Keeler Johnson's Kentucky Derby 145 Selections

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Before I dive into my annual marathon analysis of the Kentucky Derby, I should probably admit that my handicapping confidence has waned considerably with the scratch of Omaha Beach. The morning line favorite was my clear choice to win the roses—as confident a Derby selection as any since California Chrome in 2014—and in his absence, I've been forced to scramble and revise my analysis considerably.

But the Derby is the Derby, so let's soldier onward, take a look at each horse in the field, and come up with some selections....

#1 War of Will

War of Will looked like a rising star while winning the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) and Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) in decisive fashion at Fair Grounds this winter, but a bad stumble early in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) resulted in a ninth-place finish, and he came out of the race sore. He's fired off three straight bullet workouts heading into the Derby and seems poised for a rebound, but drawing the rail is an unfortunate turn of events. War of Will seems clearly best when stalking the pace outside of horses, but from the rail he'll have to gun hard out of the gate to avoid getting buried behind horses. If he winds up on the lead—probably his only option for getting a clean trip—he's going to be engaging horses in a battle for command from the start and might struggle to relax. Going 1 ¼ miles against a field of this caliber, I'm not sure War of Will can handle the pressure.

#2 Tax

With three solid runs going 1 1/8 miles under his belt, it's clear Tax doesn't mind running long distances. But he's yet to face the most elite members of this foal crop, and he was beaten fairly and squarely by Tacitus in the Wood Memorial (gr. II) despite enjoying a clean trip in a roughly-run race. I don't necessarily dislike his post draw—he's shown a willingness to run through narrow spots inside of horses—but overall he gives me the impression of being a grinder without the tactical versatility to compete for victory in a race like the Derby.

#3 By My Standards

This improving colt worked out a smooth inside trip to win the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) with a 97 Beyer and could be poised for a similar trip on Saturday while breaking from post three. With rain in the forecast, there's a good chance that the rail will be the best part of the track, so if By My Standards can hug the fence and wait for an opening, a spot in the superfecta could be well within reach. He did run well over a sloppy, sealed track in his debut at Churchill Downs last November, and I was impressed by the determination he showed to run down Spinoff in the Louisiana Derby. It's tough to rally up the rail like that, especially on dirt, and Spinoff wasn't stopping—By My Standards had to run the final three furlongs in a quick :37.82 to get the job done. At 15-1, By My Standards could be a live longshot.

#4 Gray Magician

He endured a wide trip when finishing second in the UAE Derby (UAE-II) in Dubai, but I think his strong finish was in large part the result of catching an easy field. Overall, he's just 1-for-8 with a pair of 80 Beyers standing as the best in his career. He deserves credit for his consistency, but the waters will be considerably deeper at Churchill Downs.

#5 Improbable

I don't think anyone will deny that Improbable has talent. That much has been evident since he crushed eight rivals by 7 ¼ lengths in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs last year, an effort immediately followed by a five-length romp in the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I).

But Improbable has suffered defeats in both his starts this year, partly because he seems to lack the necessary tactical speed to secure a good position out of the starting gate. He was a little sluggish to get going in all three of his races last year, and he was sluggish again in the first division of the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park, his 2019 debut. As a result, he was hung wide on both turns and had to make a mid-race move to reach contention; ultimately, that move might have been premature, since Improbable seemed to lose focus in the stretch and was nailed at the finish by Long Range Toddy.

Improbable stepped up his form significantly in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), finishing second by a length against Omaha Beach, but he was slow into stride again (perhaps he was reacting negatively to the muddy kickback?) and had to make another mid-race move to keep Omaha Beach in his sights. He still made a game run and was gallant to the finish line, but overall I got the impression that Omaha Beach had him clearly measured.

The Kentucky Derby will mark Improbable's third start of the season, and from a fitness perspective he should be ready for a peak effort. But given his slow-starting nature, I'm concerned that breaking from post five (with speed horses to his inside and outside) could cause him to get buried in traffic early on, a troublesome situation for a colt who seems best when racing in the clear and taking his time gathering momentum.

#6 Vekoma

Vekoma is classy, reasonably fast, and accomplished with two graded stakes wins under his belt, including a 3 ½-length score in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland. But in the Blue Grass, Vekoma benefited from pressing a modest pace over a speed-favoring track, and he still didn't finish fast (final three furlongs in :39.38) while posting a so-so 94 Beyer. Much has been made about how severely Vekoma paddles with his left foreleg, and while it hasn't bothered him so far, the distance and circumstances of the Kentucky Derby will surely be his greatest challenge yet.

