Justify facing long odds despite being Kentucky Derby favorite

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- It's hard not to buy into the hype that the 2018 Kentucky Derby could be one of the most intriguing versions in several years.

Justify or Magnum Moon? Good Magic or Bolt d'Oro? Those will be some of the questions handicappers must answer when a talented field of 20 3-year-olds lines up in the gate at Churchill Downs on Saturday.

The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby will feature two Breeders' Cup winners: 2017 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic and 2017 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn. Good Magic also captured the Eclipse Award for best 2-year-old male.

Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott will return with his first Derby contender since Hold Me Back in 2009. Bob Baffert, D. Wayne Lukas and Todd Pletcher, who have combined for nine Derby wins, will enter a combined seven horses.

Here are some of the storylines to follow this weekend:

'The Curse of Apollo'

Hang around Churchill Downs long enough during Derby Week, and it is inevitable that the "Curse of Apollo" will be brought up in conversation.

The curse refers to the fact that Apollo was the last horse to win the Kentucky Derby without making at least one start as a 2-year-old. Apollo's win came in 1882; since then, 61 horses have tried and failed to break that trend. Three of those horses finished second and five placed third.

The best of that lot were arguably Hall of Famers Coaltown (lost to 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation), Forego (lost to Triple Crown winner Secretariat in 1973) and Curlin (lost to Street Sense in 2007).

Morning-line favorite Justify and Magnum Moon will both try to reverse the curse. The massive colt Justify, who was given time off as a 2-year-old to grow into his body, has made three lifetime starts -- the same as Curlin and 2008 Derby winner Big Brown. Magnum Moon, who didn't race at 2 because of ankle issues, is 4-for-4, including wins in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby.

Racing as a 2-year-old probably made a bigger impact in Apollo's era, when horses tended to race more often than they do now. It was normal as late as the 1980s for a Derby winner to have double-digit starts, but these days it's an anomaly. In the past 20 years, only Charismatic, Real Quiet and California Chrome had more than 10 starts prior to the Kentucky Derby.

Even without racing as a 2-year-old, it's clear that Justify and Magnum Moon are on more even ground with the other contenders than they would've been 20 or 30 years ago.

Can Pletcher repeat?

If the four security guards outside of super trainer Todd Pletcher's stable at Churchill Downs were any indication, he has another strong contingent of runners this year.

Pletcher will enter Magnum Moon, Audible, Vino Rosso and Noble Indy. If one was looking for a sign of which horse Pletcher likes best, perhaps it's in his barn, where Audible is currently stabled next to 2017 Derby winner Always Dreaming.

That Always Dreaming is around at all and still in training is a surprise. He'll run in Friday's Alysheba Stakes, making him the first Kentucky Derby winner since Mine That Bird to run again at Churchill Downs after his 3-year-old season. The only other horse in recent memory to do so was Silver Charm in 1998.

Pletcher usually has a large contingent of Derby prospects, and it's the fourth time he'll have at least four horses in the starting gate. As long as two of his horses make it into the gate on Saturday, he'll break a tie with Lukas (who has Bravazo as his lone entrant this year) for the most Derby entrants of all time.

For all of his success leading up to the Derby, Pletcher's actual Derby record is hit or miss. Of the 48 horses he has entered, he has two wins, two seconds and three third-place finishes. Pletcher has never had two of his Derby horses hit the board in the same year, while 27 of his entries have finished in the bottom half of the race.

Can Mendelssohn reverse foreign trend?

Overseas superstar Mendelssohn was the talk of the track on Thursday when he came out to stretch his legs in the morning. It was the first time Mendelssohn was allowed to hit the racetrack after shipping in from Ireland earlier in the week and undergoing the quarantine process.

Although it could be a concern that Mendelssohn shipped in so late in the process, he's clearly used to the traveling lifestyle. He has won races in Ireland, Dubai and in the United States, in addition to placing in a Group I race at Newmarket as a 2-year-old. In his only U.S.-based start, he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar over fellow Derby contenders Flameaway and My Boy Jack.

Overseas horses have historically performed poorly in the Kentucky Derby. The last horse to start in a race overseas and come back to win the Kentucky Derby was Bold Forbes in 1976. The UAE Derby became a more prominent prep race when the Kentucky Derby switched to a points-based system for entry. However, none of the UAE Derby winners has finished in the money in the Kentucky Derby.

Even with history against him, Mendelssohn can't be counted out as a strong contender. He won the UAE Derby by 18½ lengths in track-record time. He's also a half-brother to four-time Eclipse Award-winning mare Beholder.

Good Magic to attempt Juvenile-Derby double

The Breeders' Cup Juvenile usually goes a long way toward determining who will be named champion 2-year-old and an early favorite for the Kentucky Derby. But for whatever reason, the winners of that race have rarely gone on to make any noise in the classics the following spring.

Good Magic will attempt to be the third horse to reverse that trend.

Although the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was established in 1984, no winner of that race went on to win one of the classics until Timber Country won the Preakness in 1995. Street Sense was the first to win the Kentucky Derby in 2007, followed by Nyquist in 2015. American Pharoah, the 2015 Triple Crown winner, skipped the Breeders' Cup Juvenile due to an injury.

Combatant in camo for veterans

Kentucky Derby contender Combatant stood out when he was being led around the Churchill Downs paddock on Thursday afternoon.

Combatant wasn't sporting the usual neon-colored Kentucky Derby saddlecloth that most of the contenders wear in the week leading up to the race. He had on a camouflage blanket instead.

The blanket will be worn on the walkover prior to Saturday's Derby as well. The idea was to promote Homes For Our Troops, a nonprofit organization that builds homes for severely injured veterans.

Special anniversaries

Saturday's race will take place 45 years to the day after Secretariat won the Kentucky Derby in 1973. The Triple Crown winner's track record of 1 minute, 59 2/5 seconds for the 1¼-mile distance still stands. Secretariat's owner, Penny Chenery, died last September at 95.

It is also the 30th anniversary of Winning Colors' Derby win. Winning Colors, who was trained by Lukas, was the last filly to win the Kentucky Derby. Only five fillies have made starts in the Kentucky Derby since Winning Colors, and none has entered the race since 2010.

Calumet, Lukas aim to get back on top

Calumet Farm and Lukas have both spent time atop the horse racing world. They've spent a long time trying to get back there as well.

Calumet has entered long-shot Bravazo in hopes of getting the farm its first Derby winner since Forward Pass won by disqualification in 1968. Although Calumet produced two of American racing's 12 Triple Crown winners, the farm has not had a horse cross the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby since Tim Tam in 1958.

Lukas has three Derby winners, but none since 1999. The 82-year-old trainer, whose last winner, Charismatic, went off to 30-1 odds, joked at the trainers' dinner earlier in the week that he has done some of his best work with long shots in the past. Bravazo is a 50-1 shot on the morning line. Lukas' 1995 winner, Thunder Gulch, went off at odds of 25-1.

Calumet filed for bankruptcy in 1991 and was sold at auction before it was eventually sold to billionaire Brad Kelley. Although the farm no longer races under the familiar devil's red and blue silks of the past (those were also sold at auction), it has sent out four Derby runners under its new ownership. The best finisher was Oxbow, who finished sixth before going on to win the Preakness in 2013.