Magic Man reviews the Kentucky Oaks and Derby: A ‘Spirit’ed effort

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How tough is it to win the Derby? Very.

No matter how much you break the race down and disseminate quarter splits, sometimes you find winners just have to be lucky rather than good. Or simply willing to be different to make something special happen.

But we start with the Kentucky Oaks, and if you read my column previewing this race, you will see how much I thought of Malathaat as I had her finishing 4th.

I had Clairiere as my top choice and Travel Column second. Both fillies I backed did not bring their ‘A ‘games on Friday, especially Travel Column who lost the Oaks on her way to the paddock to get saddled up. She was sweating buckshot and tossing her head about throughout the pre-race. Usually when that happens, their race is over before it starts. Travel Column made most of the pace and wilted when the real running started.

Clairiere got off to a tardy start but rallied late to grab fourth. I thought she had a bigger race in her but she was never a serious threat.

A horse earning serious props is Search Results who overcame the 12 post to fight Malathaat all the way to the end before she just fell short. I did not have her on my picks because in her three prior races which she won she never switched leads at all; that is something when you see it, you have to note it especially considering the depth of horses in the Oaks. That said, she battled and gave a courageous account of herself.

As for the winner, Malathaat shut the Magic Man up in emphatic style. She sat a dream trip until John Velasquez called on her. Then she responded kindly. She was slightly best on the day, and the catcalls after the Derby have her trainer Todd Pletcher urged to enter her in the Belmont against the boys. Before you laugh this off, remember Rags to Riches beating the mighty Curlin in 2007?

I am not one who endorses fillies running against the boys so I would not do it if I were the connections of Malathaat but they are around her daily and know their horse. Whatever they decide, I just hope at the end of the day it serves all of their best interests?

As for the Kentucky Derby, first off, congratulations to Bob Baffert on making history. The new all-time wins leader as a trainer with seven Derby wins after Medina’s Spirit eked out a gritty win was a thrilling way to do it. After enduring a robust pace, Medina’s Spirit went wire to wire. He went off at 12-1 and gave his rider John Velasquez his fourth Derby score.

Going into the Derby this horse was not one many believed could win despite the fact he was trained by Baffert. He looked like a plodder in his last as he ran second to Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby. However, he resorted to front running tactics to grand results to turn the tide. Medina’s Spirit had to endure a ton of pressure from many avenues yet he dug in gamely to get the win.

I will give major props to Michelle Yu, regular handicapper at Santa Anita, who pegged Medina’s Spirit early in the prep process and never wavered despite his last two losses. That is the mark of a handicapper who stands true to what they believe and see.

Mandolaun, who ran horribly in the Louisiana Derby, put forth a huge race to get second and looked like he was going to win as they turned for home. Had he done so he would have given one of my best friends a life changing score as he was 5 for 5 in the pick 6 with Mandolaun left; his loss redefined a bad beat in my opinion. This horse was one I was on the fence about all week and ultimately was one of my last throw outs for the exacta box.

Hot Rod Charlie was my top choice, and he had a somewhat adventurous start but settled into a good spot. He made a big run at the head of the lane and for a few strides I thought my long slump of picking Derby losers was going to end before he ended up a respectable third.

Essential Quality came into this race 5-for-5 but got jostled a bit at the start and offered up a mild rally to finish fourth.

The horse who suffered greatly from a misfortune standpoint was Rock Your World who got absolutely destroyed out of the gate, ending his Derby before it began. Known Agenda who ran ninth showed what I should have seen from the start – the Florida-based 3 year-olds were too slow. O Besos, my big price play, ran on to be fifth and although not quite as good as those who finished in front of him, he did not discredit himself.

Another losing exacta was the end result of this Derby for me, and it this is beyond frustrating. Two years in a row my picks for the Derby looked like winners but I could not muster quite enough to finish the job. Who knows, maybe I am putting too much weight on them? Heck I don’t know but let me just say this in full disclosure. I am sick and tired of failing in the Kentucky Derby. I knew that this race would be supremely tough to handicap. How often do you have 19 horses to choose from? Unless you fancy races in Europe and Japan and Australia where those tracks more often end up with crowd fields in some of their races, it’s rare to see stateside. I can do without it.

In the final analysis, this Derby was a thrilling highly competitive race as advertised. Now we are left asking this: Is Medina’s Spirit capable of winning the Triple Crown? Adding intrigue is the idea that Baffert has his supposed ace Concert Tour who skipped the Derby slated to run in the Preakness.

Of course, I am looking forward to the Preakness and I will also hope to get an exacta box right. We will take a closer look at the Preakness following their draw so stay tuned for that. As always may your winners be plentiful and your wallets be fat.

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George Pepis

Horse Racing Analyst

George Pepis provides racing analysis during each Fair Grounds racing season. He also shares commentary and selections for major stakes events and prep races around the country. In the past, George has hosted sports talk programming on WGSO 990am in New Orleans. He has served as both play-by-play and color analyst on Louisiana high school football radio and internet broadcasts.

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