TOP 10 KENTUCKY DERBY 2016 CONTENDERS TO FOCUS ON

It's mid-February and there is still 2 1/2 loooong months to go before the Kentucky Derby, which will be run this year on Saturday, May 7.  Churchill Downs may be frozen over at this time of the year, but the road to the Kentucky Derby is just starting to heat up just past the latest Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool, which closed on Feb. 14.  Therefore, it's never too early to start thinking about the Run for the Roses, the next Future Wager, and who the horses are that are shaping up as the best early contenders to win on the first Saturday in May.

Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 2 will be held on March 11-13, and between now and then are some giant races in the 3-year-old division that will really begin narrowing down the true contenders from the pretenders. Those races include major stakes races like the Fountain of Youth from Gulfstream on Saturday, February 27, the Risen Star Stakes from Fair Grounds on February 20, and a couple more big races that will be held during the next Future Wager pool on March 12, the Tampa Bay Derby and the San Felipe from Santa Anita.

As expected in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool that concluded on Feb. 14, the field of "all others" went off as the strong 5-2 favorite. The horses that made up the 23 individual betting interests was topped by Holy Bull Stakes winner Mohaymen at 4-1 odds, and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Nyquist at 7-1.  The odds are definitely worth paying attention to at this year, but keep in mind that it's extremely difficult to try to pick the Derby winner at all, let alone in mid-February. The next chance will be a little more realistic in mid-March when Future Wager enthusiasts can look for bragging rights – and a big payoff – as a reward for selecting the eventual Derby winner from a field of literally hundreds of hopefuls that will still by viable in mid-March.

Of course, just because it is difficult to decipher the best 3-year-olds at this time of year, it doesn't mean it's impossible, and it certainly doesn't mean that it's not worth taking a shot at. At very least we can all learn a lot about a lot of the best contenders so far, based on the information we already have to go on.

As a side note, before we begin, we should at least mention that the horse that is probably head-and-shoulders the best 3-year-old of 2016 will not be racing in the Kentucky Derby. That horse this year happens to be a she, and not a he – Breeders' Cup Juvenile Filly and Eclipse Award winner Songbird. The undefeated filly is a freak of nature, but she is absolutely not under consideration for the Kentucky Derby, according to her owners.  Instead, she will proceed onward to the Kentucky Oaks, where she will be 1-5 odds, in both the Oaks Future Wager, and at post time if she holds together.

And so, with that in mind, here is a look at my top 10 list of Kentucky Derby hopefuls, as it stands for now in the middle of February.

NOEL MICHAELS' KENTUCKY DERBY CONTENDERS (Feb. 16, 2016)

1) NYQUIST
Derby Future Odds: 7-1       Trainer: Doug O'Neill          Jockey: Mario Gutierrez
Breeders' Cup Juvenile champion and 2-year-old Eclipse Award winner Nyquist never seems to get the credit he deserves, perhaps because he lives in the shadow of the fabulous filly Songbird. Nevertheless, all this horse does, and continues to do is win. He began his 3-year-old campaign by picking up right where he left off last season and winning the G2-San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita, defeating the highly-regarded winner of the Delta Jackpot, Exaggerator, by 1 ½ lengths. Nyquist also owns Graded stakes wins in the G2-Best Pal, G1-Del Mar Futurity, and G1-Frontrunner Stakes. Trained by Doug O'Neill, who won two of the last four Santa Anita Derby runnings with Goldencents and eventual Kentucky Derby winner I'll Have Another, Nyquist appears to be heading towards the Santa Anita Derby as the horse to beat out west.

2) SUDDENBREAKINGNEWS
Derby Future Odds: 5-2(f)   Trainer: Donnie Von Hemel   Jockey: L S Quinonez
Topped a 14-horse field in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on President's Day to make the second spot on this list. It wasn't just that he won, but it was how he won that was so impressive. Drew the very bad post 13 and then started slow and trailed the field by five lengths in the early stages before launching a giant eye-catching rally from last-to-first, passing 13 horses and drawing off to win. The runner-up in that race, Whitmore, did not get a great trip, but there still was no doubt who was best as Suddenbreakingnews lived up to his name to propel onto the shortlist of Kentucky Derby contenders. Among the horses he trounced was Bob Baffert's G3-Stakes winner, Collected. Trainer Donnie K Von Hemel says the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn is next, where he will likely face a similar field with some key additions, such as a different Bob Baffert shipper.

3) MOHAYMEN
Derby Future Odds: 4-1       Trainer: Kiaran McLaughlin  Jockey: Junior Alvarado
Perfect 4-for-4 record includes two straight stakes wins at Aqueduct last fall (Nashua and Remsen Stakes), and a victory in his 3-year-old debut in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream. Showed nice acceleration for that 1 1/16-mile win for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, and will proceed next to the Fountain of Youth, where he is expected to be the big favorite.

4) AWESOME BANNER
Derby Future Odds: 53-1     Trainer: Stanley Gold           Jockey: Jose Caraballo
The Fountain of Youth Stakes to be run at Gulfstream Park on Saturday, February 27 will be loaded with horses trying to knock off the third horse on this list, Mohaymen. This race will go a long way to not only decided if Mohaymen is for real, but also if there are any other serious challengers that will break out of the ranks amongst the best 3-year-olds in Florida. The horse most likely to emerge is Awesome Banner, who will stretch out past a sprint for the first time in the Fountain of Youth after sweeping Gulfstream's major 3-year-old sprint stakes, the G3-Hutcheson and then G2-Swale, which he won by 5 lengths with a 95 Beyer speed figure in the Daily Racing Form. His breeding suggests the added distance won't be a problem for him, and that he might even improve as the distances get longer.

