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Loaded Kentucky Derby field makes finding a winner tough

Justify could emerge as the winner, but there are question marks about the flashy chestnut.

Kentucky Derby favorite Justify, 3-for-3 in his short

Kentucky Derby favorite Justify, 3-for-3 in his short career, trains at Churchill Downs on Thursday, May 3, 2018. Credit: AP / Charlie Riedel

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — So many difficult questions, and only one correct answer. So many talented 3-year-old thoroughbreds, and only one will make history. Soon after the official sign for the 144th Kentucky Derby flashes late Saturday afternoon, one name will replace 2017 hero Always Dreaming on the wall above Churchill Downs’ paddock.

The challenge: Fill in that blank.

Jeff Siegel, xbtv.com’s standout handicapper, calls it “the best Derby field in 20 years.” Few would disagree, and because of its depth and talent, finding the winner is far trickier than usual. “Any one of eight horses could win it and not shock anybody,” Siegel said.

Justify (3-for-3) and Magnum Moon (4-for-4) are undefeated, but neither raced last year. No Derby winner since 1882 made his or her career debut at 3. Mendelssohn won Dubai’s UAE Derby by 18 1⁄2 lengths. Trainer Todd Pletcher’s Audible and Vino Rosso, stablemates of Magnum Moon’s, also have enthusiastic backers, and so do 2017 2-year-old champion Good Magic, Bolt d’Oro and even lightly raced Hofburg.

Playing an eight-horse exacta box might bankrupt you, and it wouldn’t guarantee you would cash the ticket. Decisions, decisions: who to leave in, who to leave out?

Siegel has been on the bandwagon of Justify since he dominated his debut Feb. 18. Trainer Bob Baffert, a four-time Derby winner, is high on the flashy chestnut with the white stripe down his face. In March, Baffert told a reporter he was going to show him the Derby winner, and the journalist thought he meant McKinzie, his top 3-year-old before being sidelined. Baffert took him to Justify’s stall, the one occupied by his 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah and then by superstar Arrogate.

Justify’s Hall of Fame jockey, “Big Money Mike” Smith, is 52 and has been on dozens of stars. He thinks he’s found another. “He looks amazing,” Smith said. “I don’t look as good as him, but I feel good about him. He’s just athletic, getting over the ground here and not struggling with it at all. He looks happy, switching leads well, and that’s all you can ask for.”

However . . .

Besides lacking a 2-year-old foundation, Justify has other question marks. He has raced only at Santa Anita, never against more than six opponents and never had dirt kicked in his face. Maybe he’s a Triple Crown candidate, or maybe he’ll find the 20-horse, 1 1⁄4-mile marathon too much too soon.

Long Islander Mike Repole, co-owner of Vino Rosso and Noble Indy, considers Justify an all-or-nothing proposition. “Either he’ll win by two,” Repole said, “or he’ll be last.”

Baffert, a Derby regular since 1996, has seen it all. When the gates open, chaos reigns. The most talented horse doesn’t always finish first.

“Crazy things happen in a 20-horse field,” he said. “We know we have a good horse, but you still need a lot of racing luck. I’ve been there with great horses that didn’t get the right breaks. So I don’t take anything for granted.”

Neither should you.

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