Kentucky Derby Contender Profile: Mubtaahij

His path to the Derby is non-traditional, at least when it comes to producing winners. But, despite never having raced on North American soil, Mubtaahij stands a decent chance to buck history and find the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle. His strong stamina base — he has already raced twice at 9.5f — should benefit him well during the final furlong on Saturday at Churchill.

UAE 2000 Guineas

His campaign started with a loss to Maftool in the UAE 2000 Guineas. But Mubtaahij didn’t fold when headed and continued to fight on till the wire — both promising signs.

Al Bastakiya

Sir Fever, the Uruguayan Triple Crown winner, brought hype (and memories of Invasor), but was easily dispatched by Mubtaahij. He simply goes by with ease.

UAE Derby

Debates a plenty about the quality of this field, but visually, Mubtaahij is a sight to behold. He demonstrates a tremendous turn of foot in the stretch, and wins under wraps.

Mubtaahij is the great mystery of the 2015 Kentucky Derby. He certainly needs to be respected as a fringe candidate for top honors. His pressing style, like Carpe Diem, could prove helpful in navigating a trip in Kentucky.  Yes, debates abound over the quality of the horses he beat in Dubai, and speed figures tend to be mixed. That said, he should arrive in Kentucky with a stamina base potentially unmatched by any of the other contenders.

Kentucky Derby Contender Profile: Carpe Diem

Let’s continue with our video review of top 2015 Kentucky Derby contenders with Carpe Diem, who has been targeting this race since being purchased for $1.6 million as a 2YO.

Breeders’ Futurity

After debuting with an impressive win over future Swale winner Ready for Rye at 5.5 furlongs, hopes were high for Carpe Diem’s first attempt at a route of ground. He was the 5/2 favorite against a decent field on Keeneland’s new dirt track.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile

With the scratch of American Pharoah, Carpe Diem went off favored in the Juvenile. A wide trip, but an impressive rally. Still a very clear second to Texas Red, but race watchers almost universally came away impressed with Carpe Diem’s efffort in the stretch.

Tampa Bay Derby

Carpe Diem returned from his winter layoff with a sharp performance in the Tampa Bay Derby. At even money, he again showed that he had more in the stretch and won easily. His stock was extremely high after this performance. Eventual Lexington winner Divining Rod finished third.

Blue Grass Stakes

A return to Keeneland and another strong performance from Carpe Diem. On paper, Carpe Diem dominated over the field on paper. Danzig Moon improved on track to prevent the blowout.  Race watchers were mixed with their reviews; some wanted to see a strong distancing in the stretch, but others were pleased with the stamina building for Louisville.

Carpe Diem is a extremely well-bred horse who has been destined for the Derby for a while. He possesses the talent to win the Derby, and his pressing style will give him first run on fading frontrunners at Churchill. He’ll need to move forward just a bit — and of course work out a trip in the Derby (easier said than done) — but very well could take the roses home come Saturday.

The Wood Memorial (GI)

It’s the cap to the Aqueduct 3YO season on Saturday with the Wood Memorial.

Racing returned to the main track from the inner dirt on Wednesday and a field of seven goes forward. Five return from the Gotham, won by El Kabeir:

A very impressive performance visually, although the speed figure came back less than stellar. On the whole, the NY preps haven’t been all that strong this year. That said, El Kabeir had already established himself last fall, with a win in the Kentucky Jockey Club, although he still needs to improve to dream of the hitting the board at Churchill Downs.

Of the 4 others who were smoked by El Kabeir in the Gotham, I’d only give a long look to Lieutenant Colonel, who just may have not liked the wet, inner track. It was only his second career start; might be worth it to take a chance on a rebound for a great trainer (Chad Brown) at a long price.

The two shippers, Daredevil and Frosted bring very different resumes. .

Frosted has been hyped all winter, but hasn’t shown elite speed and performance. His Fountain of Youth says it all:

Daredevil had a terrible post in the Juvenile, so tossing that is ok.  And, if you toss that race, his speed profile is great. His biggest question is the 9 furlong distance. Right now, I’d guess he might be a better miler than anything else. If he doesn’t like the distance, El Kabeir might just inherit the win, unless Lieutenant Colonel (or another) improves.

