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TrackNotes: Punditry As A Handicapping Tool

There's an old joke in horse racing.

"Who's going to win (the Derby)?"


The 2021 Road to the Roses has been more like Halsted Street on a Saturday morning. Where you also try to weave your way around the slow drivers.

Few horses have hit two green lights in a row and favorites have gotten stuck behind the guy with no guts in making the left turn.

This 147th running of the Kentucky Derby (Grade I, 10 furlongs, 1-1/4 miles, $3,000,000, post 5:57 p.m. Central) will have a winner, but none of these horses, except for maybe one or two, has distinguished himself. Those runners considered leaders of the 3-year-olds just weeks ago, have either regressed or dropped out completely.

With the way things have been going, this race is inscrutable to handicap, with so many of the entries mediocre at best, and the better horses trying to get around them.

If you want to get really hammered, watch all the coverage (also Friday) and take a drink every time the NBC muppets mention Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie. And sips for Midnight Bourbon, Rock Your World and the Exacta of Known Agenda: capable/but that post position!

You have to consider the likes of Mike Tirico, Randy Moss and Jerry Bailey can't know what's going to happen either, not with this bunch, but all spring they have been locked on the favorites in all the preps with terms like "clear favorite," or "his race to lose," or "this is probably a match race." One by one, most of those favorites went down. Their commentary was so bad, it became a handicapping tool. Seriously, I was betting against the desk, at good prices.

I just get the feeling NBC's coverage will be the same old-same old. But, like two trains on a collision course, can they tell both stories? The Asmussens and O'Neills will be making the Derby a family affair, how sweet.

Will they mention the many fines and suspensions O'Neill has been dealt over the years, including a just-finished sentence March 17? O'Neill is the guy who came into Belmont in 2012 with I'll Have Another vying for a Triple Crown under a pending suspension and so tainted, Belmont instituted guards and cameras in isolation stalls. They had to let him in only because his horse won the Derby and Preakness, but the horse was scratched for an injury. Asmussen is also no stranger to the seamy side of racing. Do your own search, too many links to handle.

When I see NBC will run American Pharaoh: Born to Run after the Kentucky Oaks on Friday, they're going to the well, again. And I haven't see the same treatment of Justify, who shouldn't even have been in his Derby.

One of the first major defections was Bob Baffert's Life Is Good. Considered the fastest horse in this crop, he was discovered to have a bone crack in a rear ankle after the San Felipe. His Spielberg also dropped out after a poor eighth in the Florida Derby.

Keep in mind, Churchill Downs debuted its new Derby starting gate last September. Instead of a 14-horse gate with a seven-horse auxiliary gate, it's now a full 20-horse gate. That means the gap between the two old gates is gone, and the inside posts are further out from the rail, perhaps two or three lanes. So don't fear the "dreaded one hole" like you used to. Plus, as Red Bradley used to say, "it's a long race."

Let's see what we can find, by post position:

1. Known Agenda (6-1 morning line odds, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., trainer Todd Pletcher)

With the old gates, the last winner from that post was Ferdinand in 1986. This would be a fine time to relive the wizardry of one Bill Shoemaker as he maneuvers to the hole, takes the rail and runs on. He comes into the picture at the 6:55 mark in the powder blue silks and pink cap.

There's a lot to like with Known Agenda, which might include a higher price, depending on how the talking heads pound the post position angle. He comes in from a three-length score in the Florida Derby engineered by a marvelous, ground-saving trip by Ortiz.

'Agenda was fairly dismal in the Remsen at Aqueduct in a December slop, and in Tampa's Sam F. Davis in February. Pletcher called an audible and got him going in a $75K optional claimer win by 11, just before his Florida win.

His 12-point Beyer Speed Figure improvement jumps out at you and while the fourth off the break might be a turnoff, Pletcher babies his horses and he hasn't run since March 27.

He has the speed against those to his outside to at least stay forward early. Taking the post into some consideration, really try to get that 6-1 or better.

