For the 142nd time on May 7 — always and traditionally the first Saturday in May — 20 of the best 3-year-olds will parade to the gate for the annual running of the Kentucky Derby (GI), quite possibly the world’s most famous horse race. Even people with no knowledge of horse racing acknowledge the Derby’s importance in many things, from pop culture and expressions to clichés and everyday sayings.
And for us racing fans and horseplayers, the Kentucky Derby is our Super Bowl, our Stanley Cup, our World Series, our Indianapolis 500, our Daytona 500 and our mecca all rolled into one. It’s the two minutes we, as a group, spend 364 days a year waiting with baited breath for.
So by the time the field was drawn 72 hours or so before post time and post positions set, the hard work had been done. All the trainers needed to do was hold their breaths and keep their charges happy until 6:34 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time on Saturday. This year’s group features a wide variety of accomplishments, from an undefeated champion trying to make history to a maiden — also trying to make history. This year’s field has something for everyone, including an import nobody can make heads or tails of.
The possible rain predicted for the Louisville area on Saturday has been called back, with mostly sunny skies and highs in the low- to mid-80s expected. What many feared would be an off track is now expected to be dry. The $2.4 million race (including all fees) has been carded as the 12th on Churchill Downs’ 14-race Derby Day card with a post time of 6:34 p.m. EDT.
Live coverage of the day’s events, as well as some of the top-notch undercard races, begins at noon and runs through 4:00 p.m. on the NBC Sports Network. At 4:00, coverage switches to NBC with the Kentucky Derby show running until 7:15 p.m. Again, all times Eastern.
Champion Nyquist rightfully has been installed the early 3-1 favorite off an undefeated record of seven wins, which includes the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) and three other Grade I races. He’s never done anything wrong in either the mornings or afternoons and is under the care of Southern California-based trainer Doug O’Neill, who knows how to prep a horse successfully for the Kentucky Derby, judging by his expert handling of I’ll Have Another in 2012.
O’Neill’s approach to prepping Nyquist the year has been somewhat controversial and off the beaten path, something he readily acknowledges, but the conditioner has maintained every move has been for the maximum benefit of the horse. After a lengthy winter freshening, Nyquist returned to win the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (GII) over Exaggerator and then traveled across the country for the Florida Derby (GI), which he won in easy enough fashion by 3 1/4 over a track labeled “good” from early day rain and a field that included the East’s best — at least at the time — in Mohaymen. The pattern had many pundits scratching their heads, but in hindsight it’s hard to argue with how well the plan worked.
Nyquist was immediately shipped to Kentucky and Keeneland after his Florida Derby romp and, after battling an undisclosed illness that caused his blood work to be “off,” he returned to training after an eight-day break and has apparently been normal since. Since then, he’s posted three decent enough works, including a nice mile last week, and appears to be in good health, although he’s only galloped a couple times over the surface so far since arriving at Churchill Downs last Saturday.
As the post positions were drawn on Wednesday, the crowd reacted with a dramatic and audible deep breath as the 13-post was drawn after Nyquist’s name was called, maybe because as a horse who looks to be comfortable on or near the engine, he’ll have to do some hustling from further out than he’d like after the break, or maybe just because of a general triskaidekaphobia issue, but nobody from his camp seemed shocked or alarmed. O’Neill found the post draw to be a good one for Paul Reddam’s champion charge, comparing it to another from the colt’s past races.
“We like it,” O’Neill said. “We see a good sign. We were post No. 13 when we won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.”
In the previous 86 runnings of the Derby using a starting gate, 69 runners have emerged from the 13 spot, producing four wins, five seconds and seven thirds for a win rate of 5.8 percent. The last runner to have won from the 13-hole was Smarty Jones in 2004.
Nyquist will be the richest horse to have ever run in the Derby, having earned $3,322,600 so far, which includes a $1 million bonus for both graduating from the Fasig-Tipton Florida 2-year-old sale and winning the Florida Derby (G1). He will also be the first undefeated 2-year-old champion to run in the Kentucky Derby since Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew in 1977.
