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I've got the fever, Derby Fever.
Or do I?
On the eve of the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby, I wonder about the meaning of it all, as I do every year. Here we go again, although it's a lot better than being a beat reporter "covering" Maddon's schtick, the Sox futility and the Bears' incompetence.
The race is so aberrational. Just a stampede at a distance many of them won't handle at a steroidal facility run by a corporation that just makes the skin crawl. It's all embedded in the TrackNotes Testament.
But then I remember, these are all new horses who haven't done anything wrong. That's the beauty of this race. It's 20 bonus babies with proven talent embarking upon their quests, instead of all the same ol' gazillionaires of the new de rigueur styling a triple into a single.
You don't worship the silks in this game, although I've seen ladies - more power to 'em - win bets on just that kind of colorful appeal. You don't watch it "for the commercials," although I do like the stallion ads that show great horses of recent vintage winning the races of our memories.
It's a solitary endeavor, if you're serious about it, because with the death of the OTB in my neighborhoods, 99 percent of the people in bars or parties don't care. As an extreme, Arlington Park is charging $18/$6 parking, lousy card included, if you want to dress up and pretend you're at Churchill Downs. For many it's just the appeal of a $2 bet and rubbing elbows with decrepit ne'er-do-wells in the dingy netherworld of horse racing. For them, Sunday's just another day, while we ponder Triple Crowns and new shooters in the Preakness, just two weeks away.
This time, the valid consensus is that this could be the best Kentucky Derby in years. Include me, unless the two favorites finish first and third. But then, that's why we race. And wager. I also feel damn good that I've paid attention to the preps more carefully this year. I've seen most of these colts.
We also caught a huge break when Gronkowski, a European horse who got the Euro exemption, was scratched with a virus. The football player even bought a small share of the horse, so now we'll be spared the presence of the buttinsky NFL. Plus, the tight end can probably run better.
You'll hear a lot about breaking Apollo's Curse, the idea that two horses this year will try to win the Derby after not having raced at 2-years-old. Apollo, 1882, you've read it here many times. Just as I hate the word "Wars" in the endeavor of baking cupcakes, why must something like this, like goats, have such an ominous name: Curse? I couldn't find it's origin, but it seems recent to me.
Sure, Justify and Magnum Moon have a real chance this year. But it just figures that over those 136 years, with horses running so often at two and three, it's odds against when coming in green.
Saturday, the trainer ranks are loaded. Todd Pletcher has four, and his mentor, the legendary D. Wayne Lukas sends out his 49th Derby horse, Bravazo, in a quest to win his fifth. Bob Baffert has two, including probable favorite Justify. Wunderkind Chad Brown, a disciple of the late great Bobby Frankel, contends with Good Magic. Aidan O'Brien, the best trainer in the world, ships in Mendelssohn after his boffo smash hit in Dubai. The king of Churchill Downs, Dale Romans, looks for his first Derby win with two, Free Drop Billy and Promises Fulfilled.
We've got horses this year who contend Saturday and should make noise the rest of the season. In post position order:
1. Firenze Fire (Jockey Paco Lopez, Trainer Jason Servis, Sire Poseidon's Warrior)
The one-hole is the kiss of death, but I don't like this one anyway. His Beyer Speed Figures are less than mediocre, and he's a miler. So put him in the Pat Day Mile. Geez.
2. Free Drop Billy (Robby Albarado, Dale Romans, Union Rags)
The dope is that from a bad post, he might be able to save some ground and use his closing style to get a piece of the Superfecta. I'm tired of these Daily Racing Form analysts saying all of these horses have a chance "underneath." He beat two of these in the Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland (that's not the Breeders' Cup) last October with a mediocre Beyer. Beaten a total 45 lengths in four races since.
3. Promises Fulfilled (Corey Lanerie, Dale Romans, Shackleford)
He is figured to set a hot pace, and then burn up on reentry. He did that and ran away in the Fountain of Youth with a 96 Beyer. He did that and finished 36 back in the Florida Derby. Shackleford wasn't much of a classic distance horse either, although he won the Preakness at 1-3/16ths.
