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The 6th Annual Casual Kentucky Derby Preview

Update: International Star has been scratched.

Welcome to the 6th Annual Casual Kentucky Derby Preview!

Today represents one of the more Casual days of the year as I get to drop knowledge in the form of thousands of words on the Kentucky Derby, the crown jewel of the Triple Crown season and the Greatest Two Minutes in Sports. Though moderately casual fans enjoy Derby Day for the mint juleps and women wearing sundresses and fancy hats, real casual fans anticipate the arrival of the first Saturday in May as an opportunity to make some coin.

Now, you're probably thinking "What does this doofus who runs a Georgetown Hoyas blog who is busy designing basketball courts and interviewing swimsuit models know about horse racing?" Well, let's take a look to see what has gone down since we started this Derby Preview thing, shall we?

2010: 4 of the 6 horses I picked finished in the top 7, netting a Trifecta WIN and the resulting funds that led to the eventual creation of CasuALE, the world's first blog beer.

2011: 4 of top 6 finished in top 8, netting a Trifecta WIN that paid for numerous lunches both documented and non-documented alike.

2012: 4 out of the 6 horses finished in the top 7, resulting in a horrific and embarrassing Trifecta LOSS as I completely whiffed on eventual winner ‘I'll Have Another'. Whatever.

2013: 3 of the 6 ponies finished in the top 6 including the winning and show horse, resulting in a narrow Trifecta LOSS.

2014: 4 of the 6 ponies finished in top 6, missed out on place horse Commanding Curve otherwise Trifecta GOLD JERRY GOLD.

So to recap, over the past five years I have narrowed a field of 100 horses to 30, and of those 30, 19 have finished in the top 8 including two Trifecta WINS, a few heartbreaking and soul-crushing Trifecta losses, and the eventual creation of beer.

To make it even more simple, if you have followed my guidance over the past four years you would have spent $600 and won $3,144.90, for net winnings of $2,544.90.  NOT SHITTY!  BALL DON'T LIE!

But here's the thing - I've been in a bit of a slump lately.  If you started wagering in 2012 according to this Opus, you are in the red and probably hate me.  But that's cool, we'll get through this.  Together.

Before we get to the analysis of the ponies, some ground rules. In this space as in years past I'm going to narrow the 20 horse field down to a group of 6 for a real casual $1, 6-horse trifecta box ($120) of Casual Destiny and Hope and Freedom and America.  Remember - if you're looking to win some major coin on the Derby, you don't do it by wagering your hard earned money on all of the favorites. LOOK MOMMY I WON BY BETTING ON THE FAVORITE AREN'T I AWESOME CAN I HAVE A COOKIE AND MAYBE CAN YOU FAVORITE MY TWEET? No, you make money by nailing the trifecta or even better the superfecta, sprinkled with value horses that have a chance to hit the board. With that in mind, below is likely the longest yet most casual analysis of the 2015 Derby field you will likely find anywhere else, from someone who has actually watched all of these horses run in all of their prep races.  EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM. Away we go...

The Analysis, in Order of Post Position:

1Ocho Ocho Ocho (50-1)

Loosely translated to '8 8 8' in English (CAN SOMEONE CHECK MY SPANISH ON THIS ONE?), if this horse finishes anything higher than 8th it will be a damn miracle. Loves the lead and isn't good enough to sustain it for a mile and an eighth let alone the mile and a quarter. Dead at the 1 post.

Verdict: TOSS.

2. Carpe Diem (8-1)

A Todd Pletcher horse and the son of personal favorite Afleet Alex, Carpe Diem heads to Churchill after winning the Blue Grass Stakes in a race he won after turning it on at the top of the stretch to turn away fellow Derby competitors Danzig Moon and Ocho Ocho Ocho.

Carpe Diem had a perfect trip in the Blue Grass, but the prep that impressed me more was his win in the Tampa Bay Derby in his debut as a 3 year old in which he emerged from getting stuck at the rail behind leaders, swung outside, and won going away down the stretch. This turn of foot is good to see, as in the Derby the winning horse is going to need to navigate through and around traffic, especially coming out of that 2 post.

Perhaps even more impressive was his 2nd place finish in the Breeders Cup Juvenile as a 2 year old.  In the Breeders, Carpe Diem had a terrible trip, had to go way way way outside to find a clear path home and stormed down the track to grab 2nd by a nose.  The Breeders was also a race with fast early fractions, which bodes well for Carpe Diem in the Derby which usually opens up in the final furlong for horses with good closing speed.

