Evan Hammonds' Kentucky Derby Starting Gate

Welcome to Derby Week, or week 11 of the “Starting Gate,” one person’s look at this year’s Kentucky Derby lineup. As we approach Wednesday, entry day, this how we would handicap the top 20 contenders for the May 5 Run for the Roses. Actual entry into America’s greatest race is reliant on graded stakes earnings—this lineup is based on some speculation, past performances, and potential performance on Saturday.
There has been a scramble at the top and there may be yet another scramble following the post position draw Wednesday night in downtown Louisville. In the next-to-final analysis it must be said at the beginning that as good as Street Sense looks physically, and as good as he’s trained, and as good as a trainer that he has, call me “Old School,”but I just can’t pull the trigger on a Breeders’ Cup-winning 2-year-old champion that only made two starts leading up to the Derby. There is just something inside my head that won’t let me do it.
The signs are there, however. Our own Steve Haskin gushed over his work last week. He’s recorded the highest Beyer Speed Figures in the field, and I have to reiterate, he looked super when he took to the track Sunday morning for a strong gallop twice around the Churchill Downs surface. I don’t know what it is, but something just won’t let me pull the trigger.
Our new leader is Elizabeth Valando’s homebred Nobiz Like Shobiz, who on paper, certainly has all the credentials, and certainly has the looks. Trainer Barclay Tagg noted that the first time he laid eyes on him nearly two years ago.
A crack 2-year-old, winning the nine-furlong Remsen (gr. II) in his seasonal finale, Nobiz Like Shobiz won the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. III) in early February, then lost in a battle to Scat Daddy and Stormello in the Fountain of Youth (gr. II), then respulsed bids by both Any Given Saturday and Sightseeing to win the Wood Memorial (gr. I). It’s the combination of being among the best of the crop at 2 and the battle-tested campaign up to the Derby that is so appealing.
And off that sterling record, there appears to be plenty of upside. I don’t feel we’ve seen the best of this colt and it wouldn’t surprise me if Barclay Tagg will tell us the same thing later in the week once he gets to Churchill Downs. As is his now standard operating procedure, Tagg and his colt will arrive fashionable late to the party under the Twin Spires.
Also in Nobiz’ side pocket is a pedigree built with stamina on the top line. His sire, 10-year-old Albert the Great is a son of Derby winner Go for Gin, who traces back tail-male through Cormorant/His Majesty/Ribot. For extra measure, Go for Gin’s bottom line traces through Stage Door Johnny.
Albert the Great didn’t start as a 2-year-old, but made 13 starts at 3, breaking his maiden going two turns at the Keeneland April meet and eventually winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I). At 4, he won or placed in eight of nine starts and won both the Brooklyn and Suburban Handicaps (both gr. II) at Belmont Park.
Great Hunter has been moved up to fill out the “Starting Gate” exacta as we reach five days out before the Kentucky Derby. Once holding down the No. 1 spot in the “Gate,” Doug O’Neill’s runner has skipped over the Polytrack at Keeneland and I’m counting on him to bounce back after getting roughed up late in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). He, like Street Sense, has only two starts to his resume at 3.
A fast late mover up the “Gate” is Cowtown Cat, who has worked well for Todd Pletcher of late and I still like the cat-like quick move he made in the Gotham (gr. II) back on March 10. I don’t think anyone disagrees with the fact that there is a Derby, or Derbys, with trainer Todd Pletcher’s name on it. Any of his top performers has a big chance to wear the Roses.
Of course, the unbeaten but untested Curlin might just make monkeys of us all if he is to run away with the Derby like he has in his three starts so far, but tradition is against him. However, if ever a year there was that all Derby traditions were to be tossed out the window, this would be the year with so many hopefuls having only two starts under their belt and training over the Polytrack at Keeneland apparently being so important.
Isn’t Derby week great? We wouldn’t have it any other way.

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