Over the years, Iâ€™ve smiled about and filed away many memorable quotes and thoughts made by the participants in the Kentucky Derby and those who have covered Americaâ€™s greatest horse race, but the above thought by the late and legendary columnist Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times has long been on my short list of favorites.
Ask any trainer, jockey or owner about that demanding stretch of real estate that comprises the final quarter mile of the Derbyâ€™s 1 1/4-miles, and youâ€™ll get a feel for how tough it is for the humans looking on, much less for the 3-year-old Thoroughbreds that are trying to successfully navigate those final yards in the one-and-only chance in their careers that they will have to earn the mantle of roses that goes to the Kentucky Derby winner.
Take the pressure up just a notch this year. The fact that the 20 horses that will comprise the field of the Kentucky Derby will break from the starting gate in the shadow of American Pharoah, who last year found a way to get stronger in those final yards despite a sub-par day and get the victory in the 141st Run for the Roses.
Ahmed Zayatâ€™s colt was not at his best on Derby Day, but he dug down under jockey Victor Espinoza and found the courage, resolve and skill to win the Derby. Without that victory beneath the Twin Spires, American Pharoahâ€™s magical year, in which he won the Preakness and Belmont Stakes to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years and completed his season in the $5 million Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic at Keeneland to complete what some fans call the â€œGrand Slam,â€ would have been just another good year.
But because American Pharoah was so good that he could win Americanâ€™s greatest race â€“ and the one that is most difficult to win â€“ a fascinating year was on its way to becoming an unforgettable season for the horse, the humans that surrounded him and fans everywhere.
Itâ€™s a high bar for the 3-year-old crop that follow Pharoahâ€™s year to clear, but as many as 20 young stars will try on Saturday at Churchill Downs. The favorite is the unbeaten champion Nyquist, who will represent the team of owner John Paul Reddan, trainer Doug Oâ€™Neill and jockey Mario Gutierrez that won the race in 2012.
As of this writing, the field of 20 was yet to be set, with the post draw set for Wednesday. Spots in the starting gate are determined by points amassed in races on the Road to the Kentucky Derby point system.
Here are thumbnail sketches of the top contenders for the race to become the successor to Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah, not only on the track but in the hearts and minds of racing fans around the nation and the world.
So there are the candidates. Now the big question:
Which horse will win?
This yearâ€™s Derby field contains an abundance of horses that rally from well off the pace, so the Derby pace â€“ which was assured of being lightning fast in the pre-Road to the Kentucky Derby points days â€“ could be modest. Thatâ€™s a huge advantage to horses like Danzing Candy, who figures to be in the lead early, along with Nyquist, Mohaymen and Outwork.
Although he comes into the race off a sound defeat by Nyquist, the feeling here is that Mohaymen has the talent and running style to be in the perfect spot throughout and, when the field turns for home, his gray nose should be battling for the lead. His training since his arrival at Churchill Downs has been terrific, and he can get the job done if he handles the Derby distance.
That is a question all must answer.
I have reservations about Nyquist and the distance, although he should benefit from a relatively modest pace. It is a Derby in which it will not surprise me if the favorite wins for the fourth year in a row â€“ or should a 40-1 shot prevail. The journey through the crowded field at a new distance for all of these horses will be the thing.
So, without further delay, here are the Thoroughbreds who make my Kentucky Derby top four:
2. Mor Spirit
3. Gun Runner
4. My Man Sam
Happy Derby 142 to all. May you be smiling at the end of the 1,234 1/2 feet of homestretch that will determine the winner of the 2016 Run for the Roses. VT
Gun Runner (151)
One of two Derby 142 hopefuls trained by new racing Hall-of-Famer Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner,Â the son of Candy Ride, loves the track and is training very well over his home track. He ran a good third in last fallâ€™s Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs, which will produce four Derby starters and is, in my view, a key race to consider when assessing this yearâ€™s Derby candidates. For non-racing folks, thatâ€™s a race that turns out an extraordinary number of horses that run subsequent starts. Look for Gun Runner to run well here and give rising star jockey Florent Geroux a shot at his first Kentucky Derby win.
At this point, the son of Uncle Mo has a chance to be the first unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner since Smarty Jones (2004), and a victory at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May would give him the opportunity to attempt to join Seattle Slew (1977) as the only unbeaten winner of the Triple Crown. Heâ€™s passed every test in his seven races and crossed the country from his California home twice to collect wins. The nagging question is whether his pedigree is geared to a mile and a quarter, but the Iâ€™ll Have Another team has great confidence. A win would make Nyquist only the second winner of the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile to come back and earn the Derbyâ€™s roses.
After Nyquist left town, he won the Santa Anita Derby â€“ one of the most important Derby preps â€“ by more than six lengths for the brother team of three-time-Kentucky Derby-winning jockey Kent Desormeaux and brother Keith, the coltâ€™s trainer. The son of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin has not brought his best for every race, but if he shows up with his A-game on Derby Day, he could make some noise. His chances probably improve if the track is wet.
Outwork is another son of Uncle Mo that could make up for his sireâ€™s disappointing 3-year-old season during which he was scratched from the 2011 Kentucky Derby on the morning of the race. The physically impressive colt survived the slop to win the Wood Memorial in a race that overall could prove on Derby Day to be much better than it looks. And Outwork has looked terrific in his training at Churchill Downs, which often leads to good things on the first Saturday in May.
