There's not another North American where you'll find 20 horses in the starting gate, plus I don't think I've hit a Derby winner since Street Sense in 2007.
Since then, I'd have had more success finding water in the Sahara Desert than in the Derby.
Yet it's no fun to be on the sidelines, and so I'll take another shot at two-minute glory.
Bolt d'Oro is my selection.
In a field this large, you're halfway home if your horse(s) can survive the first 100-200 yards and avoid getting slammed or cut off in the run into the first turn. Successful horses tend to accomplish that first, then get close enough to the pace without overheating or drawing off too soon.
And there's no more savvy a Derby jockey in the field than Victor Espinoza, who knows a thing or two about winning at Churchill Downs -- on California Chrome and American Pharoah in case you forgot.
Espinoza climbs aboard Bolt for the first time, which could be construed as a negative, yet I see it as an enormous plus for a horse that's quick enough from the gate to establish a two- to three-wide spot off of race favorite Justify's flank. From there, it's all a matter of whether Bolt's talented enough to close the deal and fend off the challengers.
For my money, his 8-to-1 morning line and late-Friday "live" odds of 9-to-1 signal that, as a win proposition, we're sitting on about a $20 winner per $2 wager.
Justify and Hofburg are my key "underneath" horses.
It's hard to knock a 3-to-1 horse like Justify, who boasts far greater "speed figures" than most of the field, yet he's also only had three lifetime starts and needed to win the Santa Anita Derby in early April to earn the points to qualify for the Derby.
I played him in a handicapping contest that afternoon, and his win in that race locked up my berth in the 2019 National Horseplayers Championship.
Yet there are chinks in the armor, the main ones being that primary contender Bolt d'Oro already qualified for the Kentucky Derby and was using the Santa Anita race as a tune-up and experimented with sitting back further behind the leader. I'm merely speculating, but it looked to me like Bolt just needed the experience, while the rest of what was a bad field let Justify have his way and made him look stellar.
Don't get me wrong, I do think he's a great horse, but front-runners typically don't win wire-to-wire at the Derby's mile-and-a-quarter distance; and so I think he hits the board, but underneath the winner.
Hofburg, meanwhile, is intriguing. You'll get every bit of his 20-to-1 morning line, but his first time against other winners -- the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 31 -- was certainly good enough to put him in the mix at Churchill Downs.
Here's a little on where I stand with each horse and likely Derby-specific wagers I'll be making on my annual $100 bankroll.
- Firenze Fire (50-1): I learned my lesson backing the great Lookin at Lucky in 2010 from the rail and he practically got run into it before finishing a game fifth. That was on a really talented horse, and I wouldn't put this one in the same category. Pass.
- Free Drop Billy (30-1): Post-comprised as well, but I thought his 3rd-place finish in the Bluegrass at Keeneland on April 7 offers signs here that he can follow the speed-ball Promises Fulfilled out of the gate, avert disaster and ride the rail and maybe hit the board. I'm using him to round out my exacta and trifecta tickets. Probably 3rd at best, but maybe 2nd with a totally clean trip around the inside rail.
- Promises Fulfilled (30-1): Will be up front with Justify for about a half mile at most then fade. Complete pass.
- Flameaway (30-1): Outran Free Drop Billy in the Bluegrass, but is doomed if Promises Fulfilled gets a better break from the gate. Need-the-lead type. Speed, fade. Pass.
- Audible (8-1): I know that horses off the Florida circuit have done well here, and you're getting the best of Todd Pletcher's four, but I can't get past his post position. The five hole should be opportune, but in this case I think he has way too many early-speed horses to each side who could compromise his chances. Concerned he'll be far back and have a lot of ground to make up, I'm using him strictly for 2nd and 3rd.
- Good Magic (12-1): Not sure why the two-year-old Breeders Cup champ got such a high morning-line, but I think he's in the same boat as Audible, though I think he'll sit closer to the pace. Same deal, using underneath in 2nd and 3rd.
- Justify (3-1): Much as we saw with the over-hyped Oaks favorite Midnight Bisou, I've got questions about such low odds for a horse with only three lifetime starts on one track. This guy seems to run with great ease, but let's see him hold the speed at 10 furlongs and deal with 19 others breathing down his neck. Can win, and will use as one of three Derby keys. I just see him finishing third at best.
- Lone Sailor (50-1): 0-for-7 since winning last September at Saratoga in a sprint. Won't get the distance. Closer with not huge late kick. Pass.
- Hofburg (20-1): If trying to cash a big win ticket, this is the play. Last I checked he was 23-to-1 in the live odds, but that's misguided. His second-place run in the Florida Derby was checkered a bit by a suspect ride by the other Ortiz brother (Jose), who settled early toward the rear, made a visually impressive run in the backstretch and then, perhaps on heels of others, pulled back a bit and lost all momentum before re-rallying to finish three lengths behind Audible. He's a live long-shot that I'm using in the win spot on exacta and trifecta tickets.
