Omaha Beach Richard Mandella
War Front—Charming, by Seeking the Gold
Let’s keep it simple. He was heavily touted in the first Derby Dozen on Jan. 22 while still a maiden, was ranked No. 6 off a seven-furlong maiden win on Feb. 5, and has been No. 1 the past six weeks. He has defeated Bob Baffert’s two early Derby favorites Game Winner and Improbable in his last two starts, and had an eye-catching 5f work in :59 at Churchill Downs. With the pace a big question mark, he is the one horse who can adapt to any pace because he is so pushbutton and Mike Smith can move on him any time he wants, knowing he can then shut him off if he has to. He drew well in post 12, except for being the second to load, but Smith should be able to put him in a good spot. Not much more you can ask for. Perhaps it’s a good sign that he was one of the last two to draw, and it was between post 3 and 12. So he lucked out with that.
Game Winner Bob Baffert
Candy Ride (ARG)—Indyan Giving, by A.P. Indy
I feel Baffert has him just where he wants him after two sharp preps that have set him up perfectly for a peak performance. His schedule was messed up and he was forced to come back in the Santa Anita Derby in only three weeks following a gut-wrencher at Oaklawn. He did all the dirty work chasing the swift Instagrand and just got nailed late. He looks awesome physically and his Thoro-Graph, Ragozin, and Beyer numbers all show a steady progression leading up to a career-high number. The one thing he has proven throughout his career is you don’t want to leave him out of your exotics. He is always right there. I like him breaking from post 16. He should be able to outrun the three closers inside him and sit right off Omaha Beach, following him into the first turn. I don’t know how the Japanese horse Master Fencer is in the gate, but he is directly inside him.
Win Win Win Michael Trombetta
Hat Trick (JPN)—Miss Smarty Pants, by Smarty Jones
The Thoro-Graph, Ragozin, and Beyer figures all say he is too slow going two turns, but his Brisnet numbers show him heading back toward his big triple-digit number in the Pasco Stakes. Thoro-Graph and Ragozin both gave him blazing numbers in the Pasco, but have him regressing in his two-turn races since. I’ve decided to ignore those speed figures and move him back up after his scintillating work at Churchill. I am still going by the eye test, his closing fractions, and my gut instinct. I believe his slow speed figs are a result of bad trips and the fact he has not been able to run his best race. And I can’t ignore his fast closing times in the Tampa Bay Derby and Blue Grass Stakes. He also debuted on Derby Dozen at No. 6 back on Jan. 29 off his win in the seven-furlong Pasco, something I normally would never do, but I’ve been smitten with him since that race. If he can overcome his troubled starts and get into the fray earlier I believe he has the speed and class to be right there at a huge price. He drew great in post 14 and will have plenty of room to his outside as long as Master Fencer doesn’t do anything silly.
Tacitus Bill Mott
Tapit—Close Hatches, by First Defence
I loved his two works at Churchill Downs, especially how strongly he galloped out. He keeps getting more mature and professional by the day and appears to be sitting on a big race. He has accomplished a great deal in only four career starts, he is the only horse to win two graded stakes at two different tracks this year, and has shown his toughness and ability to overcome adversity. Even in his latest work he found himself engaged in battle between two Derby horses, igniting his competitive spirit even more. As I keep saying, I’m not crazy about having only four career starts going into the Derby, but his four starts have matured him into a seasoned pro and a warrior with a lot of miles under him. It helps to have a good mind and he couldn’t be coming up to the Derby any better, both mentally and physically. He drew perfectly in post 8 and should get a great run into the turn.
Roadster Bob Baffert
Quality Road—Ghost Dancing, by Silver Ghost
Like Tacitus, he has only four career starts, but doesn’t have as much mileage under him and has been running in much smaller fields. Although there is no questioning his ability, you have to wonder if he’s quite ready to go a mile and a quarter off an allowance race and the Santa Anita Derby in the past eight months. As talented as he is and as quickly as he is improving, there is a reason why Mike Smith chose Omaha Beach. Smith doesn’t seem like a jockey who makes wrong decisions, but if he did this time you can be sure there won’t be any regrets or second-guessing. The way Baffert has been working him, look for him to be closer than he was in the Santa Anita Derby. The only problem with that is he drew post 17 and will have to be ridden out of the gate or take way back. Look for Florent Geroux to just follow stablemate Game Winner.
