NEVER TOO EARLY TO START THINKING KENTUCKY DERBY

We're still more than three months out from the First Saturday in May, but for horseracing fans it's never too early to start thinking about the Kentucky Derby. Yes, the Derby itself will last only about two minutes - the Fastest Two Minutes in Sports - that doesn't mean we can't have months of fun talking about it in advance.  After all, the waiting is almost as much fun as the actual race.  So for those of you who just can't get enough Derby talk, here is some advance analysis of the soon-to-be 3-year-old class of 2018 Kentucky Derby hopefuls.

The 2018 Kentucky Derby will be run on Saturday, May 5 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The early favorite for the Run for the Roses is BOLT D'ORO despite his third-place finish at odds-on in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Del Mar.  Leading up to the Juvenile, Bolt d'Oro had been undefeated in his first three career starts, including two Grade 1 wins in the Del Mar Futurity and the FrontRunner at Santa Anita.  He had a bad start in the Breeders' Cup, and there's a school of handicappers that believe the Juvenile, historically, is a negative key race in terms of the Kentucky Derby anyway, so it's difficult to take too negative a view of this talented horse based solely on that lone flop.

One good place to look for clues about possible Kentucky Derby contenders is in the official Kentucky Derby Future Wager [KDFW], which has already concluded its first, Pool 1 back in late November (the next one is coming early February).  Not surprisingly, "The Field" was the heavy favorite in KDFW1, meaning that the majority of horseplayers believe either that we have yet to see the next Kentucky Derby yet, or that he (or she) has not yet distinguished himself to the degree where the public has caught on to him yet.  Perhaps a recent maiden winner, for example.  It is hard to argue with this logic, mainly because it is egotistical for any racing fan to believe that they can actually pick the winner of the Kentucky Derby winner three or four months out from the race.

But horseplayers are an egotistical, so of course we will try. And for those who do, Bolt d'Oro is definitely talented and certainly is a good starting point. Out of the individual betting interests in the KDFW Pool 1, Bolt d'Oro, trained by less-than household name Mick Ruis, was the favorite at 7-1 closing odds. He was the only horse in single digits among the 23 horses listed.  But here's the thing, if you are going to actually participate in future wagers and try to predict the Derby winner months in advance of the actual race, shouldn't you try to shoot for odds at better than 7-1?  The answer is a definite yes!

One horse that certainly deserves as much or more respect than Bolt d'Oro is the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, GOOD MAGIC, who was the 11-1 second choice among individuals in the KDFW Pool 1. Sure, Good Magic broke his maiden in the Breeders' Cup, but nevertheless his 4 ¼-length victory was so dominant as to force you to stand up and take notice. Plus, he's trained by Chad Brown. Enough said.

The next category of top Kentucky Derby contenders is the group of horses that won in the last round of key 2-year-old prep races from Nov. 25 through Dec. 9.  These Midwest-East-West preps were the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill, the Remsen at Aqueduct, and the Los Alamitos Futurity, and the winners of all three of these races gave us handicappers serious food for thought to chew on over the next several months.

The G2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs is always an important race for would-be Derby handicappers to consider, run on the Kentucky Derby's home track at two-turns, it is regarded as a good harbinger of things to come.  If that is true this year, then handicappers had best stand up and take notice of the winner of that race, ENTICED.

Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin and owned by Godolphin, Enticed (29-1 in KDFW1) passed the first two-turn test of his career with flying colors and appears to be on his way to bigger and better things next spring. His victory also flattered Good Magic, who beat him in his prior race in the G1 Champagne at Belmont, along with the winner of the race, FIRENZE FIRE. But unlike Firenze Fire (49-1 in KDFW1) whose future might be in shorter one-turn races, Enticed will not have distance limitations moving forward and runs like a horse that must be respected.

