Three years ago, it was American Pharoah. This year, it’s an imposing chestnut colt by the name of Justify. The hype has been crazy from the moment the horse set foot in Baffert’s barn. Jockeys, grooms, hotwalkers, clockers, racing touts, coffee-stand vendors -- heck, even Baffert himself. “We’ve been in awe since the first time we worked him,” the trainer recalled recently.
Three races into his career, the horse has done nothing to disappoint this merry band of worshipers. He’s undefeated and has barely broken a sweat. But the question now for cool-headed gamblers is whether to take the plunge and bet on him in the Kentucky Derby Saturday at odds of around 3-1. For some context, remember that those are essentially the same odds that Pharoah himself went off at back in 2015.
No offense to Justify, but he’s no American Pharoah. Sure, he’s got a big stride and a high-cruising speed but he possesses little of the cat-like grace or rhythmic elegance that made Pharoah such a special talent. If anything, Justify strikes me as a touch muscle-bound. And he’s got a bad habit of breaking a half-step slow out of the starting gate. He better not do that in the Derby. It’d leave him behind a wall of horses for the first time in his career, and his race would be over before it begins. Baffert knows this: “We only have one option ... He has to leave there running.”
I’m taking a stand against the big horse. If he cruises to a runaway victory and takes my money, so be it. I’ll focus my bets on a couple of middle-priced longshots instead: Vino Rosso and Hofburg. At expected odds of 12-1 and 20-1, they offer greater value. I’ll play them both to win and in exactas along with another 12-1 shot, Good Magic.
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Here’s a full breakdown of the field. Horses are listed by post position. Odds are Churchill Downs’s forecast of how gamblers will bet the race. (Note: There’s rain in the forecast. And if the track comes up a muddy mess, all bets are off; none of my picks has any experience racing on a wet track.)
-No. 2 Free Drop Billy (30-1) -- One of those types that was very precocious as a two-year-old but has stagnated as a three-year-old. A candidate for a minor prize only.
-No. 3 Promises Fulfilled (30-1) -- He’s fast out of the gate and so there’s a chance he’ll be in front early. There is zero chance, however, that he’ll be in front late.
-No. 5 Audible (8-1) -- Legitimate contender that keeps improving. I just prefer others at higher prices.
-No. 6 Good Magic (12-1) -- Last year’s two-year-old champion doesn’t quite have the kind of long stride that you like to see in a Derby horse but he’s awful fast and he’s been training great.
-No. 7 Justify (3-1) -- There’s a lot of Curse of Apollo talk surrounding this colt, by the by. Apollo was the last horse to successfully do what Justify will try to do Saturday: win the Derby after not running a single race as a two-year-old. Apollo did it a long time ago -- back in 1882. There are some logical reasons behind the drought, but don’t read too much into it. The curse will be broken one of these years.
-No. 9 Hofburg (20-1) -- Lightly raced colt seems to have a lot of upside. And by all accounts, he’s looked terrific in his morning gallops in Louisville. Perhaps he’s in over his head, but I’ll take a shot on him at a big price.
-No. 10 My Boy Jack (30-1) -- An exciting horse that will drop to the very back of the pack early and then unleash a scintillating come-from-behind-run late. He’s had a tough racing schedule, though, and he doesn’t seem to be giving off great vibes in the morning.
-No. 11 Bolt d’Oro (8-1) -- A very nice horse that I was tempted to throw on my tickets. Should be mid-pack early and in the hunt late.
-No. 14 Mendelssohn (5-1) -- He’s the best chance the Europeans have had in America’s biggest race in a long time. But he certainly won’t be allowed to gallop on the lead all alone like he was when he rolled to a spectacular 18 1/2-length victory in his last race in Dubai. I need to see him to prove it here on American dirt.
-No. 15 Instilled Regard (50-1) -- Looked like one of the very top prospects in this three-year-old crop back in January. Wheels have sort of come off since, though.
-No. 16 Magnum Moon (6-1) -- Like Justify, this horse was unraced as a two-year-old and is now undefeated as a three-year-old. But as good and as physically striking as he is, I’m not crazy about the way he tends to drift outward in the stretch. It’s a sign that something perhaps is a touch off.
-No. 18 Vino Rosso (12-1) -- A horse that has had a very up-and-down 2018 campaign but I loved the way he lowered his body to the track and lengthened his stride when he rolled past Enticed in his last race. I think he may be peaking at the right time. He’ll need, though, to overcome a tough post position.
(David Papadopoulos, a senior editor at Bloomberg News, is a voter in the thoroughbred industry’s annual Eclipse Awards. He has been publishing his Triple Crown picks since 2012.)
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