The signage at Churchill Downs is already set for Kentucky Derby 139 Saturday, May 4th.
LOUISVILLE (WDRB) --- One thing you should know about me...I have Derby fever, and I will always have Derby fever. Before I moved to Louisville, it was one of three things on my sports "bucket list". The others are covering the Super Bowl and playing Augusta National, home of the Masters.
Kentucky Derby 138 was my maiden Run for the Roses. My entire family flew in from Philadelphia, including my grandmother and her boyfriend. Four other close friends from college drove 12 hours each way to be at Churchill Downs. I had eight people staying in my 800 square foot condo. It was cramped and hot, but it was awesome.
Prior to the race, as the field of 20 horses came out of the paddock to the 170,000+ voices singing "My Old Kentucky Home", I stood alone on the turf track. I won't lie. There were a few tears.
I've covered the Rose Bowl, BCS National Championship, and Final Four. I've never experienced a sports moment as powerful as that. That moment of grand pomp and circumstance is my fondest memory from my first Derby experience. It's what has excited me so much to relive it all over again.
That excitement has turned into vigorously studying this year's Derby contenders. With Kentucky Derby 139 now 10 days away, here are 10 things you need to know:
1. Verrazano is trying to become the first since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby after not racing as a 2-year-old.
The likely Derby 139 favorite, trained by Todd Pletcher, is trying to overcome the same history Bodemeister couldn't beat down the stretch last year. Verrazano is unbeaten in four races but all as a 3-year-old.
There are two other red flags with the leader of this year's "Todd Squad": the jockey and lack of momentum heading into the first Saturday in May. Pletcher has tabbed John Velazquez, one of the biggest name jockeys you'll find, but Velazquez is coming off injury. Johnny V took a terrible spill the day after riding Verrazano to victory in the Wood Memorial and broke a rib and chip fractured his right wrist. Pletcher said in a conference call this week Velazquez will be aboard for Verrazano's next work Sunday.
The other knock on Verrazano's perfect record is declining speed figures as the distances get longer. Dick Jerardiis one of the great horse racing writers in the country and says this is not an eliminator, but it is a warning sign. Verrazano's Beyer Speed Figure has gone from 105 at a mile, to 101 at 1/16 miles, to 95 at 1 1/8 miles in his latest win at the Wood. The average Beyer for a Derby winner is 108 (I'll Have Another won last year's with a Beyer of 101, the 2nd worst in the last 20 years).
2. There has never been a horse to win the Kentucky Derby with a Beyer Speed Figure less than 100, since the measurement was invented.
Andrew Beyer is a horse racing columnist for the Washington Post and came up with this performance rating in 1975. In 1992, the Daily Racing Form began using it regularly.
Only four horses in this year's Derby crop come in having run a Beyer of at least 100: Verrazano twice (but not in his latest race), Itsmyluckyday twice (but also not in his latest race, a 2nd place finish behind Orb in the Florida Derby), Goldencents, and Revolutionary. Here's the order:
Goldencents - 105 (Santa Anita Derby)
Verrazano - 105 (optional claimer)
Itsmyluckyday - 104 (Holy Bull)
Itsmyluckyday - 102 (Gulfstream Park Derby)
Revolutionary - 102 (win in first career race)
Verrazano - 101 (Tampa Bay Derby)
Now, having never run a race with a 100+ Beyer doesn't mean the horse won't do so in the Derby. I'll Have Another proved that, among others, but it's something else to keep in mind.
3. Todd Pletcher has entered 31 horses in the Kentucky Derby and won one time.
One of the first pieces of advice some random horse racing fans told me in the two weeks leading up to my first Derby was, "Don't pick a Pletcher horse." I witnessed that first hand when unbeaten Gemologist lost the Derby last year by 30 lengths.
In fairness, Pletcher's record is a product of often having multiple horses entered into the same Derby field. Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas said Thursday he told Pletcher he better win this year because the media is brutal. Pletcher will likely enter five Derby horses, with a sixth possible in Winning Cause, which would break the Derby record for horses in the field by one trainer.
