The best Kentucky Derby ever could be run Saturday, when 19 horses line up in the gate at Churchill Downs for the Run for the Roses.
OK, that might be a bit of hyperbole, but I’ve been watching and studying the Kentucky Derby for over 35 years, and I can’t remember a Derby when the starting gate will be so full of fast, battle-tested, regally bred future superstars.
In most years, there are two or three horses who stand out to handicappers as the cream of the crop, but there must have been something in the air three years ago when these horses were born.
From the top to the bottom, from a Canada foal to a Kentucky foal, these 3-year-old colts are strong. The case can be made for a winner by six to eight horses and, if handicapping is correct, then the winner of the 141st Kentucky Derby will be a special thoroughbred capable of making history.
Let’s run through a few numbers before we take a closer look at the top contenders.
The original field of 20 3-year-old colts has won 56 of 125 races and nearly $13 million. This includes five millionaires (Dortmund, American Pharoah, Carpe Diem, Mubtaahij and International Star) and two undefeated horses (Dortmund and Materiality).
The leading contenders have dominated their locales by defeating all comers — like International Star, who won the Lecomte, Risen Star and Louisiana Derby at the Fair Grounds; Dortmund, who won Bob Lewis, San Felipe and Santa Anita at Santa Anita Park in California; American Pharoah (yes, the owners misspelled the name), who won the Rebel and Arkansas Derby; and Upstart, who ran first or second in the three Florida prep races.
These horses are accomplished and, above all else, they are fast. How do I know they are fast? Speed figures.
Speed figures — simply a number given to a horse to reflect how fast he/she ran a race — indicate that, as a group, these horses are the fastest from top to bottom we have ever seen. They have run some of the fastest prep races in the past 15 years, and most come into the race running the fastest of their lives.
Even better news is that this year, unlike previous years, the prospective Derby field has not been depleted by injuries to major contenders. Other than Breeders’ Cup winner Texas Red, the 3-year-old crop has been extremely resilient to injury.
All in all, the roster of horses set to run Saturday are the most evenly matched group I’ve ever encountered — which should scare off most handicappers. But I don’t shy away from a challenge, and I’ve got a few Derby winners sprinkled on my handicapping résumé. So, let’s get to the handicapping.
I believe the winner of the 2015 Kentucky Derby will come from this group of horses:
- Dortmund is a perfect 6-for-6 and a giant of a racehorse standing 17 hands. He reminds me a lot of Affirmed, who just happened to win the Triple Crown. Bob Baffert, who has won three Derby trophies, is the trainer, and Martin Garcia rides for Kaleem Shah.
- American Pharoah also is a Baffert trainee and possesses a dazzling display of speed, which he demonstrated as he won the Arkansas Derby by big margins of daylight.
- Upstart wintered in Florida and is being trained by Rick Violette, who has never had a Derby winner. He ran third in the Breeders’ Cup in November and has only gotten better, posting the fastest figure of any horse coming into the race.
- Frosted was beaten by Upstart but had a slight breathing issue that apparently was corrected, allowing him to win the Wood Memorial in New York by open lengths. Kiaran McLaughlin has been the hottest trainer in America the past 45 days.
- Mubtaahij is the mystery horse from Dubai who was the brilliant winner of the United Arab Emirates Derby. Mubtaahij is trained by one of the sharpest trainers in the world — Mike de Kock, who also has won the biggest races around the world.
- Danzig Moon is my long-shot contender, trained by Mark Casse and owned by previous Derby winning owner John Oxley (Monarchos). He lost his last race to Carpe Diem but looked very good.
I didn’t include local hero International Star in my top six. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect his tenacity and athletic ability to work his way into the top five, but I do not think he can win.
So, given how closely I view these horses, how do we separate the leading contenders from the pretenders and isolate a winner?
First, let’s look at post position. In a race with 20 horses all trying to get to the inside rail and keep position, where you start in the ensuing stampede does make a difference. From our shortlist, post position hurt American Pharoah and Upstart, who drew post positions 18 and 19 (each did move up after a pair of scratches), meaning they will start about as far away from the rail as possible at the start.
They are likely to lose some ground or run wider on the turns, meaning they will have to run farther than the horses on the rail. That’s geometry, folks. The other horses got good post positions.
Next, we should look at anticipated odds because, if you have what we think is an evenly matched group, then you should take the highest odds. American Pharoah will be the favorite — which means, to me, he will not be bettable in the win position. This leaves us with Frosted, Upstart, Mubtaahij and Danzig Moon — all of whom will be over 10-1, which is fair value for their abilities.
The horse I’ve had near the top of my Kentucky Derby list for most of the year has been Upstart. His race to start 2015 really caught my eye: His wins in Florida were fast, and his lone loss was faster.
Frosted looked like he had Upstart beaten earlier this year until his breathing issue cropped up but, with that now fixed, he revealed a new gear while winning in New York.
Dortmund is a monster of a horse who also is clearly a leader of the herd. He has heart, determination and ability.
Dortmund is my pick to win the Kentucky Derby, but I will be betting on all three of these with gusto Saturday and anticipating that the winner will have a chance to change history by winning the first Triple Crown in more than 35 years.
Best of luck to all connections, and may they all come home safely.
Michael Beychok, the 2012 National Handicapping Championship and 2012 Eclipse Award winner for best handicapper, brings 35 years of experience to The Advocate.