LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Justify and Magnum Moon might prove the best 3-year-olds of their generation. That does not make either Saturday's Kentucky Derby winner. Favorites have won five straight years. That's the streak I think ends.
It's not the Apollo Curse. It's the Apollo Facts: Only one Kentucky Derby winner didn't race at age 2, Apollo in 1882. While not a huge sample, it's big enough to take a stand against the 3-for-3 Santa Anita Derby winner Justify and 4-for-4 Arkansas Derby winner Magnum Moon. My default position is that if eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin couldn't do it in 2007, I'm not going to expect any horse to do it until it happens.
Or as Horse Racing Radio Network analyst and former trainer Jude Feld said of the unraced 2-year-old stat: "If it's older than me, I believe it."
Young horses learn so much from every start. And it's not just that they didn't race at 2; there's almost always a reason why they didn't race, be it injury, illness or just giving time for a big horse to develop. But that also means they probably missed a fair amount of the training and preparation required to get to that first race.
Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who until Dale Romans broke his record last November was Churchill Downs' all-time winningest trainer, is trying to win his first Kentucky Derby with Florida Derby runner-up Hofburg, who has raced only three times himself. But one race was at 2 late in the Saratoga meet. Big Brown in 2008 is the only horse to win the Derby in its fourth lifetime start since the filly Regret in 2015, but Big Brown also had his first start at Saratoga and was facing a far weaker group of horses than will break from the gate Saturday.
And Mott thinks it's significant Hofburg got in that race at 2.
"If you believe in statistics, you'll believe in it," he said of the hurdle of an unraced juvenile winning the Kentucky Derby the next year. "I definitely think there's something to it — even if a horse has one race as a 2-year-old, and they have that time. Actually I think the time after the race is as important as the race at 2. You've got to let them regroup a little bit after their first run or two. I think any horse that's had a couple of races early on, then had a little time to develop and grow, really benefits from it."
Said Garrett O'Rourke, manager of Hofburg owner Juddmonte Farms, said he is not worried about Hofburg being fit to run 1 1/4 miles off only three starts.
"There are two things that multiple starts will give to a horse," O'Rourke said. "A, fitness, which is obviously very important if you're running in the biggest race of your life, 20 runners, mile and a quarter for the first time. And B, how to handle situations like that mentally.
"I'm not worried about the fitness. We've got a Hall of Fame trainer and you've got a horse that I think will have natural stamina. You just have to look at his pedigree. The mental side of it, how he'll handle the day, you have to worry about it. The horse seems to be a very intelligent, sensible, professional type of horse. But you don't know how he'll react on a day with 160,000 people. That inexperience creates an 'if,' but not enough to say, 'No, we're not going to be here.' You've got to pull the trigger and go."
I'm tossing Mendelssohn, the UAE Derby winner by 18 lengths. That's something else I need to see happen, a UAE Derby horse capture the Kentucky Derby. In that $2 million race, they're beating mostly grass horses and second-tier dirt horses. If Winchell Thoroughbreds, owner of Derby entrant Combatant, thought Reride was one of its best chances to win the Kentucky Derby, they would have kept that colt home instead of flying across the ocean to Dubai, where Reride was third in the UAE Derby. Of course, maybe Mendelssohn is better on dirt than grass.
If Justify (3-1 favorite), Mendelssohn (5-1 second choice) or Magnum Moon (6-1 third choice) is draped in roses Saturday, congrats to them. He made history and deserves all the accolades. In the meantime, I'm going in another direction.
Do I think they can win? Betting the Derby, moreso than any race, is about who you throw out to fit your budget.
I've narrowed the win pool to Florida Derby winner Audible, Blue Grass winner Good Magic (though it goes against my Final Fractions Theory), Santa Anita Derby runner-up Bolt d'Oro and Wood Memorial victor Vino Rosso. Ultimately I landed on Vino Rosso, though I'm not wild about post 18.
When in doubt, bet the horse absolutely bred for 1 1/4 miles who will be coming on at the end and who "qualifies" under my Final Fraction Theory for coming home the last three-eighths of a mile in his last prep in fewer than 38 seconds and last eighth in under 13.
Good Magic is the horse who best fits under ESPN 680 sports-talk host Drew Deener's "Kick Yourself" theory, where you bet the horse you'd most kick yourself if you didn't and he won. You might never find another 2-year-old champion who won a major and historic race like the Blue Grass Stakes in its final Derby prep and is the co-fifth choice in the morning line. He also has looked great training. And in the "We Also Handicap the Trainer" department, Chad Brown has been so loose and almost giddy, which we can only take that as a huge positive for the colt. He also has a fine pedigree for 1 1/4 miles. I just can't pick him to win because he was slightly over in my Final Fractions Theory, and why have a theory if you don't follow it?
Bolt d'Oro is my "Change of Venue" horse, the one who could most appreciate getting away from his California base to Churchill Downs with its long stretch.
Justify is my "He could be any kind and I don't want to look completely stupid by leaving him out" horse. He's my early Preakness pick.
Audible checks all the boxes. Having only lost once and showing versatility, he's a horse that if he wins and pays $20, you'll say, "How did I not have that?"
"If Justify is first by two lengths, nobody is going to be surprised," said Mike Repole, co-owner of No. 18 Vino Rosso (the Wood Memorial winner) and No. 19 Noble Indy (the Louisiana Derby winner). "And if he's 10th by 12 lengths I don't think anybody is going to be surprised. He's probably the most talented horse in this field by far, but the most talented horse doesn't always win. Twenty horses, that first turn, racing luck, bad break. A lot of things can happen. Different surface, mile and a quarter. There are questions about 20 horses. It's easier to make a case why each horse won't win than make a case why each horse will win."
1. Vino Rosso
2. Good Magic
3. Bolt d'Oro
My 50-cent trifecta plays:
Key #18 Vino Rosso over #5 Audible, #6 Good Magic, #7 Justify, #9 Hofburg #11 Bolt d'Oro over #5 Audible, #6 Good Magic, #7 Justify, #9 Hofburg, #11 Bolt d'Oro over #2 Free Drop Billy, #5 Audible, #6 Good Magic, #7 Justify, #8 Lone Sailor, #9 Hofburg, #10 My Boy Jack and #11 Bolt d'Oro.
Subtotal: $17.50 Will also play keying #5 Audible and #11 Bolt d'Oro