2. Like the King (50-1, Drayden Van Dyke, Wesley Ward)

What in the wide wide world of sports is agoin' on? This horse has no class. This is where Churchill Downs Inc. gerrymandering comes in. Since purchasing Turfway Park recently - and embarking on a historical horse racing construction project there - CDI gave the Jeff Ruby Steaks, a cheap Grade III for a reason, the same 100-40-20-10 points motherlode that all the other, eminently more historical and traditional preps have. Florida or Santa Anita Derbies anyone?

This is the same company that stripped the Illinois Derby - read Hawthorne Race Course - of its Kentucky points out of spite. Not that Arlington Park has had an effing Derby prep in my lifetime.

Like the King has run on fast dirt once, sticky dirt once, turf once and the rest on Turfway's synthetic. On Churchill's notoriously fast Derby Day track set-up, this is a horse that had better hope he can keep up, or he'll hurt somebody. Between the 2-5 posts, I really hope we don't have a wipeout by the first turn.

3. Brooklyn Strong (50-1, Umberto Rispoli, Daniel Velazquez)

Rispoli had been riding Rock Your World, but when John Sadler had a chance to get Joel Rosario for the Santa Anita Derby, he took it. 'Strong won the Remsen with a giraffe 94 Beyer, then trudged in fifth in the April 3 Wood Memorial, his only 2021 race. His "Tracked inside, tired" line from that race says it all: he has no foundation. Shouldn't be here.

4. Keepmeinmind (50-1, David Cohen, Robertino Diodoro)

This one comes in by spittling Derby points and the defection of others. He bounced in it, but won the Kentucky Jockey Club in November against nobody and has continued bouncing ever since. He's still running the April 3 Blue Grass Stakes, so I assume Cohen rode him directly to Louisville. Really, why? P.S. I don't like his trainer's 27 percent win rate this year. That looks sneaky.

5. Sainthood (50-1, Corey Lanerie, Todd Pletcher)

Is there a rule against 100-1 in the morning line? Did the owners twist Pletcher's arm, who might have told them "better the Preakness?" He got his points in the overloaded Jeff Ruby Steaks. His 84 top Beyer last out (on synthetic) is more suitable to a Derby horse three preps back. He'll need a monumental progression, which he won't get on this track in this race.

6. O Besos (20-1, Martin Pedroza, Greg Foley)

All the way from the one-post out, this is the one they say can give Known Agenda a challenge before the turn. His Beyer progression has been good, but the running lines all say "wide." A fourth in the Risen Star and third in the Louisiana Derby (96 Beyer) against a handful of these does might bode well, if you like the posse's exodus here from New Orleans. If the rest of the field can keep him from going wide and Pedroza can keep him safely out of trouble, and the pace up front melts down, and Pedroza can position him for a stretch run, and if the horse himself wants to run even faster . . . His pappy, Orb, won this race in 2013. Consider, certainly in your exotics.

7. Mandaloun (15-1, Florent Geroux, Brad Cox)

I learned a long time ago not to eye a Derby hopeful and ride the emotional roller coaster on the way. But this one. He was on a very good upward arc and I liked his heart in third place by one in the LeComte in January. Then he pretty handily won the Risen Star. Then he was almost even money in the Louisiana Derby and was a struggling, fading sixth by almost 12 lengths. That race might be called a key race of sorts, because the top three are all in this Derby. Cox is one of the hottest trainers in the country, hmmm, and should be able to get Mandaloun on track if the horse has it. Distance? His workouts have been very good. But he took a 16-point Beyer bounce in his last, so this would be on faith. And 10-1 or more!

8. Medina Spirit (15-1, John Velazquez, Bob Baffert)

With Baffert's star-studded barn taking a hit, this is his only Derby entrant this year. His biggest win is the Robert B. Lewis (Grade III) in January and two best-of-the-rest seconds in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. It's Baffert and Johnny V. and a good post, but I have a feeling this one is going to take money and be overbet. Wiseguys, but you're never a fool betting on Baffert. Let's hope his price doesn't plummet.

