Storylines to watch for 2024 Kentucky Derby

May 4th, 2024

The 150th Kentucky Derby (G1) promises to be a vintage renewal, befitting the special historical occasion. 

After a typically action-packed Road to the Kentucky Derby that began last fall, 20 sophomores have earned their way into the Run for the Roses. Along the way, they’ve forged compelling storylines, for themselves, their relatives, and their human connections.

Here are the main storylines to watch:

Feast or famine for favorite Fierceness 

As Fierceness aims to become only the third Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) champion to win the Derby, after Street Sense (2007) and Nyquist (2016), much of the discussion focuses on his feast-or-famine tendencies. He either flaunts his brilliant speed in spectacular fashion – his Saratoga debut, the Breeders’ Cup, and the Florida Derby (G1) by a pole from Catalytic and Grand Mo the First – or he disappoints. 

To be fair, both losses came after problematic starts in the Champagne (G1) and Holy Bull (G3), where he was knocked around coming out of the gate. If Fierceness breaks cleanly at Churchill Downs, he could settle into his high cruising speed and take off. But it helps to have overcome adversity at some point before facing the unique demands of the Derby.

Three’s the number for Repole and Pletcher

Adding to the Fierceness saga is the fact that owner/breeder Mike Repole has yet to win the Derby. His two best chances were both juvenile champions who ended up having to be scratched, Uncle Mo (2011) and Forte (2023). Maybe Repole’s third champion juvenile will be the proverbial charm.

Three is also the key number for his Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher, a two-time Derby winner with Super Saver (2010) and Always Dreaming (2017). A third Derby victory would elevate him to a joint third on the all-time list of Derby trainers, alongside the legendary “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and Max Hirsch.

Brown’s best Derby chance – and the other Chad angle

Trainer Chad Brown has gone close in the Derby before, with champion juvenile Good Magic placing second to eventual Triple Crown winner Justify (2018) and Zandon (2022) looming before finishing third. Yet Sierra Leone arguably represents his best chance so far. If not for losing focus through inexperience in the Remsen (G2), the $2.3 million son of Gun Runner would boast a perfect record. The one concern, however, is whether the powerful closer can navigate through the field from post 2. If Sierra Leone gets racing luck, or makes his own, he’ll come charging late.

At the same time, Brown has a sneakier contender in Domestic Product, who hasn’t raced since rallying to win in a frenetic finish in the Tampa Bay Derby (G3). He too will benefit from a livelier pace scenario than he’s had of late. Betting the “other Chad” in turf races is a known handicapping angle – can it apply to the Derby too?

Forever Young the one to rewrite the record book?

One of the major storylines of recent years is the ascent of Japan on the international scene, first on turf but increasingly on dirt. After trainer Yoshito Yahagi scored historic wins in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar, with Loves Only You in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1) and Marche Lorraine in the Distaff (G1), could he add the ultimate prize of the Kentucky Derby? 

His Forever Young rates as the leading chance ever from Japan, with a perfect 5-for-5 mark to his credit. Less encouraging are the woeful stats for horses in general graduating from the UAE Derby (G2), but Forever Young could be the one to rewrite the record book.

Compatriot T O Password also sports an unbeaten record, but from just two starts for trainer Daisuke Takayanagi. The Japan Road invitee has to defy that daunting lack of experience. On the other hand, older stablemate T O Saint Denis ran a bold second at odds of 27-1 in the Alysheba (G2), arguably upgrading the more talented T O Password’s chances.

Beckman vs. his former bosses

Both Pletcher and Brown factor prominently on the resume of up-and-coming trainer Whit Beckman, who takes on his former bosses with his first Derby runner, Honor Marie. A closer (like Sierra Leone) who figures to get the right set-up, Honor Marie is a horse-for-the-course who scored his stakes win in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) here last November. Add in a bullet final work, a strong classic pedigree, and the third-off-the-layoff angle, and Honor Marie has generated some buzz. 

Risen Star shines as the deepest prep

The penultimate of the Fair Grounds preps, the Feb. 17 Risen Star (G2), turned out to be extremely productive. Risen Star hero Sierra Leone came back to roll again in the Blue Grass (G1). Third-placer Catching Freedom went on to win the Louisiana Derby (G2) over Honor Marie, who had been a comeback fifth in the Risen Star. And Resilience, the Risen Star fourth, dominated the Wood Memorial (G2). 

Catching Freedom has a profile reminiscent of 2023 Derby favorite Angel of Empire, who finished third here for the same Albaugh Family Stables/Brad Cox tandem. But Catching Freedom might even be a little better, since his Louisiana Derby was arguably a deeper race than Angel of Empire’s final prep win in the 2023 Arkansas Derby. If so, Catching Freedom could catch the first Derby win for the Albaugh Family, who have long prioritized the Triple Crown trail. 

