Kentucky Derby 141: A two-horse race, and then some

First off, a disclaimer. I’ve never attended a Kentucky Derby in person. Not one. Though I directed production of The (Louisville) Courier-Journal’s Derby preview for 25 years (my first was Unbridled in 1990) and the post-Derby section for the past three, my job required I be in the office playing traffic cop and last line of defense for the mountain of coverage — eight broadsheet pages on Friday, 24 on Saturday and again on Sunday.

The closest I ever got to being a major Derby player was swing dancing for a local insurance company entered in the annual bed races, in which teams of five wheel a bed around an indoor track for fame, glory — and a spot in the Pegasus Parade, which sends marching bands, equestrian units, about 20 floats and eight giant character balloons down Broadway two days before the Derby, before about 100,000 lining the widest downtown street. Believe it or not, that’s No. 1 on my Derby bucket list. How much fun would that be? (Though maybe not behind a horse.)

Alas, the company’s bed finished third, two lousy seconds out of first and our spot in the parade. Some years ago, the newspaper sponsored a pica pole-wielding “drill team” that held down a spot for two years. The preview section knocked me out of that. Friends’ kids have marched in it; my wife once turned down a chance to accompany a Louisville Zoo elephant (one of her biggest regrets, too). I’ve danced in parades in Louisville (no easy feat to keep moving forward), but never the big one. Still time, though.

This year, though, the better deal surely would be a ticket to the race itself. Don’t have one, but there will be more chances. Instead, we’re preparing/sharing a home-cooked Italian dinner with another couple and watching the race on their big-screen TV.

And this might be the strongest field in a generation or more. The favorite for Saturday’s 141st Run for the Roses is American Pharoah (not Pharaoh), named by a spelling-challenged fan in a contest. The 5-2 pick, who drew post No. 18, is trained by Bob Baffert, who’s won three past Derbys — and also trains the second favorite, Dortmund, named for the German soccer team. Dortmund’s in eighth place in this year’s Bundesliga, but the massive colt (17.2 hands, 1,360 pounds) — is 6 for 6 and one of the fastest in the field (3-1, No. 8).

American Pharoah’s four wins have come by a combined 22¼ lengths, including a dominating eight-length romp in the Arkansas Derby four weeks ago. He’ll be ridden by Victor Espinoza, who rode last year’s winner, California Chrome (and 2002 winner War Emblem). Dortmund’s last win came in the Santa Anita Derby, also four weeks ago, a gate-to-wire trip by 4¼ lengths. He’s the son of 2008 Derby winner Big Brown, and Martin Garcia will be aboard.

Longtime Derby oddsmaker Mike Battaglia believes Baffert’s 1-2 punch is the strongest by a trainer since Ben E. Jones saddled Citation and Coaltown, who finished 1-2 — in 1948.

Prevailing wisdom is that because there will be so much speed, the stalking Pharoah will have an advantage over Dortmund, which figures to want the lead early. But wisdom also says the California crop is stronger than the Arkansas horses and Dortmund is thus the stronger challenger. Also local observers say Dortmund has liked the Churchill Downs track all week.

But there’s much more than a 1-2 punch this year. The third choice is Carpe Diem (8-1, No. 2), the most accomplished of trainer Todd Pletcher’s three entries and the Toyota Blue Grass winner with excellent closing fractions (though his speed figures fall short of the best in the race, and the No. 2 post is a worry). Carpe Diem, of course, means “seize the day” in Latin; no horse with a Latin name ever has won the Derby. John Velazquez, who won the Derby aboard Animal Kingdom in 2011, will ride.

Pletcher also will saddle Materiality (12-1, No. 3) and Itsaknockout (30-1, No. 13). Materiality is unbeaten in three races but won a slow Florida Derby and did not race at age 2 (the last Derby winner to do that was Apollo in 1882). Itsaknockout is 3-for-4, but the fourth was a fourth-place finish in the Florida Derby, 21 lengths back.

Thought to be the best of the rest are Firing Line (12-1, No. 10), who won the Sunland Derby and narrowly lost before that to Dortmund (with three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens aboard); Frosted (15-1, No. 15), who won the Wood Memorial, a breakthrough win after a minor throat procedure and other adjustments (2013 winner Joel Rosario will ride); Upstart (15-1, No. 19), the Florida Derby runner-up; and International Star (20-1, No. 12), the Louisiana Derby winner who swept the three Louisiana prep races — but he’s a late runner in a field full of early speed and stalkers. He is owned by Louisvillians Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who’ve won just about everything else but never their hometown race.

Then there’s a true wild-card in Mubtaahij (20-1, No. 6) — it means “elated” in Arabic — the eight-length winner in the UAE Derby, which at 1 3/16 miles is a tad further than 1 1/8-mile American preps. He’s the first Kentucky Derby starter for South African trainer Mike de Kock, who has saddled 104 Group/Grade 1 winners.

