Keepin' It Real About The Kentucky Derby

We've broken the one hundred day barrier on the road to the Kentucky Derby, which means it’s time to crown a winner!

At least, that’s what every Bob, Joe, and Hank would tell you. You know those guys: the ones who knew they saw every Derby winner the day they broke their maiden.

I have no problem with the rationale and don’t want to rain on anyone’s parade. By all means, be excited about the Derby. I certainly am; but let’s get real about a few of the fancied runners at this stage.

Zulu is the prototypical hype horse. He’s been hammered at the windows at both starts and his seven length victory against first level allowance company dropped jaws nationwide. Did he really improve that significantly from his maiden victory to his allowance win, or was the improvement a result of the sloppy surface?

While he may have come on for the run, Todd Pletcher is one of the best in the business when it comes to debutants being amply prepared and for that reason, one wouldn’t expect second-time starters from his barn to improve nearly as much as those from other barns.

Instead, I’m suggesting Zulu improved for the surface switch. That’s not to say Zulu can’t run well over drier tracks, he proved in his maiden breaker over a track designated good that he could, but there’s reason to believe his peak performances could come over sloppy surfaces based on his breeding. He is by Bernardini who won the Jim Dandy by nine lengths over a track designated sloppy, and he is a half brother to wet track winner Illegal Search. Zulu’s dam is a half sister to Gold Ingot, who on multiple occasions won on the slop, and his second dam Lemhi Go won the G2 La Prevoyante over muddy surface. Summer Squall, Zulu’s damsire, was also the damsire of Summer Bird -- a noted slop lover.

Perhaps Zulu is very good, but I’m going to take the stance that it was more likely the wet surface brought out the best in him. While we’re at it, throw Greenpointcrusader into that same boat. Also a son of Bernardini, his full brother Algorithms won the Holy Bull by five lengths in the slop and millionaire half sibling Justin Phillip won four times over sealed wet surfaces, including an easy 3 ¼ length romp in the G2 Woody Stephens. Throw in fellow wet track winning sibling Keyed Entry (G2 Hutcheson) too. You get the point.

Another horse who has wet track form is Exaggerator. While I won’t be nearly as harsh on him from that perspective, it was extraordinary when Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 1 closed that he was sitting there at 25-1. While he has generally performed well, it’s noteworthy that he lost his only two attempts in G1 company. To take things a step further, Brody’s Cause defeated him on both occasions, indicating to me that -- at least at this point in time -- he has Exaggerator’s measure.

Exaggerator may turn out to be a nice little horse, but 25-1 on him versus 21-1 on Brody’s Cause is a no-brainer for #TeamBrody. With Exaggerator set to run the day after Future Pool 2 closes and with Brody’s Cause being trained up to his seasonal debut in March, keep an eye on the prices of these two with respect to each other in that pool. I have a feeling Brody’s Cause will be the value play.

I saved the best for last in Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist. He’s the guy those on social media have deemed “the first horse to toss from Derby contention” or “the one who is overrated and can’t win.”

The funny thing about Nyquist is that, for an undefeated three-time G1 winner who won well at the Breeders’ Cup, I actually think he is grossly underrated. Sure, it’s the horseplayer in us all to seek out value -- and this is the case now more than ever with three straight favorites having worn the blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May. He has defeated large fields over dry dirt, he’s had success around two turns, and Swipe finishing second behind him in the Juvenile solidified his formlines.

There’s no doubting there is a fair amount of speed in Nyquist’s pedigree and Uncle Mo’s progeny looked like precocious types last year, but the few classy ones we’ve seen this year appear to have trained on similarly to Uncle Mo himself. The tractability he showed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile could also allow him to stay longer trips should they continue to use off the pace tactics with him.

Perhaps 10 furlongs will ultimately be his undoing, but unlike those already mentioned on this list, Nyquist, bar a setback, is all but in the Kentucky Derby already -- and you can’t win it if you’re not in it. Middle distance influences on the dam’s side of his pedigree, through Seeking The Gold and Pleasant Colony, also add some hope that at least nine furlongs may be within the outer realms of his reach.

All in all, it is still January with plenty of races to come on the road to May. Instead of focusing on finding the Derby winner yesterday, I’ll be searching for the value plays in futures pools as I take each prep race at a time. Even in recent years when Derby prep form has generally held, early fancies like Carpe Diem, Upstart, Samraat, Wildcat Red, Verrazano and Vyjack were nowhere to be found come the big day.

There’s no need to make a Derby decision today, tomorrow, or even next week -- when we are talking formlines over an extended period of time, the most crucial key for a successful horseplayer is to remain level-headed despite the hype.

Photo by Bill Brine

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