Thursday, May 2, 2024

Don't Sleep on Track Phantom in 2024 Kentucky Derby

After a friend requested a cheat sheet, it was easiest to grab a feather duster and blog Derby thoughts, and so I went down the rabbit hole of race replays last night to share informed thoughts on who can win 2024's Run for the Roses. 

I've narrowed it down to four. 

Gun to head as a win bet, I'd take a chance on Track Phantom at long odds. 

I know that a closer won last year's Derby after the rabbits scorched the earth but don't see as much speed in this field and think that Track Phantom is by far the best and most consistent gate horse and will be on or just off the lead into the first turn, giving him a tactical edge. 

Track Phantom's first win was at Churchill and he's done nothing wrong since, boasing two wins, a close second and a game fourth, all in stakes. Barring a catastrophic start, he'll at least be toward the front for the first 8-9 furlongs. Question is whether he gets the 10th.

Speed figures dictate that Fierceness is the logical morning line favorite, but he's run two clunkers in which he was outgunned from the gate among his five starts and so I'd be concerned about investing in him at 5-2 as a win bet; price too short for my taste. 

Sierra Leone may be the best in the field, but like another horse I dig -- Catching Freedom -- needs too much to go right in ~2:02 to close into a race where I expect modest quarterly times (fractions).

Watch the timer on Saturday. If the quarter and half mile splits are 23 and 47 seconds plus, a Track Phantom, Fierceness or other front runner could lull the field to sleep and win. If like last year it's 22 and 45 seconds, either of the two closers I like can win. 

At the least, in the comments below I've eliminated half of the field for you and/or provided some entertainment or laughs to share at your Derby party. 

The 10 above that are useful and will be a part of my tickets, which I'll post by Saturday. 

Let's meet the field, ranked in order of preference. 

The Win Contenders

2. Sierra Leone (3-1): Best, most consistent and continually improving horse in the field, yet the primary question is whether he gets a clean enough trip from an inner post to be in a position halfway through the race to realize his major closing kick. Will be interesting to see where jockey Tyler Gaffalione has the horse positioned into the first turn (back of the field could be problematic), but SL has finished well in every race and on fast, muddy and sloppy tracks, so surface conditions shouldn't matter much. Does super-trainer Chad Brown finally get in the Derby winner's circle in his 8th try? Is quite possible for this $2.3 million Fasig Tipton purchase from 2022. Using in multirace exotics.

12. Track Phantom (20-1): Morning line is vexing for horse with a great post position and early kick. On or near the lead and gets blinkers, which might help keep the horse focused late on a track that's sure to be tricked up and tends to favor runners toward the front of the pack. If he goes to post anywhere near 20-1, absolutely will garner a win wager. Joel Rosario riding for HOF trainer Steve Asmussen (amazingly still seeking first Derby win) and under-the-radar odds? Sign me up. Also a shoe-in for multirace exotics. Speed figure nerds could argue he isn't good enough, especially versus the other main early runner -- favorite Fierceness -- yet Phantom runs hard every time, whereas the favorite has had clunkers. If Fierceness stumbles early or isn't on his game as we've seen twice before, look out here. Best value in the field IMHO. Could stink it up, but hey, it's called gambling for a reason.

17. Fierceness (5-2): Let's assume Fierceness doesn't stumble from the gate and runs like a beast like he did in winning the Breeders Cup Juvenile last November by 6-plus lengths. If that happens, I don't think anyone else can win, since there isn't a ton of early speed in this field. Plus, he has a positional advantage where he can see what Rosario does on Track Phantom before deciding either to gun for the lead or sit just off his flank and stalk. However, in a 20-horse field with lots of randomness, there's no way I'm taking 5-2 odds as a win proposition; zero value there. I'll mix into all Derby tickets but a straight win wager isn't in the cards. Using in the multis and maybe key box the exacta with Track Phantom or trifecta that adds in Sierra Leone and Catching Freedom.

4. Catching Freedom (8-1): Similar to Sierra Leone, sits toward the rear before rolling midrace and through the stretch. Passed by Sierra Leone in the stretch of the Risen Star in February in the mud. Finished third in that one and drove past the field to win the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby in late March. Best of trainer Brad Cox's two runners. Win contender. Will be in my multirace exotics. 

Exacta, Trifecta and Superfecta Consideration

3. Mystik Dan (20-1): Really took to the off going in winning the Grade 3 Southwest at Oaklawn Park in February but didn't do a ton of running in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in late March. Despite finishing third, Dan was more than 6 lengths behind the winner. Did break his maiden at Churchill Downs, blowing the doors off the competition and gaining a few MPH in the stretch but at a sprint distance. Still, makes you wonder if Dan could be a horse for course. Unlikely to wager as a winner but will use in exacta-trifecta plays. Sense he'll try to get the jump on Sierra Leone and Catching Freedom to avoid trouble. Question is whether distance too much for what looks to be a very promising one-turn horse once the Derby madness dust has settled.

1. Dornoch (20-1): One of the pacesetters and must break sharply to avoid getting run into the rail, but not blazingly fast and seems one-paced. Could be in for rough trip. Followed a gutsy Grade 2 win in the Remsen at Aqueduct in December with another G2 victory in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park but in a small field. Used the Bluegrass at Keeneland on April 6 as prep for the Derby and has two snappy works, yet is a pass for me considering the innermost post, where even the best have done poorly.