Enjoy the great racing day!

Santa Anita Derby

Blue Grass

Santa Anita Derby (GI)

The Santa Anita Derby concludes the 3YO series in Southern California. The field begins with Dortmund, who was #1 in the latest Derby rankings. He has run the two fastest speed figures in the field, and I don’t imagine that the 9 furlongs — a 1/2 furlong longer than he’s gone before — will be a problem. Dortmund has shown a strong propensity to stay, as exhibited in his two recent races. It’s worth watching the San Felipe, his most recent race. Not only does it feature Dortmund, but also Prospect Park and Bolo, who race here today.

Dortmund has already qualified for the Derby, regardless of the result here. This would be his second GI win, having captured the Los Alamitos Futurity this past December.

Bolo, who was #5 in latest rankings (before the final preps began), is really exciting. He was the best 3YO turf horse in California, when Derby fever mandated a dirt try. His dirt debut was excellent. Now, he faces off again against Dortmund and Prospect Park. However, there’s reason to believe that he’ll be an even faster horse today. A horse often excels the second time they try something. An improved effort will place Bolo as a strong contender for the Kentucky Derby, and he’s my upset pick to capture his first GI today.

One Lucky Dane was rushed into the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile off an impressive maiden score. I don’t mind tossing his lackluster effort that day.The connections are optimistic once again, moving One Lucky Dane from first level allowance to GI. He certainly has a chance if he improves, although his resume suggests that he dominates when he’s the best horse.  He’s not the best horse in the field today, so he’ll need to show a new dimension to find enough points to get to Kentucky. I think he’s a bit overmatched here.

Prospect Park has been the steadiest of improvers throughout the winter. He’s looked quite sharp in the stretch as well, particularly last time out. However, one has to wonder, if he couldn’t beat Dortmund last time out, why today? Unlike Bolo, who may improve second time out on the dirt, Prospect Park seems unlikely to continue his remarkable string of improvement. Only if Dortmund or Bolo are off their game.

Image: Suzanne, Copyright 2012



The Blue Grass (GI)

The Blue Grass Stakes (G1) caps a terrific card on Saturday on opening weekend from Keeneland. It’s one of three destinations this week — Santa Anita and Aqueduct are the others — for Kentucky Derby contenders.

It starts what should be a banner year for the Lexington, Kentucky racetrack, which hosts the Breeders’ Cup at season’s end. Last fall, Keeneland installed a new dirt track, replacing the artificial dirt surface. As a result, the Blue Grass once again serves as a destination for horses that expect to compete for top honors in Louisville in four weeks.

Carpe Diem, #3 in my Derby rankings (prior to final preps, which started last week), leads the way. He’s even money on the morning line. I expect that he’ll be 3/5 or even lower by post time. Here’s why:

  • He’s run faster than any other horse in the field.
  • He’s won over this track in a very impressive performance last Fall.
  • He’s cost $1.7 million and he’s bred for distance.
  • His comeback in Tampa was sharp and confident.

I fully expect a top notch performance from Carpe Diem, likely earning his first triple digit Beyer and romping by open lengths against the rest of the field.

Of the other contenders, someone will have to improve to even come within a few lengths of Carpe Diem. Ocho Ocho Ocho, who at one time was #5 in my Derby rankings, had a disappointing comeback in the San Felipe last month. He’d need to fully turn it around; the ship out of the west coast — presumably to get away from Dortmund — doesn’t inspire a tremendous amount of confidence. Gorgeous Bird, inspired a great amount of hype when he won a 1st-level allowance at Gulfstream. But that speed figure from that race came back low, and he was rather dull in the Fountain of Youth.  Classy Class has been a bit of a puzzle throughout the winter. I’m excited to see him away from the inner dirt at Aqueduct. Danzig Moon was an impressive maiden winner in February at Gulfstream, but failed to back that up last time he met Carpe Diem in Tampa.

Image: Missing8519, Copyright 2007.


