO (50/1) – To be fair, BRAVAZO likes Churchill. He does have good form there last year, including a maiden win and a pair of stakes placings.  But, against this class of horse, it seems he needs to be forward to be competitive.  He won a carousel edition of the Risen Star (G2), but got burned chasing a hot pace in the Louisiana Derby.  Gunning it from the 13 hole and trying to chase PROMISES FULFILLED will do him no favours.  He looks outmatched.
  14. MENDELSSOHN (5/1) – Like JUSTIFY, MENDELSSOHN is the type of horse on whom one needs to take a stand.  Sure, there are reasons he can buck the bad record of UAE Derby (G2) horses in Kentucky.  He dazzled in Dubai, and based on his final preparations for and performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) last fall, he ships beautifully.  It’s also a plus that Ryan Moore chose to forgo the 2000 Guineas (a British Classic, also being run this Saturday) to ride in the Kentucky Derby.  But?  As a Scat Daddy half to Into Mischief and Beholder, a mile and a quarter may prove long for him.  And though MENDELSSOHN doesn’t need the lead, he won’t get the butter-smooth front-end trip he got in the UAE Derby, and he will face more and tougher foes here than the likes of Rayya, Reride, and Gold Town.  For the likely short price, the value isn’t there.
  15. INSTILLED REGARD (50/1) – He showed a lot of promise early, holding his own with the West Coast set late last year, and won the Lecomte (G3) easily.  But, since, then, he has stalled out.  The crumbs he got for finishing fourth in the Risen Star and the Santa Anita Derby were enough to get him into the Derby starting gate, but he hasn’t progressed through the spring like so many of the others who will load into the same clacking monolith.  Whether that is because of his form cycle tailing off or because the others have surpassed him for good, INSTILLED REGARD is a toss.
  16. MAGNUM MOON (6/1) – I’d like him more if he didn’t drift so badly in the Arkansas Derby (G1) — but whether that meant he was tired or meant he needs to grow up a bit remains to be seen.  There’s enough in the pedigree to grant, at least, some credence to the idea that he got spooked by the starting gate, which would be something he could get over.  He has a similar question looming over him as JUSTIFY — which is, to say, none of MAGNUM MOON finishes have been particularly close, so it’s undetermined what will happen when he is forged in the fire of a twenty-horse field.  But, with four good starts underneath him, a solid enough distance pedigree, and tactical speed?  Especially since this one seems to be slipping under the radar despite dominating a live spur of the Kentucky Derby trail, there is much to like about MAGNUM MOON in exchange for the likely tote price.
  17. SOLOMINI (30/1) – SOLOMINI was one of the best last year, always in the picture against the upper echelon of the west coast two-year-olds.  But, in two starts at Oaklawn this year?  MAGNUM MOON soundly beat him.  He hasn’t seemed to have grown…rather odd for a Curlin baby, as Curlin’s progeny have been so reliable in the Classics, but either he has stalled out or he is particularly slow to come into himself.  Either way?  He may be part of the pace early if he guns it from the auxiliary gate, but we can’t see him being a factor in the end.
  18. VINO ROSSO (12/1) – VINO ROSSO has been getting some steam since winning the Wood with enough strength that John Velazquez opted to ride him instead of Audible.  That enthusiasm for him has subsided some after the gate draw, but even if he had drawn farther inside?  VINO ROSSO echoes of another son of Curlin who raced in the Classics last year, Irish War Cry.  Both are good when they’re good, but woefully inconsistent.  We may revisit this one in the Belmont (G1), though — where he’ll face a smaller field, and where his breeding (by Curlin out of a Street Cry half-sister to Belmont 2nd-place Commissioner) may make VINO ROSSO one of the few who can stay the trip without sputtering.
  19. NOBLE INDY (30/1) – Though NOBLE INDY came back so gamely in the Louisiana Derby, he didn’t beat the best of the best there.  He was also the big loser in the post draw: a forward horse who drew out in the parking lot, so he’ll have to use energy early to get into a decent spot.  Pass.
  20. COMBATANT (50/1) – In a sense, COMBATANT is the closer version of FLAMEAWAY: they’re both Scat Daddy babies, they’re both a cut below the best of the bunch, but you know what you’re going to get with both: a good, hard try.  COMBATANT never won a prep, but he got points in all four Arkansas preps as well as the Remington Springboard Mile.  He also has a maiden win at Churchill, suggesting some affinity for the surface.  With some pace likely in the Derby?  If he runs the race of his life he could nab a share underneath (like a stablemate of his, Lookin at Lee, did last year in the Derby), but that is a best case scenario.
  21. BLENDED CITIZEN (50/1)also eligible – If BLENDED CITIZEN draws in and wins, it would be a surprise on the level of Mine That Bird.  But?  He is rounding into good form, ran into some trouble in the Blue Grass, and he has a nice closing kick.  His dam has already produced a horse who hit the board in the Kentucky Derby, last year’s second-place finisher Lookin at Lee.  He also hails from a barn that has upset the Derby before; though Doug O’Neill’s last winner Nyquist was chalk, his I’ll Have Another was not.  If BLENDED CITIZEN draws in, sprinkling him in third or fourth in trifectas and superfectas could pay off big time.


#11 BOLT D’ORO (8/1)

#6 GOOD MAGIC (12/1)

#16 MAGNUM MOON (6/1)

Longshot:  #2 FREE DROP BILLY (30/1)


Below are Nicolle Neulist’s picks for the stakes races Saturday at Churchill Downs. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!


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