Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby 2024: 5 storylines to watch, including Fierceness’ odds at greatness and other contenders

Kentucky Derby 2024: 5 storylines to watch, including Fierceness’ odds at greatness and other contenders

We are deep into an age of parity for the Triple Crown series. Fifteen horses have won the 15 runnings of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes since Justify won all three races in 2018.

Every spring brings hope for a new star, even when the headlines around thoroughbred racing’s most glamorous events seem to focus more on horse deaths, trainer controversies and economic woes.

Saturday’s 150th running of the Kentucky Derby will feature several contenders with the talent to be memorable. It won’t feature trainer Bob Baffert, still the sport’s biggest name and still banned from Churchill Downs. It will go off against a backdrop of perpetual worry over the safety of the competitors.

Here are five stories to watch as we prepare to blow the bugle on another Triple Crown season.

Can Fierceness become the next great Derby winner?

No trainer does a better job getting horses to the Derby than Todd Pletcher, but Pletcher has won the race just twice despite entering more contenders than anyone in history.

Fierceness is favored to take Pletcher to the winner’s circle for the first time since 2017 when Always Dreaming won as the favorite. He’s the fastest horse in this 3-year-old class when he breaks well, as he did in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and in the March 30 Florida Derby. The Beyer speed figures, designed to rate a horse’s performance relative to track conditions and strength of the field, say it’s not close.

But there are real questions about Fierceness’ resilience when he’s not sharp out of the gate. See his third-place finish in the Feb. 3 Holy Bull Stakes after he was bumped on both sides early. Or his stinker in last year’s Champagne Stakes. He’s a monster talent who has yet to run great races back to back.

Can he break that pattern in the most important race of his life?

Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez knows how to control a Derby from the front. He did it with Authentic in 2020. If Fierceness breaks well from his outside post, might Velazquez bet that he can simply run away from the competition? That’s what Fierceness did in his dominant Florida Derby win. At the Breeders’ Cup, however, he stalked the pace and then fought off a challenge from Baffert-trained Muth to win by 6 1/4 lengths. So it’s not as if he has only one path to victory.

It’s his Derby to lose if he gets the right setup.

Is Sierra Leone the horse to take advantage if Fierceness comes out flat?

Despite Fierceness’ superior speed figures, he’s only a whisker ahead of Sierra Leone in the morning line after this Chad Brown-trained colt delivered a career-best performance in winning the April 6 Blue Grass Stakes.

Of the sport’s elite trainers, Brown is perhaps least fixated on the Derby, which he has never won. He makes his money elsewhere. When he does bring a contender to Churchill Downs, it’s because he thinks he has a good chance, as he did with Zandon in 2022.

Sierra Leone fits that bill. He’s a powerful horse with a huge stride whose finishing kick is the most reliable in the class, even in sloppy mud. He has beaten better competition than Fierceness, and with three firsts and a second in four career starts, he doesn’t have a dud on his record. At the Blue Grass, he didn’t want to go in the starting gate, and rider Tyler Gaffalione couldn’t find an opening for the first three-quarters of a mile, but nothing could stop Sierra Leone from getting there in the end.

As a late charger, he’ll be more subject to factors outside his control than Fierceness, namely the unpredictable traffic created by a 20-horse field. He’s also starting inside from the No. 2 post, though Brown has said he’d rather that than be stuck with a possible wide trip.

If traffic does not stop Sierra Leone, we could see a thrilling finish as he tries to run down Fierceness.

Will Bob Baffert’s absence continue to loom over the Derby?

We’re in year three of Baffert’s banishment, which began with the medication violation that cost Medina Spirit his victory in the 2021 race. In July, Churchill Downs added a year to Baffert’s suspension, citing his lack of contrition and calling him a “threat to the safety and integrity of racing” at the track, this at a time when Churchill was still coping with the aftershocks from seven horse deaths during Derby week.

In January, Baffert dropped his legal quest to have the suspension overturned, but that seemingly did nothing to ease tensions in the standoff between the sport’s most famous trainer and its most famous venue.

In 2022 and 2023, owners who worked with Baffert transferred their top 3-year-olds to other trainers, often his former apprentice Tim Yakteen, so they would be eligible for the Derby. But this year, Amr Zedan opted to keep Muth, winner of the March 30 Arkansas Derby and a potential top contender at Churchill, with Baffert. Zedan sued, unsuccessfully, to get Muth in the Derby field.

Instead, he’ll try to win the May 18 Preakness, as Baffert did last year with National Treasure.

What a mess this continues to be, with Baffert’s detractors louder than ever and his supporters convinced that Churchill leaders have sunk to new levels of spite in keeping him away. The talent in his barn remains robust, and the cameras will be pointed his way again when the Triple Crown trail turns toward Baltimore.

Will Baffert be back at the Derby, which he’s won six times, in 2025? If he’s not, will his absence continue to haunt the first leg of the Triple Crown? For now, this issue feels inescapable.

Is there another lightly tested contender to follow in Mage’s footsteps?

Not much about Mage’s record screamed Derby winner going into the first Saturday of last May. He had not run as a 2-year-old and had lost both his Derby preps, albeit in a form that suggested steady improvement. In any previous decade, he would have been dismissed as an inexperienced pretender.

But that’s no longer the world we live in. Every year now, we see gifted Derby aspirants with limited track records. When Justify won the Triple Crown after not running as a 2-year-old, we spoke of him defying history. When Mage won the Derby last year, it felt more like the acceleration of a trend.

So which neophyte runner is most likely to make a big splash in 2024?

Well, Brad Cox-trained Just a Touch is the fourth choice in the morning line coming off just three career starts, the first of those in late January. He could not hold off Sierra Leone in the Blue Grass Stakes, but his Beyer speed figure from that race puts him solidly in the tier of contenders below Sierra Leone and Fierceness. If we’re looking at the historical parallel, Mage also finished second to a top Derby contender in his final prep race last spring. Oh, and for a bit of narrative spice, Just a Touch is a son of Justify.

Just a Touch would need a huge effort to catch Fierceness and stay ahead of Sierra Leone, but his trend lines look good, and if he pulls it off, we can’t call it a shock.

Which of the longer shots excite?

Mystik Dan, a 20-1 choice in the morning line, owns the second-fastest Beyer speed figure in the class behind Fierceness. He did it on a muddy track and took a step back against some of the same competition in the Arkansas Derby, but we can’t ignore the statistic, nor can we overlook the fact he won impressively at Churchill as a 2-year-old.

Honor Marie, also a 20-1 shot in the morning line, appeared on track to becoming one of the stars of the class as a 2-year-old. He looked overmatched against top competition on a sloppy track in the Feb. 17 Risen Star Stakes but bounced back with a solid second-place performance in the March 23 Louisiana Derby. Like Mystik Dan, he won at Churchill as a 2-year-old and could hit the board if he takes a step forward from his last race.

Forever Young isn’t exactly a long shot at 10-1 in the morning line, but bettors have learned to be skeptical of international contenders coming off victories in the UAE Derby in Dubai. That’s probably unfair to this Japanese colt, who has traveled the world to win five races in five starts. He has overcome adversity to win decisively. We just don’t know if he can do it against this level of competition.


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