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The final piece of the puzzle to the 2018 Kentucky Derby has been put in place, and it fits quite nicely, thank you very much. We now clearly have the blueprint for the best edition of the Run for the Roses in a long time. Why do I say that? Depth of quality is the key, and top to bottom, this year’s field looks to be simply outstanding. Horses like My Boy Jack, Noble Indy, Flameaway, Quip, Enticed, and Solomini have demonstrated their quality with multiple solid performances. Unfortunately for each of them, their obvious abilities might not be good enough to make even a dent in this year’s classic. That’s because unless they can take a big step forward on the first Saturday in May, they all figure to be at the mercy of the Big Seven.

In most years, any one  of this septet would be on a short list of horses to beat for the roses, but this year, at least three could run big only to finish off the board. It is that strong a bunch. While it’s extremely unlikely that all seven will run their very best on May 5 at Churchill Downs, even if five of them bring their best, or even better, peek on Derby Day, we could be in store for a Kentucky Derby for the ages. Let’s take a look at the merits of the Big Seven, listed in alphabetical order …

Audible – One of four on this list to be perfect in 2018, this New York-bred son of Into Mischief was head and shoulders the best in two graded stakes starts this year in South Florida, including the Florida Derby. With good tactical ability, and then a strong kick for home, he could well be a horse ideally suited to run exactly how numerous Kentucky Derby editions of the past have been won. He’s also one of three of the seven to be trained by Todd Pletcher, who won his second Derby last May with Always Dreaming. Audible will need to prove how good he is away from Gulfstream, and that he can beat the very best of this crop, but after seeing what we saw from him so far this year, he is an obvious contender. 

Bolt d’Oro – While Audible will be facing a much stiffer cast of characters in Kentucky, this one has been facing topnotch competition all along. In fact, he’s the most battle tested of the bunch. Many will discount him after his futile chase of Justify in the Santa Anita Derby, but the race dynamics of the Derby will be far different than they were that afternoon in Southern California. While he’s never before run away from his little area of the nation, he has performed equally well at both Santa Anita and Del Mar. Multiple Kentucky Derby winning rider Victor Espinoza will pick up the mount on the son of Medaglia d’Oro, who should be ready for his best, third off the layoff. Like Audible, his pounce on the turn style is often a plus in the Derby.

Good Magic – Speaking of dangerous horses ready to peek third start off the layoff, beware this talented son of Curlin. While it’s true that his Fountain of Youth was just okay, and that his Blue Grass victory probably isn’t enough to win the big one at Churchill Downs, trainer Chad Brown had him on the exact same type of schedule last fall, and we all know what happened at the Breeders’ Cup. That huge performance in the Juvenile was the end game of steady and serious improvement in each start to the next, culminating with a pip in his third and final race at two. If he can repeat such a progression again this year, he becomes a major threat to become only the third horse to complete the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Kentucky Derby double.

Justify – And now we come to the likely favorite. With only three lifetime starts in a racing career which did not begin until February, it is almost hard to believe that this son of Scat Daddy could be the bettor’s choice against such a stellar Kentucky Derby field, but that is how eye-catching he has been in each of those starts for trainer, Bob Baffert. While I personally believe his relative inexperience is good reason to stay off him as the favorite, there can be no question that he has done everything to date like a horse who could someday go down into the record books. If he takes his best from Santa Anita to Churchill Downs, and the distance is not a bit too taxing, we could be looking at a horse whose name will be thrust into mainstream America in a matter of weeks. Apollo’s Curse will eventually be broken, and Justify and Magnum Moon are both excellent candidates to get the job done.

Magnum Moon – Today’s romping win in the Arkansas Derby was further proof that the Todd Pletcher trained son of Malibu Moon is a really good horse. Now undefeated in four career starts, he has seamlessly moved from maiden competition to Grade 1 racing within a span of four months. Moreover, the handsome bay has won in different ways, and on different tracks. Perhaps his drifting out down the lane today offers a little cause for pause, but considering how fast he was running, it seems more likely that he is still a touch green, rather than any underlying physical or distance related issue. Like the horse just above, and below, we really need to see the ultimate test of this year’s Kentucky Derby to know how special he may be.

Mendelssohn – Just how good is this half-brother of both Beholder and Into Mischief? We really don’t know, and that is scary. The son of Scat Daddy turned in the best performance of any Derby prep this year, but he did it in another part of the world. Turning his dirt debut into an absolute runaway, the $3 million colt won the UAE Derby like a very special kind of horse. He still has some questions to answer, but we already know what he can do on dirt, as well as his ability to beat top horses in America, from last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Like the other son of Scat Daddy, he is both trained by a master, in Aidan O’Brien, and has good tactical speed to gain early position. It is no stretch to call him the best Kentucky Derby contender ever to come by way of Dubai.

Vino Rosso – Perhaps the least accomplished colt on the list, this is the one that intrigues me most from a betting standpoint. Getting this developing son of Curlin as the seventh choice seems too good to be true, but with the credentials of the six above him, that’s exactly where he is likely to land. A strong looking colt, with a good mind, he lived up to all the potential with a powerful rally to run away from Enticed late in the Wood Memorial. Another trained by Pletcher, he gives every indication of wanting the ten furlongs of the Derby, and has already experienced the bumping commonplace to the Derby. Already well traveled in his five-race career, he looks likely to take another move forward in three weeks time.

Photo of Magnum Moon courtesy of Coady Photography