We're just over a week away from the Run for the Roses and it's time for the annual Degrees of Separation column where we separate the contenders from the pretenders.
It's a light look at the horses that have qualified for a gate on the first Saturday in May, a week out and before the post position draw to help segregate the horses I'm high on versus the throwouts come Derby day. Using my annual Derby spreadsheet as a guide, we review the current top 20 horses likely to be entered in Kentucky Derby 145.
Since I started covering the Triple Crown at The News in 2011 my record for Derby top selections is 8-1-0-3. The three third-place finishers were Mucho Macho Man, Revolutionary and Dortmund and the winner came in 2016 with Nyquist. I missed the board with last year’s caboose Mendelssohn, Irish War Cry (10th), Daddy Nose Best (10th) and Intense Holiday (12th) in previous selections.
Before we jump into this year’s field, let's take a moment to review some of my better (and really bad) quotes from past Degrees of Separation posts.
2009 - Mine That Bird: "Slowest of the slow" (50-1 winner)
2010 - Super Saver: "Really warming up to this one. Pletcher's best chance to wear the roses. Sports Monarchos' sire, his dam sire is A.P. Indy, so he has the pedigree AND the King of Churchill in the irons. Dangerous." (Chicken dinner)
2011 - Shackleford: "Really would have loved to see him in the Preakness versus the Derby, hope the race doesn't wreck him, looks like a monster." (Thank you very much)
2012 - I'll Have Another: "I dig this horse. His daddy, Flower Alley, had a troubled trip in the 2005 Derby and is a Travers winner and BC Classic runner-up. Could be my top pick - we'll see how he draws on Wednesday." (Drew Post No. 19, scared me off of him…second guessed myself)
2013 - Orb: Likely favorite after his two big wins at Gulfstream with matching Beyer Speed Figures. He'll be on top of my tickets. (Ultimately made him my second choice)
2014 - California Chrome: I'm not picking him to win, but no other colt has been as impressive during the prep season as this son of Lucky Pulpit. But can a son of Lucky Pulpit win the Derby? (Why yes, yes he can)
2015 - American Pharaoh: “The likely favorite doesn’t make the top division? Am I crazy? Being able to achieve the 10-furlongs with potential traffic issues he hasn’t yet encountered in the trials. Those questions are enough to have me on the fence.” (Triple Crown winner – the Derby was his toughest race though)
2016 - Exaggerator: “Another somewhat sentimental favorite in this corner who loves any Curlin progeny. Jockey has won the race before, has the running style of a Derby winner. Not sure we’ve seen his best.”
2017 - Always Dreaming: “Pletcher’s best shot in years, but is he this year’s version of Materiality? Florida Derby has produced winners in this race twice in the last five years.” (Was in my top three)
2018 - Justify: “The numbers scream that he’s the winner. History begs to differ. You can’t ignore the talent. Could be something special.” (Triple Crown special!)
So let's get down to business and reveal our 2019 Degrees of Separation:
The AMC Gremlin Division
My father bought my mother an American Motors Corporation (AMC) Gremlin back in the late '70s and it was a thing of beauty. Bright red, sleek gold stripes, the works. So what was the issue? It just wasn't fast. Pretty sure it was one of the worst cars ever built. Again: Worst. Car. Ever. Built. These are the horses that represent this division, and qualify as my throwouts:
Plus Que Parfait: Can’t pronounce, but won’t need to.
Gray Magician: Peter Miller’s not pulling a Derby winner out of that hat.
Haikal: Would love to see Kiaran win one, he’s one of the nice guys in this sport.
Country House: Nice horse, just not fast enough.
By My Standards: Maybe a surprise to be in with this group, but I’m selling off one big effort.
Cutting Humor: There’s always one Pletcher that flames out in the last five and I’m going with Spinoff not being that guy.
The Party Crasher Division
This division made its debut in 2016 and represents the spot where the horse won’t win, but he’ll cause havoc on your exotic betting by crashing the exacta, trifecta and superfecta at a price. Think Golden Soul, Lookin at Lee and Commanding Curve.
Win Win Win: Two big late closes in the final two preps sets him up to crash the tri or super with authority. Show Show Show.
Code of Honor: He’s going to be under the radar and has some real talent and a superb trainer who’s been in this spot before. Like his chances underneath.
Tax: I’m guessing refund versus balance due with Tax. Good pedigree with stamina built in and decent numbers coming into the race.
Spinoff: He’s going to be a nice price and the Pletcher that is more likely around when it counts.
The Indy 500 Division
Whoever draws the rail (pole) will be a toss and will be automatically transferred into this division. Other qualifiers represent the speed of the speed and likely will be out front burning rubber.
First spot: Vacant until the draw for the rail horse.
Maximum Security: Have a feeling that Servis is sending this guy and with the lack of speed in the race, will try and wire them. Not out of the question as he could be the fastest horse in the race. Cross entered in the Charlie Sheen Division.
The George Costanza Human Fund Division
These will be the horses that will be taking in a lot of money and have a little (or lot of) hype, but will be unmasked in the Derby and will not be a factor.
Master Fencer (JPN): They open up the Japanese market and this horse is going to be bet, and bet hard. Watch those yen flow through the windows.
The Afleet Alex Divison
Horses that won't win the Derby, but will have to be respected and could hit the board. Horses qualifying here have the potential to become a Classic winner down the road in either the Preakness Stakes or the Belmont Stakes.
Long Range Toddy: Potential Belmont winner? Asmussen won it with Creator a few years ago and this one always seems to be hanging around, the extra furlong may be the ticket.
Game Winner: Is he this year’s Lookin at Lucky, gets compromised in the Derby and comes back to win the Preakness at the shorter distance?
The Larry Holmes Division
Formerly known as the Brett Favre division, but renamed for the former heavyweight champ who just loved another comeback. The horses that are bound for this division are those I just can't make up my mind up on as we sit one week out from the Run for the Roses. Include them, exclude them – indecision is in the house.
War of Will: Do we get the Risen Star winner or the horse that lost his back end in the Louisiana Derby. Got me.
Vekoma: Javier made this choice quickly and decisively, that tells you the horse is for real, or is he?
Tacitus: Wood winners have not performed on the First Saturday in May in a long, long time. This seems like a really nice horse trying to win Mott his first Derby.
Charlie Sheen Division
The horses I think have the best chance at ... wait for it ... winning!
Omaha Beach: Had the look of a Derby winner repelling Improbable in the Arkansas Derby. Would be a great story for Richard Mandella to wear the roses for the first time. Lots to like.
Improbable: If you like Omaha Beach, you have to like Improbable. If he gets the better trip, he could win it. He’s fast and should be a nice price to boot.
Roadster: How often does the “other Baffert” become the main Baffert? It happened this year and he’s a fresh horse who has the jets to win the Derby.
Maximum Security: See Indy 500 Division.
That's a wrap on this year's 2019 Degrees of Separation. It’s my favorite way to flesh out the field, as you can't bet them all. Granted, this is my preliminary look into the field and the post position draw can change all of that.
The News will be onsite in Louisville on Wednesday, look for coverage here through Saturday’s big race.
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association and tweets @EquiSpace.