The Kentucky Derby is a reminder of simpler times; a throwback event where the annual run for the roses captivates a nation with the fastest two minutes in sports the first Saturday every May. Saturday marks the 145th running of the Derby and to break down every horse in the field we called on our resident horse whisperer Kentucky Derby Jay to make sense of it all.
1 – War of Will – The Mark Casse-trained colt had it going well in New Orleans with back-to-back graded scores in the Lecomte and Risen Star before throwing a major clunker in the Louisiana Derby in March. Since then, this pony has been training quite well leading up to the Derby, however, after losing his footing early in his last race, he never really had a chance. He’ll be one of the ones up front early, and drawing the rail should suit him just fine in that regard. However, to win the roses, he will likely have to lead them wire to wire, and that seems unlikely against this crew.
2 – Tax – The Wood Memorial runner-up seems to be really flying under the radar this week and is going to offer terrific value at the wagering window. Tax ran a very big second to Tacitus in the Wood after a two-month layoff, and seems capable of even more improvement this Saturday. Speed figures fit very well here and even better on Thoro-Graph numbers. Pedigree screams 1 ¼. Lots of things to like, especially at this price.
3 – By My Standards – Took four tries to break his maiden, then won his first foray into stakes company in the Louisiana Derby. This horse is possibly peaking at the right time but was beaten by some very average horses earlier in the year. Trainer Bret Calhoun said, “We were surprised it took him quite so long to break through. He got beat in a maiden race at the Fair Grounds earlier in the winter, and I was very disappointed and I thought well, maybe he’s not the kind of horse we thought he was going to be. Three or four weeks later, he came back and broke his maiden, and it was almost like the light came on.” Just how much the light came on will be apparent on Saturday, and I’m actually inclined to take a stand against this guy.
4 – Gray Magician – Hasn’t seen the winners’ circle since last November, which isn’t much of a resume to support his case here. Ran decently enough in Dubai behind Plus Que Parfait, but is likely just not as good as most of these here. Pass.
5 – Improbable – Despite a winless 2019 so far this Bob Baffert trainee could still find himself as the post-time favorite. In both of his races this year, he’s had trouble relaxing early, and had every chance to get to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby but just couldn’t reel him in. There are possible questions about his ability to get the distance here, and that alone gives me caution. Certainly can win this one with his best, but is likely to offer little in the way of value and makes for a tricky situation at the window.
6 – Vekoma – This son of Candy Ride was an impressive winner of the Bluegrass Stakes last time out and has won 3 of 4 overall. Now, those wins haven’t been the most visually appealing, but he’s been winning, and that’s what counts. Definitely fits from the perspective of a number of speed figures, and he moves way up on a wet track. His tactical speed should suit him well, and he’s ran well in a crowd during the Bluegrass. Lots to like, and at a likely generous price. His success will depend on the kind of trip he can run here.
7 – Maximum Security – The Florida Derby winner is a real mystery as his connections chose to train him up to the Derby in Florida without really pushing him in works. Couple that with the fact he made his debut in December in a $16,000 maiden claimer and then he won a couple of lightly-regarded allowance races. Then, the explosive Florida Derby victory. Who the hell knows what he’s capable of, but what I do know is that he’s likely to face some traffic issues for the first time in his career, and how he responds will be critical. I think I’m going to make this guy beat me.
8 – Tacitus – Lots to love about the Wood Memorial winner. He’s the only horse to win graded stakes at two different tracks on the Derby trail and has worked sensationally since arriving at Churchill. The gray son of Pulpit is another who will likely move up on a wet track, and with rain in the forecast for Derby Day (what else is new), that’s looking more and more like a reality. The 8 hole should suit his tactical speed quite well, and Jose Ortiz is very capable in the irons to maneuver the Derby backstretch bumper cars. Very excited about this one.
9 – Plus Que Parfait – If you’ve read me for the last few years here at Bet the Board, you’re well aware that I’m no fan of the Dubai to Kentucky route. It hasn’t worked in 20 years, and I’m not expecting it to start now.
10 – Cutting Humor – So this guy is interesting. Had a pretty nondescript career going until the Sunland Derby, but boy did he wake up in that race. For an explanation of that performance, I defer to Steve Haskin of the Blood Horse: Cutting Humor’s 1:46 4/5 in the Sunland Derby is in a different stratosphere. No matter how you look at it that is 10 lengths to 22 lengths faster than any other prep. And the second and third-place finishers – Anothertwistafate and Mucho Gusto — were both coming off impressive grade 2 victories, which they won by seven lengths and 4 3/4 lengths, respectively. This reminds me of when Spend A Buck beat nobody in the listed Garden State Stakes at new Garden State Park in a blistering 1:45 4/5 at 2-5 and then ran the Derby field off their feet, winning with sheer speed.Now, that’s a bit to unpack, and it’s not to say I think Cutting Humor is going to win the Kentucky Derby, but given his price he definitely deserves a second look.