It’s hard to argue with perfection, but the questions about Nyquist seem to only surround his pedigree. He is the standout star from the impressive and industry-leading first crop of 2010 champion juvenile Uncle Mo and while some have said Nyquist is his sire’s best chance to avenge his Derby disappointment in 2011, the reality is he’s much more accomplished than his sire without having to even make the Derby gate, so the concept of “avenging” may be a bit of an overstatement.
Uncle Mo himself never won beyond 8 ½ furlongs and his grandsire, the late Indian Charlie, though a winner at nine furlongs, was all out to hold onto third in the Derby and also probably pushed his pedigree limitations to the edge. And on the bottom, Nyquist’s dam won only one of seven career starts and is by Forestry, who was a standout sprinter after faltering on the Derby trail and now stands in Brazil. But it should be noted that good horses outrun their pedigrees all the time and we have no reason to think Nyquist won’t. He’ll be a short price under regular jockey and owner Reddam’s go-to guy Mario Gutierrez, but he’ll also be worth every wager if his many positives outweigh the slight negatives.
Exaggerator, why do you tear at our hearts so much? Just when we think you may not be ready for the Derby, despite your lovely pedigree, top trainer, Hall of Fame jockey and clear ability, you come back and show us what you’re made of.
After winning last year’s Saratoga Special (GI) and Delta Jackpot Stakes (GIII) and earning a second in the Breeders’ Futurity (GI) before a tough defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Exaggerator struggled somewhat to reach the winner’s circle this year. Sure, he was chasing Nyquist at seven furlongs once and then had a somewhat troubled trip in the San Felipe Stakes (GII), so when he was “back” he was back, posting what can only be considered a romp over a sloppy track in the Santa Anita Derby (GI) a month ago. He clearly likes the off going, owning a record of two wins and a second from three starts on tracks not considered fast, so the rain dance trainer Keith Desormeaux has been doing all year will continue through Saturday.
The son of Curlin will again carry the trainer’s Hall of Fame brother Kent, who has more than enough experience for the both of them as he will be looking for his fourth winner from his 20th Derby mount. He is one of only three active jockeys to have won the Run for the Roses three times (Real Quiet in 1998, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 and Big Brown in 2008) along with Gary Stevens and Victor Espinoza, and all will be riding in this year’s Derby looking to make history and earn a fourth victory.
Exaggerator drew post 11, which has produced just two winners from 75 to have been sprung from a starting gate (2.6 percent rate), the most recent being Winning Colors in 1988, but the only real concern for his connections seems to be that he’ll have to stand loaded too long while waiting for his rivals to enter the gate.
“I’m fine with it,” the trainer said. “Kent [his brother and his rider] seems a bit concerned because he’ll have to wait some after they load. But I don’t see a problem. The horse is as cool as a cucumber. It’ll be fine.”
Exaggerator does his best running from well off the pace, so while every horse is best suited by a clean break and a quick hustle into a preferred early position, he can be rated early and wait for the pace to back up when he makes his move toward the lead. He’s been a bit of a wise-guy horse and was recently given the honor of holding the highest last-race speed rating, so he’ll likely be second choice, but he’s also a good bet to use on any exotics ticket.
Louisiana Derby (GII) hero Gun Runner drew the number five post, which carries a high win percentage of 10.5, thanks to the nine winners from 86 starters. The most notable recent win from this preferred spot is 2014 hero and that year’s Horse of the Year, California Chrome.
Trained by newest Hall of Fame inductee Steve Asmussen, who is looking for his first Derby win with his 14th (and 15th, but more on that in a minute) starter, Gun Runner has improved with each start since breaking his maiden at first asking over the Churchill Downs track last September. Even though he was fourth on an off track in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII) in November he has been nothing short of brilliant this year and impressed everyone in his 4 ½-length Louisiana Derby romp.
Gun Runner isn’t a frontrunner, but the son of Candy Ride and the Giant’s Causeway mare Quiet Giant does like to be forwardly placed and it appears as if his fellow early types are all to his outside, a situation not lost on his trainer. He’s absolutely bred to love the stretch-out to ten furlongs and will again be ridden by hot jockey Florent Geroux.
