Please don’t send any more top horses for this Kentucky Derby. The field is full with budding superstars.
Readers will remember we had a Top Three all picked out a couple of weeks ago, with Justify, Mendelssohn and Good Magic tabbed as the ones to beat in the 144th Run for the Roses.
Then Magnum Moon jumped over the moon in the Arkansas Derby, and the Big Three expanded to a Big Four — at least in our estimation.
Of course, four is too many, and a dilly of a pickle for any handicapper trying to evaluate any race, let alone the Kentucky Derby. That’s not even counting several more live horses sprinkled through the field of 20 expected to be entered Tuesday for the Kentucky Derby Saturday at Churchill Downs.
So, no more.
The radar is full, with two on the grounds at the Downs, in Good Magic and Magnum Moon, and more blips arcing the radar — maybe even as you read this — with Justify, the likely Derby favorite flying in from California, and Mendelssohn, the possible second choice in the betting, somewhere out over the Atlantic en route to Kentucky from Ireland.
So when previously little-mentioned Hofburg shone in the sunshine Sunday morning, we had to hold up our hands, “Full!”
We’ll let just that one horse come in UNDER the radar, and that’s it for the 144th Run for the Roses.
Make the final list read (in alphabetical order):
- Good Magic
- Magnum Moon
And maybe that under-the-radar horse Hofburg. Maybe.
Just regular Good Magic
In any other year, Good Magic might be the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. But he’s been almost overlooked in the land rush of electrifying performances turned in by Justify, Magnum Moon and Mendelssohn.
Yet Good Magic looked very professional winning the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland under rising star rider Jose Ortiz — and was a bright light on the track Saturday morning at Churchill Downs, speeding through a five-furlong workout in 1:01 2/5. The times were uniformly slow Saturday morning, but Good Magic’s seemed pretty handy. Five furlongs is half The Derby distance.
Trainer Chad Brown says he likes the way his chestnut colt moves over the track.
“I like how he takes his work,” says Brown, catching a look at his horse across a patch of grass behind Barn 42 where his colt is looking to chomp up a mouthful of sod as his handlers dry him off after a bath. “He cooled out in about 10 minutes. He’s not even blowing. Just stretched his legs out there — and now we’re trying to keep him right where we are. We’re already at maximum fitness.”
What the trainer means is the horse is peaking at the right time.
Good Magic was named the two-year-old champion in 2017 after winning the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall at Del Mar. But in his season-opener in Florida in February he ran just third — and some of his backers were ready to jump ship.
But a steady pattern of works, and a shift north to a springtime encampment at Keeneland, brought Good Magic back into fighting form. In the Blue Grass, he managed some congestion into the first turn, bided his time along the outside of horses down the backstretch, and rolled to victory in the stretch.
“I think it’s really taken all winter and all spring to get him right to what we see today, and that’s at his very best,” says Brown.
The youthful trainer, who has won 10 Breeders’ Cup races since starting out his own stable after an assistantship with the late master conditioner Bobby Frankel, has had his calendar finger-pointing to the first Saturday in May all along, for owners e Five Racing Thoroughbreds and Stonestreet Stables.
“We’ve tried to plan for The Derby to be his best race,” says Brown. “It’s the most important race, and that’s what we set out to do when we set up this plan for him. So far, to my eyes, it’s going just according to plan.”
In the workout Saturday, Good Magic was ready to roll approaching the five-eighths mile pole, and rocketed into action under a firm hold from his exercise rider Walter Melasquez. As the pair turned for home, Melasquez let the horse ramble, and Good Magic zinged along a nice final quarter-mile in 24 seconds.
The rider kept the horse clicking as he eased off the throttle around the turn, adding a couple more furlongs to the workout. Personally, I thought he pulled up rather easily — as in comparison to Always Dreaming’s final work last year signaling a Derby victory. They almost needed a cowboy to rope Always Dreaming.
Good Magic just came to a stop and turned, as the rider asked. But that’s just the horse, says Brown. Meaning professional. Stops when asked. “The horse worked great,” says Brown.
High up on Good Magic’s plus side is his pedigree, particularly as a son of Curlin (as was Always Dreaming) from The Derby-dominant Raise a Native sire line. Good Magic also enjoyed a splendid two-year-old campaign, for seasoning.
“He has all the qualities that I think it would take,” says Brown. “I’ve been trying to study this race for finding a way to win it, and obviously he’s a highly regarded champion two-year-old horse. He’s got the right pedigree. He’s a good-looking horse. He’s sound, and he has an enormous amount of ability.”
