By Sid Fernando
Rocco Baldelli is part of the Tampa Bay Rays coaching staff. Before that–after playing in the MLB, mostly for the Rays–he was a part of the club’s front office involved with amateur scouting and the annual MLB first-year player draft. Rocco once told us that scouting high school and college players for the draft was more about finding the negatives than the positives, especially at the top of the draft. “We have to knock guys,” Rocco had said sheepishly. He almost hated saying it, but a job’s a job, right?
It all made sense because most of the amateur players at the top of the draft are accomplished and evenly matched on paper, like the top prospects in the Derby. When it came to picking prospects, Rocco and other decision makers in the front office relied on their own eyes, scouting reports, and–this is important –statistical and historical data compiled by the Rays’ eggheads to winnow the field. What it all boiled down to was projection, especially with the first-rounders who are expected to be future MLB players. Rocco himself was a first-rounder, and he was picked because of his physique and speed and projected ability to hit in the MLB. Tampa Bay got it right with him.
Let’s look at the Derby field as a potential draft and utilize the same philosophy to pick the No. 1 prospect. We’ll add a few more lower-round picks based on value to fill out our ticket. We’re going to project and dispassionately pick horses with the requisite speed and stamina to get 10 furlongs for the first time. Pedigree plays the major role, because that last eighth of a mile separates the men from the boys. Speed figures are are fine, but they’re based on races at nine furlongs. This is all about 10 furlongs, so we’ll have to project what the pedigree says.
We’re also going to knock some prospects in the process, as Rocco did, so don’t take it personally. And one last thing: Rocco Baldelli isn’t just a baseball guy; he’s a breeder and owner who’s had success in his short time in the game. We project bigger things for him in the future.
Top of the Draft
The top-round prospects, for our purposes, are the single-digit morning-line choices. The potential first-rounders are Justify (Scat Daddy) (3-1), Mendelssohn (Scat Daddy) (5-1), Magnum Moon (Malibu Moon) (6-1), Audible (Into Mischief) (8-1), and Bolt d’Oro (Medaglia d’Oro) (8-1).
We’re throwing out Justify and Magnum Moon, who didn’t race at two–yes, that Apollo curse has been historically significant because it speaks of experience. Both colts are talented but lightly raced, and Magnum Moon especially may be too green at this stage of his career for the Derby. We think his pedigree might be a tad short, too. There’s a lot of speed in his female family and not as much stamina to counterbalance it for 10 furlongs.
Justify is a big, good-looking individual with star power and presence, but his sire, Scat Daddy, is a Storm Cat-line stallion, and none from the line has sired a Derby winner yet. That’s because the Storm Cat sires, except for Giant’s Causeway, are best at producing nine-furlong horses. It’s probably fair to say, then, that the Scat Daddys need some fortification from the bottom side of pedigrees for 10 furlongs, and Justify may not have that. His family is as speedy as Magnum Moon’s–both have Florida-bred sprinters as third dams–and his broodmare sire, Ghostzapper, appears to be more an influence for speed than stamina in this role in pedigrees. For example, Ghostzapper is also the broodmare sire of champion sprinter Drefong, a son of the 10-furlong winner Gio Ponti, who is also a Storm Cat-line horse like Scat Daddy; and the Grade I-winning sprinter American Gal, by nine-furlong winner Concord Point; and others.
Mendelssohn, a $3 million yearling half-brother to champion Beholder and top sire Into Mischief, is also a son of Scat Daddy, but he’s already won at a mile and three-sixteenths. He’s got more stamina on his dam’s side than Justify. Beholder, by a Storm Cat-line sprinter, was a 10-furlong Grade I winner against colts, and the extended family incudes Derby winner I’ll Have Another as well, but Mendelssohn’s blowout win at Meydan may not have been as impressive as it looked. He didn’t face a top field in Dubai, and, more importantly, he benefitted from a severe track bias that favored inside-post front runners. We’re passing on him.
Audible is by Mendelssohn’s Storm Cat-line half-brother Into Mischief, a top stallion who spits out black-type winners with regularity but who has only had three Grade I winners to date, none at distances of more than nine furlongs. One of his best was multiple Grade I winner Practical Joke, a 3-year-old last year who was famously better suited to one turn than two. In fact, most of Into Mischief’s graded winners to date have won at less than nine furlongs–and many were pure sprinters. Add that Audible’s broodmare sire is the sprinter Gilded Time, who throws more speed into the mix, and 10 furlongs may not be his metier. We’ll pass.
That leaves Bolt d’Oro as our No. 1 pick. He’s the big, tall and stretchy type–an obvious athlete like Rocco Baldelli–that you like to see for the Derby’s distance, and he’s got a great pedigree that blends speed and stamina, which are necessary in equal parts for America’s classic distance on dirt. His sire, Medaglia d’Oro, can get a wide array of types, from 2-year-olds to older horses, over the range of distances and surfaces, and his first-crop filly Rachel Alexandra, a Preakness winner, exemplified that combination of qualities so necessary for the classics. Bolt d’Oro is from a mare by A.P. Indy–a great marker for stamina in pedigrees–but his immediate female family has also produced sprinters and milers. Bolt d’Oro shares his extended dam line with Seattle Slew and Mr. Prospector, two sires that define the best qualities we’re looking for in a classic prospect.
Bolt d’Oro was a Grade I winner at two and has two good runs this year that should leave him in peak form for Saturday. He’s got the looks, the form, and the pedigree. His speed figures are among the best at nine furlongs, and with his pedigree, they project to improve over added distance.
You look for value and bang for buck in lower round picks. Good Magic (12-1) fits the bill. He’s the champion 2-year-old colt of 2017, and he enters the Derby off a win. More importantly, he’s by Curlin, who is the most reliable source of classic horses nowadays. We’ll take him over the other 12-1 Curlin, Vino Rosso.
Instilled Regard (50-1) has one of the best pedigrees for the distance. He’s by Arch–that’s a code word for stamina–out of a mare by Forestry–that’s speed. Forestry is already the broodmare sire of Derby winner Nyquist. Instilled Regard is from a Phipps family of 10-furlong Grade I winners Heavenly Prize, Good Reward, and Persistently.
Free Drop Billy (30-1) is by Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, an up-and-coming young sire whose oldest runners are 4-year-olds. And to put Union Rags’s success in perspective, consider that he already had four Grade I winners to his credit while proven sire Into Mischief has three. Free Drop Billy is from a Giant’s Causeway mare and is a half-brother to the European 10-furlong winner Hawkbill. It may be fair to say that he has more stamina than required for the Derby and therefore may be only plugging–or plodding–on at the end for a piece.
Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.