By Kevin Martin
Trainer Bob Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby four times in his Hall of Fame career. He saddled the first Triple Crown winner since 1977 with American Pharoah in 2015. Needless to say, he knows how to condition a horse to be their best on the biggest days in racing. This year he enters Justify, the morning line favorite, in the 144th edition of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville.
Justify will have to overcome two significant historical hurdles to notch trainer Baffert's fifth Derby. Justify didn't make his career debut until February 18th and only has three career starts under his belt. The talent he exuded in those three starts—including a dominant win over multiple stakes winner Bolt d'Oro in the Santa Anita Derby—has overshadowed his lack of experience. Should he win the Derby on Saturday, he would become the first horse to do so without starting as a 2-year old since 1882 and only the third runner since 1915 to capture the historic race in his fourth career start.
The biggest threat to Justify is Mendelssohn who comes to Louisville by way of Ireland under the care of Aidan O'Brien, the best trainer on the planet without a Kentucky Derby to his name. Mendelssohn earned his entry with a resounding eighteen length win in the UAE Derby on the Dubai World Cup undercard in March. It was the colt's first career start over a dirt surface having made his previous six runs over turf or synthetic tracks. Mendelssohn has proven he can ship into tough spots and win. He did that during last year's Breeders' Cup weekend when he proved his mettle with a victory in the always competitive Juvenile Turf. The prime question mark—like Justify—is historical, as UAE Derby winners have not fared well in the Kentucky Derby, the best finish being a fifth place back in 2011 by Master of Hounds. In spite of that history, the colt from Ireland gives trainer O'Brien his best chance to add America's greatest race to a career resume that includes nearly every major stakes race in England and Ireland.
Trainer Todd Pletcher has a total of four entries who are all coming off wins in major prep races including victors of the Arkansas Derby (Magnum Moon), Florida Derby (Audible), Louisiana Derby (Noble Indy), and the Wood Memorial (Vino Russo). Pletcher's main rider, John Velazquez, chose Vino Rosso for his Derby mount which provides insight on the Hall of Fame jockey's opinion about the trainer's four entries. The jockey's choice aside, Audible and Magnum Moon appears to be the better colts on paper. Audible has won back-to-back stakes in Florida and Magnum Moon has done the same in Arkansas.
Good Magic and Bolt d'Oro are a pair of colts whose career high points (so far) came last year as 2-year-olds. Good Magic won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Bolt d' Oro won two stakes races in 2017. This year, Bolt d'Oro won his season debut via disqualification. In his most recent start, he was no match for Justify when finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby. Good Magic won his most recent start in a pedestrian edition of the Blue Grass Stakes in Lexington. Both will need to find their elite 2-year-old form to have a shot at getting to the winner's circle on Saturday.
Two runners—My Boy Jack and Hofburg—are long shots and unlikely winners but have a chance to capture a top-four finish and create big paydays for exacta, trifecta, and superfecta wagers. My Boy Jack will likely go off at odds exceeding 30-1 but he does his best running late and he will be passing horses as the field begins to tire down the stretch. He's among the most experienced colts of the bunch with ten career starts and eight top-three finishes. The other potential longshot, Hofburg, has a short resume but has also shown late speed in his three career races. He finished second to Audible in only his third career start in the Florida Derby. He trailed by over fifteen lengths early in that race but finished just three lengths from the winner. He is listed as 20-1 on the morning line.
This year's Kentucky Derby has at least seven in the field who have a legitimate shot to win which will make for a great betting race. Post-time for the historic race is 6:34 EST.
For a quick look at all 20 starters, check out the Hello Race Fans 2018 Kentucky Derby Cheat Sheet
Kevin Martin is the founder of the thoroughbred racing history site Colin's Ghost.
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