ON THE TRACK

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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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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