Asmussens, father and son

Not to be overlooked in this discussion is Risen Star runner-up Track Phantom. Repelling all challengers except Sierra Leone that day, he couldn’t duplicate it when subsequently fourth in the Louisiana Derby. But the addition of blinkers, and a stalking Derby trip rather than doing the hard work up front, could make a decisive difference. 

If Track Phantom can take a big enough step forward, he could win an elusive Kentucky Derby trophy for Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. It would also be quite a way for jockey Joel Rosario, who rode Derby winner Orb (2013), to celebrate his upcoming induction into the Hall of Fame. 

North America’s all-time winningest trainer who’s closing in on 10,500 wins, Asmussen was expected to break through with favorite Epicenter two years ago. But Epicenter had to settle for second to the 80-1 Rich Strike. Asmussen’s walked away with minor awards a total of five times in the Derby, including other seconds with Nehro (2011) and Lookin at Lee (2017), and thirds with Hall of Famers Curlin (2007) and Gun Runner (2016).

He’s not the only Asmussen in the Derby. Son Keith, a budding star as a jockey, is riding in his first Derby. His mount is Just Steel, trained by the one and only D. Wayne Lukas.

Living legend Lukas goes for fifth Derby win

When Lukas sent out the filly Winning Colors to beat the boys in the 1988 Derby, who could have guessed that “The Coach” would still have classic contenders four decades later? The 88-year-old is already one of the most successful trainers in Triple Crown history, and his four Derby wins put him in a joint second on the all-time list with “Derby Dick” Thompson. 

If Just Steel can spring the upset, and join past Lukas stars Winning Colors, Thunder Gulch (1995), Grindstone (1996), and Charismatic (1999), he’d give the Hall of Fame horseman a fifth Derby win. 

Oaks/Derby double for McPeek?

Lukas’s 1995 Derby win came at the expense of Ken McPeek, who finished second with Tejano Run. The veteran horseman hasn’t gotten that close with his eight subsequent starters, but perhaps the floodgates will open now that he just won Friday’s Kentucky Oaks (G1) with Thorpedo Anna. McPeek had been runner-up three times in the Oaks, most recently with champion Swiss Skydiver (2020).

Might Thorpedo Anna be a harbinger for stablemate Mystik Dan in the Derby? The caveat is that the filly brought a more robust profile overall. But both prepped at Oaklawn Park, where Mystik Dan spread-eagled the field in a muddy Southwest (G3) before his troubled third in the Arkansas Derby (G1). 

Resilience boosts Wygod legacy, Into Mischief 

Mystik Dan, a grandson of Into Mischief, is one example of that leading sire’s influence. Into Mischief is also the paternal grandsire of the aforementioned Domestic Product and the maternal grandfather of Track Phantom.

But Into Mischief’s own son, Resilience, can give him a record-tying third Derby winner, after Authentic (2020) and Mandaloun (2021). Only four other sires in history have accomplished the feat, the last being Calumet’s Bull Lea in the late 1940s-50s. 

From a human perspective, the chief rooting interest for Resilience surrounds his recently deceased co-owner/breeder Marty Wygod, who passed away days after the Wood. A few months earlier, Wygod and his wife, Pam, had given the promising colt to their daughter Emily Bushnell and friend-cum-bloodstock advisor Ric Waldman (of Storm Cat fame). The Bill Mott trainee has been progressing ever since. Thoughts turn to the Wygod legacy, and the meaning of this Derby to his family and friends. 

Justify the Derby sire?

Another sire who could enter the record books is Justify, seeking to become the fourth Triple Crown champion to furnish a Derby winner. If either Just Steel or Just a Touch wins, Justify would rank alongside Gallant Fox (sire of Omaha), Count Fleet (sire of Count Turf), and Seattle Slew (sire of Swale).

His two sons arrive on totally different trajectories. Just Steel has thrived under the busy regimen of Lukas; his 11th start produced an improved second in the Arkansas Derby. In contrast, Just a Touch was unraced as a juvenile, like Justify. Unlike his sire, Just a Touch has been second in his preps, but the Cox pupil beat all bar Sierra Leone in the Blue Grass.

Dornoch hopes to follow Derby-winning brother Mage

Since Dornoch was a lackluster fourth in the Blue Grass, the storyline about this full brother to 2023 Kentucky Derby winner, Mage, has become more muted. But the son of the aforementioned Good Magic is still capable of turning the first-ever sibling Derby double, and putting his mother, Puca, in the record book. 

Dornoch had previously won three in a row, handing Sierra Leone his sole defeat in the Remsen and wiring a scratch-reduced Fountain of Youth (G2). Trainer Danny Gargan has vowed that they’ll leverage his early speed on the rail. Thorpedo Anna’s inside, front-running score in the Oaks, albeit in the slop, can only redouble Dornoch’s commitment. Physically, developmentally, and tactically different from Mage, Dornoch illustrates the kaleidoscopic variability of breeding.

