Award-winning BloodHorse senior correspondent Steve Haskin presents his Derby Dozen this week with a look at his leading contenders for the 145th Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 4.
Last Saturday, the final two qualifying points preps for Derby 145 were held. Omaha Beach fended off Improbable in the $1 million, Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, vaulting to second place on the Kentucky Derby points leaderboard. Owendale upset the Grade 3, $200,000 Stonestreet Lexington Stakes at Keeneland but does not have enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
The focus now shifts to Churchill Downs over the next two weeks as Derby contenders arrive (some have already arrived) and train over the main track under the iconic twin spires.
Check out America's Best Racing's Triple Crown page to keep up to date with stories and statistics on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
1. Omaha Beach
He continues to go from strength to strength and there is no plan of attack when it comes to trying to beat him, because he is so push-button. He showed again in the Arkansas Derby you can step on the gas at any point in the race and put him in neutral at any point in the race. In short you can turn him on or off whenever you like. That is a powerful weapon for any jockey. First, Mike Smith took a hold of him and let four horses vie for the lead. Then he gave the colt his head and in a flash he was in front turning into the backstretch in what looked like a premature move. But then, Smith immediately gave him a breather even as Improbable closed in on the far turn. But Jose Ortiz was already pushing hard on Improbable while Smith was sitting motionless on Omaha Beach. Like in the second division of the Rebel Stakes, here was a Bob Baffert-trained star (Game Winner in the Rebel, Improbable in the Arkansas Derby) being hard ridden on the turn to try to catch Omaha Beach while Smith was still sitting chilly. Once in the stretch, Omaha Beach opened up, with Smith letting him do it all on his own. Both Baffert horses ran their hearts out in stretch, but were unable to get past Omaha Beach. All he did in the Arkansas Derby was come home his final three-eighths in :37 1/5 and final eighth in :12 1/5 on the sloppy track, with Improbable finishing nearly six lengths ahead of the third horse. And his final time was two-fifths faster than older horses in the Oaklawn Handicap. To demonstrate his improvement with each race, his Beyer numbers are as follows: 62, 78, 80, 83, 90, 96, and 101. By going four-wide into the first turn and still wide down the backside, and with the big gap from second to third, I am predicting an impressive Thoro-Graph figure. If this horse has any weakness, he has yet to show it. As for pedigree, remember his dam is a half-sister to Travers Stakes winner Will Take Charge, who was beaten a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and his second dam, Take Charge Lady, won or placed in 15 graded stakes, including seven Grade 1s, while earning more than $2.4 million.
2. Game Winner
Looking at his Thoro-Graph profile, I am in a dilemma where to rank him. Many have jumped off his bandwagon following two defeats in races he had every chance to win. But his Thoro-Graph pattern probably is the strongest of any 3-year-old and his number in the Santa Anita Derby was two full points faster than the race winner, Roadster. That is a huge difference between the runner-up and the winner, no doubt caused by Game Winner’s wide trip throughout in which he ran nearly 40 feet farther than the winner according to Trakus. That equates to over a three-length difference, so with Game Winner getting beat a half-length, one would deduce he ran the more impressive race, as substantiated by Thoro-Graph. Because of that, and his experience in large fields, I decided to move him back higher to the No. 2 spot. What puzzles me most about him are his weapons. He doesn’t beat you with raw speed and he doesn’t beat you with a big closing kick, and the horses he did beat last year have not run very well this year. I just have that nagging feeling that he, like Silver Charm, to whom Bob Baffert compares him, somehow will find a way to beat you with his heart and guts and ability to sustain his run a long way. But he needs a heads-up ride and Joel Rosario has given him very wide trips in two of his past three starts. Remember, with the points system eliminating sprinter types, the Derby has since been won almost every year by tactical speed horses who can carry their speed. He reminds me of Nyquist, a grinder who keeps coming at you.
He not only has the career co-highest Brisnet speed figure in the field and the fastest Brisnet figure this year, he is the only horse to have a triple-digit middle pace figure and triple-digit late pace figure in the same race (the Wood Memorial Presented by NYRA Bets), which indicates he is a horse who can sustain a fast pace for a long period of time. He came out of the Wood Memorial in excellent shape, according to longtime Bill Mott assistant Leana Willaford. She said he was a little tired, but that was to be expected. What was important was the way he overcame adversity, taking punishment and dishing it out, which bodes well for his chances on the first Saturday in May. Willaford said the colt has matured a lot since last July and has really filled out. Unlike his illustrious dam Close Hatches, who had a tendency to get keyed up and be a bit of a handful, Tacitus is very laid back and takes everything in stride. So he is exhibiting all the traits you want to see in a Derby horse. He has the right disposition to handle the crowd and the frantic atmosphere, but is tough as nails once the gates open and can mix it up if he has to. To accomplish what he has in his past two starts with so little experience shows how much untapped talent there still is. In short, it looks as if Mott has him peaking at the right time.
