With barely more than a month remaining until the 2019 Kentucky Derby, the race remains as wide-open as ever.
Two more upset victories in the Florida Derby (gr. I)
and UAE Derby (UAE-II)
did little to clarify the Derby picture; if anything, the prospective field has become even more perplexing. You know it’s a strange year when a 71-1 maiden can finish second in the Florida Derby.
At this point, who do you view as the top Derby contenders? Here’s how my list stacks up….
Game Winner (#1 last week)
In his final workout before Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, Game Winner went six furlongs in 1:13.40 on April 1, the fastest workout of the morning. My hope is that he’ll step up his game another notch while stretching out to nine furlongs, finishing up strongly even if he doesn’t win.
He’s packed in four workouts since March 14 in preparation for his showdown with Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby, including six furlongs in a bullet 1:12.60 on March 31. Roadster has more tactical speed than Game Winner and should give the champion a stiff challenge; I actually suspect Roadster will come out on top, hence his move up to the #2 slot this week.
Omaha Beach (#2)
Omaha Beach returned to the work tab in blazing fashion on March 29, working four furlongs in a bullet :47.80 at Santa Anita. Assuming he runs well in the Arkansas Derby, he’ll enter the Kentucky Derby with four races under his belt this year, more than the typical two or three prep runs utilized by the last 14 Derby winners. You have to go back to Smarty Jones in 2004 to find the last Kentucky Derby winner who squeezed in four prep runs as a three-year-old.
Bob Baffert shook things up in Improbable’s most recent workout, adding blinkers and working him in company with his older stablemate Once On Whiskey. The result was six furlongs in a bullet 1:12.80 on March 30, with Improbable rallying from about two lengths behind to finish a neck in front at the wire. Hopefully, the blinkers will help Improbable stay focused and sharpen his early speed a bit in the Arkansas Derby.
Maximum Security (Unranked)
Where in the world should we rank Maximum Security? He’s won his first four starts by a combined 38 lengths, but they’ve all been at Gulfstream Park. He cruised to victory in the Florida Derby while running the final three furlongs in :35.96—the fastest such fraction posted by any Derby contender over the last several years—but he did so after waltzing along through slow early fractions. His talent is obvious—he’s run back-to-back triple-digit Beyer speed figures and is the only Derby contender to have done so—but whether he can handle a faster pace in the Kentucky Derby is another question entirely.
Long Range Toddy (#5)
In preparation for another showdown with Improbable (and a first meeting with Omaha Beach), Long Range Toddy turned in a bullet workout of his own, traveling five furlongs in 1:00 flat at Oaklawn Park. His powerful finish in the first division of the Rebel Stakes was a big step up off his previous form—can he repeat it?
He’s currently ranked #16 on the Kentucky Derby qualification leaderboard, but with the UAE Derby 1-2 finishers Plus Que Parfait and Gray Magician being uncertain starters, it’s possible that Anothertwistafate could move up a couple of slots. If he’s going to qualify without running in another prep race, his connections will have to hope that highly-ranked Derby contenders like Game Winner, Omaha Beach, Long Range Toddy, Haikal, and Tacitus perform well over the next two weeks, keeping significant points from being awarded to lower-ranked Derby contenders.
Code of Honor (#6)
Although he could only finish a distant third in the Florida Derby, I thought he ran well considering the slow early/fast late race shape. It’s tough to gain ground into such fast finishing fractions, but despite weaving around a little down the homestretch, Code of Honor came home the final three furlongs in :36.79 seconds per Trakus. Code of Honor remains a tough horse to read, but I wouldn’t toss him out based on one race that didn’t set up for his late-running style.
By My Standards (#8)
By My Standard’s pedigree gives off mixed signals as far as distance preferences are concerned. His sire, Goldencents, was a two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner who leaned more toward speed than stamina, and By My Standards dam—the two-time turf stakes winner A Jealous Woman—was likewise at her best going a mile and is a daughter of the tried-and-true sprinter Muqtarib. That’s not exactly a stamina-laden pedigree, but By My Standards did finish up nicely in the Louisiana Derby, so there’s always a chance that he’s inherited the stoutest genes from his immediate ancestors.
I’m tossing Signalman back into the mix this week in large part because I expect him to rebound in the Blue Grass Stakes (gr. II) on Saturday. He’s trained well since his seventh-place finish in the Fountain of Youth (breezing five furlongs in a bullet :59.84 on March 30), and the return to Keeneland should be favorable to his chances. Plus, it’s worth noting that the form of his Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) victory in November was flattered a bit when runner-up Plus Que Parfait won the UAE Derby last weekend.