This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses whose chances for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve are not quite as strong as they were two weeks ago.
In this week’s edition, the focus is the previous two weeks of races. With the action on the Derby trail heating up, this column will now appear regularly to analyze to biggest movers approaching the first leg of the Triple Crown.
This spot was essentially a toss up for me between Tacitus and Roadster. Both only have four starts for Hall of Fame trainers and have been extremely consistent. Both are pretty adaptable and can run near the pace or drop farther back off of it. They both are well bred and have speed-figures that place them as serious contenders for this year’s Kentucky Derby. Ultimately, I landed on Tacitus for the top spot after his victory in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on April 6 because unlike Roadster he did not miss an extended stretch of training time and he has multiple starts around two turns — I like his foundation better heading into the Derby. Visually, I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from Tacitus. He came home very fast in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and then in the Wood Memorial he overcame adversity when bumped a couple of times early and, according to the Equibase chart, he had his heels clipped from behind entering the first turn. The final eighth of a mile in 13.42 is a concern and not an insignificant one for me, but I like the way he accelerates on cue and we do know he can finish faster. I have to trust the speed-figure makers have a good read on the race. Tacitus earned a new career-best speed figure from Equibase, Brisnet, Daily Racing Form (Beyer Speed Figure), and TimeForm US. His Equibase Speed Figure improved from a 105 in the Tampa Bay Derby to a 106; his Brisnet figure jumped from a 95 to a 103; his Beyer figure improved from a 93 to a 97; and his 120 TimeForm US rating was a three-point increase and the highest for winning a points race on the 2019 Derby trail. From a pedigree perspective, he’s by leading sire Tapit out of Close Hatches, a Grade 1 winner at 1 1/8 miles on the dirt.
There is much to like with Roadster. I went into more detail in this week’s Making the Grade profile on the Quality Road colt, but I think the most important aspect is that the ceiling is very high for a colt who has only made two starts following throat surgery. He’s looked terrific in the two post-surgery starts, including defeating champion Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6. There is a chance he’s just finding his best stride and Roadster is poised to take a huge step forward on Kentucky Derby day. Roadster earned a 106 Equibase Speed Figure and a 98 Brisnet Speed Figure, both new career tops. His 98 Beyer Speed Figure was the fastest of the three major prep winners last weekend but TimeForm US was less optimistic with a 113. My main concern is that he’s being asked to do quite a bit in a short stretch of time having returned from a six-month layoff on March 1. Because of that, it feels like there also is a very good chance Roadster might react negatively to a tough race on a deep surface in which he had to dig in to outfinish champion Game Winner. On the positive side, he’s in Hall of Fame hands with trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith. I also think his pedigree hints that 1 ¼ miles should be within his scope.
I went into last week’s Making the Grade profile on Maximum Security thinking he’d be a definite no for me when evaluating his Derby chances. Instead, I came away thinking Maximum Security might actually have an outside shot. He earned a spot on this list by taking the jump from a starter/allowance race winner to Grade 1 winner after a dominant 3 ½-length win in the Xpressbet Florida Derby on March 30. Permitted to set a slow, uncontested pace, Maximum Security was running well late in the race, clicking off a final eighth of a mile in 12.52 seconds. Considering the Florida Derby was his first try navigating two turns, Maximum Security’s speed figures were promising: 102 Equibase Speed Figure, career-top 102 Brisnet figure, 101 Beyer Speed Figure, and 116 TimeForm US rating. He has shown the ability to rate off the pace, but it looks like his preferred running style is to go right to the front. That is a very tough way to win the Kentucky Derby and you can be sure he’ll need to go much faster than his opening half-mile in 48.98 seconds in the Florida Derby. In the last six editions of the Kentucky Derby since the points system was implemented, the average opening half-mile is 46.34 seconds or about 13 lengths faster. Maximum Security won’t be my Derby pick, but he’s worth a shot underneath in exotics if you are looking for a price play. He could lead into the stretch and hold on for a top-three placing.