Smooth and breezy out on The Coast
But then there’s Justify, who also turned in his final Kentucky Derby workout Saturday — but at Santa Anita Park in California.
It’s quite a show every morning Justify goes to the track, with plenty of onlookers finding themselves dazzled seeing Justify in action. A show maybe better than his races — of which there have been just three.
His first few strides into a workout, it is hard to believe how smoothly Justify goes — and how long is his stride. One can see what all the hubbub is about. The big red son of Scat Daddy simply eats up the ground — and Saturday was clocked in 1:25 1/5 for seven furlongs. Trainer Bob Baffert timed the colt another furlong, clicking him off at 1:39 4/5 for a mile.
That’s a good time, and a long work just a week before the Kentucky Derby. But again, it’s the way the horse does it.
“That’s what you want to see,” Baffert told Daily Racing Form writer Brad Free. “You want to see a horse that’s enjoying what he’s doing. He worked well, and he got something out of it.”
Free reported that Baffert was pleased with the way Justify was content to follow a “workmate” horse, then zipped by that one when asked.
“He trailed the horse pretty nice,” said Baffert, who was in radio contact with rider Drayden Van Dyke during the work. “I told him to take off, and he just … took off!”
Have a Hofburg!
On Sunday, every barn swallow in Louisville reported for duty early at Churchill Downs, and all were chattering at full babble as trainer Bill Mott sent Hofburg to the racetrack for what turned out to be a beautiful workout on a beautiful sunshiny spring morning.
Hofburg is a pretty chestnut horse. He’s a highbred from the powerful international stable Juddmonte Farm. The Juddmonte jockeys wear the light blue and pink silks readers will remember winning so many races — especially on the grass in the Breeders Cup and overseas.
Juddmonte campaigned recent undefeated European star Frankel, named for the stable’s longtime U.S. trainer. This one is by the top stallion Tapit, and carries a distinctive looking white star on his forehead.
Kind of like an upside down map of Austria. In other words, we don’t know what it looks like — but it’s distinctive.
The horse floats over the Downs dirt. With rider Penny Gardiner keeping the horse paced at her fingertips, trailing a workmate to start, Hofburg appears to be one that’s easy to settle into stride, rather than fighting to go. We’d expect he’ll drop back early in The Derby, then try to make a run late.
Could happen. The trainer is hoping there will be a hot pace to string out the field, make it easier for come-from-behinders to get into stride and roll.
A workout, of course, is just a workout, and it will have to suffice for extensive racing experience. Hofburg has had just three races, but one of them was last September at Saratoga, so he’s had seasoning of those extra months in training. In his next start in Florida he broke his maiden, then ran second to Audible in the Florida Derby.
Anyhow, we caught Hofburg floating through a final quarter-mile in an easy 24 seconds. Like Good Magic the morning before. Looked sharp. Looked easy.
And when he came along to the backstretch pulling up, you could not hear him. Hoof beats soft, not a sound of a breath. High-class quiet.
“You know I was on the front side and had the ability to see the whole work on the big monitor, which is great,” trainer Mott was saying afterward. “It looked like he went off well. He joined his company a little bit early, going maybe a little bit slow the first eighth of a mile. Then he joined up smooth as silk coming by me, and approaching the wire he looked really good. Switched leads going into the turn and galloped out around the turn.
“I’m very pleased with the work, the rider was pleased with the work,” says a smiling Mott. “He looked as good as he can look.”
We’ve been wondering about the name Hofburg. Kind of hoping it was named for a very good real beer. Have a Hofburg!
You know, as opposed to a “Have a Zombie Dust,” or “a Dead Man Ale.” One of those favorites of the under-22 crowd.
But that’s not it. Hofburg, explained Juddmonte manger Garrett O’Rourke, is named for a place.
“It’s the old royal city of Hofburg within the city of Vienna, the capital buildings of the country,” says O’Rourke. “It’s a very beautiful place. The famous Lipizzaner stallions are there.”
The real question, of course, is not whether it’s a beer or a capital. It’s how “Hofburg” would read on the side of a Derby mint julep glass.
Another couple of names?
But that’s a far reach.
We are sticking with the Big Four for this Derby and will let Hofburg be our only likely long shot.
Well, maybe if one is looking for deep closers who could help out the price of the trifecta in The Derby, I would have to mention Vino Rosso, who has looked good at the Downs. And Solomini, that I have a sneaking hunch will be ridden along late by jockey Flavien Prat, and … well, that’s enough.
It’s among the Big Four this Derby, and we’ll try to narrow that down later this week after they’ve drawn for post positions.