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.
With all preps concluded, the focus now shifts to Churchill Downs over the next 10 days as Derby contenders continue to arrive and work over the main track under the iconic twin spires, with Derby watchers bustling around the backstretch each morning and debating which horse is training best leading up to the big race.
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
The backstory is there, the owner and trainer are Derby gods material, Mike Smith chose to ride him over a Bob Baffert-trained Santa Anita Derby winner, the colt is making tremendous strides with every start, he appears to have no flaws, and is push-button with several gears that allows you to turn him on and off at will. As for his speed, his negative 2 ¼ Thoro-Graph number in the Arkansas Derby separated him from the others. The question is, with a jump of 4 ½ points and such a fast number, is he in danger of regressing or “bouncing” coming back in three weeks? Even if he does regress a little he still can win the Derby, and the way he’s been improving he could easily pair up that number, as he did in his maiden romp and the Rebel. The truth is, we have no idea how brilliant he really is because he’s been improving at such a rapid rate. Mike Smith chose him over Roadster for a reason. He can feel what’s under him and how tractable the colt is. As good as Roadster has been, you just don’t go off a horse like Omaha Beach who is a jockey’s dream to ride. His quarter crack popped up in the news again, but he just had a new patch put on when he was shod and it is not an issue. It is now an old quarter crack, and even when it was new he still managed to win the second division of the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby with the patch on, and also worked six furlongs in 1:10 3/5. We’ll see how he trains from here on and how he handles the track. So far all is good.
2. Game Winner
Being winless at 3 going into the Kentucky Derby didn’t hurt Super Saver, Mine That Bird, Giacomo, Funny Cide, Real Quiet, and Sea Hero, so don’t let two gutsy close defeats deter you if the champ was once your Derby pick or you feel he’s now ready to peak after two meaningful preps. You had to love his five-furlong work in 1:00 4/5 in which he sat two lengths behind his workmate, moved up quickly on the turn and then dusted his workmate, drawing off by six lengths and galloping out strongly. Let’s not forget he’s finished first or second at four different racetracks in three states around the country and has run his best race at Churchill Downs (last fall in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile). His two preps this year have gotten him sharp and dead-fit, but not having a distinct weapon to depend on he needs to get a good ride from Joel Rosario, who has been overconfident in two of his last three races, losing too much ground into the first turn. He is game, tough as nails, and is on a very strong Thoro-Graph pattern, improving with every start, and only Omaha Beach and Improbable in the Arkansas Derby will be coming into the Kentucky Derby off a faster number than he received in the second division of the Rebel Stakes.
Juddmonte Farm manager Garrett O’Rourke said from the time they started going to the track with this colt as an early 2-year-old he had the “most obvious long and silky smooth stride” that he attributes to Unbridled, to whom he is inbred. Although the Tapits can get a bit hot, he has always been “aloof and under control,” and has shown he can “take the punches better than most.” Bill Mott has done a superb job with this colt, getting him to turn in two impressive performances in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby and the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets off a narrow maiden victory and four-month layoff. The tremendous improvement he has shown from race to race bodes well for another major step forward at Churchill Downs. To demonstrate that improvement, his Beyer numbers have jumped from 75 to 93 to 97. His Brisnet numbers jumped from 85 to 95 to 103, and his Thoro-Graph numbers jumped from an 8 to a 3 ½ to a ¾ Although I am not a fan of having only four career starts, his four starts were at a mile, 1 1/16 miles twice, and 1 1/8 miles, and over deep and quirky surfaces, so he probably has as much bottom as horses with five or even six starts. In short, we have no idea how high this colt’s ceiling is, considering he’s been doing all this while still being a bit green. Imagine when he fully matures and actually peaks. If Omaha Beach has any hiccups along the way and slips down, this colt could easily leapfrog Game Winner right into the top spot.