Improbable Bob Baffert
City Zip—Rare Event, by A.P. Indy
I like what I’ve seen since he arrived at Churchill Downs. In his last work, he was headstrong early, cocking his head to the right again, but once he grabbed hold of the bit he leveled off beautifully and was strong down the stretch and especially galloping out, keeping his head straighter. The key is relaxing early, as there is still a slight question of how far he wants to go. Baffert will remove the blinkers and he’s been working him behind another horse. Good luck separating the three Baffert horses. Could he possibly follow up a Triple Crown sweep with a 1,2,3 finish in the Kentucky Derby? If anyone can it is Baffert. Breaking from post 5, he will have get away sharply and will be in the first flight going into the turn.
Tax Danny Gargan
Arch—Toll, by Giant's Causeway
He keeps moving up every week, and I love the fact that hardly anyone is mentioning him. Unfortunately he drew post 2 and, simply put, will have to get lucky. War of Will, breaking on the dreaded rail, will have to show speed, so perhaps he can wind up in the garden spot saving ground. He looked awesome galloping over the track Tuesday. That was the best gallop I’ve seen yet, the way he motored around there, striding out beautifully with his ears up, going twice around. He is a definite win bet. With all the big horses turning in very strong works, his last work, a like several other longshots, went virtually unnoticed. But it was an excellent work, and combined with his potent speed figures, especially on Thoro-Graph and Brisnet, he must be respected and has a big chance at a huge price. He also has a pedigree geared toward 1 1/4 miles. If there was ever a perfect Derby prep it was his Wood Memorial. Having already run back-to-back mile and an eighth races and earning one of the fastest Thoro-Graph numbers at 2, he was given two months off. He no doubt was not fully wound going into the Wood Memorial, but still ran a huge race to finish second to Tacitus, improving his Thoro-Graph number 3 1/2 points and his Ragozin number three points, while earning his third straight triple-digit Brisnet figure, the only horse to do so. With his stamina-laden pedigree there is no reason why he shouldn’t be ready to bust out in the Derby with a peak performance.
Maximum Security Jason Servis
New Year's Day—Lil Indy, by Anasheed
He is still the one horse who is an enigma and difficult to handicap, and has the ability to blow the whole race apart. No one has seen him at this point, as he’s been in Florida turning in a series of unconventional so-called works. We have absolutely no idea how good he is and what he is capable of. He no doubt is brilliant and can come home fast. Could he be a superstar? Who knows? The other question is will he be on the lead again? Even with the lack of a true speed horse, he likely will not get soft fractions like he did in the Florida Derby. There will be a cavalry charge of stalkers trying to get position going into the first turn and you have to step on the gas in order to secure a good spot. Once you do that, especially in a 20-horse field, it’s not easy to slow a horse down, so there should be a fairly testing pace. He actually is not a pace dependent horse, but if he can establish a lead without exerting himself, he will. The main problem for him is that many of the leading contenders will be breathing down his neck. Not quite the same as being chased by Bodeexpress. But let’s remember that his speed figures put him right there as one of the fastest horses in the race. He drew a great post in the 7-hole and will have one of his pace nemeses, Vekoma, directly inside him.
Spinoff Todd Pletcher
Hard Spun—Zaftig, by Gone West
I’m a bit torn now between him and his stablemate Cutting Humor, based on the latter’s strong, but way under the radar, works and drawing beautifully in post 10, as opposed to 19 for Spinoff, who has the worst kind of running style to be that far out, especially with Long Range Toddy, who has a similar running style, directly inside him. I have been touting Spinoff for a long time and I am sticking with him, mainly because he has so much room for improvement. I’m not crazy about his having only four career starts, but I feel he ran a much better race in the Louisiana Derby than it might appear, and the horse that beat him is rapidly becoming the buzz horse at Churchill Downs because of his excellent works. Most important, Thoro-raph, Ragozin, Brisnet, and Beyer all have him showing huge improvement between his last two starts and one more move forward can easily put him in the winner’s circle. Again, we have a horse with only four career starts, and coming off a layoff, so it all depends on whether Pletcher has done enough with him in the past six weeks. His works have been solid, he possesses a good combination of speed and stamina, and he passes all the visual tests. What he can do while throwing his ears up is kinda scary. We have no idea what his ceiling is, because he still hasn’t come close to it. Coming off the six weeks, don’t be surprised to see him on or pressing the pace. He will be a lot harder to catch than he was in the Louisiana Derby.