But this year is different. Jerardi pointed out Pletcher has never entered the winners of the Wood, Arkansas Derby, and Louisiana Derby. Those races combined with the Santa Anita Derby and Florida Derby are the major prep races, and Pletcher won three-fifths of them this year.
4. Know the pace scenario.
Last year, people expected Trinniberg and Bodemeister to be the horses out front. They were correct. Bodemeister set a blistering pace that he could not withstand down the stretch.
This year, the talk is Verrazano and Goldencents have the best speed, but it's unlikely we will see a Bodemeister-type pace in the first quarter mile and half mile, making it more likely a horse in front out of the gate can hang on and win at the wire.
Then again, you never know how a horse will react in a Kentucky Derby atmosphere, perhaps starting out too fast.
5. Orb has not lost as a three-year-old.
This is why he will likely be the 2nd choice behind Verrazano when the morning line odds come out. The knock is Orb has yet to run a 100+ Beyer, but 97 in both the Florida Derby and Fountain of Youth is close. Analysts have pointed out the horses he beat in those races didn't require him to run a 100+ Beyer. If Orb has something left in the tank, we'll surely see it May 4th.
However, I never like to see a horse that a jockey turned down. That was the case with Orb. John Velazquez had to choose between Verrazano and Orb and chose Verrazano.
6. If you don't bet on Rick Pitino's horse, don't say I didn't warn you.
Goldencents is legit. Of the final Derby prep races winners, nobody put up a better Beyer Speed Figure than Goldencents' 105 at Santa Anita.
Rick Pitino owns a 5-percent share in the horse that was originally purchased for $62,000. He could have a 0.001% share in the horse, for all I care. After the month Rick Pitino had, I will not be one of the patrons without a Goldencents betting slip.
Pitino joked if Goldencents wins the Kentucky Derby, he's afraid he'll get struck by lightning walking out of the track. He may be do for some bad luck at some point, but I will have a bet on Goldencents. Call me supersticious.
By the way, Goldencents' trainer is Doug O'Neill, the same trainer as I'll Have Another.
My one concern is his recent work. He went six furlongs in 1:16.20 at Santa Anita Thursday, before shipping out to Churchill Downs over the weekend. That's not great, but I care more about his impressive race performances.
7. Overanalyze is overrated
Pletcher's second horse in the Derby point standings may have won the Arkansas Derby, but he did it with a Beyer of 88. That's a terrible number heading into the Derby. So what? The race before Overanalyze finished 5th in the Gotham Stakes. I'm not buying this horse.
8. Mylute is a live longshot
Like last year, this Derby field of horses isn't all that impressive. If you're looking for a live longshot, why not Mylute? Rosie Nepravnik has the mount once again and was the last rider to win aboard Mylute in December.
So far at Churchill Downs, Mylute may have had the most impressive breeze, going four furlongs in 47.8 seconds Sunday morning. One more work is planned for early Saturday morning.
Nepravnik is certainly a jockey for the track too, after becoming the first female to win the Kentucky Oaks last year. With Mylute possibly going off around 40-1, why not?
9. Calvin Borel is again a serious threat
He's a threat more because of the live mount he has this year but also because he's Calvin Borel. He'll ride Revolutionary, yet another Pletcher horse, and there is a parallel to when Borel rode Super Saver to victory in the 2010 Derby.
That year Pletcher had four horses in the field. Super Saver was the second betting choice among his horses. Revolutionary is also the second choice right now in Vegas among the year's "Todd Squad" behind Verrazano. Pletcher said nobody knows Churchill Downs better. Borel's three Derby wins are a testament to that.
As for Revolutionary himself, he's coming off a win in the Louisiana Derby but hasn't run a 100+ Beyer race since his maiden win.
10. Other contenders/pretenders (subject to change following final works):
Contenders: Vyjack, Will Take Charge (seven weeks in between races), Govenor Charlie (don't count out Bob Baffert), Normandy Invasion (1st time Derby trainer Chad Brown)
Pretenders: Java's War (not a believer that Keeneland polytrack translates to Derby dirt), Lines of Battle (earning Derby points in Dubai isn't the same), Black Onyx, Palace Malice, Frac Daddy, Oxbow, Falling Sky, Charming Kitten, Winning Cause, Code West