5 Weeks Out: Florida Derby, Lousiana Derby, UAE Derby

Three final preps for Kentucky Derby contenders today. Each race not only awards 100 points to the winner, but also 40 points to second and 20 points to 3rd. So, the top 2 finishers qualify and the 3rd place finisher is well-positioned, especially if he has some  points already.

We are five weeks from the Kentucky Derby, a relatively standard amount of rest for contemporary thoroughbreds. It was once a “curse” that no one could win the Kentucky Derby off 5 weeks rest, but that was been debunked in recent years.

Florida Derby

It’s a rematch between Upstart and Itsaknockout, who tussled in the Fountain of Youth.

It’s a deeper field today, with my eyes squarely focused on Materiality, who has emerged as a Kentucky Derby contender based on his performance at 9 furlongs in the Islamorada Stakes. That’s was at the same track and at the same distance as today. A win here and he becomes a threat to the curse of Apollo; he made his winning debut in early January.

Louisiana Derby

Stanford who ran in the above Islamorada Stakes with Materiality certainly rates a decent chance. His 95 Beyer is still faster than anything that International Star has run this year. As usual, Pletcher is splitting up his very talented army among the east and midwest.

War Story is generating some buzz, but as of now, he hasn’t been fast enough to win a race of this level. He certainly could improve — as could any 3YO this time of year — but I prefer to see it on the track.


There are also significant Kentucky Derby points on the line in Dubai with the UAE Derby. My Johnny Be Good ships over from Tampa, which is good because he’ll give us a sense of comparison after the race.  Here’s a video of the Al Bastakiya, the local prep for today’s race, in which Mubtaahij defeated Sir Fever.

Mubaahij already has a bit of a rivalry — renewed tomorrow — with Maftool.

Enjoy a great day of racing!

Kentucky Derby FAQ

A guide to the Kentucky Derby. Covers age and field size, fastest “2 minutes,” purse, surface, and distance.

Can a horse of any age race in the Kentucky Derby? 

No. The Kentucky Derby is restricted to 3YO horses. High-class horses generally race from about 2YO to around 5YO or 6YO. There are exceptions to this rule, especially if a horse is a gelding. Most horses running in the Derby made their debut at 2YO; in fact, it’s almost a requirement. Since Apollo won the Derby in 1882, no horse has won without a race at 2. You don’t need to win at 2 – just get the experience and (likely) growth.

Because the race is restricted to 3YO, a horse only gets one chance at Derby glory. It’s far from the end of racing – many opportunities exist for horses that may either peak later or missed the Derby due to injury. But it’s a one-shot deal. While horses can’t repeat, trainers can and do. You’ll often see the same trainers around – Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher come quickly to mind.

Is there a limit to the number of horses that can run in the Derby? 

Yes. In 1975, after 23 horses ran in the centennial Kentucky Derby in 1974, Churchill Downs limited the Derby field to 20 starters, using earnings as a qualifier. In 1985, Churchill Downs switched to Graded Earnings, which are earnings that are won in the highest classes of races. However, purses aren’t a perfect proxy for quality – for example, the Delta Jackpot, is a GIII race with a Grade 1 level purse ($1 million). As a result, in 2012, Churchill Downs switched to a qualifying points system.

Even still, 20 is a very large number. It’s not that rare for a race to have the maximum — the typical limit for a U.S. horse race is 14 starters. In practice, fans often see fields that are much smaller, about 8 horse per field. In the Derby, there is more potential for chaos and trouble. It’s crazy at the start and creates a whole slew of bad trips – horses that had winning chances but were blocked in traffic. The large field also adds another level of complexity to understanding the races. It’s no coincidence that it’s the race that I (and most handicappers) spend the most time on each and every year. And, it’s wonderfully exciting to watch, filled with storylines and a good chance for drama each year.

Isn’t it just two minutes? That’s so fast.

Yes. It is one race, lasting just about 2 minutes. That’s it. The Derby might just be the quickest major sporting event in the world, far shorter than, for example, the Super Bowl or World Series or Daytona 500. Yes, there are other races on the day, including the top horses from the other divisions (i.e. turf, older, fillies & mares), but the Kentucky Derby itself happens very quickly. A badly timed bathroom break could force you to miss the entire race.

