Justify and Mendelssohn Jockey for Position as Kentucky Derby Favorite
The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby is shaping up to be one of the most competitive in recent memory. The Kentucky Derby draw was Tuesday, and the post-positions and morning line odds are set. The two advance favorites are Santa Anita Derby winner Justify (3-1) and European hope and UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn (5-1). One of them will go off as the post-time Kentucky Derby favorite and try to become the sixth consecutive Derby winner to win the prestigious race as the betting favorite.
Five straight post-time favorites have won the Derby — Orb (2013), California Chrome (2014), American Pharoah (2015), Nyquist (2016) and Always Dreaming (2017) — the longest such streak in race history.
Last year, Classic Empire was the 4-1 morning line favorite, and we correctly selected Always Dreaming as the Derby winner, and the Todd Pletcher-trained colt ended up closing as the 9-2 post-time favorite.
Pletcher has a record-tying four horses running in this year’s Kentucky Derby with some solid contenders in Magnum Moon (6-1), Audible (8-1), Vino Rosso (12-1) and Noble Indy (30-1).
Magnum Moon and Justify will try to become just the second horse ever to win the Derby after not racing as a 2-year-old. Apollo accomplished the feat in 1882 and since then has become the namesake of the “Curse of Apollo”. Since 1937, 61 horses who were unraced as 2-year-olds have entered the Kentucky Derby, and none of them have captured the Run for the Roses. Three have finished 2nd, Coaltown (1948), Strodes Creek (1994) and Bodemeister (2012), who sired last year’s winner Always Dreaming. In 2017, Battle of Midway was another unraced 2-year-old and he finished 3rd in the Kentucky Derby at 40-1 odds. Curlin was among the best horses to try it but finished 3rd in 2007.
Justify has not been tested running on the front end in his three victories in short fields, and he’s never raced outside of Santa Anita. Now he’ll face a 20-horse field against more experienced and class horses, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him come up short. He’ll get plenty of support and betting action with 4-time Derby-winning trainer Bob Bafftert and Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith joining up with Justify.
“It’s good to be back with a horse that has a legitimate chance of winning,” said Baffert, whose American Pharoah went on to win the Triple Crown in 2015. “But there are six other horses that can pull it off if all goes well. It’s going to be a very competitive race.”
One of those is the magnificent Mendelssohn, who has a better chance to continue the streak if he goes off as the post-time favorite. He’s a world-class horse with more experience, high cruising speed, dirt pedigree and lots of class and stamina. Mendelssohn has won 4-or-7 starts and finished 2nd once while earning nearly $2 million. His trainer Aidan O’Brien and jockey Ryan Moore are also world-class, and the European hope flashed sensational speed in the dominating record time and 18-length UAE Derby while earning a very strong 106 Beyer Speed Figure. This classy colt cost a fortune as the sales-topper at the 2016 Keeneland yearling sale with a $3 million purchase price.
Regardless of whether it’s Justify or Mendelssohn that closes as the Kentucky Derby favorite, each arrive at Churchill Downs in great form as exceptional colts. That’s a profile worth betting on in any race, including the 20-horse field with higher payouts in the Kentucky Derby.