Stars of Yesterday: Looking Back at Best Louisiana Derby Winners
Paul Lo Duca grew up a baseball and horse-racing fan has been able to realize his dreams by working in both professions. Lo Duca spent 11 seasons in Major League Baseball, primarily as a catcher, and made four All-Star teams before retiring with a career batting average of .286 and 1,112 hits. After his baseball career, Lo Duca began a successful, new career in the horse-racing broadcasting world.
For the Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve on May 4 at Churchill Downs, Lo Duca ranks the 20-horse field by contender and then offers commentary on each entrant in order of preference for the 1 ¼-mile classic race.
Lo Duca’s Ranking
1. Game Winner - 9-2
2. Roadster - 5-1
3. Improbable - 5-1
4. Tacitus - 8-1
5. Vekoma 15-1
6. Maximum Security - 8-1
7. Long Range Toddy – 30-1 (longshot)
8. Code of Honor - 12-1
9. Win Win Win - 12-1
10. War of Will - 15-1
11. Tax - 20-1
12. By My Standards - 15-1
13. Plus Que Parfait - 30-1
14. Cutting Humor - 30-1
15. Haikal - 30-1
16. Spinoff - 30-1
17. Country House - 30-1
18. Gray Magician - 50-1
19. Master Fencer - 50-1
20. Bodexpress - 30-1
Game Winner (#16)
There was no tension in the room when they opened the envelope for 2018 Eclipse Award for champion juvenile. Game Winner had already proven on the racetrack that he was clearly the most accomplished 2-year-old Thoroughbred. He won his first race at Del Mar in commanding fashion. In a very quick turnaround, he was wheeled back in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. In this race, he would take on his stablemate Roadster, who was favored to win. Game Winner however stole his stablemate’s thunder and won nicely while Roadster was back in third.
Up next was an easy waltz around Santa Anita to win the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes. Then, Game Winner shipped to Louisville as the odds-on favorite for the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He was on the attack throughout and in deep stretch pushed by stubborn longshot Knicks Go to win by more than two lengths. He completed his 2-year-old season undefeated and was the undisputed champ.
It was planned for Game Winner to have two starts before his return to Louisville for the Kentucky Derby in May. His first start was at Oaklawn in the second division of the Rebel Stakes. After a bobble at the start, Game Winner was farther back than desired as the talented Omaha Beach ran free on the lead. He made a bold bid around the final turn and then the race was on. Game Winner and Omaha Beach went stride for stride but Game Winner could never get by and finished second by a nose. It was the first lost of his career, but a hearty comeback race to build on.
His final prep race was in the Santa Anita Derby in a small but select group. The very fast Instagrand was in the starting gate as well as talented Baffert stablemate Roadster. Game Winner again had a very wide trip, but was always attacking from the outside. At the top of the lane he had advanced all the way up to front-running Instagrand and was ready to overtake his foe. He did push by Instagrand but now another threat entered the picture. Roadster had a full head of steam in the middle of the track. Game Winner couldn’t stave him off and lost by a half-length.
Game Winner now returns to the site of his biggest win coming in off two narrow defeats. Even in losses, his speed figures show that he has still developed off his very impressive 2-year-old form. He is the most battle-tested horse in this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Last summer, Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert was stopped by TMZ and asked who his next Justify was going to be. His answer was Roadster. The gray or roan son of Quality Road flattered Baffert’s opinion by winning his first race at Del Mar last July by 4 ¼ lengths. All the attention was on him for his second start as the heavy favorite in the Del Mar Futurity, a race that recent Derby winners American Pharoah and Nyquist both won. Roadster however disappointed as the favorite, finishing a close third behind stablemate Game Winner.
Coming out of his first defeat in the Futurity it was found that Roadster had a breathing problem, which needed to be fixed. He was given a procedure known as a “tie back” which opens back up the airways. This is the same procedure Frosted had in 2015 before winning the Wood Memorial Stakes.
After a successful procedure and nearly six months away from the races, Roadster was back in the starting gate at Santa Anita for an allowance race to kick off his 3-year-old campaign. The fast colt had no problem with this field. He was on cruise control throughout to win by a safe distance.
