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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Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March. Photo via: NRG Park/Facebook

Football players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, but only one person has been running the business side of the Texans, well, even before they were the Texans. Jamey Rootes has been President of the Houston Texans since 1999, when an NFL team in Houston was still just a gleam in owner Bob McNair's eyes. That's before the team adopted the name "Texans" in 2000, before there was NRG Stadium, which opened as Reliant Stadium in 2000, and before they became serial champs of the AFC South, six titles between 2011-2019.

The precise date was Oct. 6, 1999 when NFL owners voted 29-0 to award the NFL's 32nd and newest franchise to Houston. Not only that, Houston was awarded the 2004 Super Bowl. Rootes, 34 years old with no NFL experience, had his work cut out for him. Before taking the job in Houston, Rootes was team president, general manager and CEO of selling peanuts and popcorn for the Columbus Crew of Major League Soccer.

Major League Soccer, with all due respect, is not nearly a national obsession like the National Football League.

"I wasn't intimidated," Rootes said. "There's a quote that I love, 'Do the thing you fear and the death of fear is certain.' I've always been a purpose-driven person. As for the step up to the NFL, I went from knowing nothing at the start of my time in Columbus to five years later thinking, OK, I've got this sports thing down. Actually, I had a very significant reduction in my responsibilities in Houston. When I was in Columbus, I ran the stadium, I ran the team's business, I was the general manager so I did the talent side of it, too. When I came to Houston, all I had to do was the business, so that was great."

Rootes has captured his remarkable journey from the soccer team at Clemson to grad school at Indiana University to the business world at IBM and Proctor & Gamble to the Clemson Crew, to ultimately being named President of the Houston Texans in his new book, The Winning Game Plan: A Proven Leadership Playbook for Continuous Business Success, available next week.

I've known Rootes from his day one with the Texans, but I still had to ask: everybody knows what the general manager does, and what the head coach does. What exactly does the President of an NFL team worth $3.3 billion do?

"I like to use the parallel of a pharmaceutical company to describe my job. There are two sides to that company. First you put scientists in one building and you leave them alone. They create products, which is what our football team is. The football side has a coach and general manager and all the people who prepare the team to play on Sunday. But getting that product to market is done by the business side, traditional business disciplines. Those are the things that fall to me. Basically, everything between the white lines is run by the football side. Everything outside of those lines, I do," Rootes said.

Between 1999 and 2002, when the Texans played their first game (let the record show the Texans defeated the Dallas Cowboy, 19-10), the team was essentially a massive start-up project. First orders of business for Rootes involved building a new stadium, developing relationships with suppliers, contractors and government officials, preparing for a Super Bowl and, most important, developing a relationship with fans.

Rootes began writing The Winning Game Plan last March, but it's really an accumulation of lessons learned and behind-the-scenes stories about building the Texans from scratch into one of the most admired and valuable franchises in all of sports.

"I've always been a meticulous note-taker. I've kept every presentation I've ever done. I took all of my notes and concepts and put those down on paper," Rootes said. "To be a good leader, you need a wild imagination. You can show me a blank piece of paper, but I don't see it as blank. To me, it's a finished product that hasn't been created yet," Rootes said.

Rootes lays out his leadership strategy in seven chapters: Are You a Manager or a Leader, Get the Right People on Your Team, Build a Winning Culture, Create Raving Fans, a Winning Playbook for Adversity and Success, Your Leadership Playbook and Play to Win.

He learned lesson No. 1 the hard way. A friend once counseled Rootes, "your staff doesn't like the way you're all up in their business, you need to back off." Rootes took that advice to heart.

"It was an epiphany. I wasn't a leader. That's when I truly began thinking about leadership. I say this all the time, I don't do anything. All I do is create an environment where exceptional people can be their very best self. I know what's going on. I'm fully informed. I leave every game day exhausted. I get there early. I do the things I need to do. I kiss babies. I shake hands. I present checks. I entertain clients. I'm dialed in. It absolutely wears me out because I love this organization so much. I am so proud of what we've been able to do for this great city of Houston."

I asked Rootes, as someone who lives for Game Day and a packed NRG Stadium, are you devastated by 2020, the year of COVID-19 and small crowds limited by Centers for Disease Control guidelines?

"I don't look at it that way. I think there's a song by 10,000 Maniacs that said, these are the days that you'll remember. I told my staff, I know you're all going through hell right now, but later on in life, you'll talk about this year. Things that are important are memorable, for the positive and those things that leave a scar. You learn from adversity and you're a better person for enduring it. Victor Frankl said 'We can discover meaning in life in three different ways, by creating a work or doing a deed, experiencing something or encountering someone, and by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.' Suffering is part of life. He should know, he survived a Nazi concentration camp," Rootes said.

H-E-B President Scott McClelland wrote the forward to The Winning Game Plan. Rootes dedicates the book to late Texans owner Bob McNair. Rootes' book is a fun read. All I kept thinking was, where was this book when I needed it? And before you buy too much into Rootes as a leader, consider that Rootes admits that he had to ask for wife Melissa's permission before he could accept the Texans job.

Personal note: I believe that a big part of leadership is the ability to keep a promise. Several years ago, I was riding my bicycle with my dog Lilly on a leash. It was the only way I could keep up with her. Well, one time Lilly saw a squirrel and pulled me off my bicycle. I tumbled a few times and rolled next to the curb. When I looked up, there was Jamey Rootes. I told him, "There's no need for you to tell anybody about this." He never said a word.

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