Verdict: 2 post isn't at all casual, but include.

3. Materiality (12-1)

Materiality won the Florida Derby in a head to head battle with Upstart in a race which saw them crush the rest of the field which included Derby contender Itsaknockout.

Materiality races against history in the Derby, which hasn't seen a horse unraced as a 2-year old win since 1882.  That's a long time ago! I'm not betting against history here, though Materiality could be a factor down the stretch if he gets a good trip.

Verdict: Too fast to ignore.

4. Tencendur (30-1)

Ran the race of his life so far in the Wood Memorial and was run down by Frosted in the stretch.  I can't see him duplicating that effort here, not against this class of competition in a race that's likely to be faster than the pace the Wood was run.  4 post isn't going to help his cause.

Verdict: TOSS.

5. Danzig Moon (30-1)

Danzig will need a lot to happen in order to hit the board in the Derby.  Doesn't seem that fast and even when he ran his fastest he was soundly beaten by 3 lengths by Carpe Diem in the Blue Grass and by 12 lengths courtesy of Carpe Diem in the Tampa Bay.

Verdict: TOSS

6. Mubtaahij (20-1)

Mubtaahij is your annual foreign entry in the Derby, coming off a win in the UAE Derby.

Usually I toss these entrants without thinking twice, but man, this race was really impressive.  Bunched down behind a wall of 4 horses at the top of the stretch, Mubtaahij waited for his spot and then blew by everyone else, crushing the field en route to an easy win. Check out that acceleration at the top of the stretch. Hot damn.

Verdict: Include - that kind of turn of foot and speed is rare from UAE Derby winners in years past, not afraid to get dirt kicked in face.

7. El Kabeir (30-1)

El Kabeir won the Gotham Stakes to help him get to the Derby, a Grade 3 Stakes race against very little competition.  Since then he has stepped up in class but hasn't had anything to show for it, and I don't expect that will change on Saturday.

Verdict: TOSS.

8. Dortmund (3-1)

The son of Triple Crown threat Big Brown and trained by Bob Baffert, Dortmund is undefeated heading into the Derby. An impressive looking horse that reminds me physically of the Smarty Jones-era's Rock Hard Ten, Dortmund has done everything asked of him in his career and will likely be the co-favorite along with American Pharoah to win.  If I need to find one fault with Dortmund it's this - his front-running style.  In his last two preps, the San Felipe and the Santa Anita, Dortmund has gotten out to the lead at the first turn and fended off all comers without much contest.  Impressive no doubt, but what if he's unable to get out to the front in the mad dash out of the gate that is the Kentucky Derby?

His much earlier run in the Robert B. Lewis I liked better, where he rated off the pace and then battled Firing Line down the stretch where he was passed and then came back to win.  But have his handlers decided that his best chance to win now is to go for the lead at the first turn?  I don't know the answer to that, but that's the style he showed in the preps after the Robert B. Lewis so I'm going to assume yes.

Verdict: Include, possible winner.

9. Bolo (30-1)

Bolo's most impressive run was capturing a distant 3rd in the Santa Anita Derby, a race dominated by Dortmund.  Bolo broke well in that race but appeared never really figured out where he wanted to run from, gaining on the pack, then dropping back, then finally making a wide run down the middle of the track to capture a piece.  Given that all this occurred in a field of 6, I don't have much hope for this horse in a field of 20.

Verdict: TOSS

10. Firing Line (12-1)

Firing Line enters the Derby as your defending Sunland Derby champ, crushing the field by a whopping 15 lengths as the 1/5 betting fave.  Firing Line finished 2nd to Dortmund in both the Robert B. Lewis and the Los Alamos Futurity, and hasn't done much against classy competition.

Verdict: Sunland romp impressive, but didn't impress against better competition.  BUT that 1:47 time at a mile and an eighth means he might be a factor. Include in exotics.

11. Stanford (30-1)

Good looking horse that finished 2nd in the Louisiana Derby to International Star, but I don't see anything from his past performances that may indicate he's ready for a bold run come Saturday.

Verdict: TOSS.

Update: Stanford has been SCRATCHED. Everyone from 12-20 moves in one post. 'Frammento' is your new 20 post.