“It looks like all the pace is to the outside,” Asmussen said. “Hopefully, pre-race, everything goes smoothly. Hopefully, he stands up in the gates. Hopefully, he’s away from there really good. But, we’re very anxious right now with a very good horse going into the Derby. He’s a tremendous horse. You want a good trip to show who he is.”
And Gun Runner may offer a bit of a decent price sitting in the shadow of his higher-profile rivals and especially since he’s been off the radar since his last race six weeks ago. Though he wintered in New Orleans, Churchill Downs is his home track and he’s been training extremely well in Louisville for well over a month.
Earlier this year, Shadwell Stable’s Mohaymen, a $2.2 million son of Tapit, was considered to be the biggest threat to dethrone Nyquist. But when the two met up after Mohaymen went undefeated in five previous starts, he cracked under the pressure and was fourth behind the champion in the Florida Derby. He was even the 4-5 favorite that day in front of his home crowd, but he never looked like the colt who won the Remsen Stakes (GII), Holy Bull Stakes (GII) and Fountain of Youth Stakes (GII) in handy fashion. Some thought he might have been affected by the rain and the off track and the intense humidity that day, while others just chalked it up to him not being that good, but, regardless, trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has pushed the reset button and expects improvement from his headstrong charge.
Mohaymen has been training well at Churchill equipped with a rubber figure eight to help with control in the mornings (he will not wear it on Saturday) and the striking gray colt has looked the picture of health every day, including in his final work where he pulled early at the rider, leaped in the air a few times and then breezed a nice half-mile in :47 2/5.
Mohaymen is an early running type who drew a less than ideal post position of 14 and no runner has won from the position since Carry Back in 1961, but McLaughlin doesn’t think it will be a big detriment to his charge when the gates spring open since he’ll actually be one of the last to be loaded and won’t have to stand too long.
“We’re happy,” McLaughlin said. “He’ll be the last one in the main gate, so it’s great. There’s a little space between the two gates. There are a lot worse posts, so we’re happy.”
For most of this year, poor Mor Spirit has been the groomsman but rarely the groom. After ending his juvenile season with a win in the Los Alamitos Futurity (GI), he picked right up where he left off to win the Bob Lewis Stakes (GII) at Santa Anita and it appeared as if the reigning Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert was back with another top Derby candidate. However, the quirky son of Eskendereya proved difficult and sometimes lazy and disinterested in the mornings and could only manage a pair of seconds in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. Though not poor performances, they weren’t the expected victories either, which has had everyone wondering what’s really going on in his head.
It appears, though, that the colt — who his Hall of Fame jockey Stevens calls the “anteater” for his low-headed running style — has finally put it all together and has been working really well, including a strong five-eighths in :59 4/5 on Monday. He will break from post position 17, which has never produced a Derby winner, but that’s more of a strange statistical oddity than an actual trend and may be a fact best left out when doing final analysis of the race. And, for once, a Bob Baffert trainee may offer a price with the money going to some of the other runners, so an extra-long look for value may be worth it in the end.
The connections of Arkansas Derby (GII) winner Creator were probably the most relaxed going into the Kentucky Derby draw on Wednesday, as their stone-cold closer didn’t necessarily need the same kind of post position some of his quicker rivals were hoping for. He drew the number three slot, which is really only a concern because he’ll probably need to stand and wait longer than some while the rest of the field is loaded. The last winner from the three-hole was Real Quiet in 1998, but four other horses in history have won from that spot in 86 years of using the gate. Aside from that and though a bit hot tempered, he should be in a good position in the early stages of the race and, with luck, get a nice ground-saving journey under Ricardo Santana Jr., who returns for his second Derby after finishing 15th aboard Tapiture two years ago.
“Creator, he’s kind of out the back early,” trainer Asmussen said. “He won’t have a long ways to go left to find the fence early.”
Creator is another son of Tapit bred to love the distance. It took the flashy gray colt a long time to break his maiden (six starts) but he has shown improvement with each trip to post and may be peaking at the right time. He’s become a lot of people’s “hot horse,” but he’s only got one graded win on his record compared to many of his other rivals’ bucketful of them, so watch the tote board carefully when thinking about where he fits on your ticket.
