Mubtaahij (IRE) and American Pharaoh are the best of the crop.Personally, it's really hard for me to type that sentence given the overall horrible performance record in the Kentucky Derby for colts traveling from Duabai (with regards to Mubtaahij), and the fact that it's hard to take the Derby gate-to-wire (with regards to American Pharaoh).
As is the case every single year during the three-year-old colt spring stakes season, we really don't have a good clue as to the level of talent these horses were facing. Typically, these races are short on actual bona fide stakes horses, at least when we look ahead to the summer and fall. But, really, that's not the most important thing when looking for a Derby winner (at least in my mind). What really matters are horses that are running at a high level while still possessing room for improvement. It's also nice to find a horse that's dealt with some trouble but when you deal with as chalky of a prep season as this one, sometimes you have to make exceptions.
With Mubtaahij and American Pharaoh, I think we have the two most talented three-year-old colts in the crop, as well as a couple of colts with room to grow. Additionally, I think Mubtaahij displayed a lot of professionalism during his romp in the UAE Derby.
The thing I really liked about Mubtaahij's UAE Derby win, aside from the fact that he emphatically destroyed the field (which, if you're going to be a serious contender in Kentucky, needs to happen), is the fact that he raced down inside of other horses for the first three quarters of the race. It's one thing for a colt to be able to sit in the two path, completely clear of kick back and free to move around the leading pair at any time. It's something else when a colt is stuck down inside yet is still able to relax and run his race. That's what Mubtaahij did in the UAE Derby, and that's a big factor as to why I was so impressed with his performance.
Whether or not I end up throwing down serious money on Mubtaahij to win the Derby will depend a lot on how he works over the Churchill Downs surface leading up to the race. If he's full of energy and looks like he's taking to the surface, then I won't hesitate to structure a lot of bets around a solid effort on his part.
There has been a good deal of debate lately as to whether American Pharaoh is a "need to lead" kind of colt. In my opinion (which could change after Saturday's Arkansas Derby), he certainly likes the lead, he seems better on the lead, but he doesn't "need" to lead. If you look strictly at his pace figs, he's never really thrown down a big number in the early portion of his races. That could be a result of the fact that he's faced few other true-blue speed types that could test him early, but I think it's more a reflection of his style.
American Pharaoh has such and easy, gliding stride early his races that I think he just might be one of those colts that is able to run his opposition into submission by churning out :12 split after :12 split. Now, that being written, I'd certainly feel more confident of AP if he ran a race with a couple of sprinters where he sits a length off the lead through fast splits and crushes them at the top of the lane. But I'm not sure we're going to get that type of evidence before the first Saturday in May.
Of the two colts, I have more doubts regarding American Pharaoh, which is amazing to me considering the aforementioned Dubai Derby Disasters. But, overall, these two just seem like the standouts of the group.
Of all the horses on this year's Derby trail I love the upside of Florida Derby winner Materiality the most. Lightly raced and by Afleet Alex, Materiality has strongly improved as he's been stretched out in distance. However, I'm not high on this colt at all for the Derby given the all-out, tooth and nail stretch drive he had to endure to beat Upstart at Gulfstream. I also firmly believe in the Curse of Apollo. Not because I believe in curses as much as I believe that the Kentucky Derby is the hardest race to win in North America and a horse needs to have a good foundation in order to prevail. Three career races is just not enough unless the colt possesses the talent of the best of the best.