Do you believe that history affects athletic performances? It’s a good question to ask when the athletes are human but maybe not so good when other creatures do the vying.
That’s my thought as another Kentucky Derby approaches on Saturday. The two favorites—Justify and Mendelssohn—each would have to overcome historical barriers to win, Justify because no horse unraced as a two-year-old has won the Big Race since 1882 and Mendelssohn because no horse based in Europe ever has turned the trick.
I suppose that’s interesting but by me it’s irrelevant because horses can’t read and, thus, probably know less history than most Americans, although I’m not entirely sure about that. Both animals will be in my tickets when the starting gate opens at old Churchill Downs.
The Derby is tough for handicappers because its 1 ¼-mile is longer than any of the three-year-old contestants have run and its field of 19 or 20 is larger, ensuring that some of the runners (we never know which) will be jostled out of their games. The good news is that most years, including this one, an elite field means that very good odds will be available on some very good horses, setting up some lucrative payout possibilities.
JUSTIFY is 3-1 in the morning line and MENDELSSOHN is 5-1, and you’ll never see odds like those on them again. Although unraced at two, Santa Anita Derby winner Justify is the fastest horse in the field, with three Beyer speed ratings of 100 or better to show for his three races, all wins. He can’t be overlooked despite his slim credentials. Neither, says me, can UK-based Mendelssohn, who has won on three continents, including last year’s Breeders Cup Juvenile Turf in the U.S. Both like to run on or near the lead, which is good in a big field. They’ll both be in my two, five-horse, $1 exacta boxes, and if they run 1-2 I’ll about break even. As Joe E. Lewis used to say, that’d be good ‘cause I need the money.
The horse I’ll really be rooting for is GOOD MAGIC, 12-1 in the morning line. He’s won both the Breeders Cup Juvenile at two and last month’s Blue Grass Stakes, and has logged a 100 Beyer, the gold-standard for top-level Thoroughbreds. Further, and importantly, he beat a field of 15 in the Blue Grass, showing he doesn’t mind a crowd. He’ll also be in both my boxes and will ensure a nice payout if he finishes first or second.
Barring late scratches or mind changes I’ll round out my boxes with a couple of middle-priced horses and a couple of real longshots, with one in each. The middle-pricers are speedy BOLT D’ORO, who chased but didn’t quite catch Justify in California, and AUDIBLE, a “what’s not to like?” colt who’s won four of five, including the Florida Derby. Both are 8-1 going in. The true longshots, both 30-1, are NOBLE INDY and MY BOY JACK, the latter a Silky Sullivan-style closer. My Derby fantasy has him roaring down the home stretch Saturday, battling Good Magic to the wire. If they go 1-2 I’ll take you out to lunch.