Kentucky Derby 2024: Three takeaways from Mystik Dan’s thrilling victory

Mystik Dan’s nose reached the wire first in a heart-stoppingly close Kentucky Derby, giving Kentucky-based trainer Kenny McPeek his first win in the first leg of the Triple Crown. Here are three takeaways from a thrilling race.

Mystik Dan was always an underappreciated longshot

He was a difficult horse to read because his one indisputably great performance came on a muddy track in the Southwest Stakes. When he finished third after a tough trip in the Arkansas Derby, he became a bit of an afterthought.

But his Beyer speed figure from the Southwest, which accounted for the track conditions and competition, told us he was potentially one of the fastest horses in this 3-year-old class and a tasty betting choice at 18-1 odds for the Derby.

What a way to earn a defining victory, in the closest three-horse photo finish at a Derby since 1947.

“Ooh, that’s tight. Look at that,” McPeek said when the final margins hit the board at Churchill Downs.

He thought Mystik Dan had nosed ahead of Sierra Leone and Forever Young with a final bob of his head, but until he saw the result up there, he wasn’t taking anything for granted.

Derby favorite Fierceness seemed to get the setup he needed, breaking cleanly and stalking just off the lead as the race proceeded quickly. When it was time to empty his tank, however, Fierceness flashed none of the speed that carried him to dominant victories in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Florida Derby. He fell back to 15th by the end.

Into that vacuum surged Mystik Dan, holding a strong, ground-saving position along the rail under jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. Then came the twin charge from mighty Sierra Leone and undefeated Japanese contender Forever Young.

Perhaps no one expected Mystik Dan to hold off those more highly touted horses, but that he did, making good on the promise he’d shown three months earlier in the Arkansas slop.

He didn’t win, but Sierra Leone staked his claim as the best 3-year-old

Traffic was always going to be Sierra Leone’s greatest enemy.

The huge-striding colt had never run a bad race, but he’s a late charger, and that’s a tough style for the Derby, with 19 other horses clogging the path to victory.

Sure enough, when jockey Tyler Gaffalione went to make his move, he had to hold Sierra Leone up and swing him wide around a wall of horses. Once he got going, he locked into a rugged duel with Forever Young as they both bore down on Mystik Dan. After all that extra running and bumping, Sierra Leone, the 9-2 second choice, still came just a nose short.

“It’s a tough one, but it’s professional sports. Sometimes it’s a game of inches,” said the runner-up’s trainer Chad Brown, who’s still looking for the first Derby win of his wildly successful career.

“The Derby gods can be cruel at times, making you wait,” he said.

There’s no question, however, about the quality of Brown’s horse. Whether confronted by traffic, mud or his reluctance to go in the starting gate, Sierra Leone always finishes with a mighty kick. He’s the one star in this class you can set your watch to, and it’s hard to imagine he won’t send Brown to the winner’s circle in some big race later this year.

If Mystik Dan comes to the Preakness, he’ll be in for a rematch with Bob Baffert-trained Muth

Owner Lance Gasaway did not immediately commit Mystik Dan to the second leg of the Triple Crown, saying, “We’ll discuss it.”

We can no longer count that trip as a given after 2022 Derby winner Rich Strike skipped the Preakness, sending another strong signal that the Triple Crown calendar — three races in five weeks — is out of step with modern training practices.

Assuming the Gasaways and McPeek take the traditional path, however, they’ll likely see a familiar foe.

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Muth beat Mystik Dan in the Arkansas Derby, and he would have been in the Kentucky Derby if Baffert was not still suspended from Churchill Downs because of Medina Spirit’s 2021 medication violation. Owner Amr Zedan sued unsuccessfully to get his horse — and Baffert — into the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Instead, Baffert will seemingly try to repeat his formula from last year, when he beat Derby champion Mage with a fresher horse, National Treasure, to win his eighth Preakness. Baffert also has Imagination, runner-up in the Santa Anita Derby, pointed toward the Preakness.

We’ll have plenty of time to dissect the successes and controversies that have made Baffert the dominant figure in recent Triple Crown history. But from a pure competitive standpoint, the potential showdown between his horses and Mystik Dan gives the Preakness an intriguing hook.

Muth could well be favored in a race that has favored fresher contenders in recent years. The story would be richer still if Sierra Leone, Forever Young or both show up in Baltimore.

McPeek won the pandemic-delayed 2020 Preakness with the great filly Swiss Skydiver, out-dueling Baffert’s Derby winner, Authentic, but he ruled out Kentucky Oaks-winning filly Thorpedo Anna as a possible Preakness entrant.

149th Preakness Stakes

Pimlico Race Course

Saturday, May 18, approx. 6:45 p.m.