#7 Maximum Security

What in the world do we do with Maximum Security? There's no telling what kind of colt we might be looking at. He's unbeaten and unchallenged in four starts, winning them all by a combined margin of 38 lengths. But he's never run at a track other than Gulfstream Park, and in his Florida Derby (gr. I) victory he benefited from securing an easy lead through slow fractions of :24.42 and :48.98.

But wow, did Maximum Security ever capitalize on his pace advantage in the Florida Derby. Following his early waltz, he accelerated the third quarter-mile in :23.92, blazed the fourth quarter in :23.44, and threw down a final furlong in :12.52 to win by 3 ½ lengths with a 101 Beyer speed figure.

By sprinting the final three furlongs of the Florida Derby in :35.96, Maximum Security posted a historically fast finishing fraction—it's been years since we've seen a similar fraction in a nine-furlong Derby prep race on dirt. And that's not the first time Maximum Security has displayed strength at the end of a race—two starts back, he won a seven-furlong starter optional claiming race by 18 ¼ lengths while running the final three furlongs in :36.10, and that was off decent early fractions of :22.74 and :45.62, which were among the fastest of the day on the Gulfstream main track.

Maximum Security earned a 102 Beyer for that sprint win, so in terms of Beyers he's a clear standout as the only horse to have ever cracked the triple-digit mark. The obvious question is how Maximum Security will respond if he gets pressured on the front end, but who's to say anyone will challenge him? Vekoma has speed, but his connections want him to relax off the lead. War of Will figures to come out sprinting, but there's no guarantee he'll be able to secure the lead while breaking from the innermost post. And even if he does beat Maximum Security to the lead, the pace shouldn't be blazing, and there's a chance Maximum Security will rate off the lead just fine, as he did three starts back.

The scratch of Omaha Beach has changed the complexion of the Derby, taking an aggressive and talented speed horse out of the race, and as a result I'm inclined to believe that Maximum Security is going to work out a pretty cushy trip setting or stalking a modest pace. A wet track might only help his chances, considering that he won over a muddy, sealed track at Gulfstream and will be able to use his speed to stay out of the kickback.

If Maximum Security were trained by a Derby-winning veteran like Bob Baffert or Todd Pletcher, I think he would be a clear favorite to win. Instead, we could be looking at an undefeated, unchallenged, legitimately fast Derby contender starting at 8-1 or maybe even 10-1, and in my mind that opportunity is too good to pass up. I'll gamble on the possibility of Maximum Security snatching an easy lead and taking this field all the way on the front end.

#8 Tacitus

I can't really criticize anything Tacitus has accomplished this year. This late-running son of Tapit threaded his way through a large field to win the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II) with a big late run, and he overcome significant early traffic trouble to win the Wood Memorial (gr. II) in clear-cut fashion over the graded stakes winners Tax and Haikal. These performances suggest that Tacitus won't be discouraged if he encounters traffic in the Derby, a major asset in such a large field. My only hesitation with Tacitus is that he's taken a relatively easy path to the Derby and hasn't knocked heads with any of the highly-regarded Californians yet. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut feeling, and I have a nagging suspicion that Tacitus has benefited from facing easier company than some of his key Derby rivals. This will be a tougher test.

#9 Plus Que Parfait

The addition of blinkers for the UAE Derby (UAE-II) seemed to make a big difference as Plus Que Parfait steadily threaded his way through a large field to win the 1 3/16-mile event in narrow fashion over Gray Magician. But my own attempt to calculate a Beyer speed figure for the UAE Derby produced a number in the upper 80s, and the overall form lines of Plus Que Parfait and Gray Magician suggest that they caught an easy field in Dubai and made the most of their opportunity. Does that mean Plus Que Parfait can't be competitive in the Kentucky Derby? Not necessarily—as a deep closer proven over sloppy going, he could be a candidate to produce a big finish from off the pace and slip into the superfecta. But there are other Derby starters that I would prefer to play in that role, so I personally will be siding against Plus Que Parfait.

#10 Cutting Humor

He stepped up his game significantly to win the Sunland Derby (gr. III) with a 95 Beyer, but I felt that Cutting Humor benefited from a few lucky breaks in that race—primarily, he was fortunate to get a clean outside run on the far turn while the eventual runner-up was buried in traffic. Outside trips seem to be ideal for Cutting Humor, since he's done all his best running when in the clear and didn't seem to care at all for racing in traffic during the early stages of the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) two starts back. But even if Cutting Humor does get an ideal trip in the Derby, it remains to be seen whether he can compete at this level, especially if you believe (as I do) that he was lucky to win the Sunland Derby.

