Five Key Takeaways from the 2019 Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks

The connections of Country House celebrate in the Kentucky Derby’s winner’s circle after the colt was elevated to first place following a disqualification. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Tom Pedulla presents five key takeaways from the $3 million Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and the $1.25 million Longines Kentucky Oaks on May 3 and 4 at Churchill Downs.

RECORD BUSINESS: The Derby is more popular than ever with serious handicappers and casual fans alike. All-sources wagering set records for the Derby Day program and the race itself. A total of $250.9 million was wagered on the overall program, an 11 percent spike over the 2018 total and previous mark of $225.7 million. Derby wagering jumped 10 percent to $165.5 million from the record set last year of $149.9 million. The totals are especially impressive because a poor weather forecast – and steady late-afternoon rain – led to a four percent dip in attendance.

PRIDE OF JAPAN: Master Fencer was lightly regarded before the Run for the Roses. Not anymore. His sixth-place finish had to be extremely encouraging to his connections. “He didn’t break that well, but we knew he’d break slowly,” said Koichi Tsunoda, his trainer. “He made a huge effort in the stretch. I’m really pleased with how we finished so close to other quality horses in the race. Great effort by horse and rider (Julien Leparoux).” Tsunoda plans to target the June 8 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets next. Master Fencer would have to be viewed as a major player in that mile-and-a-half race. Fans in Japan, able to bet the Derby for the first time, wagered $4.1 million on the race.

UNTAPPED TALENT: Derby runner-up Code of Honor continues to represent a significant challenge for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, for he is still coming into his own physically and especially mentally. “He just cut the corner and it looked like we were going to be home free,” McGaughey said. “But I think he got to looking at the crowd a little bit, according to John (Velazquez). Then the horses ran away from him again and he was finished.” McGaughey will weigh his options before deciding what is next.

RELATIVE BARGAIN: Tom Amoss, eager to shed his image as a trainer who did his best work with horses that would never climb above the claiming ranks, began focusing on yearling sales several years ago. He undoubtedly has an eye for a horse after selecting newly-crowned Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Serengeti Empress for $70,000 in behalf of owner Joel Politi at the 2017 Keeneland September Yearling Sale. One mark against her involved her sire, Alternation, whose best win came in the Grade 2 Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont Park. “I think the fact that she was by a relatively unknown sire, a sire that never even won a Grade 1, people got off of her,” Amoss said. “But we were looking for an athlete, and she’s some athlete.”

CHANGING DIRECTION: Trainer Simon Callaghan believes the distance of the 1 1/8-mile Oaks prevented favored Bellafina from ever seriously contending, and his plans for her will be altered to reflect that. “I think she wants to run in one-turn races,” he said. “We’ll give her a break now and focus on one-turn races.” Callaghan suggested the seven-furlong Test Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 3 will be a likely target. He will probably want to avoid Churchill Downs whenever possible. The filly finished fifth in the Oaks, and in her previous race beneath the twin spires, Bellafina finished a well-beaten fourth in the Tito’s Handmade Vodka Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

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