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....
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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 (RacingFlow.com 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.
The morning line favorite has unfortunately been
withdrawn with an entrapped epiglottis. Here's hoping that he comes back strong
later in the season!
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Kentucky
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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.