#11 Haikal

Haikal is a neck away from being undefeated in one-turn races, a streak that culminated with a late-surging triumph in the one-mile Gotham Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct. But Haikal was the beneficiary of a pace meltdown ( rated the race a closer-favoring 95 on their 1-to-100 scale), and he failed to produce the same finish while stretching out around two turns in the Wood Memorial (gr. II), rallying mildly to finish a non-threatening third. I think one-turn races up to a mile might be Haikal's strong suit, but we might have to wait for another day to find out since a foot abscess may prevent Haikal from contesting the Kentucky Derby.

#12 Omaha Beach

The morning line favorite has unfortunately been withdrawn with an entrapped epiglottis. Here's hoping that he comes back strong later in the season!

#13 Code of Honor

Code of Honor is something of an enigma. He's always shown talent, but as I wrote last week, it's difficult to peg exactly who is he from a form perspective. He got a great pace setup while winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), but was compromised by the slow early/fast late race shape in the Florida Derby (gr. I) and could only finish third despite running the final three furlongs in a quick :36.79 seconds per Trakus.

Code of Honor seems to be thriving in his pre-Derby training and has drawn well in post thirteen, so from a form and trip perspective he shouldn't have any excuses. I just keep going back on forth on whether he has the talent and stamina to truly challenge for victory in a race like the Derby, particularly if things don't go his way. It's worth noting that everyone was finishing fast in the Florida Derby—that's just the way the race unfolded—and Code of Honor wasn't maintaining the straightest course down the homestretch. His real asset seems to be his ability to accelerate on turns, which he showed off impressively in the Fountain of Youth.

Ultimately, I think Code of Honor can hit the board in the Kentucky Derby, but victory might be out of reach.

#14 Win Win Win

Despite his stout, classic-oriented pedigree, I wonder if 1 ¼ miles might be a furlong or two beyond Win Win Win's best distance. I don't doubt his talent—he's shown flashes of brilliance, primarily while winning the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in track-record time with a 99 Beyer. But this slow-starting, late-rallying colt has been less effective around two turns, and while he did produce a big finish in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) to grab second place after getting stopped on the far turn, the slow finishing fractions in that race surely aided his late rally. The talent is there, and I loved Win Win Win's final workout at Churchill Downs, in which he impressively rolled past unexpected workmates Tacitus and Country House while clocking a half-mile in :47.60. I'm just not convinced he wants to run 1 ¼ miles. I'll use him on my tickets, but not to the same extent as a few others.

#15 Master Fencer

I love international participation in the Kentucky Derby and admire the sporting chance that Master Fencer's connections are taking, but from a handicapping perspective he's tough to endorse. After following the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby all winter, I feel that Master Fencer—a deep-closing colt without tactical speed—is probably no better than the fifth- or sixth-best three-year-old dirt horse in Japan, and that's in a country where dirt racing is second-tier. If he surprises with a victory, I'll be delighted for his connections and excited to witness the continued globalization of the Kentucky Derby, but Master Fencer is taking such a huge step up in class that I'll have to leave him off my tickets.

#16 Game Winner

Following the scratch of Omaha Beach, I went back and forth between Game Winner and Maximum Security for my top choice. I've been a Game Winner fan since his debut at Del Mar last summer, and while he'll never impress you with flashy tactical speed—he's more of a methodical grinder—he's just a half-length away from being undefeated in six starts and overcome a wide trip to win the 2018 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Churchill Downs in determined fashion.

Game Winner has been beaten in both of his races this year, but they were hardly poor efforts. In the second division of the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park, Game Winner raced wide and failed by just a nose to reel in Omaha Beach while leaving the rest of the field far behind. Then in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), Game Winner raced wide again while pressing a solid pace over a tiring track, and under the circumstances I thought he ran a better race than stablemate Roadster, who came rolling down the center of the track to win by half a length.

I have been impressed by Game Winner's workouts since the Santa Anita Derby and believe he's sitting on a step forward in the Kentucky Derby. His style of grinding into contention from a few lengths off the pace virtually ensures that he'll get another wide trip, but he's bred to relish 1 ¼ miles, and his stamina should come into play during the testing final furlong. The pace of the Derby could determine his fate—if the pace is quicker than expected, Game Winner might settle back, make one run, and wear down the leaders to prevail. But if the pace is modest and a horse like Maximum Security blows the race wide open on the far turn, I suspect Game Winner might struggle to catch up down the lane.