Now it is waiting time as Mike Smith decides whether to ride him or Omaha Beach, and you can’t have a tougher decision than choosing between the two probable post-time favorites in the Kentucky Derby. I’m guessing he goes with Omaha Beach. Bob Baffert said he realizes it’s a tough choice and will honor whatever decision Smith makes. If Smith chooses Roadster, this one likely will move closer to the top. He’s been running in five- and six-horse fields and, with only four starts, one over a mile, he doesn’t have as much foundation as Omaha Beach, who has run in 10- and 11-horse fields five times. When you consider the vast talents of both colts and their prospects for the future, this will not be an easy decision. We do know he is improving at a rapid rate, showed a good turn of foot in the Santa Anita Derby, and still has a great deal of room for improvement. He showed in the Santa Anita Derby he can appear to be out of it and then turn on the afterburners and get right back into the fray in a hurry. For him to win the Santa Anita Derby the way he did, coming off only one allowance race in seven months, was extremely impressive. There is very little separating my top five or six horses. If Smith stays with him, and he has ridden him in all his starts, that obviously will affect his standings in all the polls. If he doesn’t, Roadster will have to settle for a new rider, which is not an ideal situation going into the Derby. He’s not a robust horse and has very quick strides, so we’ll just have to see how he handles a 20-horse field.
Bob Baffert said after speaking with Elliott Walden of WinStar Farm it was decided that Irad Ortiz Jr. would ride Improbable. It seemed almost certain that Irad’s brother Jose would choose Tacitus as his Derby mount, especially being a New York rider with a closer association with Bill Mott. Improbable could have very easily been ranked No. 2, but it is very tight up at the top and although I was very impressed with his performance in the Arkansas Derby, I still have to give more thought as to how he will handle the Derby experience, considering he did act up a bit in the gate and still has a tendency to cock his head even with the blinkers, something he didn’t do in his earlier works this year. But it must be added that he did it going by the stands the first time, but not in the heated stretch run when he was more focused. The 20-horse field might actually help him stay more focused. He had a good trip in the Arkansas Derby, but started to climb a bit when he ran up behind Long Range Toddy and started getting mud kicked back in his face. Jose Ortiz wisely steered him to the outside and in the clear, and once he did, he grabbed hold of the bit and began closing in on Omaha Beach. Looking at his pedigree, he is by the sprinter City Zip, but that stallion has sired a Grade 1 winner at 1 ¼ miles, and his fourth dam is a half-sister to Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes winner Little Current, by English Derby winner Roberto.
He could drive clockers at Churchill Downs a bit bonkers the way Jason Servis works him, galloping down the stretch and then breaking off into some semblance of a work on the clubhouse turn. His half-mile work in :54 4/5 at Palm Meadows may be the slowest work by a Derby contender ever. It seems Servis has been keeping him fit with open gallops. In his past two works combined, he worked the slowest of 100 workers. But all that likely means absolutely nothing, as he turned his :52 4/5 pre-Xpressbet Florida Derby work into a stunning victory. Let’s just say there is nothing typical about him, from his odd claiming background, to his sudden rise to prominence, to his bizarre works, to his unconventional trainer. And with it all, he could wind up being not only the best of his crop, but a budding superstar. You just have no idea. What he’s done so far in four starts at Gulfstream Park has been freaky. And pedigree-wise he is from an old female family with the great broodmare sire Double Jay (a foal of 1944) close up in his fourth generation and his dam being a half sister to two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Flat Out, earner of over $3.5 million. He definitely is one of the most intriguing horses I have ever come across on the Derby trail.
7. Win Win Win
I must admit I am torn now where to rank this colt. Last week I expounded on all his virtues and what I loved about his runner-up performance in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, and why I have kept him high up for so long, especially the bold move of ranking him No. 2. But looking at his Thoro-Graph number for the Blue Grass I was dismayed to see that he did not improve from his third-place effort in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and his pair of two-turn figures are still not competitive with the leading contenders. The fact that he ran a huge figure in the seven-furlong Pasco Stakes and his two subsequent races at two turns showed a significant regression leads one to believe that he is far better at a sprint or mile than he is routing. With that said, I am torn between his speed figures and what my eyes tell me, and to a slightly lesser degree his pedigree. My eyes see a horse who is not distance challenged and just needs to get into the fray earlier. I like the way he closed in both his two-turn starts after less than ideal trips, especially the Blue Grass when he had to steady at a crucial point while making a big move. I lowered him after the results of the Arkansas Derby and after seeing his Thoro-Graph numbers. Also, he loses Irad Ortiz to Improbable. But I am still high on him and he should be a big price and an enticing overlay. And losing Ortiz no doubt will raise his odds even higher. Although I lowered him this week, I am not going to let speed figures completely get in the way of my gut instincts. Even at No. 7 he is ranked much higher than he is in other polls.