4. Flameaway (Jose Lezcano, Todd Pletcher, Scat Daddy)
I think there's something to like here, although he'll have to take a big step up to win. He won the Sam F. Davis prep to a second in the Tampa Bay Derby and another second in the Blue Grass, not too far behind Good Magic. That may be as good as he is as his Beyers have stalled in the low 90s. That portends third at best here, which is a Grade I, get my drift?
5. Audible (Javier Castellano, Todd Pletcher, Into Mischief)
An early buzz horse, he should be fresh after winning the March 31 Florida Derby over Hofburg. Pletcher will do that, train for weeks into a big race. He won the Holy Bull over Free Drop Billy and has the what-you-want-to-see 99 Beyers in his last two. With a step up, that's plenty. The angle is that John Velazquez jumped off him to ride Vino Rosso, but Vino' has known no other rider. Ten furlongs is a question mark hanging over his head, but if the pace screws up up front, he can either stalk or close big. Would like no less than his ML 8-1. Seriously consider.
6. Good Magic (Jose Ortiz, Chad Brown, Curlin)
Considered a monster after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile over Solomini and Bolt d'Oro and being named Two-Year Old Horse of the Year. Only two races this year with a 95 Beyer win in the Blue Grass, a 14-point improvement in 2018. Through no fault of his own, he's caught some shade and might even be an attractive price, 8-1 ML. Training great, great trainer and jock, Mr. Prospector, Hard Spun and Curlin in the family picture. Don't tell anyone, get a price and enjoy.
7. Justify (Mike Smith, Bob Baffert, Scat Daddy)
In his short stud career, Scat Daddy, who sired four in this field, became a supreme producer of winners. It's no wonder Justify will be favored, with Storm Cat, Hennessy and Johannesburg also on his daddy's side and Ghostzapper, Awesome Again and Pulpit behind his mum. Faced with the Apollo factor, will his great talent be enough in this race? Is he savvy enough? He's only run against 17 total horses in his life in three races, all at Santa Anita. 101-104-107 Beyers culminating in the Santa Anita Derby fuel his store window appeal. But while he'll be 3-2 or 2-1 at the bell, I think he should be no less than 3-1, maybe even up to 4-1 or 5-1, with his question marks. He likes to be near the lead. Through inexperience, will he get caught in a hot pace? He has the breeding, but running hard near the front and then getting that last furlong, it could mess with his young head. The crowd. The surface. Whatever happens Saturday, he will learn a lot. Depending on his recoverability, he has Triple Crown talent. But for this Derby, I don't want him to win, especially at that price. But you do have to include him, which bums me out. Third with a couple bombers in front of him would suit me fine.
8. Lone Sailor (Jimmy Graham, Tom Amoss, Majestic Warrior)
I'll be taking a flyer on this one at 50-1 or better. You have to love a 17-point Beyer improvement in the Louisiana Derby, a neck behind Noble Indy and in front of My Boy Jack. That screams tightening and foundation for this one, and you've got some more folding money if you look at his 57 and 3/5ths five-furlong bullet workout over this track a couple weeks ago. We love Graham, a mainstay on the Chicago scene, but this is his first Derby. I like his closing-ish style. Flyer to win and maybe a $1 Trifecta box with him and a couple favorites.
9. Hofburg (Irad Ortiz, Bill Mott, Tapit)
Don't hassle the Hof, for he is the darling of the wiseguys. But he's going to have to step up large after a 94-Beyer second three back in the Florida Derby. Another problem is that he'll be way lower than his 20-1 morning line, with all the talk I've been hearing. Mott's rep is that he never runs 'em unless he believes. The distance should be fine, but I dunno. Anywhere in the money might be all we can ask.
10. My Boy Jack (Kent Desormeaux, Keith Desormeaux, Creative Cause)
Thirty-to-one in the morning line, this horse has nonetheless gained a following. My friend Ed on the east coast, who's been to the Melbourne Cup(!) and has a few horseplayers in the clan, says they'll be on this horse in the spirit of a fine young man who wore the name greatly. I firmly believe this horse will take action from all the people who have a Jack in their lives. Chances? Beyers in the mid-90s, but won the Southwest at Oaklawn and the Lexington at Keeneland last out. He's already run 10 times, against quality company, including four of these. I'll have him across the board for $2, for Jack, of course.