However, this is a bit misleading. Every thoroughbred born in the United States has Derby dreams, and for those with the talent to match, the process of reaching the Derby begins early and takes years. Qualification forms a regular season of sorts, ranging from September of the previous year until mid-April. I prefer to think of the Derby not as a quick one-shot race, but instead as the culmination of years of preparation and the final stage of a long-term process.

None of this should dampen just how exciting those two minutes actually are. It is the most exciting two minutes in sport.

Is the purse large for the Kentucky Derby?

Yes. It is $2 million and is the largest purse for a race restricted to 3YO.

  • Kentucky Derby: $2 Million
  • Preakness $1.5 Million
  • Belmont Stakes $1.5 Million
  • Travers Stakes $1.25 Million
  • Arkansas Derby: $1 Million
  • Bluegrass Stakes: $1 Million
  • Florida Derby: $1 Million
  • Santa Anita Derby: $1 Million
  • Wood Memorial: $ 1 Million
  • Haskell Invitational: $1 Million
  • Pennsylvania Derby: $1 Million

(Races for $1M or more restricted to 3YO. All are Grade 1, except for the Pennsylvania Derby. Purse data from 2014)

What surface is the Kentucky Derby run on?  The Kentucky Derby is contested over dirt, as opposed to grass, or turf, or a synthetic surface. According to the Churchill Downs website, this is comprised of:

3” Sandy Loam Cushion
5” Sandy Loam Cushion Compacted
12” Clay Base
25” Sandy Loam/Natural Soil

(Sandy Loam is made up of sand, silt, and clay and is apparently great for gardening.)

I stuck my hand in the track when I visited Churchill Downs to see if I could gain understanding. Unfortunately, it just felt like dirt.

Some horses who qualified for the Derby may have done it by gaining points on synthetic surfaces. Three races offer points towards the Derby with a race over an artificial surface – The Grey at Woodbine, The El Camino Real at Golden Gate Fields, and the Spiral at Turfway park. This raises the possibility – as was the case with Animal Kingdom’s win in 2011 – that a horse may not have run on dirt coming into the Derby.

Screenshot 2015-03-21 13.00.34

There are no turf races that offer points for the Derby; however, it’s not uncommon to see a 3YO horse try dirt in the winter after showing talent on the turf earlier. Stamina (sometimes) moves well between surfaces. But you have to show it on the dirt – fake or real – before Derby Day to qualify.

Why is 10 furlongs important?

A furlong – the standard distance measure in American horse racing is 1/8 of a mile. So, a furlong is about halfway around the track at the local high school. 10 furlongs, or 1 ¼ miles, on dirt, is a bit of a legendary distance nowadays in horse racing. The ability for a horse to maintain speed over the distance of 10 furlongs is a testament to its breeding and training. It is a champion’s distance. It is very rarely run anymore, and 3YO colts get two chances – in the Kentucky Derby and in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga in August. It is also the distance of several races for older horses, and importantly, the distance of the $5M Breeders’ Cup Classic, which often pits the best of the 3YO crop against older horses.

How many horses have run 10 furlongs on dirt prior the Derby?

None. No horse has had the opportunity to run this distance before – the longest race was likely the final prep at 9f. The ability to “get” this distance is part of what makes this race so exciting. So, there’s always uncertainty, even for the most well-bred of animals. The extra distance may not sound like much, but after running over a mile at high speed, every horse is tired and seeking the finish line. It is often these final yards that decide a horse race and the Kentucky Derby is no exception.

The stretchout to 10f for 3YO takes time. Debuting 2YO in April at Keeneland run only 4.5f. The Hopeful, a G1 event for 2YO’s in August, is contested at 7f and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at 8.5f. The early preps are at this same distance, with the final preps at 9f. No horse will have tried 10f before the Derby.


The Sunland Derby (GIII)

An added bonus to the Kentucky Derby trail with the Sunland Derby on Sunday afternoon (5:40 MT). 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the winner. With the scratch of Lord Nelson, it would appear to be a one horse race. Firing Line, fresh off a triple-digit speed figure, ships in from California for a seemingly easy purse and Derby points.

But there is some significant cause for worry. Firing Line was outgamed by Dortmund in the Robert Lewis.

