By Chris Ahl
Here’s a look at the field for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby:
#1 War of Will (15-1) - The rail draw is difficult, though not impossible, to navigate in this race and it certainly is not great for War of Will because he figures to need to be forwardly placed for success. His no show in the Louisiana Derby has easily been excused as he lost his footing early in the race. All the workout reports suggest that he is fully recovered and working well but now he figures to be all out to try to get position in front of Vekoma and Maximum Security, who will want to clear in front of them. It’s not impossible but it won’t be comfortable and for that reason I put him a step below the top contenders.
#2 Tax (20-1) - Tax ran his race three straight times in the Aqueduct preps to this race. He’s impressively consistent and his strides in the ninth furlong suggest that he will be comfortable with the distance. The problem is that the speed figures that he was running probably won’t contend here and he had no excuse not to hold off Tacitus in the Wood Memorial. For that reason, I would put him a step below the top contenders even though he projects to have a favorable trip in the second wave, saving ground.
#3 By My Standards (15-1) - By My Standards has exactly one race that would even give him a prayer of contending in this race, his triumph in the Louisiana Derby. It was far from a gleaming field or finishing time but visually it was one of the more impressive half length victories of the prep season. He settled professionally and Gabriel Saez seemed to be sitting confidently on him the entire way, waiting to give his cue. Distance didn’t look to be an issue and he looked completely comfortable in the stalking trip that often wins this race. He has since been working exceptionally and drew well, assuming he can find room when Saez pushes the button. He may end up not being quite good enough to win but he’s my fourth choice here and I expect him to run well.
#4 Gray Magician (50-1) - I think this well travelled colt has a future, probably as a miler, but he enters this race off a difficult campaign just to get here, including a trip to Dubai. Getting in the gate is a success story for him but he looks like a deserving longshot.
#5 Improbable (5-1) - The first of Bob Baffert’s three runners comes in as the follow up to Justify for the same connections. Unlike Justify, Improbable got his career started last year with three wins. From the start, he was treated like a Kentucky Derby horse, including a plane trip to Louisville for an undercard stakes race on Breeders Cup day. The plan for him for this year was two races to enter the Kentucky Derby at the height of his powers. He dropped both of those races at Oaklawn but ran ascendingly well in both of them. In the Rebel, he got a confident ride as the 2/5 favorite in the 6 path and got nipped by a closer with a perfect ride. He regrouped and caught a sloppy track and Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby. Despite some problems in the gate, he got a clean trip here and was second best to Omaha Beach, far from a poor result. He seems set to get a confident ride flanking the speed, with enough left to get first run on the closers. In my eyes, the combination of a dry track, Omaha Beach scratching, the good draw and his continued improvement make him the horse to beat here. He is my top pick.
#6 Vekoma (15-1) - Despite an unorthodox galloping action, Vekoma has done very little wrong in his short career. His cruising speed out of the gate figures to be put to use here and he seems likely to be in the top two as they round the first term. For me there are two questions. First, can he shake loose from Maximum Security, drawn just to the outside of him. That rivals intentions aren’t fully clear but it seems possible that these two could be in a chess game in the first few furlongs. Vekoma will have to negotiate that. The second question is the final furlong. Vekoma finished up OK in the Blue Grass but the wide closer Win Win Win was closing on him in the final furlong. How he handles the 10 furlongs is a question mark. I think Vekoma is a contender here but a notch below the win candidates.
#7 Maximum Security (8-1) - The enigma of the field could be leading this group on a merry chase, could be attempting to rate behind horses for the first time or could revert to whatever issues caused him to be in a $16,000 race to begin his career. Figuring out what is going to happen with this horse is a puzzle, made more difficult by his trainer that seems to be able to win any race with any horse. Vekoma and War of Will drawing inside of him may inject some extra pace into this race, certainly more than he saw in the Florida Derby. If he can settle outside of them comfortably, his speed figures match up well with anyone. We will find out the answers to these questions Saturday but he feels like a horse that we will be safe to use defensively.
#8 Tacitus (8-1) - Tacitus is regally bred for strong connections that aren’t known for rushing horses into aggressive spots. When he showed up in the Tampa Bay Derby as a maiden winner off a layoff, that was the first inkling that he could run to his potential and he did, winning that race and the Wood Memorial. The Wood Memorial is a tricky race to decipher because of the trouble at the start, which affected Tacitus negatively at least in a minor way, and the lightning fast pace, which helped him. Ultimately, he comes out of it positively and he can improve as his dam did. He is going to be a short price, perhaps too short, but he is one of the true contenders in here to be there when the running starts.
#9 Plus Que Parfait (30-1) - Brendan Walsh did a great job getting this horse ready to run in Dubai and he never looked a loser in the UAE Derby. He figures to be totally overlooked in here and possibly an overlay but his speed figures don’t put him in the vicinity of winning.
#10 Cutting Humor (30-1) - He got a perfect trip to win a decent running of the Sunland Derby. The speed figures of that race came back decent enough but not quite up to par to step up and contend here. Furthermore, he looked like a horse that didn’t want to go a step further than 1 ⅛ miles as Anothertwistoffate, who did not make this field despite every effort, was a step from getting by him.
#11 Haikal (30-1) - Haikal is another success story for getting to the Kentucky Derby as he was born to be a sprinter as a son of Daaher and a brother to the excellent sprinter Takaful. He took advantage of those genes to take advantage of a hot pace in the one turn mile Gotham to loop them for the win. There will be spots to bet Haikal down the road in New York but I prefer others as closers in this race. There is a chance he lopes along to hit the board but I would bet against it.