Equally impressive in victory was G2 Remsen winner at Aqueduct, CATHOLIC BOY crushed the field in the 1 1/8-mile prep and served notice that he will be a force to be reckoned with next spring.  Trained by Jonathan Thomas and listed as a member of The Field in KDFW1, Catholic Boy had finished a close and troubled fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile in his last start. Catholic Boy had been winless on the dirt and heading into the Remsen many questioned whether synthetic, or even turf, would be this horse's best surface. Coming out of the Remsen, however, that question was answered resoundingly by Catholic Boy's 4 ¾-length win, and yes, Catholic Boy will be just fine moving forward on the dirt, thank you very much.

Finally among this group was the winner of the G1 Los Alamitos Futurity via DQ, MCKINZIE. Trained by Bob Baffert, McKinzie was the 12-1 second individual choice in KDFW1 based on an impressive career debut 11-length maiden win with a fast speed figure at Santa Anita back on Oct. 28, and became such a buzz horse that he was bet down to 1-2 odds at Los Alamitos in a five-horse field.  He lost that race to second-choice SOLOMINI (22-1 in KDFW1), also trained by Baffert, but was put up in a DQ after bumping in deep stretch. Since then, Mckinzie has solidified his status as a Derby top-tier contender with another win January 6 at Santa Anita in the Sham Stakes.

If you are looking deeper than the winners already mentioned for some horses with the kind of potential (and future odds) that are appealing to handicappers in search of legit Derby contenders as we head into the new year, here is a list of just a few of them:

MONTAUK was an ultra-impressive Todd Pletcher 11-length maiden winner at Belmont on October 7, and is now in Florida prepping for his 3-year-old campaign that is expected to be similar to the path taken by Pletcher's 2017 Derby winner Always Dreaming. Montauk was 17-1 in KDFW1.

Nobody was looking INSTILLED REGARD heading into the Los Al Futurity, but perhaps he should not be overlooked. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, he was a head away from being placed first in the Grade 1 race, and may have actually took the worst of the trouble that also affected McKinzie.

Impressive maiden winners NOBLE INDY (won at GP by 8 ¾ lengths on Dec. 3 for Todd Pletcher) and MISSISSIPPI (graduated impressively at CD in November for trainer Mark Casse) are set to meet in a Gulfstream allowance race on Jan. 11, and the winner of that race should be stakes-bound very soon.  A horse that is already stakes tested and proven at Gulfstream is MASK, who crushed the field in the Mucho Macho Man stakes on Jan. 6 and was never even fully extended as the lone speed horse in that race for trainer Chad Brown.

MENDELSSOHN crossed the pond to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and has never raced on the dirt in five career outings so far. Medelssohn is back in Ireland with trainer Aiden O'Brien, and he was 31-1 in KDFW1, but if the world's most prominent horse trainer says he believes this turf horse is actually a dirt horse and he will be pointed for the Kentucky Derby, who are we to argue?

Don't forget about SPORTING CHANCE, who won the G1 Hopeful back at Saratoga for living legend D. Wayne Lukas, who has forgotten more about training classic winners than most trainers will ever know in the first place.  By Tiznow and listed at a whopping 56-1 in KDFW1, it seems most horseplayers have forgotten about him.  True, he had surgery to remove bone chips from his knee, but on the plus side he's gotten that adversity out of the way early, hopefully, and can now move forward with plenty of time to catch-up.  Lukas is targeting the G3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on Feb. 19 for the colt's return.

Lastly, GREYVITOS won the G3 Bob Hope at Del Mar on Nov. 11 and followed up that win with another in the under-the-radar ungraded Springboard Mile at Remington on Dec. 17. Trained by Adam Kitchingman and ridden by multiple Derby winning jockey Victor Espinoza, Greyvitos (Field in KDFW1) was trained at San Luis Rey Downs which was tragically devastated by wildfires resulting in the deaths of dozens of racehorses on the afternoon of Dec. 7.  Greyvitos had left San Luis Rey that morning to catch his flight to Remington Park and was not in the area anymore when the fire took place.

Follow this space regularly for plenty more information and handicapping leading up to the 2018 Kentucky Derby, and much more.

By Noel Michaels

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