Bob Baffert obviously doesn’t want him to come from quite that far back again as he did when winning the Santa Anita Derby, so he worked him in company from the gate, and Roadster busted out of there and quickly jumped to a two-length lead, let his workmate catch up inside him and then outdistanced him in the stretch, covering the six furlongs in 1:13 3/5, and then, like Game Winner, galloped out very strongly. The workmate actually did not run on to the wire, so the distance separating them was very deceiving. But all in all, he has looked great in the morning, showing good energy and enthusiasm, especially in his gallops, where he’s been into the bit and very focused. The late Edward P. Evans bred a great number of brilliant and classy horses over the years from his farm in Casanova, Va., and this colt is by an Evans owned and bred sire, and his female family goes back five generations, with Evans purchasing his fifth dam and breeding the next four dams. That is the kind of continuity we used to see and rarely do anymore. Roadster, like Tacitus, has accomplished a great deal in his two starts this year coming off a long layoff and two starts at 2, and has been improving rapidly. However, he has a total of 30 furlongs under him compared to 34 furlongs for Tacitus. And Roadster has never raced outside of California. And, of course, Mike Smith chose to ride Omaha Beach over him, so we’ll see if he made the right decision.
Normally it’s tough following three horses in a 20-horse field, but Baffert probably won’t even have to scan the field looking for his trio, as they likely will be in the same frame, somewhere in the first tier. Like with Game Winner, it matters little he didn’t win either of his preps. He ran big each time, and also like Game Winner, was caught once and chased the winner the other time. He has beaten his two stablemates to Churchill Downs and will get acclimated to the track and his surroundings sooner. I mentioned Omaha Beach’s huge Thoro-Graph number in the Arkansas Derby – well, this colt’s number was pretty impressive in itself, as he became the only other Derby hopeful to earn a negative number and has moved forward in every one of his career starts. Many may have relegated him to No. 3 of the Baffert trio, but he has as much right to win the Derby as Roadster or Game Winner. Earlier I the year he was the best mover I saw in the morning, doing everything professionally and gliding over the ground with those long effortless strides. Lately, however, he’s had a habit a cocking his head to the outside and possibly losing a little focus. You sure don’t want to see that with the monstrous crowd at Churchill Downs. Baffert added blinkers for the Arkansas Derby, but will remove them for the Kentucky Derby. He didn’t wear them in his first work at Churchill Downs, in which he breezed a half in :48, out in 1:01 2/5, and although he still had his head turned out a little, he did seem more focused and moved very well over the track.
Because there has never been anything conventional about the Xpressbet Florida Derby winner, from his background to the way he trains, and the fact he has never raced at any track other than Gulfstream Park, we can only go by gut instinct and the possibility that despite the freakish nature of his brief career and his humble beginnings he could be something special and can win on sheer brilliance. Gary West’s racing manager Ben Glass said he couldn’t sell him for $15,000 as a yearling. Glass thought he was a beautiful colt, but when he brought some people out to the farm to see the yearlings nobody liked him. His knees were still open, he was a May 15 foal, and his family was a disaster in that Glass pretty much gave his sire away when no one wanted to stand him or buy part interest and he pretty much gave the dam away too, selling her to Korean interests for a mere $11,000. He also saw his full brother run in cheap claiming races and his sister sell twice, for $3,000 and $5,000. “So we kept him and broke him and ran him for a $16,000 claiming tag,” Glass said. “They all wish they had bought him now."
7. Win Win Win
I know, I pointed out last week he’s just not fast enough going two turns according to Thoro-Graph and Beyer speed figures, so what’s he doing still up there this high? That can be answered in just one word – stubbornness. It’s a battle between the numbers and the visual angle and while I respect the numbers, I just can’t seem to let go of what my eyes tell me. I just don’t believe the speed figures apply to this horse and don’t do him justice, and that is because I don’t believe he’s gotten to show his best effort due to a forced running style that is not suitable for him. Yes, he is capable of running a big race coming from far back, but this colt has exceptional speed that has been repressed because of bad starts that forced him to come from far back. A speed horse in his first two starts capable of running :22 and :45 fractions, he broke awkwardly in the Heft Stakes at Laurel Park and dropped way out of it. Ever since, there have been incidents at the start and he has gotten into the habit of dropping back. He has run well anyway, but I just have a feeling that if he can ever break sharply and put himself in the race early, there is no telling what he can do. So is he simply much slower going two turns, as the speed figures suggest, or is there a monster performance just waiting to burst out? At the odds he’s going to be on Derby Day, it might be the right time to take a shot that it’s the latter.