As mentioned last week, this colt is getting little respect for what he’s accomplished. Many are turned off by his action, but as trainer George Weaver said, “It's just the way he goes. He’s always moved like that. I guess you would think it’s less than ideal action, but he’s always been a real sound horse and he covers a lot of ground. You wouldn't know it watching him walk. Perhaps he just moves that way out of his shoulders. There has been a lot of talk about it, but I’d rather have a horse that moves like him and can run like him than a horse that moves perfectly but can’t run.” Weaver said he will train Vekoma into the Derby from his base at Palm Beach Downs. He will work twice there and then ship to Churchill Downs. He figures it worked for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes so he might as well stick to the winning formula, especially since the colt trains well at Palm Beach and is used to the track.
His placing is contingent on John Velazquez riding him. If Velazquez chooses Code of Honor or even Cutting Humor, then I would have to rethink it. No one even mentions him anymore, as his six-week layoff has taken him off everyone’s radar screen. But I still feel strongly about him other than the questions of whether he’s seasoned enough and has enough bottom to go 1 ¼ miles. He worked five furlongs in 1:01 2/5 in company and trainer Todd Pletcher had him on the inside. It was another solid work with a strong gallop-out. He has been highly thought of since he was given his early lessons by Pletcher’s father J.J. I don’t believe he was anywhere near 100% in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby when second to By My Standards, and the two horses directly behind him, Sueno and Country House, came back to run well enough in major stakes to give the race credibility. And his Brisnet figures for that race were strong all around. And it is important to remember he was coming off only one easy runaway victory in 7 ½ months at Tampa Bay Downs, so that was a very strong effort considering his lack of racing. I would have loved to seen him in last week’s Stonestreet Lexington Stakes just to take the edge off and build his foundation, considering what an easy race he had at Tampa, but Pletcher likes the space between races so hopefully we’ll see at least one eye opener in the morning and a huge gallop-out. Johnny V has been closer to Code of Honor from the beginning so we’ll see what he decides to do.
The closer I look at him, the more I see him lurking in the bushes planning a sneak attack at huge odds. For weapons, he is armed with a high cruising speed and a pedigree that shouts a mile and a quarter. He also is the only horse in the field who has run three triple-digit Brisnet speed figures (only two horses have run two) and did it in his past three starts, all at 1 1/8 miles. With a pedigree that is so strong on stamina top and bottom I can forgive him getting caught in the Wood Memorial coming off a two-month layoff. At 10 furlongs he should get stronger while others will be tiring. The one negative is that his dam’s three other foals to race are a combined one-for-64, including his full brother. But his third dam is the high-class Rokeby filly Wild Applause, winner of the Diana Handicap, and his fourth dam is the Graustark filly Glowing Tribute, who also won the Diana and produced, in addition to Wild Applause, Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes winner Sea Hero and United Nations Handicap winner Hero’s Honor, who is the broodmare sire of Elusive Quality, sire of Smarty Jones and Quality Road. Coming off three straight 1 1/8-mile races, he now has plenty of foundation and should move forward off the Wood. On Thoro-Graph, he ran a huge number in the Remsen Stakes, then regressed three points winning the Withers Stakes, a tough task for a young horse running back-to-back 1 1/8-mile races that early in his career. The two months off seemed to rejuvenate him and he came back with a career-best number in the Wood that puts him right there with the leading contenders. He’ll be a monster price in the Derby and could be a live overlay, especially to put in the exotics.