9. Hot Rod Charlie (8-1, Flavien Prat, Doug O'Neill)

Take a shot! Coming out of an in-control wire job in Louisiana, he looked very professional. It included his career-best 99 Beyer and this race is his third off the break. They say he's been training great. With Indian Charlie on his dam's side, you'll have doubt on the distance, but in this field, he's definitely in the top tier. Just hope some sort of price holds up.

10. Midnight Bourbon (20-1, Mike Smith, Steve Asmussen)

Another one up through the bayou, this one has foundation. He ran four times as a 2-year-old and after a lackluster Champagne (76 Beyer) in October, he took off three months and fired right back in a Lecomte win with a 93 Beyer. I think jockey Joe Talamo did a favor for Smith because he didn't beat on the horse in losing efforts, including the no-shame loss to Hot Rod'. He's always been in the money and has plenty of foundation, with Money Mike Smith aboard. "Bourbon's been working great. If he can outlast into a busted pace, he has a real chance. But he won't be no 20-1.

11. Dynamic One (20-1, Jose Ortiz, Todd Pletcher)

He was nailed at the wire by the 72-1, out-of-the-clouds Bourbonic in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. He had an 89 Beyer in that one and would probably need a 10-12 point boost here, and a great trip. His only win is a maiden special weight. This is asking a lot. He might slip into the money at monster price and you might consider in the exotics. Just don't blame me, either way.

12. Helium (50-1 again, Julien Leparoux, Mark Casse)

He won the Tampa Bay Derby over horses who should have done better. He's three-for-three, but two of those on artificial at Woodbine. He's raced only once this year. Once again, he'll need a huge jump up after an 84 top Beyer last out. It's a baptism on conventional dirt. Will he dig Churchill? Nah. But put a flyer on him.

13. Hidden Stash (50-1, Rafael Bejarano, Victoria Oliver)

Another one who shouldn't be here, his angle will be 'the first female trainer to win the . . .' Dismal in three stakes races, he's also plateaued in the lower 80s Beyers after a seven-race sample size. Nope.

14. Essential Quality (2-1, Luis Saez, Brad Cox)

Kill the waterworks, I know Cox grew up in the shadow of the Twin Spires. An absolutely gorgeous gray with jet black mane and tail, your favorite is 5-0, but he's not unbeatable here, because he's not a particularly fast horse. Some precocious colt down the tote board can certainly win. He shipped in to Oaklawn to win the Southwest and then came home to win the Blue Grass at Keeneland. Not way outside, but not inside either, he seemed a bit rank in a quickish pace. He worked hard all the way around as Hidden Stash, who forced Saez to hit the gas fairly early, gave him tons to handle, and he was all out to get the win. I smell a bounce here, but the thing I hate about a horse like this is that at a razor thin price, you still have to include him. If you can, fashion a small exacta with him, but a bigger one without him.

15. Rock Your World (5-1, Joel Rosario, John Sadler)

That 100 Beyer in the Santa Anita Derby hits you between the eyes, at least in this Kentucky Derby. Lightly raced at 3-0, Sadler saw something after two turf wins and busted down the entrance door to Louisville. Biding his time, Rock' opened daylight on the far turn and never looked back. INCLUDE. Rosario rode him to his first win, and he jumped off Hot Rod Charlie for this one, which says a lot by one of the top jocks in America. Don't be surprised if this one goes off at favorite or co-favorite.

