5 under the radar horses to keep an eye on for the Kentucky Derby

5 under the radar horses to keep an eye on for the Kentucky Derby
Justify will likely be the Derby favorite. Santaanita.com

The final Kentucky Derby points races took place over the weekend, and the field is taking shape. It is an intriguing year; the main contenders will be bucking history; no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old since 1882. Expect to hear that stat many times over the next three weeks because it applies to two horses; Justify and Magnum Moon.

Justify has just three starts. He is unbeaten, including an impressive win in his last race, the Santa Anita Derby. It was the fastest points prep in the six-year history of the system. Trainer Bob Baffert has won four Derbies and a Triple Crown with American Pharoah so he knows how to prepare for this race.

Justify will be the likely favorite, but he has beaten a grand total of 14 horses combined in his three races, and will face 19 on Derby Day alone. He is fast, but lacks the base of a Derby winner.

Magnum Moon is now 4-for-4 after winning the Arkansas Derby in impressive fashion. Trainer Todd Pletcher has four of the top five points earners for the Derby. Magnum Moon, like Justify, did not race at 2. He won the Arkansas Derby on Saturday by four lengths, but did it in front-running fashion, set soft fractions and drifted out badly in the stretch. Those are things that will get him beat in Kentucky.

Another serious contender is Mendelssohn, who will be trying to be the first horse to prep in Dubai and win the Kentucky Derby. He won by 18 lengths in Dubai, and also won last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, so he has experience winning while shipping over. More on him in a minute.

So we won’t know who all will be in the gate in three weeks; injuries will happen. We also need to wait for the draw and see the works over the track before making any final determinations. In general I like to play against Pletcher horses in the Derby, but it will be hard to get around all of them (Audible in particular). Justify will probably have to be used as well. But after watching all the preps, here are five not-so-0bvious horses I might be using on Derby Day. They all should provide some value at the windows.

  1. Mendelssohn. Usually Dubai horses are instant bet-againsts, but he was incredibly dominant in the UAE Derby, has shipped back and forth before with success and was battle tested as a 2-year-old. You have to worry about whether or not he will bounce off such a huge effort, but if not he could be a serious factor. 

  2. Bolt D’Oro. Another battle-tested sort who was no match for Justify in the Santa Anita Derby, but he should fare better with a legitimate pace in front of him and will appreciate the extra distance. 

  3. Combatant. Currently 21st on the list, he will need a defection to get in, but he is the kind of stretch running nibbler who can blow up the trifecta at a nice price. He was fourth in Arkansas, but had little pace to run at. That should not be the case in Kentucky. This year’s Lookin’ at Lee?

  4. Enticed. Has a win over the Churchill surface and his second in the Wood should have him perfectly set up for the Derby. Will likely get overlooked, but has a real shot.

  5. Good Magic. Last year’s Juvenile winner has raced just twice this year, a third in Florida and a win in the Bluegrass Stakes. Has not been the fastest runner in 2018, but he should be sitting on his best race.

While all of these are interesting, the post position draw the week of the race will be critical. Also, there is usually one standout horse in the works over the track the week before, and that will certainly impact which direction we will go.


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Astros on the hunt. Composite Getty Image.

With the Astros' surge from 10 games out of first place to within two games of Seattle, catching and going past the Mariners has naturally become the top objective. It's no given to happen but it's right there. In the final series ahead of the All-Star break, while the Mariners are in the midst of four games with the lowly Angels, the last two World Series champions renew (un)pleasantries at Minute Maid Park.

The Astros enter the weekend five games ahead of the Rangers. They lead the season series with the reigning champs four wins to three. While the Astros can't quite finish off the Arlingtonians by sweeping them in this three game set, shoving them eight games back (even further back of Seattle and the current Wild Card teams) and clinching the tiebreaker would seem close to a death blow. Taking two out of three would be fine for the Astros. If the Rangers win the series, they are clearly still in the American League West and Wild Card races coming out of the All-Star break.