For his final Derby prep race, Roadster needed to pick up enough points to make it to the run for the roses. He was entered into the Santa Anita Derby against familiar stablemate Game Winner. This time, jockey Mike Smith tried completely new tactics. He took Roadster well off the pace from his inside position and waited until the stretch to ask for his best run. With a full head of steam he was able to get by Game Winner in the final strides to win the Santa Anita Derby.
Roadster ranks near the top of the class when grading on natural ability. With Mike Smith making the tough decision to ride Omaha Beach in the Kentucky Derby, Roadster will get the services of Breeders’ Cup Classic winning jockey Florent Geroux for the first time. His sire, Quality Road, is on fire this year. He sired Pegasus World Cup winner City of Light as well as Longines Kentucky Oaks favorite Bellafina. Roadster has never had to deal with any traffic in his four-race career. That might change in the Kentucky Derby with a field of 20. He certainly has the talent to win the race.
Last year, it was a chestnut colt named Justify owned by a partnership that included WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and Starlight Racing who swept the Triple Crown. This year WinStar, China Horse Club, and Starlight are back with another chestnut colt in the Kentucky Derby, this one named Improbable. This was a horse that was held in such high esteem when he first came to the Bob Baffert barn last fall that he was given the nickname “Baby Justify.”
The first three starts as a 2-year-old for Baby Justify did nothing to tarnish that potential nickname. Improbable won his first start as expected. He shipped to Churchill to dominate a Breeders’ Cup undercard race in his second start. For the final start of his juvenile campaign, Improbable came back to California to win the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity by five easy lengths. He completed his 2-year-old season undefeated and was one of the Kentucky Derby winter-book favorites.
Like most established 2-year-old Baffert contenders, Improbable was pointed to a two-prep schedule to lead him up to a peaking performance in the Kentucky Derby. His first start as a 3-year-old came at Oaklawn Park for the first division of the Rebel Stakes. He was the heavy favorite from the outside post. The trip was less-than-ideal as Improbable raced egregiously wide throughout. Local horse Long Range Toddy got a dream trip along the inside and was able to catch Improbable in the final strides.
After his first defeat, Baffert decided to add blinkers to this colt. As he stood in the gate with blinkers for the first time in the Arkansas Derby, Improbable got very fractious and in a panic. When the gates finally opened, he found himself behind favorite Omaha Beach. He made a big bid into contention to challenge Omaha Beach but couldn’t get by late and was defeated by a length.
Improbable’s two second-place efforts this year seem to have legitimate excuses. He was extremely wide in the Rebel Stakes and he was very fractious before the Arkansas Derby. The blinkers will come off for the Kentucky Derby.
Improbable’s jockey in the Arkansas Derby, Jose Ortiz, chose to ride Tacitus. The new jockey for Improbable, ironically, will be Jose Ortiz’s brother, Irad Ortiz Jr., who is the reigning champion jockey.
Three-time North American leading sire Tapit has won nearly every big race with his progeny during his decade-plus reign as an elite stallion. Well, every race that is except the Kentucky Derby. Tapit’s entrant this year is a gray colt, just like himself, named Tacitus. This colt hails from a powerful female with his dam multiple Grade 1 winner Close Hatches. Tacitus is royally bred and in his last two races those bloodlines have started to show.
His two starts as a juvenile served as good building blocks. He ran an even fourth in his debut at Belmont Park. In his second start, he broke his maiden with a wide move at Aqueduct on Nov. 10. Trainer Bill Mott went nearly four months without a race for this talented colt and finally entered him into the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby in March. It only took one race to start the New Year for Tacitus to earn his spot in Kentucky Derby 145. The early pace was burning hot in the Tampa Bay Derby and Tacitus stoked up a big rally. As the horses up front started to tire, Tacitus was perfectly piloted for a late rally by Jose Ortiz to win by 1 1/4 lengths.
For his final Kentucky Derby prep, Tacitus shipped back to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. Again, Tacitus got a very similar setup to his previous stakes win. After some bumping and scrimmaging on the first turn, two pacesetters tore away from the field down the backside setting a warp-speed pace. Tacitus raced behind Tax in fourth and was waiting to make his move. Into the stretch, Tax took the lead but only for a brief second. Tacitus was drafting behind and made the last run for the win.