11. By My Standards
He worked a half in :48 4/5 at Churchill Downs and what was most impressive was his gallop-out, as he hugged the rail and continued to pick up speed, and was still into the bit well down the backstretch. He was quite the picture galloping to the pole with his neck arched in regal splendor. I like horses who get an early start at Churchill Downs and he definitely is a horse who is improving in leaps and bounds at the right time. His Brisnet figures in the Louisiana Derby were very strong, but he needs to improve his Thoro-Graph numbers by at least three points, having run nearly two points slower than the horse he beat, Spinoff. Although he looked strong going a mile and an eighth, the big question with him is how he will handle the mile and a quarter. He already seems to have outrun his pedigree, but don’t ever underestimate unproven Spendthrift Farm stallions. They have a knack of finding under-the-radar stallions, such as Into Mischief and Malibu Moon, and making leading sires out of them. So it is way too early to judge this one’s sire Goldencents and say he can’t sire a classic horse, even though he was basically a miler/sprinter. By My Standards’ broodmare sire also was a sprinter, but his female family has more than enough stamina.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he came out of the Wood Memorial in great shape. I like the way he ran in his two-turn debut, proving he is not just a one-turn deep closer. I just would like to have seen a bit more punch in the closing yards, as he just barely got past 64.25-1 shot Math Wizard for the show spot. But this could have been a two-turn awakening and he will be more effective in his next start now that he has the hang of it. It’s going to be difficult for him coming from so far back in a 20-horse field, but many late Derby closers have come up the inside, as tiring horses have a tendency to drift out, and he’s shown he loves rallying on the inside and then coming off the rail if he has to. His pedigree seems more geared toward a mile to a mile and an eighth, so he will have to time his move perfectly and hope for a clean trip. But he does have some stamina influences and is inbred to Buckpasser, so they will have to get him home. He could be an interesting exotics play.
Knocking On the Door
Code of Honor worked a half-mile in :49 at Keeneland, coming home his final quarter in a swift :23 1/5 and galloping out very strong. Trainer Shug McGaughey said he was excited by the work and was happy with the way he broke off and how strongly he galloped out. He most likely will have John Velazquez work him in seven or eight days and then give the colt his final work at Churchill Downs. Velazquez currently is the rider of Code of Honor, Spinoff, and Cutting Humor, the last two for Todd Pletcher, so he has a decision to make. I really don’t know what to expect from him. His races haven’t popped off the screen, and although he’s one of the best workers visually, he’s still been green in his races, whether not firing at all in the Fasig-Tipton Holy Bull Stakes, loafing on the lead in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes and hanging on, and failing to keep a straight course in the Florida Derby. Whether he can wake up in the Kentucky Derby I have no idea.
While several leading contenders are improving rapidly, Country House has been taking baby steps. His pedigree says he should relish the mile and a quarter, especially looking at his female family, and with his running style and his physical prowess I have to give him a chance to make his way into the exotics. The only reason I didn’t put him at No. 12 is because he did not gain any ground in the final furlong of the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford and lost ground in the final furlong of the Louisiana Derby and Arkansas Derby, and Haikal has been running far better speed figures. Because he is such a big strong horse and thrives on racing, Bill Mott ran him back in three weeks off his fourth in the Louisiana Derby to get enough points to make the Derby field, and he accomplished that. Because he is such a hardy horse I don’t believe he will have any problem coming back in another three weeks, and in fact may benefit from it, as he is still a work in progress and can certainly handle it.
You can’t totally dismiss Long Range Toddy off the one bad race in the Arkansas Derby when that race was in the slop, and in all his other races he’s been a gem of consistency and has already defeated a major contender in Improbable. But he needed to take a fairly big step forward on his Thoro-Graph numbers and although they are not out yet, he did regress 14 points on his Brisnet numbers. So there is a question of how fast he is even on a fast track and if he can rebound off the Arkansas Derby.
Todd Pletcher worked Cutting Humor inside Federal Case and the pair finished on even terms in a sprightly :47 4/5 for the half-mile, with Cutting Humor going the better of the two on the gallop-out, maintaining about a length lead, even though Federal Case was being pushed harder. He has really fallen below the radar, not having run since his 1:46 4/5 corker in the Sunland Park Derby. He has an interesting Thoro-Graph pattern. After running a career-high figure in his second-place finish to Bourbon War in an allowance race, putting him right up there with most of the contenders, he regressed a full seven points in his disappointing effort in the Southwest Stakes. He then made up that seven points in the Sunland Park Derby, putting him right back where he was after the allowance race. Now it’s a question of whether he can improve on that figure. If he does, he is not without a longshot chance.
Plus Que Parfait is one of the toughest horses to figure coming out of the UAE Derby. He was able to win the 1 3/16-mile race despite coming off two poor efforts in stakes at Fair Grounds. But he did run a big race to be narrowly defeated in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes last year at Churchill Downs. I normally don’t like American horses shipping to Dubai and then running back in only five weeks, but credit trainer Brendan Walsh for doing the right thing by keeping the colt in Dubai for 12 days after the race, giving him a chance to recuperate from the race, put back some weight and rehydrate, He arrived back at Churchill Downs last Thursday night and gradually got back in training, starting off with light jogs.