11 – Haikal – SCRATCHED
12 – Omaha Beach – SCRATCHED
13 – Code of Honor – Followed up a surprising score in the Fountain of Youth with a well-beaten 3rd in the Florida Derby. He’s definitely been working well since, and seems like a very professional race horse, but also seems like a bit of a plodder. He just appears like he might be slower than most of the other competition.
14 – Win Win Win – Go watch the Bluegrass Stakes. Watch his performance. Watch his closing kick. I’m not normally someone who falls in love with a deep closer for the Derby. Oftentimes, horses of this ilk sit in 19th or 20th, and do some measure of late running, but ultimately finish 6th or 7th. That’s a very real outcome for this guy. However, something about this year’s Run For The Roses feels ripe for a deep closer. Grandson of Smarty Jones looking to do big things on the 15th anniversary of his granpop’s Derby win. Under no circumstances would I be leaving him off any exotics.
15 – Master Fencer – About the only thing there is to recommend about this guy is the fact that he’s been 1 ¼ twice, albeit on the turf. Otherwise, he’s raced against fairly mediocre company overseas. Nah.
16 – Game Winner – With Omaha Beach scratched, he becomes the morning line favorite, but in case anyone hasn’t noticed, he’s winless in 2019. I suspect that if his trainer wasn’t Bob Baffert, we wouldn’t be having this conversation, yet we play the hand we’re dealt. I don’t think he was really any match for either Omaha Beach or Roadster in his last two races, and that makes his exalted status all the more curious. I don’t think he’s even close to the best of the Baffert bunch, and I won’t be betting him here.
17 – Roadster – If we are talking Baffert horses, this is more like it. He really seemed to grow up in the Santa Anita Derby, even if it seemed like Baffert was disappointed that Game Winner didn’t win. Only four lifetime races is a concern and just two races in the last eight months is even more worrisome, but Baffert has earned the benefit of the doubt so for that I’m assuming he will be ready to roar Saturday. My main concern is the 17 post, it puts Geroux in a position where he has to fire early, or take way back. There are angles to consider for win, but angles against. Hard to leave off exotics.
18 – Long Range Toddy – I’m generally of the opinion that you should ignore an Asmussen-trained horse at your own peril, but think I’m going to ignore my own advice here. He seems a step slower than a good portion of the field, and the outside post position is likely to leave far off the lead around the first turn. Just can’t recommend.
19 – Spinoff – I want to like the Pletcher trainee more than I do; every predictive speed chart suggests he’s sitting on a big improvement from a solid runner-up finish in the Louisiana Derby. Still, I can’t help but think that he’s a bit green (four career starts against suspect competition until his last) and that the outside post slot is crippling. I’m not going to be surprised if he crashes the exotics at a solid price, but I would be shocked to see him in the winner’s circle. Fringe player on deep exotic tickets.
20 – Country House – Just one of six lifetime though Bill Mott doesn’t run horses in Grade Ones just for the heck of it. He looks like he has a nice late turn of foot, and will likely be passing some tiring horses in the stretch. Wouldn’t be outrageous to see him hit the board, but he’s in the bottom half of this crew for sure.
21 – Bodexpress – Drew into field after Omaha Beach was scratch, and is probably better than at least a handful of these. That said, he’s a maiden winless in five starts; plus he’s stuck out in the 20 post. He showed that he’s an improving sort with his Florida Derby runner-up finish, but he still seems a bit deep here. I won’t argue with you if you want to use him in your exotics. Chance for minor piece.
I will admit that I considered Omaha Beach a strong favorite; he appeared to be the absolute class of this field. His defection has created the most wide open field in the last few years. All things considered, I’m leaning towards Tacitus for the win. I think Win Win Win has a great chance as well, but he may have a bit too much work to do in the stretch to get up for the win. I expect the Baffert trio to be heavily involved as well, and I love Tax to crash the exotics at a big price.
1) Tacitus, 2) Win Win Win, 3) Roadster, 4) Tax, 5) Improbable
Recommended wagers: Win, Place, Show: Tacitus and Win Win Win
Exacta and Trifecta Box: Tacitus/Win Win Win/Roadster/Tax/Improbable/Cutting Humor