Half the 20 places in the gate have been spoken for in the Kentucky Derby. Yet after 11 days marked by the consensus favorite dropping out and an odds-on choice losing a major prep, the 10 horses certain of getting invitations to Churchill Downs are not necessarily magnets for bettors.
With Life Is Good on the shelf and Greatest Honour looking vulnerable last weekend at Gulfstream Park, the futures marketplace has become a hodgepodge. Horses that have looked like Derby contenders all winter are in company with beneficiaries of a qualifying process that has inflated the value of some B-list prep races.
Ten horses still on the Derby trail have at least 50 points. With four races left that offer 100 for wins and 40 for finishing second, it is mathematically possible for eight horses with no points to jump into the top 20 — actually 21. That would make 40 the cut line. Horses currently in the top 20 padding their totals could lower the bar.
Simply put, 50 or more points look safe enough for connections to make plans for Louisville. Safe for bettors, though? Not so fast.
110 points — Hot Rod Charlie (10-1 Circa Sports, 12-1 William Hill Nevada). He was still just a maiden winner when he went to the gate this month for the Louisiana Derby. He had overachieved as a 94-1 long shot finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He had underachieved as a 5-2 second choice finishing third in a six-horse field in the Robert B. Lewis. Yes, he met expectations as a 5-2 winner 1½ weeks ago at Fair Grounds. But which Hot Rod Charlie will show up May 1 at Churchill Downs?
104 — Like The King (60-1, 100-1). This Palace Malice colt trained by Wesley Ward has three victories, all on turf and synthetic tracks. They include Saturday’s Jeff Ruby Steaks on the rubber stew at Turfway Park, a course that Churchill Downs Inc. bought 1½ years ago. That is the only reason Like The King has the points to be in the Derby. Before the sale, a Jeff Ruby win was rewarded with only 20 points. This year it earned 100. Just because the race is worth more, though, does not mean the horse is.
102 — Known Agenda (10-1, 7-1). Look what a pair of blinkers can do. Since Todd Pletcher added them, this Curlin colt is 2-for-2, including Saturday’s 5-1 triumph in the Florida Derby. The secret task force that assigns Beyer Speed Figures gave him only a 94, though. The standard is a career best of 95, which 25 of the last 28 Kentucky Derby winners carried into Louisville. Known Agenda’s off-the-pace style is also counter to what historically works at Churchill Downs.
100 — Rebel’s Romance (35-1 Circa). He won the UAE Derby, which triggers the old response that horses from that race have never come close to hitting the board in the Kentucky Derby. Even though he is 4-for-5 with two wins and a second on Middle East dirt, he might not even show up at Churchill Downs. Although Rebel’s Romance is nominated for the Triple Crown, Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby said Saturday he was uncertain whether the invitation would be accepted.
80 — Greatest Honour (6-1, 15-1). As a 4-5 favorite, he was a disappointment in the Florida Derby. Was he exposed being unable to close on a softer pace than he chased in winning the Holy Bull and Fountain of Youth? Or was this just a race through which trainer Shug McGaughey can draw a line after seeing Greatest Honour win three in a row? McGaughey is considering the addition of blinkers. Aside from that, there remain the same questions that apply to any closer bucking the trend against such a style in Kentucky.
66 — Midnight Bourbon (35-1, 24-1). He finished second in the Louisiana Derby after having won the Lecomte and finished third in the Risen Star. Prepping at Fair Grounds is not a good way to win at Churchill Downs. Only five Kentucky Derby winners have ever gone that route, including Country House in 2019, when he needed Maximum Security’s disqualification to wear the roses. Before that it was Funny Cide in 2003. History says pass on the New Orleans shippers into Louisville.
52 — Mandaloun (35-1, 30-1). On either side of his Risen Star win, he was third in the Lecomte and sixth in the Louisiana Derby. Trainer Brad Cox has not explained what went wrong this month at Fair Grounds. There are those two words again: Fair Grounds. Everything applying to Midnight Bourbon holds true for Mandaloun. Yet how odd is it that he has already clinched a place in the Derby field while stablemate Essential Quality, the consensus futures favorite, has not? If Essential Quality should get so much as a cough and did not start Saturday in the Blue Grass, it is possible he could miss the Derby despite being undefeated with wins in three points preps, including two Grade 1s.
50 — Concert Tour (5-1, 5-1). The consensus second choice is 3-for-3 for Bob Baffert, including a 4¼-length victory in the mid-March running of the Rebel at Oaklawn Park. He will probably be favored to win the Arkansas Derby on April 10, putting him on the identical path American Pharoah took before sweeping the 2015 Triple Crown. Maybe 5-1 is too short a price to take before Derby week, but the marketplace dictates that is where he should be.