#13 Code of Honor (12-1) - Code of Honor has shown flashes of greatness in his short career for top connections. The fact that Shug McGaughey chose to put this son of Noble Mission on the dirt to start his career signaled that he could handle the main track and he did, winning his debut. He followed that up with a breathtaking second place in the Champaign and a similarly visually impressive win in the Fountain of Youth. Yes, he is pace dependent and he didn’t fire in the Florida Derby (a prep for him) but if this race sets up for a stone closer and the Baffert horses end up too close to a hot pace, he may be the one coming down the lane the best. Does he want 10 furlongs? We don’t know yet and these connections pretty much ensure the price will be too low to find out.
#14 Win Win Win (12-1) - This horse ran one of the fastest races of his generation when he put the country on notice with his win in the 7 furlong Pasco Stakes at Tampa in January. When he was stepped up in class and distance in the Tampa Bay Derby, most figured he would put that impressive speed to use on the stretch out. Instead, under new jockey Irad Ortiz Jr, he was kept towards the back of the pack and made a super late closing run that came up short. In the Blue Grass, he again did the same thing, closing wide on a day at Keeneland when being inside and up front may have been an advantage. Was it the horse or the jockey that made this change in running style? We will find out as he reverts back to Julian Pimental. His value in the Kentucky Derby boils down to how impressed you were by the Blue Grass. He did get the final furlong in 12.69 seconds per Trakus, almost a full seconds faster than Vekoma. He’s intriguing but again, distance is the question. I plan to use him defensively and would not be surprised if he outruns his odds.
#15 Master Fencer (50-1) - By all accounts, he has not shown enough in Japan to be a contender in this field.
#16 Game Winner (9-2) - The juvenile champion, much like his stablemate Improbable, has an enticing pattern entering the race with two impressive runner up finishes on an ascending scale. I thought his Rebel was underwhelming when watching it live in March. But in watching it back, he launched his run from 4-5 wide and just couldn’t get by Omaha Beach, which was only flattered by the Arkansas Derby. Furthermore, his Santa Anita Derby wasn’t a bulky field but he did again run wide and strong in the lane in that one, this time getting nipped by Roadster who had the better trip. He has run a fast race over this course and he is bred to run all day, something almost no one else in this field can claim. He is a deserving favorite but he did draw an outside post and has a history of running wide. I prefer Improbable but recognize how much Game Winner makes sense here.
#17 Roadster (5-1) - Roadster was Baffert’s first “Derby Horse” last summer but since then it seemed as though Improbable and Game Winner had passed him by while he spent time on the sidelines with a throat issue. He came back and mediocre workout reports actually made him the second choice in an allowance race, which seems unthinkable for this kind of Baffert horse. He won that race though and parlayed it into a perfect Mike Smith ride in the Santa Anita Derby that got him a nose advantage over Game Winner. The two negatives on Roadster are obvious. The first is that Game Winner clearly ran a better race than Roadster that day despite the result. The second is that Smith chose quickly to ride Omaha Beach in this race. That’s not the be all end all but it is certainly noteworthy. He also has yet to face much adversity in his career and that will change from the #16 post here. You can never count out a Baffert horse like this but this is the one I would be willing to pass on in this Derby.
#18 Long Range Toddy (30-1) - He beat my top pick in a race in March so it isn’t easy to dismiss him out of hand. But he followed up that extremely fortunate trip with a total no show in the Arkansas Derby. He looks too slow here.
#19 Spinoff (30-1) - Yes, he got a tougher trip than By My Standards in the Fair Grounds Oaks, which is something that has been mentioned a lot this week. In my opinion, he was never holding that rival off and now he has to deal with this difficult post and a much tougher field. He deserves a longshot look and the trainer knows how to improve horses with this exact type of pattern. I will use him defensively and as a C but I can’t pick him near the win position.
#20 Country House (30-1) - From his impressive maiden win at Gulfstream through his green Risen Star and including his decent third place Arkansas Derby, Country House has been improving right along all year. Before the Risen Star, he likely had the feel of a second tier Mott three year old with eyes on Belmont and Saratoga. That big stretch kick put him on the Derby trail and he made it. Unfortunately it took him an extra stop along the way as he is attempting the rare Fair Grounds-Arkansas-Kentucky Derby trifecta. It’s not ideal. His Fair Grounds Derby was an ugly disappointment. His Arkansas Derby was only a third behind two of the best horses in the country but that was the goal and it got him in the gate for his third Derby in six weeks. I think Rosario rode him just to get third and that with more encouraging and more distance, he could have been closer to the top horse in the division. His speed figure came up solid and there is a non zero chance here that he gets the pace meltdown that he needs to strut his stuff down the lane. His odds figures to be astronomical and I give him a chance to outrun those odds. He is my second pick at a price here.
#21 Bodexpress (30-1) - This maiden took sneaky money in the extremely live Gulfstream maiden race that became known as the Hidden Scroll race. Someone knew he could run at a high level and he proved it by running a solid second in the Florida Derby. He had every reason to give up in the final furlong of that race but didn’t and was clearly ahead of Code of Honor. He gets the worst post here and is unlikely but there figure to be worse 50-1 shots this weekend.
Win Place Show #20
5 with 3,7,13,16,20 with 1,2,3,6,7,8,9,11,13,14,16,17,18,19,20,21
5 with 1,2,3,6,7,8,9,11,13,14,16,17,18,19,20,21 with 3,7,13,16,20
5,10,16 with 5,10,16 with All
5,10,16 with All with 5,10,16
All with 5,10,16 with 5,10,16