Tom Jicha

Tom Jicha grew up in New York City and worked with John Pricci at the short-lived revival of the New York Daily Mirror. Tom moved to Miami in 1972 for a position in the sports department at the now defunct Miami News.

Tom became the TV critic in 1980 and moved to the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1988. All the while he has kept his hand in sports, including horse racing. He has covered two Super Bowls, a World Series and the Breeders Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, May 03, 2018

Perfection isn’t enough to stand out in this year’s Derby

The last six Kentucky Derbies have been won by colts who were undefeated as a 3-year-old. This year there are four who qualify--Justify and Magnum Moon, the challengers to the Curse of Apollo, as well as Audible and Mendelssohn. So this angle isn't of much service, although it does preclude juvenile champion Good Magic. However, I'm taking a stand with two of them and pressing hard on one, who I'm hoping will be in the area of 4-1, 5-1.

The undefeated sophomore angle has produced the last six Kentucky Derby winners but it's of minimal help this year. An angle or trend isn't necessary to find Audible, Mendelssohn, Justify and Magnum Moon, all perfect as 3-year-olds. The latter two are undefeated, period.

I expect the 2018 Derby winner to come from this group, even though it excludes juvenile champion Good Magic. This is a risky gambit the way he has been training and Chad Brown has been talking him up. Out of respect to Brown, I'll probably use him in a very small way on my multiple race bets (but I won't take credit for selecting him.)

I'm not predicting this but Brown is so much his own man, it wouldn't be shocking if Good Magic won the Derby then skipped the Preakness because it comes up too fast. Remember, Chad skipped last year's Derby, the race every trainer points toward, with Cloud Computing, a colt talented enough to win the Preakness. Then he skipped the Belmont.

To be clear, I'm also taking a pass on Bolt d'Oro and Pletcher's pair of Vino Rosso and Noble Indy. I'm not knocking them and wouldn't find fault with anyone who backs them, but you have to take a stand somewhere. Beyond these, to me, the rest are Mine That Bird.

Trying to separate the perfect quartet is as challenging as finding the exit at an Ikea store. Justify and Magnum Moon are not only unbeaten, they haven't been seriously challenged.

Bob Baffert has been touting Justify as a potential superstar since before his debut. "When he came in from Kentucky, they said he was a really nice horse," Baffert said on an NTRA conference call. "When we got him to Los Alamitos, we worked him a few times and he always looked impressive. When I got him over to Santa Anita, the first time I worked him I knew he was something really special. Usually they get a little tired because the track at Santa Anita is really deep. He just went around there effortlessly. That's when I knew he was really a cut above the rest. First out, the way he ran was just incredible. He showed us right there how special he is."

Pletcher is characteristically more low key than Baffert but he's just as high on Magnum Moon. "He’s a colt we’ve been very high on since literally my dad broke him as a yearling. I remember seeing him back in December, when he first started galloping. He’s a natural athlete that always had a tremendous presence about him, a great way of moving. He had a couple minor baby issues that we just felt like, being a May foal and a horse with a lot of promise, we would give him some time off and send him back to my dad’s training center. He freshened him up nicely for us. He hasn’t missed a beat since he came back. It’s just been a tremendous development for him, to go from a strong maiden win on the 13th of January to now being four-for-four and winning the Arkansas Derby in his fourth start. It just tells you a lot about the quality and the natural ability that he has."

Audible, another of Pletcher's four-pack, brings an impressive credential to Kentucky. He won the Florida Derby, which has produced three of the last five Derby winners. This followed a big score in the Holy Bull.

"He's another very talented colt who has just really, really blossomed this winter and spring," Pletcher said. "We felt early on he was a very nice colt, but I think his Holy Bull was kind of the breakthrough performance that we were hoping for. I love the way he attended the pace in the Holy Bull and the way he dropped off the very fast pace of the Florida Derby. It shows his versatility. And I loved the way he finished those two races and really showed a turn of foot, which is not always easy to do in dirt races."

With respect to all of these colts, I'm going to go with Mendelssohn, who checks all my boxes, beginng with his record setting other-worldly 18-length-plus runaway in the UAE Derby.

His breeding is as good as it gets. He's a half to three-time Eclipse champion Beholder and Into Mischief, the sire of Audible.

The mile and a quarter should not be an issue. Beholder smashed males at 10 furlongs in the Pacific Classic. More significantly, Mendelssohn's win in Dubai was at approximately a mile and three-sixteenths, further than any of his rivals on Saturday have run, and he was going away at the end.

He's coming from halfway across the globe but he shipped across the Atlantic to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. So he's won in Europe, the Middle East and North America, a remarkable feat for a horse his age.

There will be a degree of irony if Mendelssohn captures the garland of roses. His older sister won her trio of Eclipses without ever winning outside of Southern California.

Mendelssohn won the Juvenile Turf from off the pace then went gate to wire in Dubai, so he should be able to adapt to any pace scenario. He's also won on grass, synthetics and conventional dirt, so no matter how the track comes up, he should be able to handle it.

His connections are world class. There might be some as skilled as trainer Aidan O'Brien but there are none better. His jockey, Ryan Moore, has been among the best in the world for years and in Europe he's accustomed to rating horses at 10 furlongs and longer.

The 14 post could actually be an advantage. It's at the end of the regular gate, so there will be a small gap between it and the auxiliary gate. It might not matter but it can't hurt.

I can't think of a single negative other than the disgraceful performance of last year's UAE Derby winner Thunder Snow. But this is a different year and a different horse.

I'll use the undefeated four and Good Magic on multiple race tickets, mostly Mendelssohn and Justify. However, if it comes down to a single win bet on the Derby, my money will be on Mendelssohn.

Written by Tom Jicha

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