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Kentucky Derby field is super talented and deep

Jockey Mike Smith, aboard Justify, talks to trainer

Jockey Mike Smith, aboard Justify, talks to trainer Bob Baffert, right, while cooling off the horse, who won the Santa Anita Derby on April 7, 2018, in Arcadia, California. Credit: AP / Jae C. Hong

Justify and Magnum Moon are undefeated, so they’re getting most of the attention. Irish star Mendelssohn crushed the U.A.E. Derby by 18½ lengths. Then there are Audible, Good Magic and Vino Rosso, winners of the Florida Derby, Blue Grass Stakes and Wood Memorial, respectively. Bolt d’Oro hasn’t finished first since September, but he fits with the leading contenders.

Pick one.

That’s what you’ll have to do May 5 in the world’s most overanalyzed race, the Kentucky Derby. The quality and depth of the 144th Derby’s field will make finding a winner even tougher than usual. Keith Desormeaux, who trains longshot My Boy Jack, knows what he’s up against.

“These are serious horses this year,” Desormeaux said. “I think the talent is off the charts. This crop is exceptional. There’s not one standout, there are three or four standouts. I think across the board this group is as good as I’ve ever seen.”

Former jockey Richard Migliore agrees it’s “a very deep group.” So does his xbtv.com colleague, standout handicapper Jeff Siegel. So many choices, so what’s a horseplayer to do?

The wisest approach is to treat the Derby like just another race, even though nobody thinks it is. Identify the pacesetters (Justify, Promises Fulfilled, Mendelssohn), stalkers (Magnum Moon, Noble Indy, Bolt d’Oro, Flameaway, Solomini), midpack runners (Audible, Good Magic, Vino Rosso, Enticed, Quip, Bravazo, Firenze Fire) and closers (My Boy Jack, Lone Sailor, Hofburg, Free Drop Billy). Then there’s the wild card, Gronkowski, named for Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski, who owns part of him. The four-legged Gronk’s six starts were on turf and synthetic in England, so no one knows where he’ll be in his first try on dirt.

Study hard, but don’t overthink it. Factor in workouts, post positions and try to guess who will get a trouble-free trip. Amid the stress and confusion, keep reminding yourself that it’s fun. The chaos is what brings us back every year. If this puzzle were easy to solve, why bother?

Trainer Bob Baffert’s Justify (3-for-3) is the likely favorite, with Magnum Moon (4-for-4) the probable second choice, even though both lack the crucial foundation of 2-year-old racing. The last Derby winner to debut at 3 was Apollo in 1882. If not for that hole in their resumes, you couldn’t knock Justify or Magnum Moon. But why take a short price on overcoming 135 years of history?

Yet many will ignore the risk-reward angle, and Desormeaux understands why.

“I agree with the pundits that Justify’s performance in the Santa Anita Derby was ultra-impressive, especially since it was only his third start,” he said. “Plus he has the looks to boot. So I would rank Justify at the top, and he would be my pick.”

Baffert and Todd Pletcher are Derby perennials, with Baffert winning four and Pletcher two, including last year with Always Dreaming. If Justify disappoints, maybe Pletcher can repeat with Magnum Moon. As Siegel said, “On his best day, Magnum Moon is fantastic.”

After the Arkansas Derby, Pletcher saluted his son of Malibu Moon, who sired 2013 Derby hero Orb. “It’s very difficult to do what he’s done since Jan. 13, break his maiden, be 4-for-4 and be a Grade I winner in his fourth start,” Pletcher said. “It’s a real tribute to the horse’s talent.”

(Pletcher also trains Audible, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy, so besides choosing incorrectly between Justify and Magnum Moon, you could easily land on the wrong Pletcher.)

No one reveres the Derby more than Dale Romans, who grew up in his father’s barn at Churchill Downs. Romans trains extreme longshots Free Drop Billy and Promises Fulfilled.

“The great thing about the Kentucky Derby is it takes the best horses from all the regions to find out who is the best,” Romans said. “It’s the first time they will all come together, and that’s what makes the Derby so special.”

And so gloriously confusing.

McNamara’s Derby Top 10

1. Audible Florida Derby winner can stalk or make long, sustained rally

2. Mendelssohn Irish wizard Aidan O’Brien’s first serious Derby contender

3. Good Magic Chad Brown will have 2-year-old champ primed for top effort

4. Justify A major talent, but lack of 2-year-old experience a big concern

5. Bolt d’Oro Overlay’s stalking style would be aided by likely fast pace

6. Magnum Moon Like Justify, undefeated, brilliant and didn’t run last year

7. Vino Rosso Woke up in Wood; Velazquez jumped off Audible to ride him

8. Noble Indy Gritty win in La. Derby; Long Islander Fred Hart bred his dam

9. Enticed Grinder would have been closer in Wood if not for bumping

10. Hofburg Runner-up in Florida Derby has room to improve

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