Vekoma George Weaver
Candy Ride (ARG)—Mona de Momma, by Speightstown
His speed ratings and his record are good, except for a surprisingly slow Blue Grass number on Ragozin, he has the right running style with his tactical speed, and he worked well enough at Churchill Downs. But there isn’t much of a buzz, I would imagine partly because of his unsightly action, which has not affected him in the slightest so far. And for some reason he just hasn’t wowed anyone, despite a visually impressive performance in the Blue Grass. He’s gotten no respect in the polls and is coming into the race under the radar for a major prep winner. Right now it looks as if he could be higher odds than he should be. There is a question whether he will be as effective going a mile and a quarter, but that didn’t look like an issue in the Blue Grass. Even in his third-place finish in the Fountain of Youth Stakes he earned faster numbers than the two horses who finished in front of him. He should have no excuses breaking from post 6, but will be inside Maximum Security, so it’ll be interesting to see who makes the first move.
By My Standards Bret Calhoun
Goldencents—A Jealous Woman, by Muqtarib
For a while no one was mentioning him much at all, but after three impressive works at Churchill Downs and making an overall terrific impression in the morning, he has now turned into the buzz horse and may take a lot of money at the windows. He definitely loves Churchill Downs and couldn’t be doing any better mentally and physically. But will the distance pose a problem? It would seem as if he would have to outrun his pedigree. Despite his huge effort in the Louisiana Derby, Spinoff still received faster numbers on Thoro-Graph and Ragozin. Country House and Sueno both came off that race to place in the Arkansas Derby ad Lexington Stakes, respectively, and there are some who feel the favorite, War of Will, is capable of a big rebound performance. All we know right now is that there are some experts who really like him. Unfortunately, with post 3 and 12 remaining, he drew the short straw and will have to work out a trip from down on the inside.
Code of Honor Shug McGaughey
Noble Mission (GB)—Reunited, by Dixie Union
I moved him up to No. 12 last week based on his works at Keeneland and he topped them at Churchill Downs with a sensational half-mile work in :46 4/5, with a final eighth in :11 3/5 and doing it in flawless fashion. He just glides over the track and couldn’t be more professional. And I love the way he handles the turns. We know he loves coming up the inside in his races, and it will be interesting to see what he does if he has to take the overland route. There is no doubt McGaughey has him primed for a career-best effort, but although he has plenty of stamina on the sire side, his female family is inundated with speed. That could work for him or against him. He also has one other big positive and this is running a huge race in a rapidly run Champagne Stakes, my favorite 2-year-old stakes by far, based on its history and being run at a flat mile, the biggest test for a 2-year-old. I loved the way he closed in that race against a fast, wire-to-wire winner in Complexity, who has proven to be distance challenged. He is coming off a good third in a paceless race and should have no excuse this time. He does, however, have to improve on his speed figures. Breaking from post 13, he should be in excellent shape, and we’ll see how he does with an outside trip.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
With all the excitement over the exceptional works turned in by the leading contenders, the one work that escaped everyone’s attention was CUTTING HUMOR’S latest half-mile breeze in :48 at Palm Beach Downs. It was just the ease with which he did it, working alone this time with the rider never moving a muscle. I loved the way he handled the turns and his overall physical appearance. Sometimes we tend to overlook the obvious when handicapping. And if you want the obvious in its most simplistic terms, the major mile and an eighth Derby preps this year were run in 1:48 4/5, 1:49 4/5, 1:50 4/5, 1:51 1/5, and 1:51 1/5. Yes, most of those were on deep tracks or slop, but even so, 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. Look, we’re talking about a horse who likely will go off somewhere between 30-1 and 50-1, and at those odds I’m willing to look at what is right in front of my nose. He should have no trouble getting a forward position from post 10.
COUNTRY HOUSE is another I latched onto early and on whom I discussed last week. I will into greater detail on the longshots and how I am going to play them in my selections column on Thursday. But he drew post 20, so he’ll have no choice but to take way back and make one run. With his style the post shouldn’t really hurt him.
WAR OF WILL worked great and is looking great, but he was still pulling early in his work. That may work for him breaking from the rail. No thought process now, He has to bust out of there, and should be right there going into the turn. At some point, however, he’ll have to relax, so it’s just a question whether he can be turned off once he is used to get his position.
