Picking a Kentucky Derby winner this year may seem easy on paper. Or chalk, as Tiz the Law and his generational-low 3/5 morning line odds illustrate. But while there’s plenty of value underneath, there are also plenty of minefields – horses you want to avoid stuffing underneath in those trifectas and superfectas.
You want to blow up tote boards when they hit, not blow up your tickets because you shot for the moon and barely reached the sky.
With all but three horses, Tiz the Law, Honor A.P. (5/1), and Authentic (8/1), carrying double-digit morning line odds, potential mouth-watering payouts are out there. Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia put 50/1 morning line numbers on eight of the 18 Derby starters. Four more check in at 30/1 and two others – King Guillermo and Ny Traffic – are 20/1.
This means choosing the right long shot or long shots becomes more important than in years with more evenly based odds. In turn, that means winnowing out horses who, for whatever reason, aren’t likely to find the board.
OG explores three Derby hopefuls who, for various reasons, could take bettors on a trip into that minefield instead of that trip to the window.
Given his strong summer and decent speed figures, it hurt putting Max Player here. After all, there’s plenty to be said about a horse who finished third to Tiz the Law at both the Belmont Stakes and the Travers Stakes, albeit by a combined 12 ¾ lengths. And there’s plenty to be said for a horse who is 5-for-5 in hitting the board.
But it’s a toss-up between deep closer Max Player in post 2 and speed-hog Authentic in post 18 for who drew the least-conducive post for their running style. Trainer Steve Asmussen, still in search of his first Derby win, called the draw “all good,” after learning of his new charge’s post position.
We beg to differ. While Max Player shows better-than-decent speed (a career-best 99 Beyer Speed Figure and solid 107 Brisnet), he’s a horse with negligible gate speed who likes to run mid-pack. What this means is traffic. Lots and lots of traffic, as the other 16 horses cascade upon him en route to the rail.
Deep closers plus inside paths times 18-horse fields equals exotic-ticket-killing trouble. Max Player simply isn’t good enough to overcome the Derby’s version of Southern California’s infamous 405 Freeway at rush hour.
Did someone mention “deep closers and trouble?” Now, throw in poor form and suspect training tactics, and it’s easy to understand why we’re fading this Derby hopeful.
Let’s start with his #12 post. This means Sole Volante needs to either break out fast to avoid getting shuttled wide – thus eliminating his one weapon (closing speed) – or stays back and gets swallowed up. Now, let’s talk about pace. You’ll remember in June, Sole Volante rallied from 23 lengths back to win a Gulfstream allowance over unheralded Jesus’ Team and Shivaree.
You’ll note neither of those two are in the Derby field. Nor is stablemate Ete Indien, who engaged Shivaree in the speed-duel hara-kiri that enabled Sole Volante to win that race.
You’ll also remember he turned around on 10 days rest, went to the Belmont Stakes, and ran the worst race of his career. Sole Volante finished a dreadful sixth, nearly 16 lengths behind Tiz the Law. On top of that, he finished 10 ½ lengths behind Max Player, the other deep closer in the field.
That was on June 20. Sole Volante hasn’t raced since, and didn’t work out for more than a month afterward. This isn’t a good sign for Derby contenders. Either he’s hurt or he’s underprepared for the biggest race of his career to date.
Storm the Court
Speaking of bad form, we can’t (though we should) overlook Derby hopeful Storm the Court whose form has been mediocre, at best, since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November.
Fourth in the Grade 2 San Vicente. Third in the Grade 2 San Felipe, 9 ¼ lengths behind Authentic and 3 ½ behind Honor A.P. Sixth in the Arkansas Derby, mailing it in down the stretch and finishing 12 lengths behind Nadal and behind both King Guillermo and Finnick the Fierce. Third behind fourth-tier Derby contenders Dean Martini and South Bend in what should have been a slam-dunk Ohio Derby.
You get the idea.
With a career-best 90 Beyer, Storm the Court simply doesn’t have the speed – pure or tactical – to hang with the top tier contenders. It’s apparent that barring a move to turf, where he showed promise with a runner-up at last month’s La Jolla Stakes at Del Mar, we’ve seen Storm the Court’s ceiling as a juvenile.