If this Kentucky Derby field was as weak as the fields Big Brown (2008) and California Chrome (2014) faced, I would pronounce Justify a cinch. But I think you can make the case this is one of the best Derby fields of the last 25 years, at least comparable to the strong groups of 1997 and 2007 and perhaps even better.
"We have a really good horse, but there are really good horses out there this year," Justify's trainer Bob Baffert said. "I think it's probably the most competitive Derby I've seen in years."
Baffert, a four-time Derby winner, would know. His first Derby win was in 1997 with Silver Charm, his last in 2015 with American Pharoah.
I like Justify, and not just because I have him at 40-1 in the future book. If you hear it once this week, you will hear it a thousand times. These 20-horse Derby fields change everything. Actually, they change nothing with a horse like Justify or the last four Derby winners.
That's because Always Dreaming, Nyquist, American Pharoah and California Chrome all had terrific early speed, the kind of speed to make the vast majority of the 20 horses disappear in the first 100 yards. Justify may have more early speed than all of them so, barring some kind of a disastrous break, the massive chestnut is going to be in a four-horse field or possibly even less by the first turn.
Getting a mental picture of how races are going to be run has always been critical to how I frame bets. Looks to me like Promises Fulfilled and Flameaway are going to show speed to Justify's inside with maybe Mendelssohn, Magnum Moon and Noble Indy showing speed to the favorite's far outside.
What I will be looking for in that 440-yard run to the wire the first time is to see where Justify is in relation to those other horses and how comfortable he looks. If he comes into and out of the first turn in similar position to the last four Derby winners, I will feel very confident and start looking through the field to see where my exacta, trifecta and superfecta horses are in the run down the backstretch.
The Derby is generally won on the far turn. The horse moving the best on that turn is often the winner. I would like to see Justify have daylight on the field by the top of the stretch.
This is very much a blueblood Derby: few cheap horses allowed, unknown trainers hard to find. The final six major preps were won the sport's dominant trainers — Todd Pletcher (4), Baffert (1) and Chad Brown (1).
Mendelssohn cost $3 million at Keeneland in September 2016. Good Magic, the 2-year-old champion, cost $1 million at the same sale. Bolt d'Oro cost $630,000 at Saratoga in 2016. Justify and Florida Derby winner Audible each brought $500,000 at auction. Instilled Regard, a 50-1 shot, cost $1.05 million, Flameway $400,000.
When I structure my bets, I am going to make them on the assumption that not only is Justify going to win, but he is going to run anything close to him early right out of the race, sort of like Smarty Jones did back in 2004. Just trying to keep up with the top horses is discouraging and, eventually, very tiring.
Pletcher and Brown are good at just about everything in this sport. Todd won his second Derby last year and Chad is certainly going to win one, if not more. Each has a unique training style that works wonderfully over the long haul. The Derby, however, does not really fit their training methods
It is more suited to the all out styles of Wayne Lukas and Baffert who have won the Derby a combined eight times in the last 30 years. They train their horses hard for the hardest race they will ever be in and the results speak for themselves.
As good as Pletcher is and he is one of the best ever, I can make a pretty good case that even his Derby winners were flukes as a result of the horses getting on the right part of the track and riding a conveyor belt home. Brown is much newer to the Derby, but I need to see him win one before I will believe he knows how to do it.
So it is Justify on top with the four Pletchers — Audible, Magnum Moon, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy — and the Brown, Good Magic off my exacta tickets. I am tossing the other speed horses and looking for one of the late running longshots like Lone Sailor, Hofburg and Solomini to be second. I already have my 40-1 on Justify. Now, I am looking to get the rest of the money.
Trainers (by post position): 1, Jason Servis. 2, Dale Romans. 3, Dale Romans. 4, Mark Casse. 5, Todd Pletcher. 6, Chad Brown. 7, Bob Baffert. 8, Thomas Amoss. 9, William Mott.10, Keith Desormeaux. 11, Mick Ruis. 12, Kiaran McLaughlin. 13, D. Wayne Lukas. 14, Aidan O'Brien. 15, Jerry Hollendorfer. 16, Todd Pletcher. 17, Bob Baffert. 18, Todd Pletcher. 19, Todd Pletcher. 20, Steven Asmussen.