Dettori gets his Derby mount

Internationally renowned jockey Frankie Dettori planned to retire at the end of the 2023 season, but changed his mind to prolong his career in Southern California. Aside from the change of scenery, one of the attractions was the chance to pursue a Kentucky Derby mount. Dettori has ridden in the Derby only once, guiding Godolphin’s China Visit to a sixth-place finish in 2000. Around this time of year, Dettori’s been riding in the British classics. On the first Saturday in May 2023, he scored an emotional victory aboard Chaldean in what was billed as his final 2000 Guineas (G1) at Newmarket.

Although Dettori didn’t land a Derby mount during his successful stint at Santa Anita, he was able to pick up Gargan’s other runner Society Man, the unheralded Wood Memorial runner-up. It’s ironic that another recent European expat, Irishman Ben Curtis, has secured a better chance with Honor Marie. Maybe Dettori should winter at Fair Grounds with a view toward the 2025 Derby. 

Stronghold flies the flag for California

Fellow Italian expat Antonio Fresu also fared better in the Derby mount sweepstakes, having forged an enduring partnership with Stronghold last fall. The Santa Anita Derby (G1) hero represents California not only because of his base, but because owner/breeders Eric (“Rick”) and Sharon Waller have been longtime supporters of the sport in the Golden State. Stronghold is a fourth-generation homebred with a heart-tugging tale, and his ancestress Swiss Diva was a Cal-bred star for the Wallers. 

Trainer Phil D’Amato might be a bit underestimated coming into his first Derby, considering that he’s often identified with his turf success. Then again, Easterners have an historic tendency of underestimating the Western horsemen.

Was the Jeff Ruby Steaks a prime prep again?

The surface question, more than regional bias, hovers over turf/synthetic performer Endlessly, who booked his ticket in Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) on the Turfway Park Tapeta. Reading between the lines, trainer Michael McCarthy has sounded as though he would have wanted to point to Saturday’s American Turf (G2). A dirt experiment in the Derby didn’t appeal, in light of the colt’s earlier training over the dirt at Santa Anita. But Jerry Amerman was game to give his homebred son of Oscar Performance a chance at the Derby, and McCarthy said that Endlessly showed enough on the Churchill dirt to try. 

The Jeff Ruby Steaks has had an impact on the Derby in recent years. Last year’s Jeff Ruby winner, Two Phil’s, finished a gallant second to Mage at Churchill Downs. And two years ago, Jeff Ruby third Rich Strike sprang the giant upset in the Derby. 

The Turfway angle was reinforced when John Battaglia Memorial S. victor Encino came back to win the Lexington (G3), and Battaglia runner-up Epic Ride was third as a 51-1 shot in the Blue Grass. When Encino had to scratch from the Derby, the first also-eligible Epic Ride drew in for trainer John Ennis, giving a vague whiff of Rich Strike déjà vu. 

Dream Derby for Demeritte 

But the most compelling human interest story coming out of Turfway is West Saratoga, who clinched his Derby spot with a second in the Jeff Ruby. An admirably game and consistent trier, West Saratoga embodies the ethic of trainer Larry Demeritte. 

Born of African heritage in the Bahamas, Demeritte could have rested on his laurels as a leading trainer at home. But he came to the United States with a goal of making it to the Kentucky Derby. Those jaded by unhappy experience could have dismissed it as an unrealistic dream, but Demeritte pursued it with skill and determination, even through a bout with cancer. Luck helps too, but as Louis Pasteur observed, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”

Demeritte sourced West Saratoga for a mere $11,000 as a yearling, seeing the Exaggerator colt out of an Uncle Mo mare as the right type he could develop. And develop he did. When West Saratoga upset the first scoring race on the Road to the Kentucky Derby back in September, the Iroquois (G3), Demeritte mapped out a plan to get the colt to the Derby. West Saratoga hasn’t won again, but he is on an improving pattern going into the first Saturday in May.

At the Derby trainers’ dinner on Tuesday night, Demeritte was keen to say that he represents a lot of communities, including the Caribbean. It’s significant that he is only the fourth black trainer to have a Derby starter in the past 80 years. Hank Allen was sixth with Northern Wolf (1989), then you have to go back to 1951 to find the Ned Gaines-trained King Clover, and rewind to 1944 for Raymond White’s American Eagle. 

Compare that to the early years of the Kentucky Derby. Ansel Williamson won the inaugural edition with Aristides, followed in rapid succession by James Williams and Ed Brown to make it three in a row. According to the Derby media guide, seven of the first 17 Derby winners were trained by African-Americans. 

Given the invaluable role played by African-American horsemen in the deeper history of the sport, Demeritte’s presence for the 150th Derby is most welcome.