Suddenbreakingnews broke onto the Derby scene by picking up his initial graded stakes score in the Southwest Stakes (GIII) at Oaklawn Park back in February and, after regressing slightly for a fifth in the Rebel Stakes (GII) in March behind Cupid, was able to get back into good form for a second in the Arkansas Derby last out. He’s pretty consistent overall and has only finished worse than second once in his eight-race career, but he’s also only won three races. He’s looked great out on the track every day at Churchill for the past 10 days and though he’s only had one work since his last out, he should be fit to travel the Derby distance.
The son of Mineshaft drew post position two, which has produced seven winners for a better than 8 percent win rate overall, the most recent being 1978 Triple Crown winner Affirmed.
“It’s good with us,” trainer Don Von Hemel said. “He’s surrounded by horses with similar running styles and shouldn’t get shuffled back. He should be able to get comfortable from there.”
He’s another that will stand long in the gate, but also doesn’t want to be near any early pace, preferring to do his best running at the end. Jockey Luis Quinonez has been aboard for every start and will be back again, hoping to reach the Derby winner’s circle in his very first try. Suddenbreakingnews will be a big price, but if he runs his race could be a good one to use on any ticket.
Mike Repole’s homebred Outwork is another son of Uncle Mo who will be trying to prove his pedigree isn’t an issue for a 10-furlong race. The knock against this one, however, is less pedigree and more performance. Yes, he won the Wood Memorial Stakes (GI) in his last start over a muddy track, but his final time of 1:52 4/5 was the slowest in the 92-year history of the race and he was second in his only other stakes try to stablemate Destin in the Tampa Bay Derby (GII) the race before that. The Wood hasn’t produced a Derby winner since Secretariat 43 years ago. He does have all the connections to get the win, including trainer Todd Pletcher, who saddled Super Saver to victory in 2010, and jockey Jorge Velazquez, who was aboard Animal Kingdom in 2011 and has looked well at Churchill all week, but he is fairly lightly raced with four careers starts in a field of more seasoned rivals.
Unfortunately, Outwork drew post 15, which produced 2013 winner Orb, and though will have his work cut out for him with speed to his inside his trainer doesn’t find it too much of an inhibition.
“We like the 15 for Outwork,” Pletcher said. “It gives us some room inside between the gates.”
Brody’s Cause was considered a top-three juvenile after he won the Breeders’ Futurity (GI) and finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall. After a lengthy winter break and really uncharacteristically poor showing in the Tampa Bay Derby (GIII), he returned to old form with a storming near-last-to-first victory by 1 ¾ lengths in the Blue Grass Stakes (GI) at Keeneland four weeks ago. The performance from the son of Giant’s Causeway was a bit of a retribution for trainer Dale Romans, who never doubted that his colt had the ability to make the Derby gate.
Brody’s Cause drew post position 19, which in 2012 produced I’ll Have Another as its only winner from 24 starters, but since he’s a late runner, Romans doesn’t see a big issue with the outside berth after giving it some serious thought.
“At first, I was a little bit disappointed,” Romans said. “But after looking at the draw with the speed (Danzing Candy) outside of us, we’ll let him clear. I think it’s going to be all right.”
Proven frontrunner Danzing Candy, unfortunately, drew the far outside post position number 20, which, with the other speed to his inside, will no doubt have jockey Mike Smith using him as much as possible to get a leading position early without having to go nine-wide into the first turn. Only one of 14 runners have won from the 20-hole (Big Brown in 2008), and there’s little doubt trainer Cliff Sise Jr. will be hoping for at least one defection to his inside before post time. One thing’s for certain, though: The son of Twirling Candy won’t have a lot of time to think about much after being loaded.
“At first you’re kind of stunned when they say 20,” Sise said. “But when you start thinking about it, it’s not that bad. It’s better than the one-hole, especially for a speed horse. He can come over very gradually and he won’t sit in the gate long. Actually, it might be in our favor. We’re outside of any other speed horse, so we’ll take it.”
