By Steve Brady
The interesting thing about this year’s Kentucky Derby? The horse I think is best equipped to win it didn’t even get in. SETSUKO is only 1 for 8 in getting to the winner’s circle, but he has been showing steady improvement with each start, and has a powerful closing kick that I thought would give him a strong chance against this field. He also had one of the most visually impressive workouts in preparation for Derby weekend. But, because admission to the Derby is based exclusively on graded stakes earnings, Richard Mandella’s trainee did not earn enough to get in, and so will be running at Churchill the day before in the $175,000 American Turf Stakes. (Bet him with both fists at 4-1!!)
Other notables missing from this year’s Derby are former favorite ESKENDEREYA and Sunland Derby winner ENDORSEMENT. Both were thought to have good chances, but both are now sidelined due to foot or leg injuries.
Oh well, we can only handicap the 20 that are running, and, although not the strongest field in memory, this looks like a decent betting race. I’m changing my format a bit this year, and breaking the contenders down by their chances to win—or at least end up in the money.
LOOKIN AT LUCKY 3-1 ML (Trainer: Bob Baffert; Jockey: Garrett Gomez)
I’m going against my annual tradition, and picking the favorite this year. This son of Smart Strike would actually have been my pick even if Eskendereya was running. With Eskendereya out, I like him that much more. Despite his unlucky third in the Santa Anita Derby, Lookin At Lucky is the most battle-tested of these runners. He faced trouble and a wide trip and lost by just a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Juve. That might have been a fortunate technicality for him, as BC Juve champs almost never go on to win the Derby. He also had to overcome adversity in the G-2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, and then again in the Santa Anita Derby, where he got squeezed on the rail and had to slam on the brakes, almost losing rider Garrett Gomez. Unless he just has a propensity for finding trouble, he should get a cleaner trip—especially after the scolding Baffert gave Gomez for putting his prize colt at risk.
AWESOME ACT 10-1 ML (Trainer: Jeremy Nosada; Jockey: Julien Leparoux)
My top two picks have a few things in common. They both had bad racing luck in their last outings; they are piloted by the two winningest jockeys in the nation; and both will be rolling late. While Lookin At Lucky’s bad trip was obvious to even the most casual viewer, Awesome Act’s misfortune can only have been seen with the help of a zoom lens. He kicked his front shoe off at the break of the Wood Memorial, and was easily beaten by Eskendereya. Still, that’s like trying to run a 100-yard dash with your shoe untied. It’s amazing he ran as well as he did. I’m ignoring that race, and focusing on his previous steady improvement and his impressive recent workout at Churchill Downs.
ICE BOX 10-1 ML (Trainer: Nicholas Zito; Jockey: Jose Lezcano)
This is the only true late closer in the group, and with the pace expected to be very fast early, I expect this guy to be passing them in the late stretch, and he might catch Lookin before the wire.
NOBLE’S PROMISE 12-1 ML (Trainer: Kenneth McPeek; Jockey: Willie Martinez)
Despite four straight races without getting his picture taken, there’s a lot to like about Noble’s Promise. He’s keeps ending up behind Lookin At Lucky, but aside from the Arkansas Derby (where he had a shaky start), he’s usually right there at the wire.
PADDY O’PRADO 20-1 ML (Trainer: Dale Romans; Jockey: Kent Desormeaux)
Although I’m generally suspicious of speed horses this year, I still think this colt has a chance. He hasn’t raced on traditional dirt since his first race on a sloppy track, so the surface is a question mark. But he sure has been firing bullets in his recent workouts.
DEVIL MAY CARE 10-1 ML (Trainer: Todd Pletcher; Jockey: John Velazquez)
Filly in the Derby. She’s part of the Todd Squad, subbing in for Eskendereya (and picking up his rider). We’ve all become aware in recent big races that the girls can certainly compete with the boys, and she gets the 5-lb weight break for being a girl. She’s also one of only three here who’s ever gotten a 100 Beyer figure. Hmmm…I wonder if I’m rating her high enough.
JACKSON BEND 10-1 ML (Trainer: Nicholas Zito; Jockey: Mike Smith)
I hope I’m not being a sucker here. I’m kinda going by past reputation and who he’s been beaten by. This is one of the other horses with a 100 Beyer, but that was six and a half months ago at Calder, and JB hasn’t cracked 95 since then. Hall of Famer Smith jumps on for the first time. He’s workin’ fast at Churchill. Don’t ask questions. I think he’s got a shot.
SIDNEY’S CANDY 5-1 ML (Trainer: John Sadler; Jockey: Joe Talamo)
I’d love to root for this horse as my top pick. I’ve watched him race all year at Santa Anita; love his trainer; it's a second chance for jockey Smokin’ Joe (after I Want Revenge’s late scratch as the favorite last year) in the Derby; and Jenny Craig owns him and named him for her late husband. (Yeah, Jenny Craig! The weight loss lady!!) Sidney's Candy’s the second favorite on the morning line, but I don’t think he’s gonna win. I’m not even sure he comes in the money. It looks like he’ll like running on real dirt, but I just don’t think he’s gonna get one of the carefree trips he’s been getting at Santa Anita. He’s coming out of the 20-hole, and he’s gonna have to bust his ass to get to the lead, and then they’re gonna be on his back all the way around. I’m afraid to toss him completely, but I just don’t think he’ll hold up. I’m sorry, I feel bad saying that.
