I really hope that this preview is a wasted effort on my part. As it stands now all indications are that this horse is heading to the Kentucky Derby. On one hand, I get it - it's really, really tough to get into this race, so if a horse earns the points to get in then it's really tempting to take a shot. It's not like you can hold off and try again later. Some horses just don't have much of a chance, though, and this is definitely one of them. There are definitely things to like about him, but like too many of the Todd Pletcher horses this year he's raw, unpolished and just not ready for this challenge at this time. If I was making the decisions he would be saved for a much better spot than the Derby instead of risking so much in a race that just doesn't suit him.
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Last race: In the Arkansas Derby Malagacy was narrowly the second betting choice. He was actually favored over reigning two-year-old champion Classic Empire until just before post time - which is as much a statement about the challenges Classic Empire has faced this year as about the strength of this colt. The race just did not go the way the horse or his connections would have hoped at all. He really had no excuses, either. He found himself out wide on the first turn, but not to the extent that it really damaged him. He was in good shape down the backstretch, was part of the battle around the second turn, and looked to be a factor early on in the stretch drive. He was in second and had room to move, but he visibly ran out of gas. He was losing ground with every stride late and dropped to fifth. The race wasn't particularly fast, and he hadn't chased the early pace, so the lack of a finish was concerning. The biggest questions surrounding this colt entering the race was his ability to handle the distance, and he certainly did nothing to answer those questions.
Prior experience: We'll start with the positives. The colt had not lost in his three career starts before the Arkansas Derby. He started his career in a maiden race over 5.5 furlongs on January 4 at Gulfstream Park. It was a staggering performance - he took the lead early and ran away by 15 lengths as the fifth betting choice. Needless to say, he was very heavily favored a month later in allowance action. Over 6.5 furlongs this time he dueled early, took the lead on the turn, and won by seven. Expectations were clearly high heading into his stakes debut next time in the Rebel, which is the key prep for the Arkansas Derby, and is run at a mile and a sixteenth. He was the second betting choice behind only Bob Baffert's American Anthem. The race took a familiar path - the colt stalked the early pace, took the lead around the turn, and pulled away to win by two lengths over 112/1 shot Sonneteer. Three nice wins - like I said, there are positives.
There are also negatives. First, his margin of victory decreased as competition improved and distances stretched out. More significantly, though, no horse since Apollo all the way back in 1882 has won the Derby without running as a two year old, and only Big Brown and Animal Kingdom have won with just four career starts. This horse has a real shortage of experience in a historical sense, and that was already a factor in the Arkansas Derby - a race only a fraction of the difficulty of the Derby. Experience is important for a couple of big reasons - the depth of fitness and seasoning that only racing can provide, and the exposure to adversity, because adversity is all but guaranteed in the Derby and horses who have seen plenty before are better suited to deal with it.
Trainer: I'm also getting tired of being negative about Todd Pletcher in these articles. Almost. Pletcher has entered an incredible 45 horses in the Derby. And he has just one win. And often he has not just lost, but done poorly and fallen well below expectations. Some of the issues are just due to volume - he enters as many as five horses per year, so he is guaranteed to have lots of losers. It goes deeper than that for him, though. Somehow, one of the best trainers in the world 364 days a year can't crack the code on this day - even though much of his business is built around it. He's a master at getting horses to the race, but then the luck ends. A big problem is that he brings horses that don't have enough experience - like this colt - time and time again.
Jockey: As I write this we don't know who will be on board. Javier Castellano had been the rider up to this point, and the horse obviously was in good hands with him - he has led the nation in earnings the last four years and been named top jockey in the country each of those years. Castellano also rides Gunnevera, though, and opted for that mount in the Derby instead of this one. Pletcher has as many as five horses heading to the Derby, and just one confirmed rider at this point - the stable's top rider John Velazquez will be aboard their top horse, Always Dreaming. Having a new rider for the first time in this race is far from ideal, but Pletcher will draw a top-level rider so the colt will be just fine.
Breeding: This horse is nicely bred - just not necessarily for this race. Sire Shackleford won the Preakness in 2011. That's the shortest of the three Triple Crown races, though, and in the longer two he faded late. He really found his place later in his career when he cut back the distance. He raced well at a mile and seven furlongs in particular. He didn't want a mile and a quarter. His stud career is just getting started - Malagacy is his most successful offspring to date. Malagacy's damsire is Dehere. He was the two-year-old champion of 1993 but was injured in training in his three year old year before reaching the Derby so never got a chance to see him handle distance. His most successful offspring was Take Charge Lady, who won several grade 1 races at a mile and an eighth and shorter. Her son Will Take Charge went on to be three year old champion. Dehere is also the damsire of Midnight Lute, who won the Breeders' Cup Sprint in both 2007 and 2008. So, Dehere doesn't offer real stamina to offset the tendencies of Shackleford. This horse has the breeding to be a top-class miler, but the Derby mile and a quarter really concerns me.
Odds: I'm pretty negative about this colt, but I am a huge fan compared to oddsmakers - BetOnline has him at +5500 to win the Derby, which places him not only behind every likely Derby starter except the hopelessly outclassed Fast and Accurate but also behind three colts - Sonneteer, Royal Mo and Lookin at Lee - who currently don't even have a spot in the starting gate. Ouch. That's a big departure from the final Kentucky Derby future wager, which was held by Churchill Downs well before the Arkansas Derby. There he was at 16/1, which made him the seventh choice among 23 betting options.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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