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2018 Kentucky Derby and Analysis

Mendelssohn the pick to upset Justify in 144th Kentucky Derby

By Kenneth Strong, Expert Handicapper

Kentucky Derby-G1, Churchill Downs
Race 12, Saturday, May 5, 2018
Distance: 1 1/4-miles. Surface: Dirt. Purse: $2 Million

2018 Kentucky Derby Picks

Kentucky Derby Analysis

When we first looked at the 144th Kentucky Derby, Florida Derby-G1 winner Audible was our pick. Keep that in mind when making your wagers on this year's Derby. He might still be the right horse, but after further analysis, we decided to go with a few classy trainers plays instead. And with rain forecast for Saturday, anything could happen in the Churchill Downs goo.

While Mendelssohn may not have beaten much in the UAE Derby-G2, his 18 ½-length victory in that race was still impressive when you consider it in his overall body of work. We simply can’t get by the fact that he has already proven himself up to the task of the class and pace rigors of American racing with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf-G1 last year, even if it was on the grass. His trainer Aiden O’Brien is considered by some to be the best in the world with numerous international graded stakes wins including multiple Breeders’ Cup wins and his jockey Ryan Moore is in the same class.

Simply put, O'Brien and Moore know how to win the big races, and Mendelssohn is tough, classy and quick and game. And being trained European-style, he might also be the fittest horse in the race alongside the California shippers. There are very few trainers now who can get a horse properly fit for a true Grade 1 route, the way late Hall of Famers Woody Stephens and Charlie Whittingham could, but O'Brien would have to be considered one such trainer. And this horse also has some pedigree, being a half-brother to multiple Eclipse Award winning champion Beholder.

We’re not sure how Mendelssohn will handle mud, but he’s got the natural Grade 1 speed to stay close early along with the stamina and fight to stay on late. We’re expecting him to be just back of longshot speed Promises Fulfilled and likely favorite Justified early and take on Justified somewhere late on the final turn. If Justify has any weaknesses when it comes to heart, Mendelssohn will expose him.

Justify is the logical favorite based on numbers, his trainer Bob Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby four times, and his jockey Mike Smith also has a Derby win. The undefeated son of Scat Daddy proved his class somewhat in his last when he took the measure of Bolt d’ Oro in the Santa Anita Derby-G1 in his last, but he also did that as the lone speed in a small field. He has talent, and he's also proven from off the pace, but if he does somehow fluke into the lead by himself, he would probably prove tough to catch. If Mendelssohn hooks him late on the final turn, we could have a great stretch battle that might also set the top pair up to be nipped by a closer.

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That’s where we’ll go out on a limb and take a shot with our favorite North American trainer Bill Mott, who will saddle Hofburg in this year’s Derby, even if his regular rider Jose Ortiz does take off to ride Blue Grass Stakes-G2 and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile-G1 winner Good Magic. Hofburg finished second to Audible in the Florida Derby in only his third lifetime start and showed talent beyond what he should have in that race while stepping way up in class. He looks like he has the most upside in this year's Kentucky Derby field and could make a big move forward for a trainer who has never been one to have Derby stars in his eyes. If this horse is in here, there must be a reason. Top jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. won't hurt his chances, and there is easily enough stamina in his pedigree to get the job done at would should be a big price.

Audible has won four in a row including the Florida Derby in his last, and he's never really been asked to run. We could be underestimating his chances in here as our original first choice, and he would not be a surprise winner with the right pace set up. Trainer Todd Pletcher has won this race twice, and this horse appears to have outrun his training in his two starts as a 3-year-old. One thing that seemed a little odd was that jockey John Velazquez probably had a choice of mounts in this race, and he chose to take off this horse to ride Vino Rosso, also trained by Pletcher. Top jock Javier Castellano, who had ridden Audible to victory in the Holy Bull Stakes-G2 two starts ago, and who also could have ridden Bolt d' Oro in this year's Derby, chose Audible.

We don't know what to make of Vino Rosso. Velazquez has ridden him in every start and his two races at Tampa Bay prior to his big win in his last in the Wood Memorial-G2 were somewhat lackluster. He came with a big rally to win the Wood Memorial by three lengths over fellow Derby entrant Enticed, who we also thought at one time might be a Derby contender. If there is a pace meltdown, he wouldn't be out of the question.

The fact that Jose Ortiz sticks with Breeders' Cup Juvenile-G1 winner Good Magic makes him a contender, and he did everything asked of him to win the Blue Grass Stakes in his last, but he just wasn't as impressive as we would have liked. Still, he has proven class, and he could be sitting on a big race in his third start back off the layoff for top trainer Chad Brown.

Bolt d 'Oro has to be considered on class and fitness. Noble Indy could be a live longshot for the Kentucky Derby Superfecta at morning-line odds of 30-1 off his recent Louisiana Derby-G2 win. Undefeated Magnum Moon seems like an underlay at morning line odds of 6-1 after drifting out while winning the Arkansas Derby-G1. Promises Fulfilled will show speed and wilt, but Flameaway could hang around for a piece of the superfecta based on heart. Firenze Fire, Free Drop Billy, Lone Sailor, My Boy Jack, Enticed, Bravazo, Instilled Regard, Solomini, and Combatant all have a shot at the third and fourth slots in the Kentucky Derby Superfecta (which has had an average payoff of over $100,000 over the past 10 years) but would seem to need absolute dream drips, and total pace collapses to win.

We’re hoping for a big stretch battle between Justify and Mendelssohn, with the latter winning that battle and Hofburg and Audible rallying late to finish second and third or even post an upset. If it rains enough, anything could happen, but all bets are on!

Good luck and remember you can get your Kentucky Derby bets down in minutes online at Bovada

2018 Kentucky Derby Entries and Morning Line Odds

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