LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The twists and turns of this year’s Kentucky Derby trail will come to a resounding conclusion Saturday evening at Churchill Downs with a deep field of 3-year-old colts seeking the most coveted title in thoroughbred horse racing.
The Derby kicks off a throwback Saturday of sorts in the world of sports. Long ago, horse racing and boxing graced the sports pages on a regular basis and for this one day they both return in a major way.
The 141st Run for the Roses is a 1¼-mile race that will take place under the iconic Twin Spires before a projected crowd of more than 150,000. The race is restricted to 3-year-old thoroughbreds and not a single one of the 20 Derby contenders has ever raced this distance.
The Kentucky Derby will be carried by NBC Sports (Ch. 2) in a three-hour telecast from 4 to 7 p.m. Post time is 6:34 p.m.
Trainer Bob Baffert, winner of three Derby titles in his historic training career, will send out the race’s top two favorites in American Pharoah and Dortmund. If they finish the race 1-2, Baffert would have his fourth Derby win and the pair would be the first stable mates to top the field since 1948, when Citation and Coaltown captured the top two spots for venerable Calumet Farm.
American Pharoah (5-2), the morning line favorite, will start in an outside post (No. 18) for owner Zayat Stables. He has dazzled in winning his prep races at Oaklawn Park, winning the two Arkansas preps by a combined 14¾ lengths. However, this colt has yet to face a test down the lane, which can be troublesome going into a race like the Derby that requires heart along with versatility.
Baffert acknowledged he hasn’t had to go toe-to-toe in the stretch with anyone yet. “He’s fast, but he cruises effortlessly. He hasn’t been in a dog fight, so we don’t know how he’s going to respond.”
Last year’s winning Derby jockey, Victor Espinoza, has the ride on the favorite.
The 2-year-old champion is by Pioneerof the Nile, runner-up in the 2009 Derby behind the 50-1 winner Mine That Bird in the slop. However, his dam side is riddled with sprinters and could present issues for his connections if he is trying to hold on in the final furlong, especially if he has to exert early energy to avoid being caught wide in the first turn.
The colt is all class, but his lack of facing adversity and the questions surrounding his ability to handle the 10 furlongs is enough for me to leave the short-priced favorite out of my top four selections.
To the contrary, the second-choice on the morning line, Dortmund (3-1), is battle-tested. He survived two stretch drives against Firing Line (12-1) during the prep season and has posted three straight triple-digit Beyer speed figures.
The undefeated son of 2008 Derby winner Big Brown looks the part, measuring 17.1 hands long. If Churchill clocker Gary Young can compare American Pharoah’s workout to Michael Jordan, allow me to compare Dortumund to Marshawn Lynch, as this horse is in all-out beast mode when he takes to the track. He posted a win in his second career race at Churchill Downs and has moved fluidly over the track the past few days during light training.
Martin Garcia has the ride on Dortmund and will be seeking his first Derby win. He took the 2010 Preakness aboard Lookin at Lucky, the Derby favorite that same year who was stuck on the rail and bounced around early. This time Baffert was more fortunate, drawing post No. 8 for the big chestnut colt.
On the heels of his Wood Memorial victory, Frosted was sent to Florida to train up to the Derby. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin’s gray colt is owned by Godolphin Racing and will attempt to earn Sheikh Mohammed his first Derby victory.
With the possibility of a quick early-pace scenario, the race may set up nicely for the running style that the son of champion sire Tapit employs. He weaved through horses in the Wood, showing his versatility, a running quality that is a necessity in a 20-horse race. Jockey Joel Rosario, winner of the 2013 Derby on Orb, replaced Irad Ortiz Jr. on Frosted in the Wood, and will have the mount coming out of gate No. 15.
Tapit has yet to sire a top-three finisher in the Derby from a small subset of three runners. However, the son of Pulpit, grandsire of 2014 winner California Chrome, was responsible for 2013 fourth-place finisher Normandy Invasion and 2014 Kentucky Oaks and Breeders’ Cup Distaff winner Untapable.
Mubtaahij is an intriguing horse that will be attempting to become the first prepped in Dubai to win the Derby. Mubtaahij (20-1), which means elated, comes off an 8-length win in the UAE Derby at Meydan Race Course in Dubai that qualified him for the Derby. In fact, he has two wins on his resume at 1 3/16 miles, a feat no other horse in the race can boast.
World class trainer Mike de Kock was convinced by American liaison Patrick Cummings to enter. “He ran very well first out on dirt when he beat older maidens and came back two weeks later and trounced 13 other 3-year-olds,” said Cummings.
“Two days later, the day the Triple Crown entries close, the horse that he beat in his maiden came back and won easily,” Cummings said. “I called Mike in South Africa and said ‘You should enter this horse in the Triple Crown. If you do it today it’s $600, tomorrow it’s $5,000.’ He entered him and the horse did the rest.”
Based on his efforts against Dortmund in the prep races, it’s hard to ignore Firing Line, a well-rested colt who won the Sunland Derby by open lengths for trainer Simon Callaghan. He’ll have veteran Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, who has three Derby wins under his belt, the last coming in 1997.
Other horses for consideration underneath in the exotics include Upstart, International Star and Danzig Moon, an Ontario-bred colt we could see later in the year in the Queen’s Plate.
Post Time Outlook: 1 - Dortmund; 2 - Frosted; 3 - Mubtaahij; 4 – Firing Line