Kentucky Derby 2015 Week in Review

Thoughts and notes leading up to the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby


The 141st running of the Kentucky Derby is Saturday May 2, and here’s a summary of my thoughts on this year’s race.

One thing is certain: this year’s field is one of the deepest, talent-wise, that I have seen. Two starters are undefeated (Dortmund and Materiality), three starters have won all but one race (Carpe Diem, American Pharoah, Itsaknockout), and 13 starters have earned more than half a million dollars (with 5 of those millionaires). And these stats merely scratch the surface of this field.

Sunday, April 26

A video of American Pharoah’s last workout for the Derby is released. It is the sort of work that takes your breath away and leads you ponder whether it’s possible for a horse to exist on another plane of reality.

American Pharoah works at Churchill Downs on Sunday, April 26.

With each leap forward, he cuts into the air before him with unrivaled inertia. His stride is powerful and fluid, his hind legs and hips wide and strong as they propel him along, arrow-straight and balanced. There’s no way this horse just went 5 furlongs in :58.40 without a single gesture of encouragement from his rider, but he did.

The Paulick Report later reported that private clocker Gary Young had never seen anything quite like American Pharoah in 35 years.

Monday, April 27

This will be my 25th Kentucky Derby. By now I have learned a few things: the Triple Crown will probably be left on Affirmed’s shelf to collect an eternity of dust; sometimes a horse is perceived as good because people desperately need a good horse; sometimes a horse is perceived as good, and is good, but not good enough; and sometimes you spy a rare gem, a large rough emerald of such deep and mesmerizing color that when seen by pessimistic or untrained eyes, it is skipped over in favor of the shinier, much smaller gems.

I feel that American Pharoah falls in the latter category, but he’s going to have a hell of a time proving himself in a field of such depth and quality. He has the talent, but will he have the luck?

Wednesday, April 29

The post position draw was today.

The far inside posts, such as Carpe Diem’s 2, are undesirable in such a huge field. If Carpe Diem and jockey John Velazquez break from the gate perfectly — and they can, as Carpe Diem is a good gate horse — and stay ahead of trouble then they have a shot, but the racing gods will need to be firmly in their pockets for this one.

Dortmund and American Pharoah, both trained by Bob Baffert, drew posts 8 and 18, respectively. One may think that having a post so far from the outside — 18, in this case — is less desirable than a post close to the inner rail (like Carpe Diem’s 2). But being on the outside gives those horses an advantage by offering a clear, trouble-free path in the mad dash to the first turn. To the contrary, horses with inside posts risk becoming ensnarled in a traffic of horseflesh. And in a roughly two-minute race, every fraction of a second counts.

Thursday, April 30

Several Derby horses schooled in the saddling paddock yesterday and today. Dortmund was a fractious in the paddock yesterday so he was re-schooled today. Via Twitter, I asked Frank Angst of the Blood-Horse if Dortmund was calm today and he had a good response:

A horse that is bothered by the relatively light pre-Derby crowds may have a meltdown on Derby day with over 100,000 eyes upon him, which makes this information key.

Nevertheless, special provisions will be made for Dortmund on Derby day.

Friday, May 1

My top picks for the Derby are as follows, in order:

American Pharoah (Post 18): American Pharoah is the horse to beat in the Derby. Unfortunately that means he and jockey Victor Espinoza (who won last year’s Kentucky Derby aboard California Chrome) will likely have a target on their backs. American Pharoah has won all his races except his first, which can be tossed out. He appears comfortable over varying track surfaces, as indicated by his almost gleeful win in the sloppy Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 14, in which he also had a rough start and lost a shoe.

An incredible mover with a fierce competitive drive, as indicated by his ears cheerfully pricking when he passes his final rival in races, this colt has been a delight to watch. He might be a very special horse but only time will tell.

The April 11 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, in which American Pharoah cheerfully demolished his rivals.

Mubtaahij (Post 6): Mubtaahij never raced in the United States but of all the horses in the Derby, there’s no question that he can go the full 1–1/4 miles. Last out, he won the UAE Derby at Meydan by 8 lengths with a dazzling turn of foot. It’s also worth noting that American trainer Bill Mott compared Meydan’s new dirt surface to that of Churchill Downs; as horses sometimes find Churchill’s dirt repulsive, this is key information.

Mubtaahij traveled from Dubai to Arlington Park in Chicago for quarantine where he was reported to settle very well, very quickly. He was vanned to Churchill Downs Wednesday and worked comfortably over the track Thursday.

Mubtaahij winning the UAE Derby at Meydan on March 28.

Dortmund (Post 8): Literally the big horse at 17.0 to 17.2 hands (depending upon who you ask), Dortmund is undefeated in six starts. As shown in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes video below, this colt isn’t one to back down from a challenge. He’s also unusually nimble and quick on his feet for a horse of his size, which is a trait you want in such a large field. He won a mile race at Churchill Downs last fall, so it’s clear he’s comfortable with the track.

Dortmund’s sire, Big Brown, also had the distinction of entering the Kentucky Derby undefeated. He won the Derby, and two weeks later, the Preakness Stakes.

The April 4 Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita, which Dortmund won handily.
Firing Line and Dortmund square off in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on February 7.

Firing Line (Post 10): Firing Line will be piloted by Gary Stevens, a Hall of Fame jockey that can afford to be selective about his mounts. The colt won the Sunland Park Derby by an impressive 14 lengths last out.

If not for the undefeated Dortmund, who has beaten him twice — both times by a mere head — Firing Line would have a record that reflects American Pharoah’s. In both losses, the order of finish came down to the sheer grit of Dortmund and Firing Line.

Firing Line blows away his rivals by 14 lengths in the March 22 Sunland Park Derby at Sunland Park.

Upstart (Post 19): Upstart was a game third by a nose behind Carpe Diem in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile after breaking slowly and having a bit of a rough trip. He won the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park on February 21 but was disqualified to second for bumping Itsaknockout in the stretch. He was second by 1–1/2 lengths to the undefeated Materiality (who I am not including among my picks due to his lack of racing experience) in the Florida Derby last out.

Both of Upstart’s grandsires — A.P. Indy on his sire’s side and Touch Gold on his dam’s side — are Belmont Stakes winners so he has the pedigree for the Kentucky Derby distance, and then some. He has also proven to be a courageous, determined horse, which is vital in such a large, talented field.

The March 28 Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, in which Upstart placed second behind Materiality.

Carpe Diem (Post 2): If it weren’t for his post position, I would like Carpe Diem’s chances better. But it would be a mistake to ignore him, and as mentioned on Wednesday, he is an excellent gate horse which is key with such a tricky post position. A winner of all starts but one, in which he finished second to Derby nonstarter Texas Red in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Carpe Diem is a classy runner all the way through.

By Giant’s Causeway, a proven sire of route horses, and out of an Unbridled’s Song mare, he has the pedigree for the distance. And with top jockey John Velazquez in the irons, Carpe Diem couldn’t be in better hands for the Kentucky Derby.

Carpe Diem easily wins the April 4 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Lady Luck has historically made the Kentucky Derby anyone’s race, which is a part of its exciting appeal. No matter what happens, a Derby field of such deep talent will be talked about for years to come.