Take the above comment on Win Win Win and reverse it. I pointed out how this colt is being totally disrespected despite his strong speed figures, but it’s plain to see that his unsightly action still turns people off even though it has not even come close to affecting his performance. Even in his one defeat, the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes, he had a better Thoro-Graph number than the two horses who beat him. For those wondering about the derivation of his name, because of the sire’s name Candy Ride and mostly Candy Ride’s sire Ride the Rails, Vekoma is named after the Dutch company that has manufactured around 350 roller coasters all over the world. The company name Vekoma comes from the first two letters of the original name Veld Koning Machinefabriek. The colt’s paddling stride has been a major topic of conversation, but as trainer George Weaver said, “He’ll paddle all the way to the winner’s circle.” How excited is co-owner Randy Hill, who also co-owns Tax? He has chartered a plane for an early morning flight to fly him down for the Derby draw on April 30. In addition to family and friends, his whole company is coming for the race. “I never dreamed I’d be running in the Derby and here I am with not one horse but two,” Hill said. “Of course I want to win, but to me I’ve already won the Derby.” He plans on spending so much time on the backstretch in the morning “they’ll get sick of me,” he said. Hill realizes this could very well be a once-in-a-lifetime experience and he plans on enjoying every minute of it.
His speed figures suggest a horse who is a live longshot, especially with a pedigree to die for that will carry him a mile and a quarter with no problem. Starting with Thoro-Graph, of the Derby starters, he ran the second-fastest Thoro-Graph number last year (in the Remsen Stakes) only behind Vekoma’s figure in the Nashua Stakes. This year in the Wood Memorial he ran faster in defeat than the winners of the Santa Anita Derby, Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, Sunland Park Derby, UAE Derby, and Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes. So he has proven to be one of the fastest horses in the country at 2 and 3, and those were in his losses. In his Withers Stakes victory he ran a career-high Beyer figure and a 102 on Brisnet, equaling the fastest number run this year. Also on Brisnet, he is the only 3-year-old to run three triple-digit speed figures and he did it in his last three starts, all at 1 1/8 miles, which is unheard of these days. All three of those numbers are faster than Omaha Beach’s career best number. And his 103 in the Remsen was the fastest number by a 2-year-old last year along with Game Winner’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He has also earned two triple-digit middle pace figures and a whopping 114 late pace figure in his two starts this year, In fact, he has not run slower than a 93 in his early, middle, and late pace figures, which indicates he can run fast and keep it up the entire race. That no doubt is due to the abundance of stamina in his pedigree, but he has the speed to go with it and the ability to sustain it. This may sound like a hodgepodge of numbers, but put them all together and you have a horse who just may be far better than most people think, at least from a speed and stamina standpoint. Coming of a two-month layoff following back-to-back 1 1/8-mile races, he didn’t empty the tank in the Wood and will be much harder to run down going 1 ¼ miles with that race under him.
Like with Tax, if you use speed ratings in your handicapping and are looking for numbers to enhance the chances of a big longshot then you most certainly have to pay close attention to this guy. First off, he is one of only four horses to earn triple-digit Brisnet speed figures in the early pace, middle pace, and late pace categories, so he has excellent tactical speed and can sustain it. Two of the others, Game Winner and Improbable, earned their figures at 2 and 3, while Spinoff has earned his in his two starts at 3, so he has the advantage of recent numbers. The other horse, Code of Honor, accomplished it by running very slow in the other categories (63, 71, and 71) while Spinoff ran his closing triple-digit figure off a 99 middle pace figure. Again, he has good tactical speed and the ability to sustain it. Also, in finishing second in the Louisiana Derby, he ran a faster Brisnet figure than Roadster winning the Santa Anita Derby, Vekoma winning the Blue Grass, and Omaha Beach winning the Arkansas Derby, and he equaled Maximum Security’s number winning the Florida Derby. As for his Thoro-Graph numbers, his Louisiana Derby performance earned basically the same number as Roadster’s Santa Anita Derby and Vekoma’s Blue Grass Stakes and he is on a forward progression with plenty of room for improvement. And remember, his dam and second dam are both Grade 1 winners, his fourth dam is a half-sister to a Grade 1 winner, and his fifth dam, by major stamina influence Herbager, is a half-sister to the dams of Swale and Forty Niner. It is for all these reasons that I bet him in the last two Future Wagers. If Todd Pletcher can put enough foundation under him in six weeks and have him dead-fit there is no reason why he shouldn’t be considered a live longshot, even losing John Velazquez as his rider, which I admit was most unfortunate.
