Favorite Justify won’t win Kentucky Derby, but here’s the horse that will
The Kentucky Derby is always the hardest race of the year to handicap because there are factors that come into play on Derby Day that simply aren’t present any other time these young horses will step onto the track.
From seeing and hearing a well-lubricated crowd of more than 100,000 humans to the inherent chaos of navigating a race with 19 other horses, there is nothing normal about the experience. Some are impervious to the sensory stress and run their race. But many horses, even some who went on to become champions, encounter enough difficulty to run poorly that day — or, in the case of a horse last year named Thunder Snow — refuse to run at all.
There’s really no way to know.
“The best horse doesn’t always win the Derby,” Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith said. “Matter of fact, it seldom does.”
From a talent perspective, Smith may very well be on the best horse this year in Justify, a physical specimen whose athleticism stands out even among other terrific-looking horses.
Moreover, Justify is 3-for-3 in his career, was visually impressive in winning the Santa Anita Derby, has looked comfortable galloping over the Churchill Downs track and is trained by four-time Derby winner Bob Baffert. Justify is the deserving favorite, and he may well prove Saturday evening that he’s a potential superstar who can sweep the Triple Crown.
But from a handicapping perspective, Justify is far from bulletproof. This is a horse that made his racetrack debut a mere 11 weeks ago, and as authoritative as Justify’s three wins have been, they’ve come against small fields in California where he was allowed to go to the front unchallenged and cruise along at a comfortable pace. That won’t happen on Saturday in a rough-and-tumble Derby, and everything about the history of the race tells me such an inexperienced animal is a terrible bet at 5/2 or 3/1, even if he may turn out eventually to be a great horse.
Many bettors who come to the same conclusion on Justify will likely filter toward Mendelssohn, the regally-bred European who won the UAE Derby by 18 1/2 lengths, Florida Derby winner Audible or Arkansas Derby winner Magnum Moon, who is 4-for-4 in his career.
But no horse in the field has a better combination of class, experience and running style than Good Magic, who comes into the 144th Kentucky Derby as one of the least-respected 2-year-old champions in recent memory.
Good Magic, who hails from the red-hot barn of New York-based trainer Chad Brown, was somehow made 12-1 on the morning line even though he’s coming off an impressive performance in the Blue Grass Stakes a month ago at Keeneland and won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November, exploding from just off the pace to win by 4 1/2 lengths.
In most years, a horse that won those two races would be among the favorites. Instead, Good Magic has been largely overlooked. Why?
It may trace back to the early spring, when Brown decided to give Good Magic a vacation after the Breeders’ Cup, hoping to have a fresh horse for the classics. But when he returned to the races off a four-month layoff, he was an uninspiring third in the Fountain of Youth Stakes, showing little finishing kick.
Though Good Magic redeemed himself in the Blue Grass, it didn’t attract one of the stronger fields among the prep races. So the question handicappers must consider is this: Did Good Magic simply need the race in the Fountain of Youth to set him on an upward trajectory that will culminate with the best race of his career in the Kentucky Derby, or did he simply look good against bad horses at Keeneland?
After seeing him in person at Churchill, where his gallops have been strong but full of controlled energy, I’m going to guess it’s the former.
“He couldn’t be doing any better,” Brown said.
Part of the problem with the Derby is that it’s easy to overthink things as a handicapper. But with Good Magic, you get a horse that fits the profile of many Derby winners: He won a big race at 2, improved from his first to his second start at 3, will sit just off the lead where he can pounce coming around the far turn and comes from a trainer who tasted his first Triple Crown success in last year’s Preakness with Cloud Computing.
Though I’ll include Justify, Mendelssohn and Audible in trifectas and superfectas, the final order of finish will be:
1. Good Magic (No. 6): Brown, who is already a star at age 39, gets his first Derby win.
2. Hofburg (No. 9): The Juddmonte Farms homebred finished a good second in the Florida Derby, which was just his third career start. Trainer Bill Mott is a master, and he wouldn’t throw such an inexperienced horse in the Derby unless he felt like he had a good shot.
3. Enticed (No. 12): As a 2-year-old, he won the Kentucky Jockey Club stakes at Churchill Downs, so he likes the track. Ran well in the New York preps.
4. My Boy Jack (No. 10): You always want to include at least one closer on your ticket to get a piece of it if the early pace is suicidal. He may not be good enough to win, but he’ll be running fast late.