This colt is a perfect 2-for-2 this year and has top-class pedigree and connections. His two wins have come with a lightning fast pace in front of him, which helped his late kick. The challenge for Tacitus in the Kentucky Derby will be what looks to be a more moderate early tempo. The horses expected to be in front of him in this race also have much more ability than the horses in front of him early in his last two starts.
The name for Vekoma came from a roller-coaster maker in the Netherlands. So far Vekoma has taken his trainer, Louisville native George Weaver, on one of the best rides of his training career. This chestnut colt wasted no time announcing that he was a serious racehorse. His Belmont Park debut last September was an impressive win in a very fast time. He aced every test in that first start. He broke well, stalked from third, took over in the lane, and beat two future stakes horses.
After the debut win, Weaver tested his colt in the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes. That race was more of the same. In almost identical fashion, Vekoma stalked and took over confidently to win his first stakes and stay undefeated. With Derby hopes in focus, Vekoma was given the winter off from racing and pointed to the Fountain of Youth stakes at Gulfstream Park. While he didn’t win that race, he did a lot of good things in his comeback. He broke sharply again and raced wide into a very fast pace. He couldn’t quicken with the top two horses (both had recent races), but he was able to pass the favorite Hidden Scroll late to finish third.
Rather than stay at Gulfstream for the Xpressbet Florida Derby, Weaver decided to ship north to Kentucky for the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, which looked to be an easier spot to punch his Derby ticket. Vekoma proved he was in a different class than that field by winning by 3 1/2 lengths in dominant fashion. He has a unique stride that isn’t visually appealing, but it is effective.
Even off a win, Vekoma isn’t getting much attention in this year’s Derby. His dam won a Grade 1 at Churchill Downs and his jockey, Javier Castellano, has won four of the last six Eclipse Awards as outstanding jockey. Vekoma’s only career defeat came in his first race of the year with a wide trip, and he still finished a very credible third. He could be one of the most undervalued horses in Kentucky Derby 145.
Maximum Security (#7)
Needless to say Maximum Security has been a big surprise to trainer Jason Servis. When he was entered into his first race at Gulfstream Park in December, he was offered for the very claiming price of $16,000. Maximum Security not only won that race, he dominated by 9 3/4 lengths. Luckily for Servis and owners Gary and Mary West, nobody put in a slip to claim him before the race. The horse was still theirs after the surprising win.
His next start was a starter-optional claiming race — he was not offered for a claiming price — on a wet track and he again won with the utmost ease. While he had won his first two starts nicely, Maximum Security’s real breakout didn’t happen until his third start. Again entered at the same starter-optional claiming level, he drew the rail as the heavy favorite. No other rival went with him early and he was rolling along at his leisure. Not only did he win the race, he widened his margin to 18 ¼ lengths by the finish line. That win resulted in a 102 Beyer Speed Figure, which is the highest of any Derby entrant this year.
Maximum Security’s powerful win inspired the confidence to enter him into the Xpressbet Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park, where he had run his previous three races. This bay colt got a big assist in that race when jockey Javier Castellano decided to wrangle back speedy favorite Hidden Scroll. That allowed Maximum Security to get the easiest of leads. He made the field pay for this free pass to the front. Around the final turn, it was clear the undefeated colt was not stopping. He held a clear margin through the lane to win the Florida Derby by 3 1/2 lengths. In a little more than four months, Maximum Security went from being entered in a $16,000 maiden claimer to the Kentucky Derby.
For being the only undefeated horse in Derby 145, Maximum Security isn’t getting much attention from handicappers. They are citing the fact that he has had two very easy leads in his last two wins. Plus, he’s only raced at Gulfstream Park for a trainer who was hitting at an unbelievable win rate at the track throughout the meet. While that is all true, Maximum Security has the highest Beyer Speed Figure in the entire field and is the only Derby entrant yet to lose.
Long Range Toddy (#18) (longshot play)
Owner Willis Horton knows what its like to own an Eclipse Award champion 3-year-old male. He was the owner of Will Take Charge who was the 2013 champion in the division. Will Take Charge punched his 2013 ticket to the Kentucky Derby with an upset win in the Rebel Stakes. Ironically, Willis Horton’s colt this year, Long Range Toddy, also punched his ticket to Louisville with an upset win in the Rebel Stakes.