Walsh said the colt is going to have to really come back in good shape in order to run in the Derby, but added that nothing bothers him. He believes he has the right mentality for the Derby, as indicated by the way he handled everything in Dubai. Walsh feels that was a good experience for him to learn from. If he sees the colt is showing good energy in his gallops, he will give him an easy half-mile breeze April 19 or 20.
If I had to rank the Derby field on pedigree alone, Plus Que Parfait would be No. 1. Both his male and female families are inundated with stamina influences, with several traces to Ribot, twice through his His Majesty and once through Arts and Letters. Everywhere you look in his pedigree there are mile-and-a-quarter and mile-and-a-half horses. He is one I am going to carefully watch in the morning. If I’m convinced enough the Dubai trip didn’t take too much out of him and he does bounce back with good energy, I might be inclined to take him more seriously for the Kentucky Derby. But I still feel the UAE Derby runner-up Gray Magician was a bit more impressive considering how wide he ran. It’s just a question whether both colts measure up with the others. Neither exactly set the world on fire before they went to Dubai. But let’s just say Plus Que Parfait for some reason disliked Fair Grounds and Gray Magician simply ran into a buzzsaw at Laurel Park in Alwaysmining. Gray Magician’s trainer, Peter Miller, has been on quite a roll the past six months.
Good news for War of Will fans who were hoping to see him bounce back from his ordeal in the Louisiana Derby. The son of War Front showed he has fully recovered by turning a bullet five-furlong work in :59 flat at Keeneland, fastest of 44 works at the distance. Following splits of :22 4/5, :34 3/5, and :46 1/5, he came home his final eighth in :12 4/5 and then galloped out six furlongs in a strong 1:11 3/5. This was as smooth and professional a work as you could have asked for, as he did it all on his own and was striding out beautifully down the stretch. It came as no surprise, as he has been on his toes and sharp for the past week. He cooled out very well after the work and is right back on schedule for the Derby. History has shown us that horses don’t win the Derby coming off such a bad effort, but this is a new era, so who knows?
As for the Japanese entrant, Master Fencer, we really know little about him other than he was beaten last out over a sharp-bended right-handed course. He figures to bring in a lot of betting revenue and a great following in Japan, but it does seem strange for the Kentucky Derby to have a Japanese horse possibly preventing the Florida Derby runner-up (Bodexpress) from getting into the race, and behind him are the Kentucky Jockey Club winner and Blue Grass Stakes third-place finisher (Signalman); a stakes winner (Sueno) who has placed in the Sham Stakes, Southwest Stakes, Louisiana Derby, and Lexington Stakes; and the Fountain of Youth Stakes runner-up (Bourbon War).
All the connections of these horses can do is wait to see if there are any defections, and if they don’t get in, wait for the Preakness Stakes, which could very well be a better spot for all of them. Others with insufficient points who could show up in the Preakness are the Lexington Stakes one-two finishers Owendale and Anothertwistafate, as well as the leading Maryland-based horse Alwaysmining, who has been pointing for the Preakness all along.
Based strictly on pedigree and what I look for, here are my eight favorite bred horses who I feel are ensured to get the mile and a quarter: Plus Que Parfait, Tax, Country House, War of Will, Omaha Beach, Maximum Security, Long Range Toddy, and Win Win Win. That’s not to say any of the others aren’t capable of winning the Derby. These are just my personal preferences.
The most unusual launching pad on this year’s Kentucky Derby trail has to be the $16,000 claiming race at Gulfstream Park on Dec. 20, which produced the undefeated Florida Derby winner Maximum Security and Math Wizard, who was third to Maximum Security in that claiming race and went on to finish fourth in the Wood Memorial at 64.25-1, beaten only 4 ½ lengths by Tacitus and a half-length for third by Haikal.
Although it had no bearing on the Kentucky Derby, keep a close eye on Warrior’s Charge in future stakes. After breaking his maiden by six lengths at a 1 1/16 miles at Oaklawn Park on the undercard of the Rebel Stakes, the son of Munnings, trained by Brad Cox, came back to crush arguably the best allowance field of the year, winning again on the front end by 6 ½ lengths in a sharp 1:42 2/5 for the 1 1/16 miles. He could be a candidate for the Peter Pan Stakes. He was not nominated to the Triple Crown races. Behind him were the highly promising Soldado from the Todd Pletcher barn, who finished fourth; Comedian from the loaded Steve Asmussen barn, who finished fifth; and second-place finisher Hidden Ruler, who was coming off a second to Gray Attempt in the six-furlong Gazebo Stakes in 1:09 3/5 for Dallas Stewart. Before that, Hidden Ruler was second to the talented Captain Von Trapp in a mile allowance. Finishing third in Friday’s race was recent maiden winner Proverb, trained by Ron Moquett.