After a poor performance sprinting in his first career start last summer, Danzing Candy got better as the distances got longer and his first foray into stakes company produced a nice two-length win in the San Felipe. He faltered, however, over an off track in the Santa Anita Derby and will need every bit of the talent he showed two back to be a factor in here under Hall of Famer Mike Smith.
Shadwell Stable’s other runner in here is Gotham Stakes (GII) winner Shagaf, who won his first three fast-track efforts before slipping and sliding to finish fifth in the Wood in his last start. It’s hard to tell if that performance was more track surface related or if it was his typical effort against tougher company (considering he beat a maiden in Laoban in the Gotham). Perhaps, with the kinks worked out, he’s in Louisville and ready to give his best for trainer Chad Brown and will certainly be fit enough with three races this year under his belt.
Shagaf, a well-bred son of Bernardini, drew post 16, the same position Animal Kingdom won from in 2011 and a spot trainer Chad Brown is more than happy with, considering Shagaf’s immense size.
“We were looking for something on the outside with Shagaf with as big as he is so he’ll stay out of trouble,” Brown said. “Sixteen will work just fine. So now it’s just up to the horses and the jockeys.”
Jockey Joel Rosario, back in the saddle just a few days after suffering a broken wrist in a spill at Gulfstream Park in mid-February, has won one Derby with Orb in 2013 from six previous mounts, while Brown will be looking for his first bouquet of roses with his second starter, having tightened the girth on Normandy Invasion for a fourth-place finish that same year.
If Tampa Bay Derby winner Destin captures the roses off an eight-week break, it will be an unprecedented move. But the gap between races isn’t to say he’s inexperienced this year as his last was also his third start of 2016 and second win in a row, as he won the Sam F. Davis Stakes (GIII) in February previously. It’s hard to argue that trainer Todd Pletcher doesn’t know what he’s doing and isn’t putting the best interests of the horse first, considering all of his personal Eclipse Awards and those earned by his many charges over the years. But it’s a new and gutsy move in an era where more time between races has proven successful.
Destin is a lovely, well-bred gray son of Giant’s Causeway and the Grade I-winning Siberian Summer mare Dream of Summer, so he should have little trouble with the 1 ¼-mile distance. He’s been mostly off the radar this past week, though has looked great training in Louisville and will carry Javier Castellano again on Saturday looking for his first winner aboard his 10th Derby mount. This one is definitely a wait-and-see type, but if you’re a believer that a fresh horse can handle this field, he’s the runner for you.
Mo Tom, the third son of hot sire Uncle Mo to make the Derby gate, won the LeComte Stakes (GIII) at Fair Grounds and though he’s only managed to earn a third and a fourth in graded company since, he had very troubled trips where he had to be checked hard at least once each time and change directions in mid-stretch. All me may have needed is a clean trip to have improved his finishing positions and while adding more horses and, therefore, more traffic, he’s at home under the Twin Spires and has great connections in owner Tom Benson, who also owns the New Orleans Saints, trainer Tom Amoss and regular jockey Corey Lanerie, who Amoss stuck with despite the tremendous criticism he received after Mo Tom’s last two races.
Mo Tom drew post four, the same slot as Super Saver broke from in 2010 — a draw that pleased his trainer.
“I think the two most significant things about the draw are we drew toward the rail but not so close that it’s a problem, and that there’s a lot of speed way on the outside in this post-position draw,” Amoss said. “Those horses are going to have to be used out of the starting gate, and that I think will ensure a good pace, which is what we need.”
Though his only off-track start produced a third-place finish, he may improve with some moisture in the surface and could be a good completion for a superfecta.
Tom’s Ready earned his points the hard way, placing in two graded stakes offering big points. He’s good, but doesn’t like to win too often, which is a huge concern in this field. He has the benefit of trainer Dallas Stewart at the helm, a protégé of the great Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas, and a nice post of 12, which suits his later running style though no runner has won from the position since Venezuelan import Cannonero II in 1971. A nice horse for sure, but it’s hard to be too confident for a win from a horse who has only done it once in nine career races.