After graduating through the ranks at Remington Park in often-overlooked racing state of Oklahoma, trainer Steve Asmussen saw fit to ship his colt to Oaklawn Park to see how he stacked up against Derby trail competition. He acquitted himself nicely in his first try in Arkansas by finishing a close second in the Smarty Jones Stakes. He backed that effort up with a hard trying third in the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes.
The breakout race for Long Range Toddy came when he upset previously undefeated Improbable in the first division of the Rebel Stakes. That race was a perfect storm. It was the first start of the year for heavy favorite Improbable, who also faced a super wide trip from his outside post. While the favorite was covering way too much ground in the middle of the track, Long Range Toddy laid back saving all the ground. When the field entered the stretch, Improbable looked like the winner. Yet jockey Jon Court wheeled Long Range Toddy to the outside and he reeled in Improbable in the final strides for the upset, cementing his spot in the Kentucky Derby.
The shine from this colt’s upset win didn’t last long. In his final prep race, he was given a wide post in the Arkansas Derby. He made a brief bid into the last turn but quickly faltered as Omaha Beach and Improbable quickened away from the field. Long Range Toddy finished a disappointing sixth. Don’t look for him to enjoy the same career success as Willis Horton’s former champion Will Take Charge.
Code of Honor (#13)
They say pace makes the race. That axiom has been very true for Kentucky Derby contender Code of Honor. When Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey sent him to the Grade 2 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park in February, there was a ton of early pace. Code of Honor saved every inch of ground from his rail position and waited to take aim at the over-zealous front-runners coming into the stretch. With a perfectly executed ride by John Velazquez he won the race by three-quarter of a length and earned his right to be in Derby 145.
Even though his spot was secure, Code of Honor still had one more race before shipping to Louisville: the Xpressbet Florida Derby. This time he got no pace to run at as favorite Hidden Scroll was pulled back early to try new rating tactics. The eventual winner, Maximum Security, was galloping along very slowly on the lead. As the field turned for home, the two front-runners had enjoyed such an easy lead that they kept running in formation for a one-two finish. Code of Honor could rally for a distant third.
This chestnut colt has a unique European sire in Noble Mission who was a full-brother to all-time great Frankel. Code of Honor’s female side of the family has plenty of American dirt success. Aside from his unusual pedigree, Code of Honor also has a very compact build. He weighs in at “only” 950 pounds, making him one of the lightest horses in the field. McGaughey thinks that could be a plus as he can maneuver through traffic more effectively than some of the bigger horses in the race. Code of Honor showed promise as a juvenile and has developed into one of the better horses of his crop. He comes from off the pace and will be both trip and pace dependent.
Win Win Win (#14)
It’s never a bad way to start your 3-year-old season by setting a new track record. That’s exactly what Win Win Win did in the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs going seven furlongs in a rapid 1:20.89. The Maryland-based colt won by 7 ¼ lengths in his first start in Florida. Next, trainer Michael Trombetta sent him around two turns for his first Derby trail race in the Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby.
One thing Win Win Win has shown in almost every start is a small misstep for his first stride out of the gate. He stands in the gate with pent-up energy and the only way to release it is with an awkward first stride once the race begins. This typical move led to him racing toward the back of the field in the Tampa Bay Derby. He raced wide into the lane and came with a run late. The top-two finishers had already separated from the field by the time Win Win Win found his best stride, and he had to settle for third.
It was more of the same in his final prep at Keeneland in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. The break was another start in which he wasn’t alert enough to get forward position. He raced at the rear of field and ran on late for second, 3 ½ lengths behind winner Vekoma.
Win Win Win’s track record in January speaks to his ability. Yet that was in a one-turn race and he’s still trying to prove that his talent is viable against the crop’s best at the classic 1 ¼-mile distance.
War of Will (#1)
From the beginning of his career, War of Will was always referred to as a potential standout in the Mark Casse barn. His owner, movie mogul Gary Barber, continued to say before War of Will even raced that he was a special racehorse. After he ran third on the grass in his debut, the connections decided to send him right to a stakes race. The super-talented maiden held his own in three straight stakes tries, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf.
After the Breeders’ Cup, trainer Mark Casse decided to switch him from turf to dirt. With that move, he also dropped back down to a proper maiden race to try to earn his diploma. War of Will passed this exam easily. He stalked the pace and pulled away by five lengths to win his first race on dirt.
