Ask any racing fan to name the top contenders for the 2019 Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve, and you’re bound to hear names like Game Winner, Improbable, Maximus Mischief, and Signalman. That’s understandable—they’re all graded stakes winners, and they’ve all stamped their credentials as some of the most accomplished young runners in the country.
But half the fun of the Road to the Kentucky Derby is searching for little-known runners with bright futures—horses that most handicappers aren’t yet familiar with. For all we know, the 2019 Kentucky Derby winner could be an unraced maiden right now (the 2018 Derby winner Justify didn’t debut until February), so with that in mind, here are 10 under-the-radar 2-year-olds that I believe bear watching this winter …
Trainer Eoin Harty isn’t really known for winning with first-time starters, which is why it was noteworthy to see Harty send out the Godolphin homebred Cave Run to win a six-furlong maiden race at Tampa Bay Downs on Dec. 15. A beautifully-bred son of Street Sense out of a Bernardini mare, Cave Run rallied from just off the pace to pull away and defeat the Todd Pletcher-trained Ranger Up by 6 ¼ lengths, an impressive first start for a horse bred to improve over longer distances.
A six-length debut winner at Saratoga, Classy John has a lot of early speed—maybe too much early speed, since he followed up his maiden effort by going out too fast in an allowance race at Churchill Downs, in which he tired to finish second. But this son of Songandaprayer was tons the best in the Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile Stakes at Fair Grounds earlier this month, pulling away under a hand ride to win by 4 ¼ lengths, and his trainer—Dallas Stewart—has been known to strike with longshots in the Kentucky Derby, sending out Golden Soul and Commanding Curve to finish second at huge odds in 2013 and 2014, respectively.
All three of Flying Scotsman’s races to date have been on turf, but this Jerry Hollendorfer-trained son of English Channel looked great powering through a :22 4/5 final quarter-mile to win the one-mile Grade 3 Cecil B. DeMille Stakes at Santa Anita by 4 ¼ lengths. That followed a gutsy maiden win going the same distance at Santa Anita, and while it remains to be seen whether Flying Scotsman can be effective on dirt, I wouldn’t be surprised if he gives the surface a try this winter. After all, he’s a Calumet Farm homebred, and Calumet Farm usually embarks on the Derby trail with just about all of their promising young horses.
Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, this son of Uncle Mo has competed exclusively in stakes races for California-breds, but he’s made a great impression while doing so, most recently dominating the one-mile King Glorious Stakes at Los Alamitos by nine lengths. He finished up strongly while running the second half-mile in :47.71—nearly as fast as his opening half-mile in :47.35—and his only defeat to date came by a neck against the unbeaten Bob Baffert colt Cruel Intention in the Golden State Juvenile Stakes, where Galilean finished 16 lengths clear of the third-place horse. I think he’ll give a good account of himself if he steps into open company this winter.
You can usually count on trainer Kiaran McLaughlin to have a horse or two on the Derby trail, and one of his best prospects this year might be Haikal. Bred and owned by Shadwell, Haikal unleashed a tremendous finish in his debut at Aqueduct to fall just a neck short of victory, and he made the same impressive flourish in a similar Aqueduct maiden race on Dec. 15, timing his move slightly better to get up and win by a neck. If Haikal can produce that same finishing speed while racing over a mile or farther, he could have a bright future.
After finishing behind such well-regarded runners as Code of Honor and King for a Day in his first two starts, Kentucky Wildcat broke through with a victory of his own third time out, rallying from a few lengths off the pace to win a one-mile maiden race at Aqueduct. A Godolphin homebred trained by Tom Albertrani, Kentucky Wildcat is a son of Tapit out of the Grade 1-winning Ghostzapper mare Better Lucky, a top-class pedigree that suggests Kentucky Wildcat has a bright future.
After defeating the above-mentioned Kentucky Wildcat in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race at Belmont Park, this Todd Pletcher-trained son of Uncle Mo stepped up in class for the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. At first glance, King for a Day’s fourth-place finish could be considered a disappointment, but take note, he endured a very wide trip while making an early move into a hot pace. Under the circumstances, I thought he stayed on well to finish just two lengths behind the winner, and I think we could see King for a Day step up his game significantly next year.
A grandson of the 1989 Kentucky Derby winner Sunday Silence, Nova Lenda currently sits atop the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard thanks to a hard-fought victory in the 1,600-meter Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, the most prestigious dirt race for 2-year-olds in Japan. While it’s difficult to judge the caliber of competition he defeated, I liked how Nova Lenda showed plenty of tactical speed from an outside draw and dug deep in the homestretch to win by a nose over the late-charging three-time winner Derma Louvre. A massive colt tipping the scales at approximately 1,160 pounds, Nova Lenda will bear watching if his connections set their sights on Churchill Downs.
The two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert has an abundance of talented 2-year-olds this year, including the Grade 1 winners Game Winner and Improbable, but I think Roadster might ultimately be as good as any of them. With Mike Smith in the saddle, Roadster was a smooth, professional, and decisive debut winner at Del Mar this summer, and while he subsequently finished third as the favorite in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity—beaten two lengths by Game Winner—it’s important to note that he underwent minor surgery afterward to correct a breathing issue. If the surgery works as expected, Roadster could reemerge as a force to reckon with this winter.
Trained by Saeed Bin Suroor, Royal Marine could be the latest Godolphin runner to tackle the Kentucky Derby by way of Dubai. This son of 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Raven’s Pass was a solid winner of the Group 1 Qatar Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere at Longchamp and is currently wintering in Dubai, where he is expected to try dirt for the first time with an eye toward the UAE Derby. If he handles the surface switch, Royal Marine has the talent to be a player on the Derby trail.