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    Horse racing: This Kentucky Derby pick has a touch of surprise
    • May 2, 2024

    The 150th Kentucky Derby is a first-rate edition of America’s most famous race, showing off one potentially dominant horse, a cool clash of styles between the two favorites, and logical options for upset-minded bettors.

    It should take a little over two minutes to forget about the absence of Bob Baffert, the six-time Derby-winning trainer.

    The would-be superstar is Fierceness, last season’s 2-year-old champion and a 13½-length winner in the Florida Derby. If he runs his race, he’ll be hard to beat. But he has yet to do that back to back.

    The difference in running styles is between Fierceness and Sierra Leone, and it’s as stark as you’ll see between top contenders in any Derby. Fierceness led all the way in his prep, while Sierra Leone rallied from next to last in a field of 10 to win the Blue Grass Stakes. Early tactics and pace could help or hinder the front-runner or the late-runner, or others with similar propensities.

    The upset chances include the rest of the major prep-race winners, and, yes, Santa Anita Derby winner Stronghold is among those with a shot.

    But the best bets in the Kentucky Derby often come from the ranks of horses who were beaten in their previous race and can benefit from difference circumstances this time.

    Just such a horse is Just a Touch.

    It’s understandable that Just a Touch, wearing No. 8, ridden by Florent Geroux for trainer Brad Cox, is a 10-1 co-fourth choice on the Churchill Downs morning line, behind 5-2 Fierceness, 3-1 Sierra Leone and 8-1 Catching Freedom and level with 10-1 Forever Young.

    He has raced only three times, having started his career in January; he is winless in two tries at the stakes level; and he ran second, 1½ lengths behind Sierra Leone, in the Blue Grass.

    It’s also reasonable to think those disadvantages could turn into advantages at 3:57 p.m. Saturday.

    Having no races at age 2 used to be a red flag for Derby horses, but no longer. Mage won in 2023 with three previous starts, all at age 3, and so did none other than Justify – Just a Touch’s sire – on his way to the Triple Crown in 2018. Just a Touch debuted late in part because he was a late foal, born in May 2021, two or three months after the other Derby contenders; this could mean he’s behind other contenders in development or that he’s just a little later than the rest to show his best stuff.

    The Blue Grass had the fastest early pace in any of this year’s major Derby preps, and it took a toll on Just a Touch after he raced within a length of the front-runner and grabbed the lead in the Keeneland homestretch. Just a Touch didn’t have quite enough left to resist Sierra Leone as the winner blew by. Given a normal pace, Just a Touch might have met Sierra Leone’s challenge.

    It’s too much to hope for a slow pace in the Derby, but Just a Touch would settle for a moderate pace, as would other horses who race up close early, like Fierceness, Track Phantom and Dornoch.

    They might have been helped Tuesday when Encino, front-running winner of the Lexington Stakes, was scratched because of a minor injury. Encino is replaced in the 20-horse Derby by Epic Ride, who likes to sit behind the leaders.

    They could be helped by rain, an 80% chance Friday and 50% Saturday, according to National Weather Service handicappers. In the most recent Derbies to be run on wet tracks, in 2017, 2018 and 2019, horses running on or close to the lead finished first (though Maximum Security was disqualified).

    In any case, they are helped by the more frequent success of horses racing close to the pace in the Derby since the 2012 changes in the qualifying system rid the race of entrants with pure sprinters’ speed.

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    In watching the Derby, pay attention to Fierceness at the start, where he had trouble in both losses. Then watch how fast the leaders go early, whether it’s a comfortable pace or so fast that it sets up a late charge from Sierra Leone, Catching Freedom or Honor Marie. In recent years, average quarter-mile fractions have been about 22.6 seconds, 46.0 seconds and 1:10.4 on the way to 2:02 for the 1¼ miles.

    Conditions could make Just a Touch a good bet at anything close to 10-1.

    My picks: 1. Just a Touch, 2. Fierceness, 3. Sierra Leone.

    Others to consider for multi-horse bets, each listed at 20-1 on the morning line: Track Phantom, Stronghold, Just Steel, Honor Marie, and, especially on a wet track, Mystik Dan.

    Follow Kevin Modesti on Twitter (formerly X) @Kevin Modesti.

    ​ Orange County Register