50 — Helium (41-1, 50-1). He could be the least respected 3-for-3 horse among the 3-year-old crop. His first two victories for trainer Mark Casse came as a 2-year-old on the fake dirt at Woodbine. Then he was 15-1 when he won his 2021 debut March 6 in the Tampa Bay Derby. Leonard Green’s D.J. Stable has put up the $6,000 to make Helium eligible for the Triple Crown. That is certainly a gamble. So is Casse’s decision not to bring the Ironicus colt back for one more prep before Kentucky.
50 — Weyburn (52-1, 65-1). He was a 46-1 winner of the 1-mile Gotham Stakes, prompting owners Robert and Mark Krembil to put up the $6,000 to make their $110,000 Pioneerof The Nile colt a late nominee for the Triple Crown. The Wood Memorial beckons Saturday, and it looks like the Prove It To Me Stakes. Horses like Candy Man Rocket and Capo Kane are coming in off disappointing losses, while others like Prevalence and Market Maven try to prove they belong in the Derby conversation. For Weyburn and his backers, it is a simple question of whether the Gotham was a fluke.
In addition to Essential Quality, horses like Proxy and Medina Spirit still have a prep in hand to earn the points they need to reach the first Saturday in May. In their cases, though, it is less difficult to make a Derby case than for some horses that may already get comfortable in a backside barn at Churchill Downs.
Really, it matters not where horses finish in the top 20 of Derby qualifying as long as they get there. American Pharoah was fourth and Justify ninth on their way to Triple Crowns. Think of it this way: What do International Star, Gun Runner, Girvin, Magnum Moon, Tacitus and Tiz The Law have in common? They all finished first in Derby qualifying — but failed to win the big race.
In other words, seeding does not matter when it comes to getting to the Kentucky Derby. Except, perhaps, to horseplayers.
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S HOT?
Medina Spirit (20-1 Circa, 12-1 William Hill). It was about 20 miles west of Santa Anita and a little more than 58 years ago when a defeated candidate for California governor said, “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.” Nothing like reaching into a dusty memory from the Beverly Hilton to find an analogy that applies to Medina Spirit. Because Life Is Good just had surgery, he cannot kick his stablemate around anymore. In his four races, Medina Spirit’s only two losses were to Life Is Good. Now he will be the favorite for Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby. If anyone has a Watergate comparison, bring it on.
Rock Your World (25-1, 35-1). Bettors are buying into John Sadler’s gamble that this 2-for-2 colt that cost the Hronis brothers $650,000 will successfully matriculate from turf to dirt when he makes his graded-stakes debut in the Santa Anita Derby. Unraced as a 2-year-old, he won coming out of the new turf-sprint chute at Arcadia in his first start in January. He followed that with a 2¼-length score in the February running of the two-turn, 1-mile Pasadena Stakes. Being by Candy Ride out of an Empire Maker mare, dirt pedigree should be no problem. Can he get close enough to the early pace Saturday to keep first-time kickback from being an issue? That answer might hold the key.
Soup And Sandwich (22-1, 55-1). With a 2-for-2 record going into the Florida Derby, this Casse-trained colt by Into Mischief outpunched his weight by finishing second at odds of 12-1. But will the 40 points he earned setting a so-so pace at Gulfstream Park be enough to get him to Louisville?
DERBY FUTURES: WHO’S NOT?
Spielberg (80-1 Circa). He has only 17 points in Derby qualifying after he finished eighth in the Florida Derby, driving William Hill to drop him after he had been 30-1 in its futures. A wide draw cost him dearly Saturday, yada yada yada, he lost again. Legit though they may be, the alibis ranging from a lost whip to a bumpy start have turned into white noise. Maybe kismet will keep even Baffert from getting much out of this $1 million Union Rags colt.
Tarantino (100-1, 125-1). This one is not all bad. He was dropped from the futures after walking under the wire in last place as the 5-2 favorite Saturday in the Jeff Ruby. He bobbled at the start, so jockey Florent Geroux called it a day before the race got going, saving the colt to run back quickly. And how. After trainer Rodolphe Brisset said he would wheel his Holy Bull runner-up back this weekend in the Blue Grass with Drayden Van Dyke getting the ride, Tarantino was available again at Circa and William Hill — at longer odds.
Collaborate (unlisted). A fifth-place finish in the Florida Derby drove this maiden winner off the Las Vegas futures boards, where he had been 22-1 at Circa and 20-1 at William Hill. Since he had no qualifying points anyway, his owners at Three Chimneys Farm needed almost everything to go right Saturday. A wide draw, a bumpy start and an empty finish spelled the end Collaborate’s Derby dreams.
In addition to this report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently for coverage of big events. You can also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode originates from Santa Anita Park, where XBTV’s Zoe Cadman will handicap Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby and Santa Anita Oaks. VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo will handicap all three of the weekend’s Kentucky Derby preps — the Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby. The RFRP is available for download Friday and free subscription now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.