In the moments after the post positions for the May 5 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) were drawn, the scrum moved in.
Reporters surrounded Bob Baffert, the trainer of the 3-1 morning-line favorite, with cameras, microphones, and recorders, arms straining in an effort to catch the latest thoughts about the unbeaten grade 1 winner who has been deemed the main threat in the 10-furlong test.
Standing in the outer ring of the media gaggle, another conditioner with another undefeated top level-winner—and three more proven entities to boot—was afforded an undisturbed moment to simply observe. In most other years, Todd Pletcher would have been the one in the eye of the storm, unable to get a breather from those seeking one more answer. But as the morning line from oddsmaker Mike Battaglia confirmed, the group set to go to post Saturday is anything but ordinary.
That a reigning divisional champion, a fellow Breeders' Cup victor, a quartet of representatives from a seven-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer, and a multiple grade 1 hero are all taking turns in the shadows says volumes about the overflow of quality in the first leg of the Triple Crown. Such is the appeal of the chestnut prodigy named Justify that he has managed to shine brightest over a Kentucky Derby already hailed as one of the best in modern times.
"Most times, with these types of horses, I might come in with the second or fourth favorites. But this is one of the most loaded fields I've seen in my lifetime," said Mike Repole, co-owner of graded stakes winners Vino Rosso and Noble Indy, who are two of the fearsome foursome Pletcher is bringing into Saturday's test. "I actually told a bunch of people there are nine horses who could easily win this race. To get an upset here, you have go to 10, 11, 12, 13 deep.
"I mean, Todd is coming in with four horses that in most years would be the top four favorites. But, at best, he'll have the third choice. It's an amazing field."
The verdict on the strength of this 3-year-old crop is still months from coming in, but there is more than anecdotal evidence to back up the notion this group will hold up through the lens of hindsight.
The pro tem head of the class is the big red whiz kid Justify, who has sauntered to the Louisville oval with a résumé short on experience but loaded with brilliance. Since he was unfurled for the first time by Baffert Feb. 18, the son of Scat Daddy has won his three outings with a level of ease that has his Hall of Fame conditioner using language he only reserves for those who have brought championships to his barn.
His sample size is small, almost historically so. Only Regret (1915) and Big Brown (2008) have won the Kentucky Derby with just three prior starts. Then there is that albatross, the "Curse of Apollo," a reference to the fact no horse since the aforementioned namesake in 1882 has won this classic without racing as a 2-year-old.
After watching Justify win the April 7 Santa Anita Derby (G1) with ease—relaxing on the front end and then turning back Bolt d'Oro, the only multiple grade 1 winner in this year's Derby field—Baffert wouldn't trade a race or two more of experience for any of the physical aptitude Justify appears to possess.
"When we were working him, he was tipping himself in the mornings," Baffert said. "He was doing it pretty easy. He's always been one of those who has been a superior animal. When they're that big and beautiful and then they can run … all the ingredients are there. I feel we have a good enough horse that can win it, but it's a very, very competitive race. We know we have a superior race horse but … he cannot make a mistake."
Joining Justify in the quest to shake down Apollo is another unbeaten wunderkind in Robert and Lawana Low's Magnum Moon—the 6-1 third choice on the morning line and one of the four members of the Pletcher squad who all won 100-point qualifying races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby in their final preps.
The son of Malibu Moon was in Saratoga with Pletcher's string over the summer, but he didn't debut until Jan. 13, when he prevailed at Gulfstream Park. A physical standout, Magnum Moon has handled his jumps in class with no issue. He won the Rebel Stakes (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) by a combined 7 1/2 lengths, even as he battled some green tendencies.
"We felt like he had a lot of talent, and we just wanted to be patient with him," Pletcher said of Magnum Moon not racing at 2. "He came into Saratoga and did get some training there, got some gate work done there, and I think he got up to a half-mile breeze. So he got a little bit of experience there that maybe some other horses having never been to the track at all wouldn't have gotten."
Magnum Moon will be joined in the gate by stablemates Audible—who has quietly knocked off wins in the Holy Bull Stakes (G2) and Xpressbet Florida Derby (G1) without a whole lot of holes in his game—and Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby (G2) victor Noble Indy, along with Wood Memorial presented by NYRA Bets (G2) winner Vino Rosso. While that crew was decidedly under the radar at the start of the year, champion Good Magic and regally bred Mendelssohn both came into their 3-year-old campaigns with rightful expectations of being prominent participants of the Derby walkover.