12. International Star (20-1)

Plucky horse that won the Louisiana Derby right in front of my eyes, International Star is the Little Engine That Could of this race.  Not imposing physically and really not all that fast per Beyer metrics, International Star still has a knack for winning and enters the Derby as the overall points leader in the field having won each of his last three preps - all in New Orleans.  In the Louisiana Derby, he hung in the mix and defeated fellow Derby contenders Stanford and War Story down the stretch:

In the Risen Star stakes, he carved out some space along the rail for the win:

A versatile horse that can win from all over the track, I don't think he has the speed to be there when it matters against some of the big boys in this race.  Finished 4th in his only try at Churchill.

Verdict: May include to pick up a piece at the bottom based on value and closing style.

Update: International Star has been scratched from race.

13. Itsaknockout (30-1)

This horse is basically being used as an equestrian advertisement for the Mayweather - Pacquiao fight, which is probably the owner way his handlers are going to see any coin out of him come Saturday.

Verdict: TOSS

14. Keen Ice (50-1)

Not much of a factor in the stretch in any of his preps (3rd in the Remsen, 3rd in the Risen Star, 5th in the Louisiana), Keen Ice isn't going to be a factor in this one either. Overmatched.

Verdict: TOSS.

15. Frosted (15-1)

While that bold 107 Beyer figure in the Wood and the closing style in which he captured the race is enticing, Wood Memorial winners are annual disappointments in the Derby.

The good news: Frosted didn't have a good trip in the Wood and had to make up a lot of ground swinging wide, but he still had a lot left in the tank to put away Tencendur down the stretch.  The bad news: it was Tencendur running the race of his life and not any other elite talent, plus the race itself was pretty slow compared to other preps.

Verdict: Not a winner, but at 15-1 the value is pretty good if he can hit the bottom of the board.

16. War Story (50-1)

War Story has underwhelmed in nearly all of his recent races and hasn't looked particularly good on the Churchill track in his works this week.  I cried during the movie ‘War Story', for what it's worth, and I will cry again if this beast hits the board.

Verdict: TOSS.

17. Mr. Z (50-1)

The owners of this horse are running it into the ground, as Mr. Z has seemingly appeared in every prep race out there.  Simply not good enough here at this distance.

Verdict: TOSS.

18. American Pharoah (5-2)

AP will go off as the favorite and with good reason.  His romp in the Arkansas Derby by 8+ lengths may not have been against the best competition, but any horse that can run that impressively without any urging from his jockey has to be considered a major threat to win the Kentucky Derby.  If you don't believe me just watch! Check out what happens at about the 1:10 mark, where AP shifts it into another gear and then blows away the rest of the field:

What I love about this race is that AP didn't get sucked into a front-running battle out of the gate and was able to relax while stalking the leader, and then blew everyone away in the final half of the race.  For me his ability to adapt his running style in the Arkansas was an improvement from his races before then, which was another impressive win in the Rebel Stakes during which he jumped to the lead and led wire to wire, and a similar showing in the FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita:

Distance doesn't appear to be an issue (AP has only increased leads in the final furlongs in his last few preps), the speed is there (105 Beyer in the Arkansas), and really the only thing that would prevent AP from winning is the trip he might get.  A balky left foot early in his career is something naysayers may point to as a reason to bet against, but I'm willing to roll the dice on AP here as the eventual winner barring anything unforeseen happening.  His raw speed and pace without urging from his jockey brings to mind something I wrote last year about a horse called California Chrome:

"I mention this because in all the years I've wasted my time doing this, I don't recall being as impressed with a horse as I have been with California Chrome...what had me slobbering on myself, is that he is able to pull away from this field at the top of the stretch without his jockey even using the whip on him.  Just look at it again, fucking CRUISE CONTROL as he blew away the field."

Same deal here.

Verdict: Must include, possible winner.

19. Upstart (15-1)

Upstart battled gamely with Materiality in the Florida Derby and grabbed 2nd place in a race in which the two were neck and neck until it appeared as if Materiality jumped into his lane in the final furlong.  Upstart is fast enough to at least be in the mix here.  He won the Fountain of Youth taking down Frosted at the top of the stretch, and also won the Holy Bull in impressive fashion.  The problem is that he's going to be running out of the 19, and with American Pharoah directly to his left, I think he's going to burn a lot of energy early.

Verdict: Include in exotics.

20. Far Right (30-1)

Far Right won the Southwest Stakes in a really nice run, closing from last and weaving from outside to the rail to win by a neck under the hand of Mike Smith.