7. Honor Marie (20-1): Not sure what to make of this one. Deep closer. Two nice wins at Churchill Downs as a two-year-old but not in love with his two 2024 efforts. Finished second to Catching Freedom in the Louisiana Derby though squarely outfinished to the wire. Fourth place may be the ceiling. 

19. Resilience (20-1): John Velazquez rode this one to two victories, including last month's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, but obviously opts for race favorite Fierceness. Trainer Bill Mott uses go to rider Junior Alvarado. Not a win candidate though I may use defensively in third or fourth as this later-developing three-year-old (was 0-for-3 at age 2) hasn't run a bad one in 2024. I still have nightmares about 2019 when DQ'd out of a big Maximum Security score and not having Mott's 65-1 Country House on my tickets when handed the win by the stewards. Still stings. 

18. Stronghold (20-1): I preface my comments with an opinion that California racing is not in a good way. Trainer Phil D'Amato has taken this horse to six different tracks, including lesser known ovals like Ellis Park (Kentucky), Los Alamitos (California) and Sunland Park (New Mexico). Broke maiden at Churchill Downs last October and beat Track Phantom in that race, but speed figures are nothing to write home about and I thought the Santa Anita Derby was a so-so field at best. Antonio Fresu is a jockey worth watching. Move might be to track Fierceness for as long as possible and hope.

21. Epic Ride (30-1): Drew in when No. 9 (Encino) scratched earlier this week. Black type stakes win in early February at Turfway Park before runner up in similar vs. Encino in the Battaglia Memorial in March. Connections' decision to try the Bluegrass at Keeneland on April 6 proved wise as Epic Ride got enough points to be first alternate for the Derby. Thought he ran a good race 1x on dirt and at a longer distance; held his own vs. Just a Touch and outworked Dornoch to the finish to hold third. Like the experience edge over Just a Touch and might put on my trifecta and superfecta tickets. Blame, his sire, won the Breeders Cup Classic over Zenyatta in 2010, so pedigree says distance is within reach.

Not Getting My Money

8. Just a Touch (10-1): Perhaps narrow minded but I've learned my lesson enough to avoid horses that prepped at Aqueduct, where he finished an uninspiring second in a muddy Gotham in early March. That was followed by a runner-up in the Bluegrass at Keeneland on April 6; ran second the whole way and moved easily but never pressed before getting blown past by Sierra Leone. Sense Brad Cox will designate Just a Touch as the rabbit for Catching Freedom. In the mix early, fades. Pass.  

6. Just Steel (20-1): The most experienced runner, making 12th lifetime start under the bright lights for veteran trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Minor stakes win in late November but 0-4 since, including second in the Arkansas Derby. Sense he'll be on the pace early and jockey Keith Asmussen is fairly green. Pass. 

14. Endlessly (30-1): Tries dirt for the first time, which is an automatic toss. Already an accomplished turf horse with wins in his first three last fall and a game try in the Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf, this guy has done nothing wrong, winning two lower level stakes on synthetic surfaces in California and Kentucky, including clobbering West Saratoga (50-1; more below). Respect the connections. Just not the stomach to use in my tickets jumping two class levels and running on a new surface. 

11. Forever Young (10-1) and 10. T O Password (30-1): In a 20-horse field, you have to draw the line somewhere for budgetary purposes. For me, I automatically toss a) entrants from Aqueduct in New York and b) shippers from Japan. On the latter, there's constant hype, yet since 2019 none of the Japanese shippers has finished better than sixth. Some handicappers will make the case for Forever Young with five wins in five tries, including the Grade 2 UAE Derby, yet it's a lot to ask a still-maturing horse that has won in three different countries to head to North America and face a field of 20. Both runners are show me stories as far as my wagering is concerned. Will pass on both, tip cap if one wins or both hit the board. 

20. Society Man (50-1): Poor trainer Danny Gargan, whose better horse draws the rail. Society Man is a reach and gets into the starting gate on points from finishing second at 106-to-1 in the Wood. Pass. 

5. Catalytic (30-1): Ran second in the Florida Derby, about a mile behind Derby favorite Fierceness, who was never pressed on the lead. Catalytic has only one win (maiden debut in October 2023) but then sat out for five months before an optional claiming race in March that he lost by three-quarters of a length. Feels like a reach. 

15. Domestic Product (30-1): The lesser of Chad Brown's two runners. If my name was listed as trainer, morning line would be 50-1. Nothing to get excited about in DP's neck win in a slow yet exciting Tampa Derby blanket finish. DID beat Fierceness for second the race prior (Holy Bull Stakes). Unwilling, however, to deem a contender of any sort. Pass. 

13. West Saratoga (50-1): Won the Grade 3 Iriquois at Churchill last September. There. I said something nice about a horse who is an uninspiring 0-for-4 since and doesn't belong in the field. Pass. 

16. Grand Mo the First (50-1): Yet another reason why the Derby field should be capped at 15. Many rungs below the contenders. Pass. 

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