So nine horses at 20-1 or better, all thought to have a chance in a 20-horse field. And you’ve only got to go back to 2009’s Mine That Bird to find a true longshot winner. The weather will be spectacular — sunny and mid-70s at 6:34 p.m. local time (8:34 a.m. Sunday in Melbourne) — and possibly a record crowd of more than 165,000 at Churchill.

The morning-line favorite has won the last two Derbies (Orb in 2013, California Chrome last year), but only four have won since Spectacular Bid in 1979 (also Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 and Big Brown).

The field:


PP Horse (weight in pounds) Jockey/Trainer Odds

  1. Ocho Ocho Ocho(126) Trujillo/Cassidy 50-1
  2. Carpe Diem(126) Velazquez/Pletcher 8-1
  3. Materiality(126) Castellano/Pletcher 12-1
  4. Tencendur(126) Franco/Weaver 30-1
  5. Danzig Moon(126) Leparoux/Casse 30-1
  6. Mubtaahij(126) Soumillon/de Kock 20-1
  7. El Kabeir(126) Borel/Terranova 30-1
  8. Dortmund(126) Garcia/Baffert 3-1
  9. Bolo(126) Bejarano/Gaines 30-1
  10. Firing Line(126) Stevens/Callaghan 12-1
  11. Stanford(126) Geroux/Pletcher SCRATCHED
  12. International Star(126) Mena/Maker 20-1
  13. Itsaknockout(126) Saez/Pletcher 30-1
  14. Keen Ice(126) Desormeaux/Romans 50-1
  15. Frosted(126) Rosario/McLaughlin 15-1
  16. War Story(126) Talamo/Amoss 50-1
  17. Mr. Z(126) Vazquez/Lukas 50-1
  18. American Pharoah(126) Espinoza/Baffert 5-2
  19. Upstart(126) Ortiz/Violette 15-1
  20. Far Right(126) Smith/Moquett 30-1
  21. Frammento (126) Nakatani/Zito 50-1
  22. (AE) Tale of Verve (126) Hernandez Jr./Stewart 50-1





About Glenn Brownstein

I'm a red, white and blue supporter of the red, white and black who became a footy fan through ESPN telecasts in the 1980s and a buddy who founded the American version of the game. Yup, I chose the Saints, but I'd like to think they chose me, too.


  1. Thanks Glenn, sounds like it will be a great race this year. Elvis, a mate of ours and regular contributor to Almanac Racing, is over there with his brother going to both the Oaks and Derby. Hopefully we can get a report from him once the mint juleps have run out.
    The Wood Memorial used to be a good guide so I’ll go for Frosted.

  2. Great preview. Thanks.
    What a Sunday of US sports for us here in Australia.
    The matchplay golf coverage has been fantastic and will continue, but we’ll be crossing for the Derby and later the fight. Bookies’ heaven!

  3. Chalkdog says

    If those weights are in kgs I’m a lightweight. Hope Elvis gets a winner. Though i am thinking he’s got the 11 early at long odds all in.

  4. Good one mate. When are you coming to Oz for the Racing Carnival (s)?

  5. Weights in pounds. I guess that’s 57 kg or so? All horses carry the same, so kind of redundant. And someday a Melbourne Cup, I hope (though a loyal viewer; very convenient at 11 p.m. on a Monday night). Although I did see Black Caviar win No. 23 (Lightning Stakes) in person at Flemington two years ago. Quite a thrill.
    Our local experts are split between Pharoah and Dortmund, with a few more for Pharoah. But because of the pace scenario, they’re all over the map below the favorites to fill out the exotics. The No. 1 throw-out is Carpe Diem because of the lousy post position but also because he’s a very excitable horse and no one knows how he’ll react to the post parade in front of an expected mammoth crowd. Today’s Kentucky Oaks drew a record crowd of nearly 124,000.
    Also, El Kabeir, kind of a wise-guy pick by some, scratched today with a minor injury. So 19 run tomorrow.

  6. cowshedend says

    Nice stuff Glenn.
    watching the “walkover”, where the runners walk from the stables(unsaddled) to the mounting yard with trainers and connections, great concept, then notice women in parade carrying banners promoting Mayweather Pacquiao fight….is that for anyone who happened to be in a fallout shelter since 1952 who weren’t aware the fight was on?

  7. For the record, I had Pharoah across the board, and my four-horse exacta box included the top four finishers. So made about $50. If I’d bet the same box for the trifecta and superfecta I could have made $400 more, but when does that ever happen? I’ve won three Derbies in 20 years.

    The backstory is that the year after we got our Shih Tzu, Fozzie, Giacomo won the Derby. The winning exacta was 10-18, Fozzie’s birthday. I vowed to bet it the next time it made any sense. Today. Winning exacta was 18-10. I think extra kibble and a big hug for our little 8-pound dynamo!

  8. The winner was 3 wide no cover throughout. Good thing he won!
    Here’s the replay:

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