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Five things to look for before and during this year’s Kentucky Derby on May 5

This year’s Kentucky Derby is filled with mystery, intrigue and the possibility of breaking a more than 100-year-old curse. You can make a strong case for about a half-dozen horses. In fact, the latest poll by HorseRacingNation.com showed seven different horses getting a first-place vote among just 19 veteran media voters.

The likely favorite is Santa Anita-based Justify. But he didn’t race as a 2-year-old and no horse unraced at that age has won the Derby since 1882. The biggest mystery is Mendelssohn, who won the UAE Derby by more than 18 lengths. No horse from Dubai has ever finished better than fifth in the Derby. And then there is trainer Todd Pletcher, who has four horses in the race.

All this makes for one of the most interesting Kentucky Derbies in at least a decade. As for what story lines will likely be the topic of discussion this coming week, consider these five.

Will the century-old curse of Apollo be broken?

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It’s certainly possible that an unraced 2-year-old can win the Kentucky Derby for the first time since 1882. Things have changed a lot, and horses don’t run nearly as many races before the Derby as they used to. So, the experience disparity is not as great. This year, trainer Bob Baffert’s Justify and Pletcher’s Magnum Moon, both undefeated, were unraced at 2. Magnum Moon has run four races and Justify only three.

Neither Baffert nor Pletcher are worried about the curse of Apollo.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said. “If it’s this year or not, I don’t know. To me, it doesn’t even enter [my mind]. It used to be if you won the Breeders’ Cup you couldn’t win the Derby. Then Street Sense got rid of that.”

Pletcher agrees: “It’s lasted long enough that has to be something to it. But I’m convinced that at some point someone is going to reverse the curse. … When the right horse comes along it will happen.”

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Can a horse from Dubai actually win this race?

This seems to be an all-or-nothing proposition. You either believe in Mendelssohn or you don’t. There is no picking him to be second or third. He won his last race, the UAE Derby by 18 ½ lengths. That certainly started some talk. The highest a UAE Derby runner has ever finished in the Kentucky Derby was when Master Of Hounds finished fifth in 2011.

The lack of a Dubai-Kentucky double was in full evidence last year. Import Thunder Snow broke from the gate, did some bucking, and was pulled up not far from the starting gate. And It’s not like Thunder Snow can’t run: He won this year’s Dubai World Cup, the second-richest race in the world.

Mendelssohn has won in this country, taking the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar. He’s also trained by Aidan O’Brien, who some have labeled the best trainer in the world. Still, the guess is that a lot of people will take the stand that, “I’ll believe it can be done once it happens.”

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How could one trainer have one-fifth of the field?

Big-time trainers such as Pletcher and Baffert tend to nominate every horse they have who is eligible for the Derby. Pletcher started with 37, Baffert with 31. You’re hoping for one good one. But, Pletcher defied the odds by getting four horses to Louisville, the sixth time he has started at least four.

The best of the lot is … not quite sure, but it’s likely either Magnum Moon, winner of the Arkansas Derby, or Audible, winner of the Florida Derby. The Gulfstream race brings with it five weeks’ rest, as opposed to the traditional four. The Florida Derby winner has also won in Kentucky three of the last five years.

Pletcher also has Vino Rosso, winner of the Wood Memorial. Jockey John Velazquez, has ridden three of the four Pletcher starters, but elected to stay with Vino Rosso. The fourth Pletcher starter is Noble Indy, winner of the Louisiana Derby, who will be coming off six weeks’ rest.

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Baffert has two horses entered, Justify and Solomini.

Could a race with all this firepower be won by a longshot?

This is going to sound crazy, but Bolt d’Oro and Good Magic probably will be bet as longshots. All the betting action is likely to be with Justify, Magnum Moon, Mendelssohn and Audible, so these two stellar colts will go for a heavy price.

Bolt d’Oro checks all the boxes and has run against nothing but the best. He lost to Good Magic in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with a very bad trip. He battled McKinzie to the wire in the San Felipe and was placed first. And he ran a respectable second to Justify in the Santa Anita Derby.

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Trainer Chad Brown, not a big talker, is talking up Good Magic, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes.

“I’ve never seen a horse doing better,” Brown said. “He’s moving so, so well. Hopefully the third race of his year is his best.”

What’s the most critical day before the Derby?

That’s easy, it’s Tuesday’s draw. It’s a long run to the first turn but you have a lot of work to do if you are on the outside. As a general rule, the early speed horses (Justify, Magnum Moon) like the inside, but never the No. 1 post. Stalkers (Audible, Bolt d’Oro, Good Magic and Mendelssohn) can function well from the middle. There is little to no advantage being on the outside. No horse has ever won from the 17.

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But, this could be the year that some long-held beliefs are sent packing.

johnacherwa@gmail.com


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