Keeler Johnson's Kentucky Derby Top 10: Thoughts, Insights, and Fun Facts

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December 24th, 2018

Merry Christmas, racing fans!

Today might be Christmas Eve, with the holiday itself just a day away, but it’s also Monday, which means it’s time to share my latest Kentucky Derby Top 10 rankings. For the second straight week, I don’t have any changes—understandable at this quiet time of year—but I do have some thoughts, insights, and fun facts to share about each horse.

So if you’re looking to pass some time waiting for Christmas, let’s dive in!
  1. Game Winner

Game Winner has a very different running style than trainer Bob Baffert’s two Triple Crown winners, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Whereas American Pharoah and Justify had an effortless way of running, Game Winner is more of a relentless grinder—he never gives up and has never been in a race where he wasn’t moving strongest at the finish.
  1. Improbable

If the Kentucky Derby trail doesn’t work out for Improbable, he could always have a future on turf. His dam, Rare Event, scored three of her four victories on grass, while his sire—City Zip—was known to sire top-class turf runners, including the Breeders’ Cup winners Dayatthespa and Catch a Glimpse.
  1. Instagrand

According to a report from the Daily Racing Form, Instagrand could return to the work tab almost any time now, a positive development with 2019 just around the corner.
  1. Signalman

I’ve written extensively about how professional Signalman has been while racing in traffic, and actually, I think he’s so fond of being part of the pack that he’s reluctant to give his best when he strikes the front. In his maiden win at Saratoga, he lost focus when taking command and briefly lost his lead before battling back, and in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, he again appeared to lose momentum when he struck the front before digging down to hold off the late-charging runner-up. With this in mind, I think Signalman was more dominant in his two victories than his margins of victory imply, but his focus when racing on the lead is an area where he could use improvement during the coming months.
  1. Roadster

He’s slowly working his way back into serious training, negotiating five furlongs in an easy 1:02.80 on December 19th at Santa Anita. At this rate, the January 5th Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita is surely coming up too fast for Roadster to be ready, so it will be interesting to see where this son of Quality Road eventually turns up.
  1. Code of Honor

Despite being one of the most prestigious juvenile races in the country, the Champagne Stakes (gr. I)—in which Code of Honor finished second—has had a rough run since the glory days of the 1970s when Champagne participants Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Spectacular Bid won three straight Kentucky Derbies. Since then, only two Derby winners—Sea Hero (1993) and Super Saver (2010)—even participated in the Champagne Stakes, and only two other Champagne starters since 1990 have cracked the top three in the Derby.
  1. Maximus Mischief

Remsen Stakes participants have endured a lengthy dry spell in the Kentucky Derby—since Go for Gin and Thunder Gulch completed the Remsen/Derby double in back-to-back years (1994 and 1995), only two Remsen starters have even cracked the trifecta in the Derby (out of 24 chances), and none have claimed victory. Will Maximus Mischief be the horse to end that streak of frustration?
  1. Coliseum

He stepped up to six furlongs in his most recent workout, traversing the distance in a bullet 1:13.20 on December 19th at Santa Anita. At this point, if I had to guess, it looks like Baffert will train him up to the January 5th Sham Stakes (gr. III), the first of four Derby prep races at Santa Anita next year.
  1. Vekoma

Fun fact—if Vekoma wins the Kentucky Derby, he’ll be the first horse in history to complete the Nashua Stakes/Kentucky Derby double. That said, he wouldn’t be the first Nashua starter to win the roses—that honor went to Thunder Gulch, who finished fourth in the 1994 Nashua before winning the 1995 Derby.
  1. Network Effect

Since Network Effect ran in two graded stakes races at Aqueduct this fall, here’s some trivia—which was the last Kentucky Derby winner to run at Aqueduct at any time prior to their Derby win? That would be Orb in 2013, who competed in two maiden races at Aqueduct. The last Derby winner to compete in a stakes races at Aqueduct? Smarty Jones, who won the Count Fleet Stakes and the Derby in 2004. The last Derby winner to compete in a graded stakes race at Aqueduct? Funny Cide, who finished second in the 2003 Wood Memorial (gr. I) before upsetting the Derby.