Brodyâ€™s Cause (114)
Trained by Louisville native Dale Romans, the son of Giantâ€™s Causeway loves running in his home state thanks to wins in Keenelandâ€™s Toyota Blue Grass and Breedersâ€™ Futurity on his resume along with a third-place run behind Nyquist in the Breedersâ€™ Cup Juvenile. Romansâ€™ horses usually outrun their odds on Derby Day, and the trainer thinks this horse has his best opportunity yet to win the roses. You should listen to him.
After failing to win in his first five races, this striking gray son of Tapit won for the second time in three races when he roared from behind to win the Arkansas Derby, another Derby prep that I have a sneaking feeling could be a key race on this yearâ€™s Road to the Kentucky Derby. Heâ€™ll be far back early and could use some pace help, but heâ€™ll be rolling late. Iâ€™ve yet to see trainer Steve Asmussen this spring without a broad smile on his face, and with Creator and Gun Runner preparing beautifully for the Derby, itâ€™s easy to understand why.
Based in Japan and the winner of Dubaiâ€™s UAE Derby, the frequent-flyer-miles leader in this yearâ€™s Derby has been noticeable for somewhat erratic and, letâ€™s say, excitable behavior in his morning training, but the gray son of Tapit has ability. His ability to handle the sensations of the massive Derby Day crowd remains a question, but he has been much calmer in the a.m. in recent days.
Mor Spirit (84)
Bob Baffertâ€™s candidate to succeed 2015 Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown-winner American Pharoah with a fifth Derby winner would put the Hall of Famer all alone in second for Derby wins by a trainer, right behind Calumet Farm legend Ben Jones. Mor Spirit is bred for the 1 1/4-mile distance and has a steady hand in 53-year-old three-time Kentucky Derby winner Gary Stevens in the saddle. He had a very good race over the track in a runner-up finish in last fallâ€™s Kentucky Jockey Club.
This gray son of Tapit, trained by Lexington native Kiaran McLaughlin, was unbeaten until he tangled with Nyquist in the Florida Derby and ran an uncharacteristically dull fourth. The thought here is that Mohaymen is far better than that and should be a big factor from just off the pace on Derby Day. Owned by Dubai-based Shadwell Stable, heâ€™sÂ working beautifully here, and a sizzling first work over the track left McLaughlin with a smile that could easily have bridged the gap between the Twin Spires.
Danzing Candy (60)
A major change in the Derby under the Road to the Kentucky Derby points system is that speedy sprinters no longer qualify for the Derby, which leads to an early pace that is much more reasonable. The fastest of these Derby horses is Danzing Candy, and if he should be unchallenged on the lead in a half-mile time in the range of :47, he could forget to stop.
This horse defeated stablemate Outwork in the Tampa Bay Derby, but he comes into the Derby for trainer Todd Pletcher without a race since that March 2 win. The big gap between races is a significant question for the son of Giantâ€™s Causeway.
There are three big recent races under the belt of the colt trained by Donnie K. Von Hemel, an outstanding trainer who doesnâ€™t possess the name recognition of many of his Derby rivals. Heâ€™s training beautifully here â€“ especially since the recent addition of a piece of equipment on his nose known as a shadow roll â€“ and could run huge at a price.
Oscar Nominated (50)
An upset win in the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park put the colt, owned by Kentuckians Ken and Sarah Ramsey, in the Derby. He was plucked out of a claiming race by the Ramseys in the fall at Churchill Downs.
A major Derby “talking horse” just a few weeks back, he dropped off the radar after a disappointing run in the slop in the Wood Memorial. Owned by Dubai-based Shadwell Stable and trained by Chad Brown, he has looked very good in training at Churchill Downs and is one of the Derby week buzz horses because of that.
A Churchill Downs-based gelding trained by Ron Moquett, he ran a troubled third last time out in the Arkansas Derby. He was a 15-1 shot when he won his racing debut at Churchill Downs, but it will be a bigger surprise if he wins the Derby. However, heâ€™s an intriguing longshot. Bonus: You get three-time Derby-winning jockey Victor Espinoza in the saddle, and a win would make the rider of California Chrome and American Pharoah the first in 142 years to win three straight Derbys.
Tomâ€™s Ready (44)
An improving longshot for Churchill Downs-based trainer Dallas Stewart, who was the Kentucky Derby runner-up with 35-1 longshots Golden Soul (Orb, 2103) and Commanding Curve (California Chrome, 2014).
My Man Sam (40)
This stretch-running longshot was second from a horrible post position in the Toyota Blue Grass. He has trained well at Churchill Downs and could make a big charge and a huge price in the 1,234 1/2-foot homestretch on Derby Day.
He has just one career victory, but a runner-up finish to Nyquist in the Florida Derby last time out has made this stretch-running colt a popular Derby week talking horse and a candidate to finish in the Derbyâ€™s top four at a big price.
Trojan Nation (40)
He has yet to win in six races but traveled from California to miss winning the Wood Memorial by a head at 81-1. The last maiden (horse that has not won a race) to take the Derby was Brokers Trip in 1933, but Sir Barton was winless heading into the 1919 Kentucky Derby and ended up being the first winner of the Triple Crown. He has a good Derby pedigree, so weâ€™ll see.
Mo Tom (32)
Let’s look at another son of Uncle Mo who has ability but is a stretch-runner best known for bad racing luck that nearly knocked him out of a chance to run in the Derby. A stablemate of Tomâ€™s Ready â€“ both are owned by the stable of New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson â€“ heâ€™ll do his best running late under perennial Churchill Downs riding leader Corey Lanerie, but will need all the luck he has so far lacked in weaving his way through 20 horses in the stretch.