5) THE WINNER OF THE RISEN STAR STAKES
The list of horses likely to be heading to the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds is topped by Mo Tom (28-1 Future Wager odds), Airoforce (16-1), and Gun Runner (25-1).  The winner of the race will immediately move solidly onto the list of top contenders leading up to the last round of Kentucky Derby prep races. The most intriguing of this lot looks like AIROFORCE, trained by Mark Casse. He already owns an all-important Graded stakes win at Churchill Downs in the G2-Kentucky Jockey Club last fall, where he already beat Mo Tom, as well as Bob Baffert's Mor Spirit, who already won the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita this winter. Airoforce will be coming off a layoff and may need the Risen Star, however, thereby opening the door for one of the other contenders. Mo Tom, trained by Tom Amoss, already had a prep, and he won it, in the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. Gun Runner for trainer Steve Asmussen, who was fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club last fall, is another interesting contender with upside.

6) SHAGAF
Derby Future Odds: 31-1     Trainer: Chad Brown          Jockey: Irad Ortiz
Lightly-raced Chad Brown trainee is 2-for-2 to begin his career and looks like a good thing based on the big Aqueduct maiden win and the follow-up allowance victory at Gulfstream where he survived a multi-horse speed duel to draw off to win. After a big speed figure at Aqueduct, the speed duel explains his slight speed figure decrease in what was nevertheless an impressive win. Brown will consider the Fountain of Youth, or the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct for this horse's next start.

7) MOR SPIRIT
Derby Future Odds: 12-1     Trainer: Bob Baffert                        Jockey: Gary Stevens
The highest-ranking Bob Baffert horse on this list currently is Mor Spirit at No. 7. This horse has never been worse than second in five career races, including a place behind Airoforce in the G2-Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill last fall. Mor Spirit rebounded with a win in his 2016 debut in the G3-Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. From here he will choose either the San Felipe, or just go straight to the Santa Anita Derby, and wherever he goes, as the distances increase, he is expected to only get better and better.

8) DANZING CANDY
Derby Future Odds: 28-1     Trainer: Clifford Sise Jr.     Jockey: Mike Smith
This is the time of year you always want to have really flashy-looking up-and-comers on your Kentucky Derby short list, and this horse certainly qualifies after winning his 2016 debut at Santa Anita by an open-lengths margin at a mile with a 93 Beyer speed figure for his second straight win. Keeps improving in every race, and has to be respected as he approaches another big test in the G2-San Felipe.

9) DESTIN
Derby Future Odds: 5-2 (f)  Trainer: Todd Pletcher        Jockey: John Velazquez
Todd Pletcher candidates for the 2016 Kentucky Derby have yet to really assert themselves, as of mid-February, however, this list will end with two of his best chances, starting with this horse that emerged victorious in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. This year's Sam Davis might not have been the deepest ever run, but Destin did win the race by 2 ¼ lengths by beating well-regarded favored stablemate Gettysburg, as well as Graham Motion's stakes-winner, Rafting. We suspect that Pletcher will keep his first-string Derby candidates away from each other, and there's no reason to think Destin will not continue on to the Tampa Bay Derby as the likely horse to beat.

10) ZULU
Derby Future Odds: 24-1     Trainer: Todd Pletcher        Jockey: John Velazquez
After Destin, I believe the horse with the best chance to emerge from the high-powered Todd Pletcher stable is Zulu, who has begun his career 2-for-2 including a 7-length allowance win at 1-5 odds in his second career start at Gulfstream Park. His speed figures have yet to get fast, but he is by distance sire Bernardini, and still has yet to have a chance to strut his stuff beyond 7F.  He should get better as he goes longer, and his next try will probably be in either the Fountain of Youth.

So many horses are still worthy of honorable mentions in addition to this list at this stage of the game. This group includes, in no particular order, BRODY'S CAUSE, GIFT BOX, GREENPOINTCURSADER, as well as some horses that got mentioned above in the descriptions of the other horses including Exaggerater, Gettysburg, Rafting, Whitmore, and Collected, just to name a few.

For my money, any of the horses mentioned above would be worth a bet in Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool 2 based on your preferences.  I always say that it's close to impossible to predict the Derby winner in mid-February, but things certainly start to clarify once we reach mid-March.

Even if you can't land on one particular horse as your "Derby horse," one great thing about the Future Wager is that you get the option to play the "Field #24." You don't need to do anything smart and you don't need to pick the specific winner in order to win that bet, but often it is still a smart bet to make, because you are essentially just betting against the favorites and you are guaranteed to get about a dozen starters into the gate on Derby Day. That's a lot of bang for your buck in the March Future Wager.  You might only get 4-1 odds on the Field in that March pool , but that is a veritable bargain come Derby Day when the odds of all the horses added up that you'll be alive with on your Field bet will almost assuredly add up to more than a 4-1 chance of winning. Remember, you won't need to bet on all 10-12 of those horses individually, you'll have them all on one ticket with a Field bet in Pool 2, especially if you are playing exactas.

Whichever way you play it, I wish you the very best of luck!

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