The rate of attrition from the Kentucky Derby is reaching a hard-to-imagine level. Rather than the usual springtime stories of horses coming up unfit, it is more about their human connections coming up uncertain.
Trainers have said their 3-year-olds might be better suited to a shorter distance or a later date. In some cases, that might actually be true. It also might be true that they want no part of Essential Quality, now best-priced in Las Vegas futures as a 3-1 favorite. It could be that horsemen are conceding that this maturing crop of 2018 foals is thin.
Concert Tour was the latest big defection. Bob Baffert decided after a third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby that Gary and Mary West’s homebred by Street Sense was not training up to a level that would be ready for the prime time of Churchill Downs. The Preakness beckons for him instead.
Without Concert Tour, the Nevada money is focused on five horses — Essential Quality, Known Agenda (5-1), Rock Your World (+ 575), Highly Motivated (10-1) and Hot Rod Charlie (10-1). Those are fixed-odds prices, immediate action with the risk of a scratch baked into them. By the time post time arrives about 7 p.m. ET May 1, that risk is removed, and all five may be in single digits in the live pari-mutuels.
The only two times during the points era that at least five horses were shorter than 10-1 to start the Derby, the favorites — Orb (5-1) in 2013 and Justify (5-2) in 2018 — won by 2½ lengths. This is not to suggest that Essential Quality will finish exactly 2½ lengths in the clear in 1½ weeks.
The important message actually comes from the horses left to fill that 20-horse field. They really seem like fillers too. Consider the true quality of some of the horses that will not be in the Derby — but could have been:
— Life Is Good (was 7-2): Undefeated for Baffert, including two graded-stakes victories that had bettors and bookies making him at times last winter the Derby favorite. Then he suffered an injury to his hindquarters, sidelining him until this summer and diverting later money elsewhere in the pool.
— Concert Tour (was 10-1): He was also undefeated with a pair of graded-stakes wins for Baffert. That was before this month’s disappointment at Oaklawn.
— Greatest Honour (was 14-1): Before ankle trouble forced him back to the farm for the rest of this spring, he had won three in a row at Gulfstream Park, including the Holy Bull and the Fountain of Youth. A third-place finish in the Florida Derby was the last impression he left before he left the stage.
— Proxy (was 100-1): He was the runner-up in the Lecomte and the Risen Star before fourth-place finishes in the Louisiana Derby and Lexington Stakes. That winter campaign led trainer Mike Stidham to say his colt had fought too many Fair Grounds fights to think Churchill Downs would be a prudent goal.
— Weyburn (was 55-1): A 46-1 victory in the Gotham Stakes raised optimism, but his fourth-place finish in the Wood Memorial brought connections back to earth with a revised target of the Peter Pan Stakes on May 8 at Belmont.
Those five ranged from legitimate Derby contenders, including one favorite, to a reliable part of superfectas in New Orleans to a flash in the pan from New York. The difference between them and their replacements is stark. Contrast them with the last five outsiders now poised to be in Tuesday’s draw:
— Sainthood (65-1): Still just a maiden winner, this colt from the Todd Pletcher barn most recently finished second to Like The King in the Jeff Ruby Steaks, a synthetic-track race that is hardly a bellwether for the Derby. I know, I know. Animal Kingdom went through there. No one, though, is confusing Sainthood with him.
— Hidden Stash (85-1): He is 0-for-3 in graded stakes, losing by 10 lengths in the Blue Grass Stakes in a continuing regression as the preps have gotten longer.
— Dream Shake (85-1): A maiden winner in California, he has lost his two starts in graded stakes by an average of 8¼ lengths.
— O Besos (85-1): He won twice in Fair Grounds sprints during the winter, but he lost both his two-turn starts. Admittedly, his improvement to an in-touch third in the Louisiana Derby provided legitimate optimism.
— Get Her Number (95-1): Yes, he is a Grade 1 winner, but the field in last fall’s running of the American Pharoah was not top-level. He was since a nonfactor in a pair of Oaklawn preps.
With the possible exception of O Besos, these last five really have no business being in a serious conversation about who will win the Derby — and certainly not in the same breath as Essential Quality. No wonder every indication is that the money will be concentrated on a select few legitimate contenders.
Remember that when pondering a long shot, either in the final days of the futures or at post time on Derby day.
In addition to this weekly report, Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You can also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Now based in Louisville, Ky., the RFRP this week features trainer Steve Asmussen, who discusses his Kentucky Derby and Oaks horses, and Los Angeles Times special correspondent John Cherwa, who talks about how racing coverage has changed for him in recent years. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST Bet.