With Good Magic taking the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) and Mendelssohn capturing the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (G1T) in November, the two have combined to make history: This will be the first Kentucky Derby featuring two Breeders' Cup winners. The former went on to claim the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male and, following a third-place effort during his season debut in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2), posted a 1 1/2-length win in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (G2).
"I see a minimum of eight horses (who can win)," said Chad Brown, who trains the son of Curlin . "I've been impressed with a lot of the prep races leading up to this race, and now seeing the horses in person at Churchill, it's a really good group. It doesn't really change what I'm doing, though. We have one really good horse to take into this race. Who is running in this race doesn't affect what I do with this horse, but it does make the race harder for sure."
If there is a poster child for across-the-board quality in this Derby field, it is Mendelssohn. A half sibling to champion Beholder and grade 1 winner and sire Into Mischief , he was purchased for $3 million at the 2016 Keeneland September yearling sale by representatives of Coolmore Stud. The son of Scat Daddy lost three of his first four starts but started putting things together with his victory in the Juvenile Turf at Del Mar.
As good as he was on the turf, his pedigree screamed of dirt potential. The notoriously vocal colt backed that assertion at Meydan March 31, when he won the UAE Derby Sponsored By Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (G2) by a freakish 18 1/2 lengths.
"He's a very special-looking horse, physically. And, with his pedigree, he came to us as a top-rated horse. Usually those horses, if things go right, they have a big shot," said trainer Aidan O'Brien. "It would be something we couldn't really dream of, to win this race. We feel so privileged to be here and have a horse who can compete."
If there is a downside to having this level of quality in one spot, it is that some good horses are inevitably going to have a bad day and leave Louisville with a result that does not reflect their talent.
"It's an amazing field, and I'm ecstatic to be in it," Repole said. "But, man, to have two horses in the Derby is great. I just wish it were a bit of an easier year, to be honest."
Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 05, 2018, Race 12
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Firenze Fire (FL) Paco Lopez 126 Jason Servis 50/1 2 2Free Drop Billy (KY) Robby Albarado 126 Dale L. Romans 30/1 3 3Promises Fulfilled (KY) Corey J. Lanerie 126 Dale L. Romans 30/1 4 4Flameaway (ON) Jose Lezcano 126 Mark E. Casse 30/1 5 5Audible (NY) Javier Castellano 126 Todd A. Pletcher 8/1 6 6Good Magic (KY) Jose L. Ortiz 126 Chad C. Brown 12/1 7 7Justify (KY) Mike E. Smith 126 Bob Baffert 3/1 8 8Lone Sailor (KY) James Graham 126 Thomas M. Amoss 50/1 9 9Hofburg (KY) Irad Ortiz, Jr. 126 William I. Mott 20/1 10 10My Boy Jack (KY) Kent J. Desormeaux 126 J. Keith Desormeaux 30/1 11 11Bolt d'Oro (KY) Victor Espinoza 126 Mick Ruis 8/1 12 12Enticed (KY) Junior Alvarado 126 Kiaran P. McLaughlin 30/1 13 13Bravazo (KY) Luis Contreras 126 D. Wayne Lukas 50/1 14 14Mendelssohn (KY) Ryan L. Moore 126 Aidan P. O'Brien 5/1 15 15Instilled Regard (KY) Drayden Van Dyke 126 Jerry Hollendorfer 50/1 16 16Magnum Moon (KY) Luis Saez 126 Todd A. Pletcher 6/1 17 17Solomini (KY) Flavien Prat 126 Bob Baffert 30/1 18 18Vino Rosso (KY) John R. Velazquez 126 Todd A. Pletcher 12/1 19 19Noble Indy (KY) Florent Geroux 126 Todd A. Pletcher 30/1 20 20Combatant (KY) Ricardo Santana, Jr. 126 Steven M. Asmussen 50/1 21 21Blended Citizen (KY) Kyle Frey 126 Doug F. O'Neill 50/1
Churchill Downs, Saturday, May 05, 2018, Race 12
Past performances of Kentucky Derby contenders: http://www.brisnet.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Derby18.pdf