The 2018 edition of the Kentucky Derby is shaping up to be a power-packed “Run for the Roses.”
Rarely in recent memory have so many strong contenders emerged for what this year will be the 144th running on May 5 at Churchill Downs.
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic returned to form to take the Grade 2, $1 million Toyota Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland on what was a chilly but sunny Saturday after a snowy morning.
Knocked after running a dull third in the Fountain of Youth — his 2018 debut on March 3 — Good Magic took the lead at the top of the stretch and held off Flameaway by a length and a half for trainer Chad Brown, who won last year’s Preakness with Cloud Computing.
A Good Magic triumph at Churchill would make the son of Curlin the first Blue Grass winner since Strike the Gold in 1991 to also win the Kentucky Derby.
Here’s the thing: It’s no guarantee Good Magic will be the favorite come Derby day. Not when he has to contend with the newest wonder horse from the West Coast, Todd Pletcher’s deep bench — and we mean deep — of talented challengers and a pair of foreign stars who could very well be freaks.
Start with Justify, trainer Bob Baffert’s lightly-raced but brilliant 3-year-old who made the easy lead, then hit the gas pedal in the stretch and pulled away from the formidable Bolt d’Oro to win the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday.
Now a perfect 3-for-3 in his career, Justify entered Saturday having posted the two best Beyer figures for a 3-year-old this year. He’ll have to break the so-called Apollo curse — the last Kentucky Derby winner who did not race as a 2-year-old was Apollo in 1882 — but the son of Scat Daddy might just be talented enough to get the job done.
Then there’s Pletcher, who won last year’s Kentucky Derby with Always Dreaming, his second Derby score following Super Saver in 2010. He added to his 2018 platoon of contenders when Vino Rosso survived an inquiry to win the Wood Memorial on Saturday at Aqueduct in New York.
This followed the Saturday before when the Pletcher-trained Audible captured the Florida Derby in impressive fashion. The weekend before that, Pletcher’s Noble Indy won the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. And the week before that, his late-blooming Magnum Moon, unraced at 2 years old, captured the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. He’s expected to contest next Saturday’s Arkansas Derby.
Vino Rosso had been labeled “an enigma” by co-owner Mike Repole after his fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby and third in the Sam F. Davis. Vinnie Viola St. Elias Stable, Vino Rosso’s other owner, also owned a piece of last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Always Dreaming.
Don’t discount Wood Memorial runner-up Enticed, the Gotham Stakes winner who bumped back-and-forth with Vino Rosso in the stretch. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Godolphin, Enticed already boasts a win over the Churchill Downs surface, taking the Kentucky Jockey Club last November.
Then there’s Gronkowski. Not Rob Gronkowski, the New England Patriots’ star tight end, but his namesake, a 3-year-old who has won four straight races in England for trainer Jeremy Noseda and is expected to make the trip to Louisville for the first Saturday in May.
And he won’t be the most anticipated import. That distinction surely belongs to Mendelssohn, a $3 million purchase at the 2016 Keeneland September Yearling Sales by Coolmore and winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last year at Del Mar who obliterated the field in last week’s UAE Derby by 18-plus lengths for trainer Aidan O’Brien.
“He’s the real deal,” said Baffert of Mendelssohn on the NTRA teleconference last week. “I think he has a huge chance.”
Justify showed he’s the real deal, as well. As did Good Magic. And Vino Rosso. And plenty of other stars. This year’s Kentucky Derby promises some serious stuff.