11. Bolt d'Oro (Victor Espinoza, Mick Ruis, Medaglia d'Oro)
Rodney, this horse just ain't getting no respect this week! This is a professional warhorse, winner of four of six and in the money every time. He knows what he's doing and has all the Beyer bones he needs. He was placed first after jousting with the DQd McKinzie in the San Felipe. Coming in 3-0, he was third in the Breeders Cup Juvenile behind Good Magic and couldn't catch Justify in the Santa Anita Derby. He's also got a rookie trainer. If his batteries are charged and he gets 10-1, I think he knows what to do.
12. Enticed (Junior Alvarado, Kiaran McLaughlin, Medaglia d'Oro)
People are bashing the Wood Memorial, where he finished second behind Vino Rosso. His Beyers are flat in the mid 90s in the last two. A sleeper with fantastic pedigree, you have to include him, especially at a potentially great price.
13. Bravazo (Luis Contreras, D. Wayne Lukas, Awesome Again)
Don't see it. He may have peaked in two 2018 races before a bomb in the Louisiana Derby. Nice to have D. Wayne in Louisville, but his horse is running, not his legacy.
14. Mendelssohn (Ryan Moore, Aidan O'Brien, Scat Daddy)
This Scat Daddy pulled off a Very Lite Secretariat in the Dubai UAE Derby in March, powering to an expanding 18.5 lengths win. He won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar and then prepped in Ireland for Dubai. He has all the talent to win, but is dissed for the ship from Dubai. No horse has ever done it. But he's the best so far who's tried. His price will be low-ish. You decide.
15. Instilled Regard (Drayden Van Dyke, Jerry Hollendorfer, Arch)
Talk softly to him all the way around and hope the race doesn't traumatize him. Stuck at low-90s Beyers, find another race.
16. Magnum Moon (Luis Saez, Todd Pletcher, Malibu Moon)
He looked like Otis Campbell in the Arkansas Derby stretch, but won by four over Quip, who opted for the Preakness. He's also looking at Apollo in the mirror. He's very talented and has every right to mature and improve. Just not in the frickin' Kentucky Derby! If he gets up to 20-1, Win-Place-Show flyer. Then wait for later.
17. Solomini (Flavien Prat, Bob Baffert, Curlin)
Yeah, 30-1. Should be more. Claim to fame is Baffert and a win/DQ in the Los Alamitos Futurity. Stuck in the low 90s Beyers. He is who he is, and doesn't belong here.
18. Vino Rosso (John Velazquez, Todd Pletcher, Curlin)
Diss the Wood Memorial, but it was an impressive win by three and a 14-point Beyer improvement to 98 is just what you want. Make what you will of Johnny V.'s decision to ride this horse, but he's been Vino's only rider. And I wouldn't want it any other way for this horse in this race. He bulleted four furlongs in his last workout, so this horse is ready. My only concern is an attack on his 12-1 morning line.
19. Noble Indy (Florent Geroux, Todd Pletcher, Take Charge Indy)
Likes to be near the lead, but has never shown he'd be able to do this from the 19 hole! Unless you dropped into 2000-1 on the Todd Pletcher Superfecta, no.
20. Combatant (Ricardo Santana Jr., Steve Asmussen, Scat Daddy)
Twenty-hole? Only win was a maiden special weight? He only got in because others dropped out. Doesn't belong.
I would love to see a Bolt d'Oro win, especially at a decent price. Audible and Good Magic should be up there. For wagering, I love Enticed, Vino Rosso and Flameaway. Justify would screw up the wagering by finishing first or second. The knowing bettors will try to keep Mendelssohn's price, but it will be a battle against the Pavlovian attention he's getting.
Would that be funny if a Dubai winner wins his first Derby instead of Apollo's Curse being overturned?
On television, NBC SportsNet carries 11 a.m. to 1:30 pm. The Peacock Network picks it up from there through the Derby.
Enjoy and remember many of these names. You'll see them all down the road.
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