11. By My Standards
Like others, his training was delayed because of the bad weather and track conditions at Churchill, but when he did get back he certainly made his presence felt with a big six-furlong breeze in 1:12 4/5 with his ears up and then galloped out seven furlongs in a strong 1:26. That’s what we call a Derby work. He’s been at Churchill for a while and it is apparent from his last two works that the track will be no issue and in fact should work in his favor. He obviously loves it. Because he hasn’t been seen in action for a while no one is talking about him or ranking him very high, so expect big odds, especially for an improving Louisiana Derby winner. As mentioned before, the main question is whether he will be as effective going a mile and a quarter. You can say that about most of them, but his pedigree rings mile to a mile and an eighth. You wouldn’t have any doubts about him just watching his Louisiana Derby victory, as he looked as if there was a lot more in the tank and another furlong would be no problem. But with horses that have pedigree question marks that extra furlong can be a long one. Again, it’s a question; it’s not the answer. That’s up to him and he’s sure coming into the race the right way.
12. Code of Honor
I normally don't make major changes based on works, and I still have some questions regarding this horse, but his work at Keeneland was as good a work as I've seen this year. I love the way he had the rider's feet in the dashboard early, the way he corned on both turns (you can't hug the rail any tighter), and the flow of his stride in the stretch, and finally his powerful gallop-out. I have been reluctant to keep him in the Top 12 because I believe he is still a work in progress and needs to get rid of some of his greenness. I will forgive his Florida Derby third-place finish because of the lack of pace, but I’m just not sure if he has either turn of foot or the closing punch to win the Derby. He has put in strong runs on the far turn, but he has to maintain that run, something he has yet to do, even in his Fountain of Youth Stakes victory, in which he seemed to start loafing once he took the lead. His sire Noble Mission could run all day and is bred to run all day, the finest product of Coolmore breeding. But his tail-female family is inundated with speed, which probably is where he gets that early move from. He did run poorly in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes earlier this year and I honestly don’t know what to expect from him. I just know I love what I’ve seen in the morning, especially this last work. The only thing that would have made it perfect is if it had been at Churchill Downs instead of Keeneland.
Knocking On the Door
If you’re totally confused trying to find your Derby horse, it just may be that the National Museum of Racing has come to the rescue. The year D. Wayne Lukas was inducted into the Hall of Fame he won the Derby with Charismatic. The year Gary Stevens was inducted he won the Derby with Silver Charm. The year Neil Drysdale was inducted he won the Derby with Fusaichi Pegasus. Well, Bill Mott is already in the Hall of Fame, but his filly Royal Delta was just elected this week. Could it be that this is Mott’s year and he will finally get to wear the roses? Just a thought out of desperation.
Speaking of Bill Mott, in the “Don’t leave out of your Exotics” category, before you get too turned off by the fact that Country House finished 5 ¾ lengths behind runner-up Improbable in the Arkansas Derby, remember two important aspects of that race. Country House had run three weeks earlier and was being wheeled back in the Arkansas Derby, not with winning as the major goal, but just picking up enough points to make the Kentucky Derby field. Mott was not going to have the colt bust a gut trying to beat Omaha Beach and Improbable at a mile and an eighth, and over a sloppy track. He just needed to get him in the Derby so he could use his main weapons – stamina, ruggedness, and a big kick on the far turn – going a mile and a quarter, which is right in his wheelhouse. Joel Rosario kept him out of trouble on the far outside all the way down the backstretch and around the turn. He launched his bid, circling the field and picking off horses, but Omaha Beach and Improbable were already long gone. He continued wide into the stretch and outran a very strong closer in Laughing Fox, who saved all the ground, to get third and stamp his ticket to the Derby. With it all, he, like Spinoff, still ran the same Thoro-Graph number as Roadster in winning the Santa Anita Derby and Vekoma in winning the Blue Grass, and a far better number than By My Standards winning the Louisiana Derby. Now it’s on to Churchill Downs where they’ll be playing his game at his distance.