Two big fields in Louisiana couldn’t even warm up War of Will. In both the Lecomte Stakes and the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford, he stalked ominously, took over at the top of the stretch, and ran clear of all his vanquished foes. He had already punched his Derby ticket in February.
Going into the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, War of Will was a perfect 3-for-3 racing on dirt. He was the odds-on favorite in a field of 11. Yet a few strides out of the gate, he lost action in his hind end creating a bizarre, scrambled stride. He wasn’t traveling through the race like he had in his previous two stakes wins. War of Will never threatened after his very awkward start and faded to finish ninth.
Casse is still intent on running War of Will in the Kentucky Derby after tests showed that he came out of his mishap sound. He has worked forwardly since he’s arrived in Kentucky. This horse was regarded as one of the best 3-year-olds in his class before the Louisiana Derby, but rarely do horses recover from that poor of a final prep to have an impact on the Kentucky Derby.
Last October, Tax was not only a maiden, he was a maiden for sale. After finishing second in his debut at Churchill Downs, Tax made his second start at Keeneland for a $50,000 claiming price. Trainer Danny Gargan had his eye on this horse and decided to drop in a claim to secure him. Tax ended up winning that race at Keeneland and Gargan’s claim went through, so for the price of $50,000 Tax switched trainers and barns.
Gargan showed an immense amount of confidence to place his newly purchased 2-year-old right into stakes competition in New York at Aqueduct. Tax stepped his game up immediately finishing third in the prestigious Remsen Stakes.
The next start for Tax was his career highlight to date. He stumbled slightly at the start of the Grade 3 Withers Stakes and lurked right behind the pacesetters. As the field turned for home, the rail opened up and Tax shot through to win by a gritty head. Tax had gone from a maiden claimer to a stakes winner on the cusp of making the Kentucky Derby. This race, however, turned out to be one of the weaker ones on the 2019 Derby trail.
Tax’s final Derby prep race came once again at Aqueduct in the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets. Unlike his last start, Tax broke much more alertly and was ideally positioned in third behind a very hot pace. Once the front-runners gave way at the top of the stretch, it became a two-horse race between Tax and Tacitus. Tax had the lead briefly but couldn’t match strides with Tacitus late. His runner-up effort officially punched his ticket to Louisville.
No matter what happens in the Kentucky Derby, Tax will go down as a vast overachiever. It’s an absolute rarity for a horse to be claimed and make it to the first Saturday in May. Tax could be one of the biggest longshots on the board.
By My Standards (#3)
Trainer Bret Calhoun has never had a starter in the Kentucky Derby. That is about to change on May 4, when By My Standards steps into the starting gate. The colt by Goldencents began his career at Churchill Downs last November with a runner-up finish. Three starts later at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, he still had yet to win but By My Standards was ready to assert himself. Breaking from the far outside post he stalked the pace from a wide position and awaited his cue. Taking over at the quarter-pole, By My Standards not only won his first race, he drew away to win by 4 ¼ lengths in the Feb. 16 race.
This colt was no worse than third in his first three races. After his first win in start four, his trainer said he could see a difference in his demeanor and presence after the breakthrough victory. With the bay colt’s confidence on the rise, Calhoun was ready to take him to the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby to see if his newfound confidence could take him all the way to Louisville.
Breaking from an inside post, By My Standards settled in a striking position. After heavily favored War of Will broke very poorly, this race seemed up for grabs along the backstretch. As the field entered the stretch, By My Standards was saving all the ground on the rail. He engaged leader Spinoff in midstretch and then drove by to win by three-quarters of a length.
In the span of five weeks, By My Standards went from a winless 3-year-old to Louisiana Derby winner taking his trainer to the Kentucky Derby for the first time. His speed figures look light in comparison with the rest of the field. He also benefitted from a home-track advantage and a perfect inside trip in the Louisiana Derby. Calhoun’s first Derby starter will be a longshot.
Plus Que Parfait (#9)
Trainer Brendan Walsh will be another conditioner this year leading his first horse over to run in the Kentucky Derby. Plus Que Parfait needed a trip around the globe to be able to qualify for this year’s running. After disappointing twice in New Orleans to start his 3-year-old campaign, the chestnut colt was sent by Walsh to Dubai to contest the United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group. One big reason for this trip was the fact that members of his ownership group, Imperial Racing, are from Dubai.