Dortmund was rallying in spectacular fashion, but Firing Line was also stopping. Plus, I’ve noticed a propensity for Callaghan-trainees to be a bit “short” on stamina in big-time races. Firing Line has been impressive, and very well may prove me wrong, but I’d recommend against taking a low price here.

The difficulty, however, with the vulnerable favorite, is still finding the upset winner. The best shot comes from Asmussen-trainee and Fair Grounds shipper, Tiznow RJ, who showed potential in his stakes debut in the Lecomte. He performed far better in that race than you’d expect from only a maiden winner. However, he regressed next out in the Risen Star, finishing far back of International Star. To win today, he’d need to improve, but that’s certainly not out of the question this time of year. He’ll be my pick to upset Firing Line, who will likely be 3/5 or lower.

Why Two is slightly intriguing — won a stakes at Turf Paradise, but earlier broke his maiden at Santa Anita. Certainly not out of the question to set pace and hold on underneath.

Enjoy the race!

The Spiral (GIII)

The Kentucky Derby trail runs through Turfway Park today with Spiral, a 9 furlong test over the track’s artificial dirt surface. It provides the best, if only, route for an artificial surface/turf horse to qualify for the Derby without first showing dirt form. The winner today will receive 50 points — a lock to qualify. Many return from the El Camino Real Derby, including Metaboss, who won that race. The El Camino Real Derby is the other 2015 Kentucky Derby Points race run over an artificial surface.

Metaboss and Conquest Typhoon could both qualify for the Kentucky Derby with a top 2 finish today. Conquest Typhoon has never run on dirt and Metaboss hasn’t ever run well on it. Call this the Animal Kingdom route to the Kentucky Derby:

Screenshot 2015-03-21 13.00.34

It was here that Animal Kingdom got the graded earnings — under the old system — to qualify for the Kentucky Derby, without any previous performance on dirt.

Hard to knock the path when it produces a victory like in the Kentucky Derby.  Looking at today’s race, it begins with Royal Son, who had an impressive speed figure over this track defeating the Great War. It might say absolutely nothing about his chances in Louisville in May, but he very well may be the fastest in this field today. He could be a horse that prefers ultimately prefers turf — and its likely correlation with polytrack, but is only running on dirt because of the Derby trail.  The scratch of Imperia helps him as well. Imperia, his main rival, was second off the layoff and appeared likely to favor the artificial surface as well.

The rest of the field is interesting, especially Metaboss, who would need to improve to catch Royal Son, and certainly could over the added ground. But, even with that, it’s still Royal Son’s race to lose, and I’d rate him at 8/5. He dominates the field on speed and is proven over the track. Some risk with the pace and class test — and the always present sudden 3YO improvement, but he seems a very strong horse today in the Spiral.

Enjoy the race!

Image: Copyright Rob Ireton, 2006






The Rebel (GII)

All eyes toward Oaklawn this weekend with the Rebel featuring the anticipated return of 2YO male champion, American Pharoah.  He’s the second top contender to return to the track in the last two weeks; Carpe Diem made a successful return to the races with an impressive performance winning the Tampa Bay Derby last Saturday:

Looking back at American Pharoah, he was lights out last summer in Southern California, cruising to victory in two straight Grade I races — the Del Mar Futurity and the Frontrunner:

Reports are that he was been training aggressively for this return and that he has looked sharp doing so. On paper, if he returns to last season’s sharp form (or better) on his return, he shouldn’t have too many problems with today’s field. He’s significantly faster than anyone else in the field, and it’s difficult to see someone improving to his level. He still has to favor the quirky Oaklawn surface — not a given and something that raises the risk.

It’s a small field compartively, with only 7 horses going forward. If American Pharoah is a bit shaky, look to Gulfstream shipper Madefromlucky. Its tough to tell much from his last race, but he may have more than shown here:

The final to watch is The Truth or Else, who either loved the wet track last out in the Southwest or improved off the layoff. If he improved, he should be a strong factor, but only for the top if American Pharoah isn’t at his best.

Enjoy the Rebel!

Image: Sandwich, Copyright 2014.