#17 Roadster

From the moment he debuted at Del Mar last summer, Roadster has seemed like a special horse. Mentally and physically, he was simply in a different league than his nine rivals in that six-furlong maiden sprint, breaking from the rail and rating inside before smoothly rallying past the leaders to win unchallenged by 4 ¼ lengths. He was impressive and professional, which is why it was disappointing to see him struggle home third in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I), beaten two lengths by Game Winner without ever looking like a winner.

As it turned out, a breathing issue had compromised Roadster's chances. After getting time off to recover from corrective surgery and some hoof issues, Roadster returned to score an easy allowance win going a mile Santa Anita on March 1. That served as a perfect prep for the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I), in which Roadster dropped further off the pace than usual before unleashing an eye-catching sprint to roll past Game Winner and spring a mild upset.

But although I've been a fan of Roadster right along, I'm hesitant to fully support him in the Kentucky Derby. Given how the Santa Anita Derby unfolded, with a contested pace over a tiring track, I feel that Roadster received a better setup than Game Winner and may have also benefited from a well-timed late surge in the middle of the track—I don't think Game Winner even had time to respond and fight back.

It's also worth noting that Santa Anita Derby day produced tricky times for calculating speed figures. Officially, the race came back with a respectable 98 Beyer, but this number doesn't compute with the 102 Beyer assigned to Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) later on the card—based on the times of the two races, the difference between the two figures should have been much greater. I personally assigned the Santa Anita Derby a 94 Beyer, which would leave Roadster in need of improvement to challenge for victory in the Kentucky Derby.

That's not to say that Roadster can't improve. Like Game Winner, the Derby will mark his third start of the season, and he's been training sharply at Santa Anita with fast times and strong finishes over extended distances. But given his history of issues, his wide draw, his uncertain speed figures, and his unusual way of running with his head bobbing up and down more than you typically see... I can't convince myself to play him on top, unless it's in multi-race wagers. If he wins, I'll have to be satisfied with the payoff from the 32-1 future wager I placed on Roadster last November.

#18 Long Range Toddy

Maybe Long Range Toddy didn't care for a sloppy track when finishing sixth in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I), or maybe he regressed while stretching out in distance and racing wide four weeks after a big effort in the first division of the Rebel Stakes (gr. II). His Rebel victory was good, but he also benefited from saving ground and timing his late run perfectly—runner-up Improbable seemed to lose focus after racing wide and perhaps striking the front too soon in his first start of the season. With a clear path to a ground-saving trip over a dry track, I could have talked myself into using Long Range Toddy in the Derby, but with the opposite scenario shaping up, I'll have to oppose him.

#19 Spinoff

I was warming up to Spinoff after he overcame a wide trip to finish second in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), but drawing a far outside post is problematic since Spinoff typically employs stalking tactics and probably doesn't have the tactical speed to win a Derby-level battle for early position. The way I see it, Spinoff will have to race very wide into the first turn and/or drop farther off the pace than usual, with neither option being ideal. I'll still use him on a few tickets, but not as much as I might have with a better draw.

#20 Country House

Slow starts, a lack of focus, an occasional tendency to lug in—Country House has a lot of quirks. But at least his running style shouldn't be particularly affected by breaking from post nineteen, and as I explained last week, I think he could be an interesting live longshot. He's right on the bubble of horses I would consider using, but at least he's proven over a sloppy track, and you can usually count on a deep closer or two to outrun expectations when the Derby is contested over a wet track.

#21 Bodexpress

Although he's a maiden, Bodexpress has shown steady progression and took a nice step forward while stretching out around two turns in the Florida Derby (gr. I), tracking Maximum Security every step of the way en route to a runner-up finish. Previously, he had beaten the promising next-out maiden winners Fort Worth and Bandon Woods in a seven-furlong maiden sprint at Gulfstream, so it's not like his Florida Derby performance came out of nowhere.

I might have even been tempted to use Bodexpress in the Kentucky Derby if not for his post position draw; starting from the far outside gate, he seems destined to race wide every step of the way. That's a big ask, especially for a horse who essentially followed Maximum Security around the track in the Florida Derby, but couldn't out-kick him in the stretch.


First: Maximum Security
Second: Game Winner
Live Longshot: By My Standards

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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

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