By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
In recent years, the Kentucky Derby has been dominated by
favorites, and at the moment I expect that trend to continue with Omaha Beach looming as a deserving
choice to win the 145th edition of the "Run for the Roses."
But playing the trifecta and/or superfecta is the key to
making a big wagering score on the Derby, and the key to cashing these
challenging wagers isn't necessarily identifying a short-priced winner.
Instead, the key is to identify the longshots that inevitably step up to hit the
board and spoil favorite-laden tickets.
With that in mind, here are three Kentucky Derby
longshots that I believe have the potential to challenge for a spot in the top
four on the first Saturday in May....
The lesser-known of Bill Mott's two Derby contenders,
Country House has developed the habit of breaking slowly, falling far off the
pace, and rallying around the turn to reach contention in major stakes races.
That's not exactly a recipe for frequent victories, but it certainly works for
hitting the board, which Country House has done in all five of his starts on
Arguably the best race of Country House's career came in
the February 16th Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) at Fair Grounds, where
he broke badly, rallied impressively, and then lugged in down the homestretch
to finish second behind fellow Kentucky Derby candidate War of Will. He was a
little more professional in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) five weeks later, but
a bunched-up field forced him to make a wide and arguably premature rally; not surprisingly,
he weakened in the final furlong and wound up fourth.
But Country House really didn't run badly at all in the
Arkansas Derby (gr. I) at Oaklawn, his final prep for the Kentucky Derby.
Reserved off the pace as usual over a sloppy, sealed track, Country House made steady
progress around the far turn and stayed on well enough down the homestretch to
finish third behind Omaha Beach and Improbable, two of the favorites for the
If there's one race where slow-starting deep closers
routinely produce huge late rallies to hit the board, it's the Kentucky Derby—over
the last ten years, we've seen Audible (7-1), Instilled Regard (85-1), Lookin
At Lee (33-1), Classic Empire (6-1), Exaggerator (5-1), Mohayman (11-1),
Frosted (10-1), Commanding Curve (37-1), Orb (5-1), Golden Soul (34-1),
Revolutionary (6-1), Dullahan (12-1), Went the Day Well (30-1), Animal Kingdom
(20-1), Ice Box (11-1), Paddy O'Prado (12-1), Make Music for Me (30-1), and
Mine That Bird (50-1) rally from the back half of the pack to win or hit the
board in the Kentucky Derby.
Many of the above-mentioned horses achieved their strong
Derby finishes while rallying up the rail over sloppy, sealed tracks, since
those conditions typically give an edge to inside runners at Churchill Downs. I
wouldn't be overly enthusiastic about playing Country House on a dry track, but
given him an inside draw over a sloppy, sealed track, and I think he could be a
threat to squeeze up the inside and outrun expectations in the Kentucky Derby.
He's probably not a "longshot" in the truest sense, since
he'll likely start somewhere in the 15-1 range, but Code of Honor has shown
flashes of serious potential and stands a fair chance to challenge in the
The tricky part is determining exactly where Code of Honor
stands from a form perspective. Two starts back, when he rallied to victory in
the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), he was the beneficiary of a blazing
early pace that compromised fourth-place finisher Hidden Scroll and arguably
the third-place runner Vekoma as well. Then, in the Florida Derby (gr. I), Code
of Honor found himself off the pace in an upside-down race that featured a slow
early pace and blazingly fast finishing fractions. His third-place finish can
be forgiven because he had no realistic chance to run down the top two, who
raced up front throughout; RacingFlow.com actually assigned the Florida Derby a
Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 2, indicating a race that fell within the
top 2% of speed-favoring races.
This is a roundabout way of saying that Code of Honor is
probably better than he showed in the Florida Derby, but not necessarily as
good as the bare form of his Fountain of Youth victory suggests. Somewhere in
between is probably a better gauge, but that could still be sufficient to land
him on the board in the Kentucky Derby, assuming that the early pace is quick
enough to set up his late run.
The good news is, Code of Honor has flourished since
shipping north to train at Keeneland, and trainer Shug McGaughey—initially hesitant
to commit Code of Honor to the Derby—now seems on board and pleased with how
his colt has been training. As a son of Noble Mission out of a Dixie Union
mare, there's plenty of stamina in Code of Honor's pedigree, so I don't
envision 1 ¼ miles being an issue if he's otherwise ready to roll. He might not
be tactical enough to win unless everything goes his way, but a spot in the
superfecta could certainly be within reach.
The Louisiana Derby (gr. II) winner By My Standards is
becoming something of a Kentucky Derby "wise guy horse," but might Spinoff be
just as good? He endured a significantly wider trip than By My Standards in the
Louisiana Derby, but was beaten less than three-quarters of a length while
leaving the rest of the field five lengths behind.
Trained by Todd Pletcher, Spinoff showed promise as a
two-year-old, but was sidelined with an injury following a third-place finish
in the Saratoga Special Stakes (gr. II) and didn't return to action until
February, when he won an allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs by 11 lengths. As a
result, the Kentucky Derby will be Spinoff's third start of the season, an
angle that has produced eight of the last twelve Derby winners.
In terms of speed figures, Spinoff is hardly overmatched,
having posted a 96 Beyer and a 102 BRIS in the Louisiana Derby. He can boast a
classy pedigree and improving form. And maybe best of all from a wagering
perspective, he's been training out of sight and out of mind at Palm Beach
Downs in Florida, which should ensure that he starts at a nice price in the
Kentucky Derby. If you like By My Standards, you have to give Spinoff a look
Now it's your turn! Which longshot(s) do you like in the
2019 Kentucky Derby?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.