January 27, 2023

Contrasting early Kentucky Derby contenders

Life Is Good winning his debut at Del Mar - © Benoit Photo
Life Is Good winning his debut at Del Mar © Benoit Photo

Kentucky Derby ramifications surrounded the final weekend in November, as Pool 1 of the Future Wager and a qualifying race at Churchill Downs, the Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2), were offered.

Life Is Good was bet like something special, closing as the 5-1 individual favorite in Pool 1.

Keepmeinmind, who was exiting placings behind divisional leader Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), picked up 10 additional points toward a Derby berth by winning the Kentucky Jockey Club.

Stark differences exist between the early contenders.

Life Is Good couldn’t be more fancied despite racing only once, romping in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden special weight at Del Mar on Nov. 22. No horse has been a shorter price in the seven-year history of Pool 1. By comparison, Tiz the Law was the 11-1 individual favorite in Pool 1 last year.

Following a pair of classy efforts, Keepmeinmind rallied to win the Kentucky Jockey Club by about a length as the 2-1 favorite. However, the confirmed closer was overlooked as the 19-1 fifth choice among individual interests when Pool 1 concluded on Sunday.

Big expectations

Bettors gravitated to Like Is Good because he ran fast in his debut, earning a 100 Brisnet Speed rating for the spectacular 9 1/2-length decision, and looks like another dynamic front-running type for six-time Kentucky Derby winner Bob Baffert.

American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018) led wire-to-wire in latter Triple Crown events, but they were tractable enough to settle just off the pacesetter in respective Kentucky Derby victories. Authentic (2020) and War Emblem (2002) were more one-dimensional for the Hall of Fame conditioner.

Life Is Good may prove versatile with experience, but he was determined to run rivals into the ground when the gates opened, speeding through opening splits in :21.80, :44.84 and 1:09.08 before stopping the teletimer in 1:15.50.

His pedigree isn’t a concern. By leading sire Into Mischief, who was represented by his first Kentucky Derby winner in Authentic, Life Is Good is out of a mare by Distorted Humor, sire of 2003 Derby victor Funny Cide.

And bettors have every right to put their faith in Baffert, who got the most out of Authentic.

After watching Authentic hang on in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell (G1), Baffert worked Authentic five times over a 22-day period leading up to the Kentucky Derby, including three fast 6-furlong drills and a stiff mile move. The speedy colt showed up ready to handle the 1 1/4-mile trip at Churchill Downs.

I can’t imagine another high-profile trainer putting a prized 3-year-old through such rigorous preparations, but that’s standard operating procedure for Baffert. He’s the king of the Triple Crown, posting a record 16 wins, because his formula works.

Keepmeinmind wins KY Jockey Club
Keepmeinmind wins KY Jockey Club (Coady Photo/Churchill Downs)

Must get faster

After losing his first three starts, Keepmeinmind did not run fast breaking his maiden in the Kentucky Jockey Club, netting only a 92 Speed rating for the grinding win over Smiley Sobotka. Trainer Robertino Diodoro has never had a Kentucky Derby starter.

By Laoban, who has moved to WinStar Farm in Kentucky after standing in New York, Keepmeinmind is well-positioned to make a 20-horse Derby field with 22 qualifying points already. He doesn’t need to win any prep races next year, but must perform respectably to keep advancing toward the first Saturday in May.

Kentucky Derby participants have become more lightly raced over the decades. And with the exception of Country House, who was placed first in 2019 via the disqualification of unbeaten Maximum Security, recent winners have captured most of their prep races leading up to Derby Day.

Baffert’s first two Derby winners, Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998), lost every two-turn prep at age 3. That was a different era.

Baffert’s last three winners fit the current profile – American Pharoah, Authentic and Justify combined to win 11-of-13 starts before wearing the Roses.

I still think the avenue exists for horses like Alysheba (1987) and Unbridled (1990), who weren’t among the fastest in their crop until the spring of their 3-year-old season. The future Hall of Famers lost more than half their starts before winning the Kentucky Derby.

Whether Keepmeinmind can improve enough over the next five months remains to be seen.