It is as much a tradition at the Kentucky Derby as big hats, mint juleps and residents charging a big Beyer Speed Figure to park on their front lawns.
There is always one buzz horse on the Churchill Downs back side. One that catches the eye, inspires the talk and carries the value. This year that horse is Hofburg.
“You’d never know he’s started only three times,” exercise rider Penny Gardiner said this week. “He’s the most professional horse, and nothing fazes him.”
But will this dappled chestnut colt that had an impressive, 48.03-second, half-mile breeze last Sunday actually deliver the goods Saturday at odds of at least 20-1? Or will he be like Hence – last year’s buzz horse that finished 11th?
“He looked visually as good as you could look,” Hofburg’s Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott said. “The main thing is that they’re doing it easily, well within themselves, and he wasn’t being pushed to do it. He was doing it on his own.”
Hofburg (20-1 morning line, 25-1 Wynn Las Vegas) is just a maiden winner – one of four in the Derby field. And he is the only starter with only two races as a 3-year-old. But the fact that he is even here suggests that Mott, who had not had a Derby horse in nine years, would not have Hofburg in the race unless he thought there was a serious chance to win.
“We’re happy to be here, and we want to run well,” Mott said. “We want to be proud of our horse after the race. I think he will make us proud.”
Owned by Juddmonte Farms – the same people who brought us Arrogate – Hofburg made his racing debut last September, finishing a distant fourth in a Saratoga sprint. After that Mott shut him down for six months, adding Lasix and bringing him back in March to face 10 other maidens in an 8½-furlong race at Gulfstream Park. Even though he got edgy loading into the gate, Hofburg still won. That led quickly to the Florida Derby, where he finished a best-of-the-rest second to Audible.
So with so little on his résumé, is Hofburg really any better in that regard than Derby favorite Justify (3-1, 3-1) or Magnum Moon (6-1, 7-1)? They are the two horses trying to overcome the hackneyed Apollo jinx – the one that says no horse can win the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old, because only Apollo did it 134 years ago.
“I definitely think there’s something to it,” Mott said. “Even if a horse has one race as a 2-year-old, the time after the race is probably as important as the race at 2. You have to let them regroup a bit after their first run or two, and I think any horse that’s had a couple races early on and then had that time to develop and grow really benefit from it.”
Todd Pletcher would beg to differ, especially since he has trained Magnum Moon to a 4-for-4 start to his career – all this year at age 3. He also had five prior Derby horses that had not raced at 2.
“We’ve been in this situation a number of times, so I think I’ve heard about it as much as a anyone,” Pletcher said. “I feel strongly that it will be broken. It all comes down to talent. For (Magnum Moon) to go 4-for-4 already and training well and gives him a chance. It’s going to take the right horse, and it’ll be interesting to see if it happens this year.”
Mott hopes it does not as he looks to hit the board for the first time in eight Derby tries.
“I try to downplay the Derby when I don’t have a horse in,” Mott said. “But of course anybody would have to realize that it would be a great race to win.”
Racing notes and opinions
UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn (5-1, 6-1) was back on the track Friday morning here at Churchill Downs for some light exercise. He jogged, galloped and, as he did Thursday, whinnied most of the way. “He has a big personality which we always try to encourage in horses to develop a personality,” trainer Aidan O’Brien said. “Even though he’s vocal, he cries out and calls the horses. He’s not coltish. It’s more a mental thing than anything. When we put blinkers on him it totally focuses his mind.” O’Brien arrived in Louisville on Thursday, so Friday was his first chance to compare Mendelssohn’s dirt experience with the victorious one six weeks ago in Dubai. “I’m not qualified enough to talk much about dirt. Meydan is a proper dirt surface. Dean (Gallagher) rode him, and he was very happy the way he went over the surface.”
Early betting moved Santa Anita Oaks winner Midnight Bisou (2-1) to the favorite’s role for Friday’s $1 million Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks. Morning-line favorite Monomoy Girl (4-1), My Miss Lilly (6-1) and UAE Derby runner-up Rayya (8-1) were the only other fillies in single digits. The Oaks is scheduled to start at 6:13 p.m. EDT.
After some early-morning sprinkles, the clouds parted to reveal some blue sky over Friday’s workouts. But the National Weather Service forecasted isolated showers and thunderstorms for Friday afternoon with a 20 percent chance of rain. For Derby day there is a 50 percent chance of showers but with no more than a quarter-inch expected.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every day this Kentucky Derby week at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod at VSiN.com/podcasts. Today’s edition includes NBC Sports host Mike Tirico and Flameaway’s trainer Mark Casse. Wednesday’s pop-up edition is still available with handicappers Dave Tuley of VSiN and Patrick McQuiggan of the South Point race book in Las Vegas analyzing every horse in the Kentucky Derby. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher. VSiN handicapper Dave Tuley offers his betting tips for the Kentucky Derby in Tuley’s Takes, also at VSiN.com.