Honorable Mentions: There is a long list of candidates worthy of a mention, but I’ll start with Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma. Even though I’d watched his previous races, Vekoma’s unusual running action caught me off guard in the stretch at Keeneland and subsequently it made me wonder how much faster he might be if he had a more efficient stride. He’s clearly very talented with two graded stakes wins and one third in three tries at that level. He’s also got tactical speed. It wouldn’t shock me if he found his way into the top three on Kentucky Derby day. … Congratulations to the top two finishers of the United Arab Emirates Derby — Plus Que Parfait and Gray Magician — for qualifying for the Kentucky Derby. Until a UAE Derby winner comes over and wins the Kentucky Derby, however, I won’t be picking one. The travel and the change in climate are taxing and I think those two were a cut or two below the top 3-year-olds anyway. I’ll be passing on both. … I thought Wood Memorial runner-up Tax ran well in defeat and I’ll be keeping an eye on him leading up to the race. … Game Winner got another stiff test and came up just short again, but I expect Bob Baffert will have him in peak condition on May 4. He’s a win contender for sure. … Win Win Win closed powerfully in the stretch to finish second in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes after racing next to last early in a 14-horse field. I don’t love deep closers to win the Kentucky Derby, but there are always a couple passing horses in the stretch and I could see Win Win Win charging late for a minor award. … Bodexpress ran well for second in the Florida Derby to punch his ticket to Louisville as a maiden. That’s right, he’s never won a race but he has a spot in the Derby starting gate.
The Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby runner-up needed a top-three finish in the Wood Memorial Stakes to punch his ticket to the Kentucky Derby. Instead, he’s on the outside looking in after finishing 10th, beaten by 38 ¾ lengths. He had an excuse after bobbling at the start and dropping back to seventh, which took him out of his comfort zone, but he really didn’t show the fight you’d like to see and jockey John Velazquez took care of him late. Given the fact that Tampa Bay Derby winner Tacitus won the Wood impressively and third-place finisher Win Win Win came back to run second in the Blue Grass Stakes, this result surprised me. It might be a race you just draw a line through and hope for better racing luck next time. I still think this Malibu Moon colt is talented, but his Kentucky Derby chances vanished in the opening minute of the Wood Memorial.
It sounds like it’s back to the drawing board for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott with Hidden Scroll, who was the buzz horse of the Triple Crown season when he rolled to a 14-length debut win on Jan. 26 at Gulfstream Park. It was a performance that speed-figure makers universally acclaimed. In his stakes debut, Hidden Scroll set a wicked pace in the Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes and faded late to finish fourth. It was an understandable result, beaten by only three lengths, given the opening half-mile in 45.69 seconds and he warranted another chance. Taken off the pace in the Grade 1 Xpressbet Florida Derby, Hidden Scroll was headstrong early which meant jockey Javier Castellano had to take a firm hold a couple of times, and he just did not accelerate in the stretch, finishing sixth by 11 ½ lengths. “We probably bit off more than we could chew at this point,” Mott said after the Florida Derby. “We’ll back off and kind of start over with him.”
The Into Mischief colt didn’t run a bad race in the Santa Anita Derby. He wound up third by 2 ¼ lengths behind two very nice 3-year-olds and earned his fourth straight triple-digit Equibase Speed Figure. But it does look like he might be better suited to one-turn races after he was allowed to set a moderate pace in the April 6 race and gave way in the stretch to Roadster and Game Winner. After winning his first two races, both sprints, by a combined margin of 20 ¼ lengths, he’s now run third in both the one-mile Gotham Stakes and the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby. Instagrand’s talent level is elite, but in his first two starts following a long layoff he’s been short on stamina. Lacking the points to qualify for the Derby, it sounds like the one-turn Pat Day Mile on the derby undercard could be an alternative.
Of Note: One of the most difficult aspects of this week’s blog was trying to evaluate the Florida Derby. It was an ideal pace scenario for the top two on a racetrack that appeared to be favoring speed, so there was a built-in excuse for third-place finisher Code of Honor, fourth-place finisher Bourbon War, and deep closer Harvey Wallbanger, who finished eighth. While it’s true that the way the race played out, none of the three really had much of a chance to win, it’s also not ideal to enter the Derby after losing by 6 3/4 lengths (Code of Honor) and 7 ½ lengths (Bourbon War). You’d much prefer to see a sharp final prep that resulted in either a win or finishing within a length of the victor. In Harvey Wallbanger’s case, the result left him with insufficient Derby qualifying points.