- My Boy Jack (30-1): Deep closer who, if he hits the board, will do so from 10-15 length back. Somewhat useful for third or fourth.
- Bolt d'Oro (8-1): Battle-tested horse who's making his third start off a layoff and gets a great post where he can factor if positioned off Justify's flank in to the first turn and backstretch. The critics may pan his efforts, but he was all guts in the San Felipe in early March and further back from a wide post last November in the Breeders Cup Juvenile. NJHorseplayer.com winner.
- Enticed (30-1): One-paced stalker and I've learned my lesson putting stock in horses who look good coming out of the New York winter circuit. Pass.
- Bravazo (50-1): On paper many will say "no chance." Yet I'm using him underneath on all tickets. The pluses are a Grade 2 victory (Risen Star Stakes), a real grinder's approach and a jockey-trainer combo that has won recently at big odds (Warrior's Club at 23-to-1 in the Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland on April 7). Write off this D. Wayne Lukas horse all you want, and maybe he runs as poorly as he did in the Louisiana Derby, but I think he's going to hang around the leaders for awhile and you may hear his name called late. Maybe not to win, but certainly to finish in the top four.
- Mendelssohn (5-1): Crushed the field in the UAE Derby in Dubai in late March, but runner-up Rayya's complete flop in the Kentucky Oaks is less than flattering for the second-choice based on morning-line odds. Now, he did win the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf in November on U.S. soil (grass, technically) but I think he's going to be over-bet and lack value. I'll play defense and use him in the 3rd spot in the trifecta, but not a lot of confidence.
- Instilled Regard (50-1): No speed, not a great stalker. Pass.
- Magnum Moon (6-1): Will take money off back-to-back graded stakes scores, but he has shown little versatility beyond a front-end tactic and, if he gets the lead, will need to work extremely hard to get it before fading. Pass.
- Solomini (30-1): One-paced horse who's a cut below. Pass.
- Vino Rosso (12-1): See Enticed. Has three wins, but on the weak Aqueduct and Tampa Bay Downs circuit, a formula for Pletcher to satisfy owners who want to run in the Derby. I'm not buying, especially from far outside. Pass.
- Noble Indy (30-1): Similar to Magnum Moon in tactics -- needs to get to the front -- and not nearly as good a horse as a Big Brown who won from way outside. Pass.
- Combatant (50-1): Broke maiden at Churchill last October. Is 0-for-5 since and never threatened to win those. What changes today? Pass.
Probably Wagers on $100 Bankroll
- $10 Win 11 = $10
- $5 Exacta Key Box: 11 with 7, 9 = $20
- $1 Exacta Key Box: 11 with 2, 5, 6, 10, 13 = $10
- $1 Exacta Key Box: 9 with 2, 5-7, 10, 13 = $12
- $1 Exacta Key Box: 7 with 2, 5, 6, 9, 10, 13 = $12
- $1 Trifecta: 11 with 7, 9 with 2, 5-7, 9, 10, 13 = $12
- 50-cent Trifecta: 7, 9 with 11 with 2, 5-7, 9, 10, 13 = $6
- 50-cent Trifecta: 7, 9 with 2, 5-7, 9, 10, 13 with 10, 11 = $11
- 50-cent Pick 3, Races 10-12: 5 with 6, 7 with 2, 5-7, 9, 11, 13 = $7
Saturday Morning Additions, Thoughts on Undercard/Pick 5 Sequence
- #7, Limousine Liberal (4-1) almost won the Commonwealth at Keeneland off a 5-money layoff and loves the Churchill surface and distance, and can win on a wet track. I'm keying him in small daily double and Pick 3 tickets and estimate he nabs 9-5 Imperial Hint (#3) late.
- #14, Admiralty Pier (12-1) is my top selection, and perhaps strongest opinion today. Also racing second off a 4-plus-month layoff and should find himself in a good stalking position off the primary early speed, #1 Speed Franco. There's a lot of big-time turf trainers with runners who can win here, but AP showed promise as a two-year-old and can score at a price. I'm wagering on this one to win, boxing with Speed Franco in an exacta, and using as top of 50-cent trifecta ticket over 1, 3, 6 and 10.
- #5, Mississippi (10-1) is a one-turn horse who tried his hand and finished a fading third vs. Derby contestants Audible and Hofburg in the Grade 1 Florida Derby on March 31. I love the cutback in distance and draw for a horse who'll press the pace. I'd be surprised to get the 10-to-1 morning line but am using solely in Pick 3 wagers. I've got some "backup" 50-cent Pick 3 tickets using the 1, 7 and 8 in this race as well.
- #6, Arklow (12-1) gets the edge over #7, Synchrony (5-1) for me. I'm going "light" on this race, considering the complexity of the field and presence of 5-to-2 Beach Patrol (#10), who's the class of the field but hasn't run since the Breeders Cup in early November. The two I've sided with have two 2018 races under their belt and are formidable enough to upset. I'm boxing them together in a $2 exacta and will key them over the 1, 2 and 10 in $1 exacta.