Here is a brief rundown of this year’s wild and wooly jockey rodeo in the final Kentucky Derby preps. Mike Smith rode Roadster, but also rode Omaha Beach. Jose Ortiz rode Improbable and Plus Que Parfait, but also rode Tacitus. John Velazquez rode Code of Honor, but also rode Spinoff and Cutting Humor. Joel Rosario rode Country House and Gray Magician, but also rode Game Winner. Javier Castellano rode Anothertwistafate, but also rode Vekoma. Irad Ortiz Jr. rode Bourbon War but also rode Win Win Win and winds up on Improbable when his brother Jose stayed with Tacitus. Julian Pimentel winds up back on Win Win Win after losing the mount to Irad Ortiz. Florent Geroux, who won the Lexington Stakes on Owendale, gets the ride on Improbable. Manny Franco, who had been the regular rider of Vekoma, gets the ride on Spinoff. Julien Leparoux, the former rider of Plus Que Parfait, somehow winds up on the Japanese horse Master Fencer. Luis Saez, who was the former regular rider of Country House, is now the rider of Maximum Security.
If you are looking for bombs based strictly on pedigree, then Plus Que Parfait and Tax are the ones you want to play. Tax has already been discussed in the Top 12, but if Plus Que Parfait shows good energy in his works and gallops following his trip to Dubai he could be a sneaky horse, at least to pop into the exotics. As I mentioned earlier I love that Brendon Walsh kept him in Dubai for 12 days following the UAE Derby to let him unwind and rehydrate. Who knows how much he improved with blinkers? Don’t be so quick to throw him out, especially with a mile and three-sixteenths race under his belt.
I am also going to make a case for UAE Derby runner-up Gray Magician. Here is a horse who broke his maiden going a mile by 9 ½ lengths at Del Mar. He then ran an even race in the Sham Stakes, finishing fourth, which resulted in Peter Miller putting blinkers on him for a mile allowance race. The track came up sloppy and he was on the engine early blazing along head an head in :22 4/5, :45 flat, and 1:08 4/5 before tiring to finish fifth. Sent to Laurel Park of all places, he ran into a monster in Alwaysmining and chased him all the way, finishing second in the one-mile Miracle Wood Stakes. He then headed to Dubai where he ran a bang-up second, beaten three-quarters of a length, in the UAE Derby, racing very wide a good portion of the race. Remember, all I’m doing here is looking for angles in picking out potential bombs.
The serious final Derby works have begun and we had Haikal, who was in the Top 12 last week, work a bullet half in :47 3/5 at Belmont Park, fastest of 48 works at the distance, and Long Range Toddy, who was in the Top 12 for a number of weeks, breeze five furlongs in 1:02 3/5. Also, War of Will, the forgotten horse following his ordeal in the Louisiana Derby, continued his stellar works, breezing five furlongs in 1:00 1/5 over a sloppy track at Keeneland. Cutting Humor continued his string of excellent works, breezing five furlongs in :59 2/5 in company at Palm Beach Downs.
Of the horses on the outside looking in, Signalman had another excellent work, breezing five furlongs in :59 3/5 in the slop at Churchill Downs, Florida Derby runner-up Bodexpress breezed a half in :48 3/5 at Gulfstream Park West, and Bourbon War breezed a sharp half in :47 3/5 at Gulfstream Park.
Whoever wins the Derby is going to run into a mighty powerful opponent in the Preakness Stakes. I’m talking about the Maryland monster Alwaysmining, who swept Laurel Park’s 2-year-old and 3-year-old stakes in impressive fashion, winning the Maryland Futurity, Heft Stakes beating Win Win Win, Miracle Wood Stakes beating Gray Magician by 4 ¼ lengths, Private Terms Stakes by 6 ¾ lengths, and last weekend’s Federico Tesio Stakes by 11 ½ lengths. What makes him even more dangerous now is that for the first time he rated off the pace in the Tesio. He likely will join those mentioned above if they fail to get in the Derby, along with Anothertwistafate and possibly Instagrand, so there will be a number of formidable foes waiting at Pimlico.
Next week is the final Derby Dozen, where I’ll focus mostly on works and pedigree. That will be followed on the Thursday before the Derby by the selections and betting angles column.