LONG RANGE TODDY had a great work Tuesday and looks fantastic, but his running style is not conducive to breaking from the 19 post. He’s going to have to drop in and find a path somewhere.
As for some of the others, HAIKAL drew well in post 11, as did PLUS QUE PARFAIT in post 9. This time he will outside his UAE Derby foe GRAY MAGICIAN, who drew post 4.
With horses like Code of Honor, By My Standards, Long Range Toddy, Cutting Humor, Haikal, and War of Will all turning in impressive works, it brings price horses into play, making handicapping even more difficult than it was.
There isn’t much to report on the Derby horses that you don’t already know or haven’t already seen, so this is a good time to go over trends that some people use in their handicapping. One thing I’ve learned about trends is that if you can’t find a logical reason behind them, pay little attention to them. I have been reading about the lack of success of the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes in producing Derby winners, and some may be inclined to dismiss the results of those two races. But, again, if you ask them for a reason behind it they can’t come up with one. It is just a statistic.
Don’t let random trends that have little or no meaning affect your thinking. Racing, especially regarding the Kentucky Derby, is cyclical. What appears logical today doesn’t necessarily appear logical tomorrow, just as it didn’t appear logical yesterday.
For instance, here are two comments often heard over the years:
“Favorites don’t win the Derby” – Said many times between 1979 and 2000.
“Favorites always win the Derby” – Said many times between 2013 and 2019
Again, there is no explanation, just two different cycles.
The lack of success of the Wood Memorial and Blue Grass Stakes means nothing unless you have firm reasons to explain that trend. It is true that the last Wood winner to win the Derby was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000, but in the last 50 years, 10 horses have come out of the Wood to win the Derby, including two Triple Crown winners. Unless you can state how and why the Wood Memorial has changed in recent years and why it can’t produce the Derby winner then you have to accept the fact that it is merely a cycle and a horse can come out of the Wood to win the Derby if it’s the right horse. Running one-two in the Wood didn’t stop Funny Cide (2nd) and Empire Maker (1st) from finishing one-two, respectively, in the Derby. They just happened to be the right horses.
The logical reason why no Derby winner has come of the Wood since 2003 or won both races since 2000 is not because of the Wood, but other major races. Horses used to run in the Florida Derby or the Louisiana Derby and then the Wood, so you had many of the leading contenders running in the race. But that’s when those two stakes were run several weeks earlier and horses needed another race and most would go to the Wood, such as Funny Cide, who had run in the Louisiana Derby, and Empire Maker, who ran in the Florida Derby, and also Monarchos, who ran in the Florida Derby and then the Wood. But when the dates of those two races were moved up to five and six weeks before the Kentucky Derby in the mid 2000s, horses running in the Florida Derby and Louisiana Derby would then go straight into the Kentucky Derby, which meant the vast majority of horses who ran in the Wood were those who had run in New York races like the Gotham and Whirlaway and Count Fleet Stakes, which were usually cheaper races run on the inner track, with the Gotham run at 1 1/16 miles. So in short, there was no legitimate steppingstone to the Wood.
But now you have horses like Tacitus and Vino Rosso who go into the Wood off the Tampa Bay Derby, which has grown in stature in recent years and attracts far better horses than it used to. And now with the inner track gone, you have races like the Withers and Gotham, the latter back at a flat mile, that are run on the main track and attract better horses. When can you remember the New York prep races producing better quality horses than Haikal and Tax? The first three actually make for an intriguing exacta and trifecta box at a monster price. And you also had a brilliant top-class California invader in Instagrand. The Wood will never have fields like it used to because of the aforementioned dates changes, but to think it can’t produce a Derby winner makes no sense. If a trainer of a talented horse maps out a schedule ahead of time that includes the Wood Memorial, you’ll see horses running in it who are much better prepared to win the Kentucky Derby. .
The slump of the Blue Grass Stakes, which hasn’t produced a Derby winner since 2007 and hasn’t had a winner go on to wear the roses since 1991, also is misleading when you consider it was run on a synthetic surface from 2007 to 2014 and didn’t attract many of the major Derby contenders. Now you also have horses coming off the Tampa Bay Derby or horses who are better suited to Keeneland than Gulfstream who run in the Blue Grass coming off the Fountain of Youth Stakes, such as Vekoma and Signalman.
With that said, I give huge upset chances to horses coming out of second-place finishes in Wood and Blue Grass, and the aforementioned winners Tacitus and Vekoma certainly have a big shot.