16. King Fury (20-1, Brian Hernandez Jr., Ken McPeek)

He got in with a Lexington Stakes win in the slop at Keeneland. That's not exactly a Have Gun Will Travel calling card. His 96 in that race is very nice, but he has not done well at all in top stakes races, such as the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, seventh. He has won twice at Churchill, including a minor stakes race. Drape likes him, Hoppert does not. His sire is the mighty Curlin, legendary on the track and a real operator now on the dating scene. The 15 and the 17 could jump out and squeeze this guy out of the race. Take a flyer at a price. Twenty horses, DRAT! (BULLETIN: Make that 19. King Fury scratched Friday after spiking a fever.)

17. Highly Motivated (10-1, Javier Castellano, Chad Brown)

His papers look in order, although his distance pedigree might lack. He maybe should have won the Blue Grass (see Essential Quality), but couldn't outkick. The Castellano/Brown duo are top notch. We can only wait and see if he can get the distance, this his longest assignment. I'll need minimum 10-1. I dunno. But that beard, and the way he spoke Dutch to that girl.

18. Super Stock (30-1, Ricardo Santana Jr., Steve Asmussen)

He's improved in all of his races (8-2-2-2). I think Joe Talamo might have saved him in the Rebel, which may not have pleased Asmussen, but he came right back and romped in the Arkansas Derby against highly regarded Concert Tour and Caddo River under Santana. Concert' opted out of this Derby and Caddo' spiked a fever afterwards in Hot Springs. The smallish Super Stock benefited mightily from a pace duel by those other two, and he'll need something similar here, which would be much more difficult to get, from the 18 post. I think his Arkansas win might disguise distance limitations. He'll need another nine-point Beyer jump and a real show of versatility in this one. I believe the wise guys will be on this one, but I don't trust the Arkansas win.

19. Soup and Sandwich (30-1, Tyler Gaffalione, Mark Casse)

Owned by the granddaughter of one of the Campbell's Kids, he's named after one of the oldest marketing campaigns in America. His second to Known Agenda in the Florida Derby was nothing special. He is 3-2-1-0, but it seems like they threw in one too many cans of water here. He needs the lead, but won't get it here.

20. Bourbonic (30-1, Kendrick Carmouche, Todd Pletcher)

They're trying to make the angle of Carmouche being the first black jockey to win the Derby in more than a century. Why? This outtake from a New York Times story - "He is also intensely aware of the nation's ongoing dialogue about race" - explains it.

Chief: "Race! Angle, buzzword, trending metric, hashtag! Get on it, Drape!" And what does "Black" even mean? Do we not see that the majority of jockeys in this race are men of color? Throw in a couple of Italians, Rispoli born on the calf of the boot, some Frenchmen, a Jew, round-faced Mike Smith whose mother is Mexican, some Cajun, including Carmouche, and I think we've got a damn diverse bunch of riders here. I do wish we would see more women. Rosie Napravnik, PLEASE come back!

Racing has always had diversity! No horseplayer I have ever, ever seen has mentioned a jockey's race for race's sake, even if he hates the way the guy rides a horse.

For the record, Jimmy Winkfield, 1901 and 1902. Will NBC discuss how the white establishment drummed out the black jockeys, just like baseball, because just plain segregation and that they were far superior riders? We'll see.

If Bourbonic and Carmouche win this race, it will be because the rider stays safe, parcels his speed, stays in the second or third tier and then runs them down like the stone cold closer he is. The blinkers have done wonders. He's a son of Bernardini (A.P. Indy) with Afleet Alex on his dam side. That's flashy. I'm including him.

* * *

In the Kentucky Oaks, Malathaat is the 5-2 morning line favorite.

I like an improving Pauline's Pearl at a price. In a balanced race, I also like Travel Column, Ava's Grace and Search Results.

* * *

Weather looks perfect for both days. There was a deluge Wednesday and Thursday, so stay tuned to the turf ratings.

* * *

TV is deja vu.

Friday Oaks Day is NBCSN 11 a.m to 5 p.m.

Rerun of American Pharaoh: Born to Run at 5 p.m.

Saturday Derby Day is Kentucky Derby Prep special 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., NBCSN. Derby Card on NBC 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.


Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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