By Charles Palombini
So here we are…only days away from the first Saturday in May and that means its Kentucky Derby time. The Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the thoroughbred Triple Crown, a series of three races featuring the top three-year-old race horses in the world. In last week’s article we discussed the storied history of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown and the fact that in over 137 years of competition there have only been 11 Triple Crown winners. But it has now been 34 years since we’ve last seen a Triple Crown champion (his name was Affirmed and he accomplished the task in 1978) and many wonder if we will ever see such a champion again.
Despite all the skeptics, each year one horse will generally capture the public’s imagination as a potential candidate to become the next Triple Crown winner. This year is a bit different as perhaps the finest group of three-year-olds in many a year will line up and compete in the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown. It is not just one horse dominating the stage, but as many as five or six who are generating discussion because they show the promise and potential of a true champion in the making. Yep…this field is just loaded with talent and pedigree for what will certainly turn out to be the greatest Derby in 50 years. It’s a show you won’t want to miss…so let’s try and give you a little insight into the contenders and the pretenders.
Verazano- May be the most highly regarded of all the horses scheduled to line up in the starting gate as he has four wins in four starts including the Tampa Bay Derby and the Wood Memorial (perhaps the most competitive of all the Derby prep races). He is trained by Todd Pletcher, America’s preeminent trainer of thoroughbred race horses and will be ridden by this country’s most highly regarded Jockey John Velasquez.
Orb- This is the horse on a roll winning his last four races after losing his first three. He won the Fountain of Youth Stakes and then came right back with a very competitive and impressive win in the Florida Derby. In any other year he might be a solid favorite to win the race, but this year he’s just one of a handful that can walk away with the roses on Derby day. He is trained by another skilled and experienced trainer, Shug McGaughey and will be ridden by Jose Rosario the nation’s top jockey on the western circuit.
Revolutionary- Oh my…can Todd Pletcher have another ultra talented horse entering the race. Yes he can and his name is Revolutionary. He comes fresh off a three race win streak, the last being in the Louisiana Derby, a race that has several times introduced us to the eventual winner of the Kentucky Derby. He will be ridden by Calvin Borel, a legendary jockey from the Southern circuit.
Goldencents- They just keep on coming. This one has been competing in the West and is being brought to Kentucky by trainer Doug O’Neill. You will remember O’Neill as the trainer of last year’s Derby winner “I’ll Have Another.” As a matter of fact last year’s winner went on to win the Preakness and was to compete for the Triple Crown title when he came down with a freak injury that kept him out of the Belmont Stakes. And in just one year O’Neill is back with another winning contender who comes off of a dominating victory in the Santa Anita Derby. Wow!
Itsmyluckyday- When everyone thought last year’s two-year-old champion Shangai Bobby was unbeatable, Itsmyluckyday came out and beat him…solidly. For a moment he established himself as the leading candidate to win the Kentucky Derby but then came up short against Orb in the Florida Derby leaving his backers with all sorts of questions. But let’s remember…he had not run a race for more than two months before that showdown with Orb and just may not have been ready. Don’t count him out as he is trained by the more than capable Ed Pleaser and will be ridden by New Jersey’s top jockey Elvis Trujillo. Will it be his Lucky Day?
Normandy Invasion- A Chad Brown trainee who has only one once in five starts, but has run more than creditable in all his races. He was closing on Verazano in the Wood Memorial, and while he didn’t win he did establish himself as a legitimate contender. He should be ridden by J.J. Castellano the nation’s leading money winning jockey.
Overanalyze- Did someone say trainer Todd Pletcher has yet another legitimate contender in the Kentucky Derby? Yes they did, and this one comes in off of an Arkansas Derby victory. In fact he has four solid victories in just six starts. He is ridden by Raphael Bejarano and owned by the Repole Stable…one of the strongest racing stables in North America.
Java’s War- A son of champion sire WarPass this Ken McPeek charger comes to the Kentucky Derby with three wins in seven starts including a neck win in the Blue Grass Stakes. He is ridden by Julien Leparoux and will be heard from before this race is over. He’s a lazy horse that usually gets a slow start and has to rally to win from off the pace. If he’s sharper out of the starting gate on Saturday he can contend…but he must break sharp.
Oxbow- How nice it is to see Hall of Fame trainer D Wayne Lucas back in the Derby with a solid challenger. The horse is entered by the ever so powerful Calumet Farms and will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens. This horse fired every time out of the box until he took a big step backward in a five length beating at the hands of Overanalyze in the Arkansas Derby. Was it just a bad race? We’ll see on Saturday, because if he runs back to his historical solid form he is another who may walk away with the roses.
Vyjack- Hot trainer Rudy Rodriguez sends this top prospect to the starting gate on Saturday with top rider Garrett Gomez in the saddle. He was beaten in the Wood, but it was a race bias that worked against him. He is a dead stone closer from off the pace that might find the early speed to his liking. Don’t let the loss in the Wood Memorial fool you as it was his only loss in five starts. He has solid victories in the Jerome Handicap and the Gotham stakes to his credit…this horse can run with the best of them.
The pretenders: I say pretenders with tongue in check, as the following horses are all good but just appear to be a notch below the top contenders.
Govenor Charlie- Well he bears my name and unfortunately he only has as much chance at winning the Derby as I do. He’s only run three times (albeit all winning efforts) but has been hampered by a hind foot problem. He probably won’t run, but if he makes it to the Derby he will be a long shot simply because of his lack of experience…not because of any lack of talent.
Palace Malice- He sports only one win in six starts and got beat in both the Blue Grass Stakes and the Louisiana Derby. So I’ve got to think he will get beat in the much more competitive Kentucky Derby.
Will Take Charge- He looked horrible two races back when running in the Southwest. But let’s remember that the track that day was very sloppy. When everyone wrote him off (trainer Lucas) he came right back to win the Rebel Stakes in good fashion. That was his third win in seven starts. Oh my…do you think he’s hoping for a dry track on Saturday.
Charming Kitten- This is strictly a grass horse whose trainer feels the switch to a dirt surface won’t have any adverse effects. Sorry…can’t agree. Charming Kitten has no shot!
Lines of Battle- Here is the only European entry headed for the starting gate but comes under the guiding hand of Adrian O’Brian (Europe’s top trainer). While the horse has only won three times in six starts all the wins came against competitive fields…especially his last in the Emirates’ Darby. I like him!
Frac Daddy- Some people just like to see their horse run in the Derby and this is one of them. Based on past performance I would find it hard to imagine him as a contender.
Mylute- Only two wins in seven starts but did run a gigantic race to finish second to Revolutionary in the Louisiana Derby. He will probably be ridden by top female jockey Rosie Napravnik. Don’t like his chances.
Black Onyx- He has a three wins to his credit in just five races. The last win, a victory in the Spiral Stakes, was his most impressive. He is trained by Kelly Breen and gets the services of long time successful jockey Jersey Joe Bravo.
Winning Cause- Yet another tough entry being trained by Pletcher. He sports three wins in six trips to the starting gate and is lightly regarded as a serious contender.
So there it is…the most probable starters for this year’s Kentucky Derby. At the timing of writing this article they have still not drawn the actual entries for the Derby so a horse or two that we have not discussed may show up in the starting gate. But believe me…if we haven’t discussed them here you need not worry about them. And who do we like on Derby day? For me it comes down to Orb, Goldencents, or long shot Lines of Battle. Have fun everyone!
Charles Palombini is a resident of Cortlandt and owner of a stable of thoroughbred racing horses.