Making the Grade, which will run through the 2019 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.
Unbeaten in three starts after another dominant stakes victory on Dec. 8 in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, Improbable has the look of a serious contender for the 2019 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. What is it that makes Improbable a potential star?
Ability: Improbable was purchased for $200,000 at the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale after he sold as a weanling for $110,000, both above the average and median for their respective sales but neither an exorbitant price for a Thoroughbred at auction.
The chestnut colt made his career debut going three-quarters of a mile on Sept. 29 at Santa Anita for the same ownership triumvirate that unveiled future Triple Crown winner Justify in February 2018: WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and SF Racing. Unlike Justify, Improbable had to battle to win his debut by a neck over Stretford End, reeling in the game pacesetter in the final sixteenth of a mile.
The third-place finisher from that race was 4 ½ lengths behind the top pair. Stretford End has finished second as the favorite in each of his two subsequent starts, most recently earning a 101 Equibase Speed Figure.
Improbable earned a 94 Equibase Speed Figure for his debut win, but his coming-out party would come five weeks later when he obliterated eight opponents in the one-mile Street Sense Stakes on the Breeders’ Cup “Future Stars Friday” card on Nov. 2.
Sixth after the first quarter-mile, Improbable seized command in early stretch and surged clear to win by 7 ¼ lengths in a performance that had social media buzzing and wondering if, perhaps, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert should have instead entered him in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Baffert later won the Juvenile with Game Winner, who capped an unbeaten 4-for-4 campaign in the Breeders’ Cup and almost certainly put the finishing touches on a champion 2-year-old male campaign.
Improbable’s Street Sense Stakes victory was nonetheless visually impressive and he improved his Equibase Speed Figure by six points to a 100.
Baffert next entered Improbable in the 1 1/16-mile Cash Call Futurity for his graded stakes debut and his first try around two turns. The 1-5 favorite in the six-horse field, Improbable stalked the pace from third through a half-mile in 47.25 seconds before confronting pacesetter Mucho Gusto and Savagery from three wide entering the stretch. Improbable used a powerful quarter-mile in 23.97 to take command of the race and completed his final sixteenth of a mile in 6.39 seconds to prevail by five lengths.
It was encouraging to see Improbable finish strongly in his first try around two turns as he completed the 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.18 en route to a new career-top 108 Equibase Speed Figure. He switched leads professionally at the top of the stretch under Drayden Van Dyke and attacked the ground through the stretch to put away stablemate Mucho Gusto.
Improbable took a major step forward when stretching out in distance for the Street Sense Stakes, and he showed significant improvement again in the Cash Call Futurity. His speed figures indicate he’s right there with the best 2-year-olds and rates as a very exciting prospect.
Running style: Improbable has rallied from off the pace in each of his three starts, showing the willingness to respond to Van Dyke’s cues and the ability to identify a target and then put him away. He was a little bit farther back early in his debut when the opening quarter-mile went in a blistering 21.70 seconds, but with the pace easing a bit in longer races, Improbable raced within two lengths early in both of his stakes races. He has enough speed to gain good position and the maturity to wait until his rider asks him to accelerate.
Connections: The aforementioned ownership group of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and SF Racing is familiar because of Justify, and it appears that after the Street Sense, SF Racing leased its racing rights to Improbable to Starlight Racing as it did with the 2018 Triple Crown winner after his career debut.
While some racing fans might know WinStar from Justify’s Triple Crown run, the racing and breeding operation founded in 2000 by Kenny Troutt and his good friend Bill Casner — now owned solely by Troutt — has had a significant impact on major races almost since its inception.
WinStar bred 2003 dual classic winner and champion Funny Cide. WinStar homebred Super Saver prevailed in the 2010 Kentucky Derby and Drosselmeyer won the 2010 Belmont Stakes. WinStar also owned 2016 Belmont Stakes winner Creator in partnership and won the Eclipse Award as outstanding owner in 2010 and outstanding breeder in 2016.
Teo Ah Khing, the architect who designed Meydan Racecourse in Dubai, founded China Horse Club. Jack and Laurie Wolf’s Starlight Racing raced champions Ashado and Shanghai Bobby.
Improbable gave trainer Bob Baffert his 11th victory in the Cash Call Futurity (formerly the Hollywood Futurity). He also bolstered his hand for the 2019 classics with a pair of aces in Game Winner and Improbable.
Baffert, of course, is no stranger to winning Triple Crown races as the trainer of the last two 3-year-olds to complete the sweep in American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018). A four-time Eclipse Award winner and 2009 inductee into the Racing Hall of Fame, Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby five times, the Preakness seven times, and the Belmont Stakes three times for 15 classic wins. There is no better trainer when it comes to preparing a 3-year-old for the Triple Crown.
Jockey Drayden Van Dyke has been aboard for each of Improbable’s three races to date. Van Dyke is in the midst of a career year with 19 graded stakes wins, up from 10 in 2017, and four Grade 1 victories while nearly doubling his previous best season by purse earnings with $10,897,533 through Dec. 11. He also won his first career Breeders’ Cup race when he guided Stormy Liberal to victory in the 2018 Turf Sprint. Van Dyke finished fourth in May aboard Instilled Regard in the Kentucky Derby, which was his first starter in the race.
Pedigree: It might be tempting to look at Improbable’s sire, City Zip, and dismiss his chances to excel in the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby, but I think that is a mistake.
While City Zip was a Grade 1-winning sprinter, by graded stakes-winning sprinter Carson City, he is a half-brother (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year Ghostzapper.
City Zip also has shown at stud the ability to sire elite runners going a route of ground, such as champion turf female Dayatthespa, Canadian Horse of the Year Catch a Glimpse, and 2017 TVG Pacific Classic Stakes winner Collected, who ran second that year in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. City Zip is quite versatile as a sire with elite sprinters, turf runners, and two-turn dirt horses with some graded stakes winners on synthetic surfaces as well.
The bottom half of Improbable’s pedigree also offers reason for optimism. His dam, Rare Event, won four races at distances ranging from one mile to 1 1/8 miles and she is by 1992 Belmont Stakes winner and Horse of the Year A.P. Indy. Improbable is Rare Event’s first starter.
Improbable’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Our Rite of Spring, was a stakes winner at one mile and 70 yards, and his third dam (maternal great grandmother), Turkish Tryst, was a stakes winner at 1 ½ miles who produced Grade 1 winner Hard Spun, runner-up in the 2007 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
This family also produced 1974 Preakness winner and champion Little Current.
The more you look, the more there is to like when it comes to Improbable. Like most of his peers, the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance is a big question to be answered, but Improbable has been dazzling so far on the racetrack. He’s in the capable hands of Bob Baffert and I’ve loved his consistent improvement and the responsiveness to his rider. If I were to make a Kentucky Derby future bet on any 2-year-old, it would be Improbable, but I might be one race too late to get the odds I’d need to plunk down a bet of any significance. I think he’s the real deal.