Just about everybody is calling today’s Kentucky Derby wide-open. I don’t see it that way. I believe there’s a clear line separating Dialed In from the 18 other 3-year-olds contesting the mile-and-a-quarter Run for the Roses.
Why people are reluctant to acknowledge Dialed In’s accomplishments is a mystery. He’s had four starts: three wins and a second by a half-length in an allowance race against older horses. In that race, it started pouring at Gulfstream Park as the horses were loading into the starting gate. Then, the horse he had to catch, Equestrio, drifted out badly in deep stretch. Dialed In had been used to passing horses on their outside. This time, he continued to close ground on the inside, and was traveling very well at the wire.
Dialed In has been impressive since his very first start at Churchill Downs last year. He broke 12th, yet won his debut, anyway. Then, he won the Grade III Holy Bull Stakes with an electrifying run from far back.
After his allowance race defeat, he won the Grade I Florida Derby by a head over a very game Shackleford, who finished 63⁄4 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher, To Honor and Serve.
A victory over the track is a definite plus for Dialed In, who, with the scratch of Uncle Mo, is the only horse in the Derby with just one loss. He is also the one horse who will relish stretching out to a mile and a quarter, and he gets the call here to give Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito his third Kentucky Derby.
Other Prime Candidates
I’ve been shuffling my subsequent eight picks endlessly. Toby’s Corner or Archarcharch would have headed this octet, but the former was injured and the latter had the misfortune of drawing the rail, which proved too much to overcome for my pick last year, Lookin At Lucky. He was bounced around like a pinball, but rebounded to win the Preakness Stakes and be named Three-Year-Old Champion.
In order of preference:
Mucho Macho Man: While he has a great human interest story — heart-transplant recipient Kathy Ritvo is seeking to become the first woman trainer to win the Derby — he has solid credentials. His only off-the-board finish in eight starts was a fourth in the Holy Bull in his 3-year-old debut when he was bumped hard. He then won the Risen Star, and finished a close third in the Louisiana Derby, despite losing a shoe during the race.
Master of Hounds: This European invader, who was sixth last year in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, has the best distance pedigree of any horse in here. But he’s never raced on dirt, and there hasn’t been a horse who won the Derby while making his dirt debut. He was second by a nose in a field of 14 in the Grade II UAE Derby at a mile and three sixteenths on synthetic, making him the only horse in this race who has raced longer than a mile and an eighth.
Soldat: I’ve moved him up considerably with Uncle Mo’s scratch. After winning an allowance race and the Grade II Fountain of Youth Stakes wire-to-wire, he was taken back to sixth early and was never a factor, finishing fifth, 101⁄4 lengths behind Dialed In, as the 3-2 favorite in the Florida Derby. Today, he’s likely to get a nice, outside stalking trip. He certainly has class, having posted a victory and a pair of solid seconds in graded stakes on the grass.
Santiva: He’s been moved up, as well. He never had a chance as the 2-1 favorite in the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland’s synthetic track, as he was boxed in almost the entire length of the stretch. On dirt, he was a distant third behind Wine Police and Soldat in his career debut at Saratoga last summer. He then won the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, and finished second to Mucho Macho Man in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes.
Archarcharch: He rallied from 10th to win the Arkansas Derby by a neck at 25-1. He’s trained sharply since, but jockey Jon Court must somehow get decent position from the rail. Last year, Garrett Gomez couldn’t, and wound up far back.
Shackleford: Talk about your tough reads. He was beaten
231⁄4 lengths when fifth in Soldat’s Fountain of Youth Stakes, then tried the front end in the Florida Derby and fought Dialed In tenaciously to the wire, finishing second by a head at 69-1.
Midnight Interlude: He followed a maiden romp with a gutsy head victory in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, but he is seeking to become the first Derby winner who didn’t race as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882. Think of how good Curlin was capturing two consecutive Horse of the Year titles. But he hadn’t raced as a 2-year-old, and finished third in the Derby. To win this, Midnight Interlude will have to be historic.
Nehro: Though he’s eligible for a bottom-level allowance (non-winners of two races), he followed a daylight maiden victory with a pair of seconds by a neck in the Grade II Louisiana Derby and the Grade I Arkansas Derby. Being a closer, he’ll be less compromised from the 19 post, but it’s hardly a plus.
Live Long shots
Brilliant Speed: He finished like a rocket to win the Blue Grass on synthetic by a nose at 19-1. However, in his only two dirt starts in maiden races at Belmont and Saratoga last year, he finished fourth and seventh by a combined 401⁄4 lengths. I can’t get past that.
Comma to the Top: This speedy gelding won five straight on synthetic. On dirt, he’s made just two starts, finishing fourth in the Grade II San Felipe and second by a head in the Santa Anita Derby.
Pants On Fire: After finishing sixth in the Risen Star, trainer Kelly Breen made a jockey change from Joe Bravo to the incredibly talented Rosie Napravnik. She couldn’t have done any better, winning the Louisiana Derby by a neck from a stalking second trip. He’s yet another with early speed who will have to avoid a suicidal pace battle.
Three Bigger Long Shots
Animal Kingdom: Trainer Graham Motion lost his Wood Memorial winner Toby’s Corner to injury, but sends out this colt, who will be making his dirt debut off a handy Grade III stakes victory on synthetic.
Twice the Appeal: Calvin Borel seeks his third consecutive Derby victory, and fourth in five years, on this colt who won the Grade III Sunland Derby at 25-1. If you’re betting Borel, you’re getting about half the odds this horse should be.
Stay Thirsty: Last year, trainer Todd Pletcher had to scratch his Wood Memorial winner Eskendereya from the Derby, and won his first Run for the Roses anyway with Super Saver. This spring, Pletcher scratches last year’s 2-year-old champion, Uncle Mo, and sends out this colt who was beaten 163⁄4 lengths when seventh in the Florida Derby.
You’re On Your Own
Decisive Moment: This speedster will affect the pace. He was fifth in the Risen Star in his last dirt start.
Twinspired: He was nosed on synthetic in the Blue Grass at 24-1, but a distant eighth in his only dirt race.
Derby Kitten: He was seventh by 271⁄4 lengths in a maiden race at Belmont in his lone dirt try.
Watch Me Go: He’s tough to endorse after finishing sixth by 17 lengths in the Grade III Illinois Derby.