Verdict: Far Right might be best suited to a mile or a mile and an eighth. When asked to go an extra furlong in the Arkansas he was blitzed by American Pharaoh, and I'd be surprised if he threatens for a piece at the mile and a quarter, especially coming out of the 20 post which is, ironically, the one on the far right. TOSS.

20. Frammento (50-1)
Late entry into the race after Stanford scratched, this Nick Zito horse has no chance to win the race. None. 

Verdict: TOSS.

That's the whole field! Let's see where we are. Out of the entire field we have narrowed it down to the following:

2. Carpe Diem (8-1)
3. Materiality (12-1)
6. Mubtaahij (20-1)
8. Dortmund (3-1)
10. Firing Line (12-1)
15. Frosted (15-1)
18. American Pharoah (5-2)
19. Upstart (15-1)

Eight horses! Need to get to six.

Adios, Materiality.  Materiality was unraced as a 2-year old and I'm not as impressed with that Florida Derby win as some others might be.  Materiality sloppily bumped Upstart in the stretch and the race was run at slow fractions. I'll take my chances with him beating me here.

Sayonara, Upstart.  Here's the thing with Upstart.  The Florida Derby race was really slow.  Like a full 2-3 seconds slower than some of these other prep races.  I like the value at 15-1, but I think he's a bit out of his league here and the 19 post does him no favors with speed on his inside.

So there we have it, the $1, 6 horse trifecta box ($120) will include:

2. Carpe Diem (8-1)
6. Mubtaahij (20-1)
8. Dortmund (3-1)
10. Firing Line (12-1)
15. Frosted (15-1)
18. American Pharoah (5-2)

Not bad.  A little chalky but I'm fine with that, especially if one or more of the double-digit value plays hit the board. My hope is that Carpe Diem gets into the 10+ to 1 range as bettors shy away from that 2 hole so I'll have four double-digit runners.

How The Race 'Should' Play Out:

Last year's race was run at slow early fractions with the unheralded Uncle Sigh leading the horses around the first half mile in 47+ seconds.  That race played right into the hands of California Chrome, the favorite heading into the race who was able to sit off the lead and run his race without burning fuel early.  As a comparison, in 2013, Palace Malice led the field in a 45 second half mile, a full two seconds faster.  In that race, and in any Derby that sees fast early fractions, a horse with closing speed benefits, and eventual winner Orb stayed towards the back of the pack and had enough left in the tank to surge down the stretch and into the finish.

So what can we learn from last year's race? With this field, perhaps a lot.

Like last year, there isn't much speed to worry about here.  Though obviously everything will come down to how the horses break from the gate and the trips they get, as the field approaches the top of the stretch American Pharoah should be near the lead and will turn on the jets.  As the early speed horses fight to hold on and fade, Dortmund, Mubtaahij and Carpe Diem will bid for shares as Firing Line and Frosted make bold final surges down the stretch.  At the wire, I think American Pharoah takes it by a couple lengths, with some combo of Dortmund, Mubtaahij, Firing Line, Frosted and Carpe Diem rounding out the top 6.  If I had to pick a top 6 in order, I'll roll:

WIN: 18. American Pharoah
PLACE: 6. Mubtaahij
SHOW: 8. Dortmund
4th: 15. Frosted
5th: 10. Firing Line
6th: 2. Carpe Diem

Mubtaahij is my wild card in this race and I could be way off on him, but that UAE Derby run was striking and I can't ignore it.  If he and American Pharoah are in the clear at the top of the stretch, I'm not sure American Pharoah beats him.  Note that I don't love Dortmund as much as others do, but 3-1 isn't great value and though the 8 post position will give him options, I'm not sure how he'll react running from off the pace with American Pharoah coming strong from his right where he's never been pressured from in his life.  Watch out for Firing Line, as he reminds me a little bit of Animal Kingdom. Frosted runs late and might be able to grab a piece.

As I have a tendency to go back and forth and talk myself out of my analysis as the prices change for these horses once the money starts pouring in, be sure to check right back here in the comments for entertaining schizophrenic updates right up until go time.

I had a chance to visit Churchill last year and if you are ever in the fine city of Louisville, you must go. Documentation below.









2009 Derby champion Mine That Bird!


At the end of the day, wager how you wish but remember to wager, because life without gambling on ponies is a life not worth living. 

Enjoy the race.