By Bill Finley
There won’t be a real GI Kentucky Derby Saturday, but there will be a pretend one–a really interesting pretend one. Working with the firm Inspired Entertainment, Churchill Downs will present the Kentucky Derby Triple Crown Showdown. It’s a virtual race that will pit the 13 Triple Crown winners against one another. Data algorithms, including historical handicapping information about each horse, will be used to decide the outcome. The virtual Derby will air on NBC and fans can go online at www.KentuckyDerby.com to submit their picks and make contributions to charities that are dealing with the coronavirus. Churchill Downs will match those donations up to $1 million.
There will be no betting on the virtual Derby, but what if there were and who would win? Assuming that the data entered into the computer is the horse’s form prior to their actual start in the Derby and not their career accomplishments, here are my selections for the most exciting two minutes in virtual sports. (The morning line was made by Ed DeRosa of brisnet.com).
- Seattle Slew (8-1): The morning line indicates that this brilliantly fast son of Bold Reasoning could be an overlay. For a horse of his era, he comes into the virtual Derby relatively lightly raced as he has had just six starts The winner of the GI Champagne S, the GI Flamingo S. and the GI Wood Memorial, he’s not only unbeaten, but no one has yet to come close to him. Seattle Slew knows only one way of going, which is to sprint to the front. War Admiral, Count Fleet and Justify also have early speed, but Slew is so fast he appears to be the speed of the speed. Jockey Jean Cruguet will need to ride a smart race.
- Gallant Fox (30-1): He wasn’t much of a 2-year-old, going two-for-seven for trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, but has blossomed at three. He kicked off his campaign with a four-length win in the Wood Memorial and 13 days later won the Preakness. “I didn’t call on him until we hit the furlong pole,” winning rider Earl Sande said of the Preakness. “Then he came on with a rush and hung it on [runner-up] Crack Brigade.” To have won a Triple Crown event prior to the Derby makes him unique in this star-studded field of 13. He’s usually comes from just off the pace, which should serve him well in a race where a speed duel is possible.
- Secretariat (6-5): If not for the Wood Memorial, he would have been the heavy favorite in this race. But what do you do with him now, especially when you consider that he will still likely be the favorite? He was as good a 2-year-old as anyone has seen, winning his last eight starts, six of them stakes. He looked every bit as good when winning the GIII Bay Shore S. and the GII Gotham S. Yet that horse was nowhere to be found when finishing third, four lengths behind stablemate Angle Light, in the Wood. This could go either way. If he returns to top form, he will likely win. If he doesn’t, it could be a bad day for the 1972 Horse of the Year. You can use him in tris and supers, but he’ll be too short a price to play in top or to bet to win.
- Count Fleet (15-1): He ended his 2-year-old campaign with four straight victories by a combined 47 lengths. He may not have beaten much in the Walden S. at Pimlico, but it’s not often you see a horse winning any stakes by 30 lengths. Count Fleet won an allowance race at Jamaica in his 3-year-old debut but came out of the race with a problem, a cut on his left front leg that could have led to an infection. But trainer Don Cameron got him right in time for him to win the Wood Memorial in his final Derby prep. Riding another horse with early speed, jockey Johnny Longden may need to improvise.
- Justify (20-1): Very hard to judge this horse at this point in his career as he has had only three lifetime starts and will be facing iron-horses like Whirlaway (23 prior starts) and Citation (16 prior starts). There are several in this field that are more proven than Justify, but do they have his raw talent? If the seasoning factor doesn’t come back to bite him has an excellent chance of pulling the upset. Freakishly good.
- American Pharoah (12-1): Justify’s stablemate is definitely in the mix. After running fifth in his debut, he has been nothing short of incredible. He’s won four straight and is coming off a spectacular GI Arkansas Derby, which he won by eight lengths. Showed a new dimension when rating just off the pace in the Arkansas Derby, which could benefit him in the Derby. Both Justify and Pharoah have the Baffert factor going for them, as trainer Bob Baffert has become the modern day Ben Jones when it comes to winning the Derby.
- Citation (8-1): Some believe that he’s not the best 3-year-old in his barn and that Coaltown is. Coaltown looked very good when winning the Blue Grass S. last out, but Citation is the more proven of the two. Trained by Ben Jones, he dominated his rivals this winter at Hialeah before suffering a stunning upset at Havre de Grace in the Chesapeake S. But he bounced back to win the Derby Trial. Worth noting that jockey Eddie Arcaro chose Citation over War Admiral. Showing that he has a big heart, Arcaro has said that he will donate his Derby earnings to the wife of Al Snider. Snider won the Flamingo aboard Citation and a few days later drowned while fishing off the Florida Keys.
- Affirmed (8-1): To a legion of Alydar fans, Affirmed is not the best 3-year-old from his crop, Alydar is. The scorecard says otherwise as Affirmed beat Alydar in three of their five meetings last year. Both colts have been outstanding through prep-race season. Ridden by teenage wunderkind Steve Cauthen and trained by Laz Barrera, Affirmed has won four straight, including the GI Santa Anita Derby and the GI Hollywood Derby. He often wins by small margins, but is a fighter and his tenacity could make the difference here.
- War Admiral (20-1): Who has he beaten? Trainer George Conway has taken it easy on the son of Man o’War, keeping him out of the more conventional Derby preps. And it wasn’t until his last start, the Chesapeake S. at Havre de Grace, that he went beyond six furlongs. The Chesapeake was certainly a step in the right direction as he won by six lengths, promoting Conway to say, “He ran like a champion.” Yes, he very well may be that good, but no one knows if he will go a mile-and-a-quarter or if he has the class to defeat such an impressive lineup of rivals.
- Whirlaway (20-1): With Arcaro deciding to go with Citation, War Admiral will be ridden by Wendell Eads. Eads, who has ridden War Admiral in the past, weighs just 102 pounds and some handicappers believe he is not a good fit for the high-strung colt. An erratic colt, he won the Hopeful S. at Saratoga and the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last year, but also lost nine races at two. It’s been much the same this year as he finished second in his last two Derby preps, the Blue Grass and the Derby Trial. Can win this, but only if he delivers with a career-best performance.
- Omaha (30-1): Though often competitive when facing top competition last year, Omaha was just one-for-nine on the year. He started this year off with a win in an allowance race at Jamaica, but took another step backward when third in the Wood Memorial. A late-runner, he may have a chance to pick up a piece of the purse if there is a speed duel up front and the race falls apart.
- Assault (99-1): He won the Wood Memorial and looked ready to move on to bigger and better things, but then threw in a clunker when fourth, beaten 4 1/2 lengths, in the Derby Trial. He’s trained by Max Hirsch and ridden by Warren Mehrtens, so there’s no doubting his connections. But he’d have to run the race of his life to even finish in the top half of the field.
- Sir Barton (99-1): Trainer H. Guy Bedwell knows what he is doing. He led the country in wins from 1912 through 1917 and led all trainers in earnings in 1918. So does Bedwell know something about Sir Barton that the rest of us don’t or is he just taking a stab with a horse who, frankly, does not belong in this race? Not only is Sir Barton still a maiden after six starts, but he will be making his 3-year-old debut in the Derby. He’s never won and he hasn’t raced eight months. No chance.