Last year the Rangers had the best offense in the AL. So far in 2024 they rank a mediocre eighth in runs per game. Nathaniel Lowe is the lone Ranger (get it?!?) regular playing as well as he did last season. Corey Seager has been fine but not at the MVP runner-up level of last year. Marcus Semien is notably down, as is 2023 ALCS Astros-obliterater Adolis Garcia. Stud 2023 rookie Josh Jung has been out with a broken wrist since ex-Astro Phil Maton hit him with a pitch in the fourth game of this season, though fill-in third baseman Josh Smith has been the Rangers' best player. 21-year-old late season phenom Evan Carter largely stunk the first two months this season and has been out since late May with a back injury. Repeating is hard, never harder than it is now. Hence no Major League Baseball has done it since the Yankees won three straight World Series 1998-2000.

Chasing down the Division at a crazy clip

From the abyss of their 7-19 start, the Astros sweep over the Marlins clinched a winning record at the break with them at 49-44. Heading into the Texas matchup the Astros have won at a .627 clip since they were 7-19. A full season of .627 ball wins 101 games. If the Astros win at a .627 rate the rest of the way they'll finish with 92 wins, almost certainly enough to secure a postseason slot and likely enough to win the West. Expecting .627 the rest of the way is ambitious.

With it fairly clear that Lance McCullers is highly unlikely to contribute anything after his latest recovery setback, and Luis Garcia a major question mark, what Justin Verlander has left in 2024 grows more important. With the way the Astros often dissemble or poorly forecast when discussing injuries, for all we know Verlander could be cooked. Inside three weeks to the trade deadline, General Manager Dana Brown can't be thinking a back end of the rotation comprised of Spencer Arrighetti and Jake Bloss should be good enough. The Astros have 66 games to play after the All-Star break, including separate stretches with games on 18 and 16 consecutive days.

All-Star MIAs

Viewership for Tuesday's All-Star game at Globe Life Field in Arlington will be pretty, pretty, pretty low in Houston. One, All-Star Game ratings are pitiful every year compared to where they used to be. Two, the Astros could be down to zero representatives at Tuesday's showcase. Kyle Tucker was rightfully named a reserve but had no shot at playing as he continues the loooong recovery from a bone bruise (or worse) suffered June 3. Being named an All-Star for a ninth time was enough for Jose Altuve. He opts out of spending unnecessary time in Texas Rangers territory citing a sore wrist. This despite Altuve playing four games in a row since sitting out the day after he was plunked and highly likely to play in all three games versus the Rangers this weekend. Yordan Alvarez exiting Wednesday's rout of the Marlins with hip discomfort and then missing Thursday's game seem clear reasons for him to skip, though he has indicated thus far he intends to take part. Yordan is the most essential lineup component to the Astros' hopes of making an eighth straight playoff appearance.

Ronel Blanco should have made the American League squad on performance, but pretty obviously his 10 game illegal substance use suspension was held against him. As it works out, Blanco will pitch Sunday in the last game before the break which would render him unavailable for the All-Star Game anyway. Blanco is eligible to pitch, but given the career high-shattering innings workload Blanco is headed for, no way the Astros want him on the mound Tuesday. Just last year the Astros kept Framber Valdez from pitching in the game.

While waiting, and waiting, and waiting on Tucker's return, the Astros have also been waiting on Chas McCormick to get back to something even faintly resembling the hitter he was last year. McCormick routinely looks lost at the plate. He has four hits (all singles) in his last 32 at bats with his season OPS pitiful at .572. During the break the Astros should seriously weigh sending McCormick to AAA Sugar Land and giving Pedro Leon a try in a job share with Joey Loperfido.

*Catch our weekly Stone Cold ‘Stros podcast. Brandon Strange, Josh Jordan, and I discuss varied Astros topics. The first post for the week generally goes up Monday afternoon (second part released Tuesday) via The SportsMap HOU YouTube channel or listen to episodes in their entirety at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.

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