Once in Dubai, Plus Que Parfait benefitted from two new additions. First, he was equipped with a set of blinkers for the first time in his career. Second, champion jockey Jose Ortiz had the mount on Plus Que Parfait for the first time. The race went off and Plus Que Parfait took advantage of a beautiful, inside, ground-saving trip. He quickened in the lane and held off the wide challenge from Gray Magician. With the win, he and Walsh had punched their ticket back to Louisville.
Although he comes into the Derby off his best race, the same setup won’t present itself on the first Saturday in May. The quality of the race in the UAE Derby certainly ranked toward the absolute bottom of this year’s prep races. Ortiz has not surprisingly chosen to move off Plus Que Parfait to ride Tacitus. The blinkers seemed to help, but the soft competition of the UAE Derby seemed to help even more.
Cutting Humor (#10)
No trainer in the history of the Kentucky Derby has ever saddled more runners than Todd Pletcher. This year he brings a pair of colts, including Cutting Humor. The dark bay or brown First Samurai colt started his racing career last fall with an even-paced second and third in his first two tries. For his third start, Pletcher took him to Gulfstream Park West to try to find an easy spot to break his maiden. Cutting Humor didn’t waste the opportunity. He won by a comfortable two lengths and went into the New Year with a win under his belt.
Cutting Humor was freshened up for a January allowance at Gulfstream Park. He made a solid bid in the race but couldn’t get past Bourbon War, who edged away late. Even off of a defeat, Pletcher shipped Cutting Humor to Oaklawn Park for his first try in a Derby points race, the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes. Along the backstretch, Cutting Humor started advancing into a very rapid pace. The bid didn’t last long though as he sputtered to a seventh-place finish in the wildly run race.
All hope was not lost after that disappointment as he was given one more chance to make the run for the roses. This time, he shipped to New Mexico for the Sunland Park Derby. Jockey John Velazquez rated him behind another fast pace. Cutting Humor was able to rally past Mucho Gusto and hold off the late charge from Anothertwistafate. It was his best race to date and it was good enough to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby.
Cutting Humor has run six races at six different tracks. The field he beat in New Mexico wasn’t as strong as most other preps this season. Trainer Pletcher has started more than 50 horses in the Kentucky Derby, but Cutting Humor won’t go down as one of the best threats he’s brought to Louisville.
Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has never won the Kentucky Derby, but he’s been close. In 2005, McLaughlin’s massive longshot Closing Argument took the lead in deep stretch at odds of 71.60-1, but before he could reach the finish line, Mike Smith had tagged him by a head with the winner Giacomo at 50.30-1. Other than that longshot second, Lexington native McLaughlin also trained Jazil, Frosted, and Mohaymen to fourth-place finishes in the Derby. This year, he brings a late-running outsider named Haikal.
Haikal’s running style mirrors McLaughlin’s trainee Jazil from 2006, he is a deep closer. In his first career start back in November at Aqueduct, Haikal rallied from dead last early to just miss winning by a neck first out. In his second start, he showed the same style with a different result. This time he came from well off the pace to prevail by a neck for his first win. After a brief rest over the winter, Haikal returned in the Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct and he again won by a well-timed neck, giving him back-to-back wins.
Haikal’s first try in a Derby points race came in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct and it was a perfect setup for him. There were multiple speed horses setting a lightning-fast pace. Jockey Rajiv Maragh was poised to uncoil a big late run knowing the speed horses would tire. Again, Haikal saved his best stride for the stretch to gun down the front-runners for a one-length win.
This bay colt’s win streak came to an end in the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, which was his first race around two turns. He made his customary late run but couldn’t get close to Tacitus or Tax, finishing four lengths behind the winner. Haikal has a lot of ability and a strong late run, but only time will tell whether his late burst will be most effective around one turn or two.
Going into the third week of March, top trainer Todd Pletcher didn’t have a single Kentucky Derby entrant. That was until Spinoff punched his ticket to Louisville with a runner-up finish in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby.
This chestnut colt by Hard Spun broke his maiden in his first race last June at Gulfstream Park. It was a typical Pletcher win. He stalked the pace, took over at the top of the stretch, and held on safely late. His next start was a stakes try in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes. In a small field of four, he ran evenly with the pack to finish third by 2 ¾ lengths.