AMERICAN LION 30-1 ML (Trainer: Eoin Harty; Jockey: David Flores)
Here’s another one that, if I were consistent, I’d be tossing out. He’s gonna be toward the lead on a fast pace, and that’s not a good game plan. Still, he sure perked up when he went to real dirt in the Illinois Derby, and he hasn’t needed the absolute lead in most of his races. What the hell—at 30-1, I’m leaving him in the trifecta. I’m big that way.
CONVEYANCE 12-1 ML (Trainer: Bob Baffert; Jockey: Martin Garcia)
Another speedball I’m giving a chance to. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t. But I’ve been watching Baffert and Garcia team up for stakes wins all year, and based on works, this guy certainly seems to like the track. I’m operating on pure fear.
DUBLIN 12-1 ML (Trainer: D. Wayne Lucas; Jockey: Terry Thompson)
Despite his inability to close the deal his past several races, I’m giving this guy a chance. Dublin has the late-running style that this race sets up for, and Lucas has won four Derbies. I’m keeping him in.
SUPER SAVER 15-1 ML (Trainer: Todd Pletcher; Jockey: Calvin Borel)
Part of the Todd Squad; also part of the early speed. But I’ve been hearing nothing but how good this guy looks in the morning, and disregarding “Bo-Rail” cost you a couple hundred on a $2 bet last year, didn’t it? Leave him in!!
MISSION IMPAZIBLE 20-1 ML (Trainer: Todd Pletcher; Jockey: Rajiv Maragh)
Another part of the Todd Squad, but doesn’t really belong in this field. He hasn’t really beaten (or been beaten by) anybody, and his Beyers don’t stick out. He’s just going to add to Pletcher’s gaudy Derby loss numbers.
DISCREETLY MINE 30-1 ML (Trainer: Todd Pletcher; Jockey: Javier Castellano)
Okay, now we’re getting into some big longshot numbers here. No Beyers over 95; he beat no one special, and he’s gonna get burnt out on the lead. He ain’t gonna be 30-1. The morning line guy was being nice. At least fitty!! Fitty to one!
STATELY VICTOR 30-1 ML (Trainer: Michael Maker; Jockey: Alan Garcia)
He won as a 40-1 longshot in the Toyota Bluegrass Stakes. The Bluegrass is run on synthetic surface; the Derby’s on dirt. Before that, he’d barely cracked an 80 Beyer. He seems to be working okay, but there’s nothing to raise expectations that he’ll make a radical move forward. Hope, I guess. (A guy based a presidential campaign on that recently, didn’t he?)
LINE OF DAVID 30-1 ML (Trainer: John Sadler; Jockey: Rafael Bejarano)
Nice upset shocker in Arkansas. His Beyers are improving. Still, he didn’t get much pressure up front there; it’s gonna be a whole different picture in Louisville. At Santa Anita, I have a rule: if Rafi’s odds go up, bet him. These odds will go up, and I’m not betting on Rafi today.
HOMEBOY KRIS 50-1 ML (Trainer: Richard Dutrow; Jockey: Ramon Dominguez)
Fun trivia: Joe Torre owns a piece of this horse. Dutrow can train; Dominguez can ride; the horse had a nice workout the other day. I just don’t see anything in the record, though, to suggest he’s got even an outside chance here. This is the kind that ends up biting you in the ass.
DEAN’S KITTEN 50-1 ML (Trainer: Michael Maker; Jockey: Robby Albarado)
On the pace deal, I think this one’s got a better chance than the Pletchers. Still, it took him a long time to finally break a 90 Beyer, and he did that on a synthetic surface in a race that doesn’t usually produce Derby winners. Doesn’t seem realistic.
MAKE MUSIC FOR ME 50-1 ML (Trainer: Alexis Barba; Jockey: Joel Rosario)
I don’t even know why this horse is in here. Probably just to mock me. A short while ago, I had him pegged as a horse to watch. He didn’t deliver for me then, and now he’s just in over his head. I hope running in a brutal contest like this doesn’t ruin whatever career he might have had.
BACKTALK 50-1 ML (Trainer: Thomas Amoss; Jockey: Miguel Mena)
He got beat by American Lion by 14 lengths in the Illinois Derby. He won a couple of graded sprints early in his career. (Those two-year-old sprints earnings should not count towards the Derby.) The longest race he ran well in was a mile. He simply doesn’t belong in here. The 50-1 is another gift.
I feel good enough about Lookin At Lucky that I’m going to suggest a fairly risky bet, which would pay off very handsomely: A Trifecta using Lookin At Lucky on top, all of those horses I said were okay in the 2nd slot, and then Awesome Act in third. Then, make the same play, but switch the horses in the place and show slots, putting Awesome Act in 2nd this time. So, when placing the bet, it would look as follows:
1 /with 2, 3, 4, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 20 / with 16
1 / with 16 / with 2, 3, 4, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 20
Each bet would be $10. So, for a total of $20, you could potentially make thousands. I think it’s worth a shot.
[Steve Brady is Sports Media America's Los Angeles-based horse-racing handicapper.]