Speaking of imports, it’s hard to make heads or tails of UAE Derby (GII) winner and Japanese import Lani. He will become the ninth Kentucky Derby starter raced exclusively outside North America, joining the aforementioned Canonero II (first in 1971), Dr Devious (seventh in 1992), Thyer (13th in 1992), Citadeed (ninth in 1995), Ski Captain (14th in 1995), China Visit (sixth in 2000), Curule (seventh in 2000), Castle Gandolfo (12th in 2002) and Mubtaahij (eighth in 2015). Bold Forbes (first in 1976) began his career in Puerto Rico before being shipped to the United States for an American campaign as a 2-year-old.
England’s Bold Arrangement is the only other foreigner to hit the board when he was second to Ferdinand in 1986, but was third in the Blue Grass Stakes (GI) before running in the Kentucky Derby. Overall, horses that raced outside North America have a record of 43-2-1-0 in the Derby since 1967.
He’s got a reputation for being lazy and, well, into the ladies and last week he refused to work under regular jockey Yutaka Take, though he has been participating in some strange and long-distance interval training since arriving at Churchill Downs more than a month ago. He’s well-bred, being by Tapit and out of the Grade I-winning Sunday Silence mare Heavenly Romance, who was actually ridden in Japan by Lani’s award-winning trainer Mikio Matsunaga before he moved into training.
Lani drew post eight, which has produced eight winners — the most recent being Mine That Bird in 2009. It’s hard to tell what he’ll do or what position he’ll settle into after the break, but it’s clear that when he wants to run he has all the talent in the world. He will also be the only runner in the field to run without the use of Lasix.
“It was a good draw, ideal,” Matsunaga said. “The middle was ideal so I have no complaints about drawing number eight.”
Former claimer Oscar Nominated was supplemented by owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey to the Triple Crown series after winning the Spiral Stakes (GIII) over Turfway Park’s synthetic surface five weeks ago at odds of 23-1 and, while Animal Kingdom used the same race to win the Derby in 2011, Oscar Nominated is no Animal Kingdom.
The Mike Maker-trained son of the Ramsey’s stallion Kitten’s Joy drew post position seven, which gave us Street Sense as the Derby winner in 2007 and, according to Maker, is a good draw for the confirmed off-the-pace runner, who is the trainer’s ninth starter.
“I’m pleased, obviously,” Maker said. “It’s better than the one-hole that we drew a couple of years ago. No complaints.”
Whitmore will carry jockey Victor Espinoza, who is looking for his third consecutive Derby win after partnering with dual classic winner California Chrome in 2014 and Triple Crown winner American Pharoah last year. He also won in 2002 aboard War Emblem in an impressive gate-to-wire performance. But Whitmore, with as much potential as he has, is no War Emblem, California Chrome or American Pharoah and will need a lot more than a top jockey to be effective in here. Yes, trainer Ron Moquett is as good a conditioner as they come and, yes, Whitmore has picked up some good placings, but he doesn’t like to win often and, when he does, it’s against softer company.
The son of Pleasantly Perfect drew the 10-spot, the same as Giacomo in 2005 and while also an outsider like him, he’s going to have to have everything go right for him to pick up a larger check.
My Man Sam is a maiden winner with a second in the Blue Grass last out. Regardless of his six post position, he’s up against it in here, though may be worth a look for exotics on the bottom.
After breaking his maiden in his fifth start, Majesto put in an amazing effort to finish second by 3 ¼ lengths to Nyquist in the Florida Derby in his last start. This race is by far the biggest stage his connections — trainer Gustavo Delgado and jockey Emisael Jaramillo — have been on and they are enjoying every minute. But the son of Tiznow will need a best effort to pick up a share of the $2.4 million purse.
And, finally, Trojan Nation. The well-bred son of Street Cry and the champion filly Storm Song is still a maiden and though was a strong second in the Wood, he will need every ounce of pedigree and ability to break his maiden in the Kentucky Derby. Three maidens have won the Derby, but none since Brokers Tip in 1933, and the last to attempt it was Nationalore, who was ninth in 1998. A bright future for sure, but one that will likely start after the Run for the Roses.