After his two juvenile races, Spinoff was sent to the sidelines to grow up and fix some lingering issues. After more than six months without a race, Spinoff reurned at Tampa Bay Downs in late February for his 3-year-old debut. Just like Pletcher’s 2017 Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Spinoff built his confidence by trouncing an overmatched field of allowance foes in Florida.
His next start was a runner-up finish in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby which continued an improving-speed-figure pattern. Spinoff attended the early pace like he has done in every start. He looked like the winner in midstretch but couldn’t match strides late with By My Standards.
Spinoff’s dam, Zaftig, was a Grade 1 winner and his sire, Hard Spun, was the runner-up in the 2007 Kentucky Derby. A key for this colt in Derby 145 will be his tactics within the race. If he wants to take his usual spot in the stalking role in the Derby, he’ll have to deal with much faster horses early. A better option for him would be to race farther behind the speed than he ever has before in his career. Spinoff has talent but isn’t as seasoned as others in the crop at this point.
Country House (#20)
It will be said many times this Derby week that Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has never won this race. Wood Memorial winner Tacitus would be the Mott trainee who most handicappers would point to if they were told Mott would win the run for the roses this year. Mott, however, has a pair of entrants in Derby 145 with Country House being his other runner.
While Tacitus has multiple stakes wins, Country House has shown promise finishing behind some of this year’s top contenders. After an easy maiden win to start the year at Gulfstream he was second to War of Will in the Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford. He then was fourth behind By My Standards in the Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby and, most recently, ran third behind Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby.
While Country House lacks a key win, he has shown promise with his moves from well off the pace. He is a tall chestnut who has way more stamina than speed. He churns along with a consistent run and his speed figures have improved with each start.
Country House is by 2010 Preakness winner Lookin At Lucky. Last fall, Churchill Downs held the Breeders’ Cup Classic going a mile and a quarter and a son of Lookin At Lucky, Accelerate, won the race as the favorite. Country House has only one win but looks to be improving with each start.
Gray Magician (#4)
So far, there has only been one winner’s photo taken in Gray Magician’s career. He showed promise in the fall as a 2-year-old finishing third, second, and third, the last of which won by Derby contender Improbable. After a change in trainer and ownership, Gray Magician was ready to stretch out to two turns for the first time for new conditioner Peter Miller.
In that November maiden race at Del Mar going a mile, Gray Magician recorded his only win to date. He won by 9 ½ widening lengths and confirmed the early signs of potential he had shown in defeat. His first Derby points race came in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes to start 2019. He ran an even fourth that day. They tried to gun him to the lead in his next start in an allowance race on a sloppy track, but Gray Magician faded to fifth after the new tactics failed.
Miller and Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners kept faith that this was a stakes colt and decided to ship him to Maryland for the Miracle Wood Stakes. He ran a credible second to Alwaysmining, who will ride a winning streak into the Preakness.
The traveling continued as Gray Magician took the long flight to Dubai for the United Arab Emirates Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group. Despite a very wide trip, he was able to finish second to Plus Que Parfait in a bunched-up finish.
Gray Magician will get a new jockey in Drayden Van Dyke for the Kentucky Derby. Last year, Van Dyke rode Instilled Regard ,who was the longest shot in the whole field, to a fourth-place finish. Gray Magician will be one of the longest shots in the field for this year’s running as well.
Master Fencer (#15)
There was a new path created by Churchill Downs to allow a Japanese contender to qualify for the run for the roses. This year, that horse is Master Fencer. The son of Just a Way began his career on the turf with a second- and fourth-place finish. In December, his trainer switched him to dirt, which resulted in his first career victory.
After another win on the dirt in an allowance race in January, Master Fencer competed in his first stakes race in the Hyacinth Stakes. He settled at the back of the pack and wheeled out wide to make only a mild rally for a nonthreatening fourth. His final start before the Kentucky Derby was a runner-up finish in late March at Nakayama Racecourse in Japan.
Master Fencer has taken the long voyage to Churchill Downs and will be disregarded by the American betting public. There have been much stronger international shippers in recent years. If Master Fencer can finish in the top 10, it will be a respectable run.