This feature provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Triple Crown trail and three horses not looking quite as strong as they were a week ago.
In this week’s edition, the focus is the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and what the results mean moving forward. Next week, we’ll tackle how the second leg of the Triple Crown – the Preakness Stakes May 18 at Pimlico Race Course – is shaping up.
It would be damn near impossible to watch and re-watch the Kentucky Derby and not understand that Maximum Security clearly was the best 3-year-old to compete in the first jewel of the Triple Crown. And, it’s not particularly close. There is no need to re-litigate the stewards’ decision to disqualify Maximum Security for interference – that’s been done ad nauseam for 96 hours or so on social media and at this point most minds have been made up for days – so let’s try to put his performance in perspective. Jockey Luis Saez asked Maximum Security to crank up the heat early to the tune of a blistering opening quarter-mile in 22.34 seconds in order to gain tactical position setting the pace. Saez got him a nice breather after that with a second quarter-mile in 24.27 seconds and the third in 25.88 seconds. Just when it looked like Maximum Security was finished approaching the stretch, the New Year’s Day colt accelerated to post a final quarter-mile in 25.31 (according to Trakus data) and finish 1 ¾ lengths in front of Country House. I’ll admit, I was skeptical of Maximum Security entering the Kentucky Derby. He’d only had one real test in the Xpressbet Florida Derby and everything went his way. He faced significantly more adversity in the Kentucky Derby, and to be fair he caused his share of adversity too, but Maximum Security proved a game, resilient fighter capable of an elite performance on the biggest stage of all. Maximum Security earned a new career-best 111 Equibase Speed Figure, a two-point jump from his previous top, and now has earned Beyer Speed Figures of 102-101-101 for his last three races. He’s consistently fast and should be viewed as a serious player for major races this summer and fall. Maximum Security has shipped back to Monmouth Park and reportedly will target the $1 million betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes on July 20. Tactical speed is potent in the 1 1/8-mile Haskell, which means Maximum Security figures to be favored and formidable on trainer Jason Servis’ home track as his connections target the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old male.
Lost in the debate over whether or not the Churchill Downs stewards made the correct decision in disqualifying Maximum Security was that the 3-year-old placed first, Country House, ran a fantastic race. I profiled Country House in this week’s Making the Grade blog, and after re-watching the Kentucky Derby multiple times honing in on Country House, it was clear that he lost a lot of ground after starting from the second-widest post position – he was three wide on the first turn and five-plus wide on the second – but kept on grinding in the stretch. Country House is not an explosive racehorse, but he’s long on stamina and raced gamely through the stretch with a final quarter-mile, according to Trakus, in 25.49 seconds.
Country House earned a career-best 109 Equibase Speed Figure, a 10-point improvement from his previous best, improved his top Beyer Speed Figure eight points to a 99, and earned a career-best 118 TimeForm US rating. According to Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, he was always held in high regard but was a bit late developing. We saw on Kentucky Derby day in Country House how 3-year-old racehorses, especially at this time of year, are capable of significant improvement. Country House is being treated for a minor illness and will miss the Preakness Stakes. That might be a blessing in disguise for the 2019 Kentucky Derby winner as it will give him more time to recover from a taxing race, his third in six weeks, and perhaps set him up to continue to improve in the second half of the season. I still think Maximum Security has more upside for the major races this summer, but it’s also possible we saw a significant breakthrough from Country House.
Admit it, there were a few seconds when Code of Honor charged through a huge hole on the rail – real estate vacated when Maximum Security ducked out – and briefly took command near the top of the stretch where you thought he was the 2019 Kentucky Derby winner. I sure did. Recalling the way he finished in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes, Code of Honor looked home free before Maximum Security battled back and Country House chugged past. He appeared to flatten out late despite running 60 feet less (about 6 1/2 lengths) than Country House, according to Trakus data. Still, he ran very well at 14.40-1 odds and adds a runner-up finish (officially) in the Kentucky Derby to his résumé. Based on the Derby finish, it’s fair to ask whether there might be distance limitations with Code of Honor. Perhaps, he’s best suited to one-mile or 1 1/16-mile races with the potential to stretch out to 1 1/8 miles, but the Derby was just a bit too far. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said the colt will make his next start in the Dwyer Stakes on July 6 at Belmont Park.
Honorable Mentions: I’ve never been “hot-take” guy, in fact I try to be the exact opposite, but I really thought about placing Omaha Beach first here. I came away from the 2019 Kentucky Derby believing wholeheartedly that Omaha Beach would have won that race by at least five lengths. No way he lets Maximum Security get away with a third quarter-mile in 25.88 seconds and the fourth quarter-mile in 26.16, and he would have thrived on the sloppy track. We’ll never truly know if Omaha Beach would have won the Derby, but it’s hard not to think about what might have been for the Arkansas Derby winner. He’ll get a chance to prove he’s the best 3-year-old this summer, no doubt, but there are only a couple of races that boast the prestige to draw Omaha Beach, Maximum Security, and Country House. Until then, we’re left to speculate. … Tacitus and Game Winner both ran well despite adversity in the Kentucky Derby with the former running 49 feet (about 5 ½ lengths) farther than Maximum Security, according to Trakus data, and the latter running 74 feet (about 8 lengths) farther. Tacitus’ peak speed was only 39.4 miles per hour, compared with 41.4 miles per hour for Maximum Security. He’s a much different type of racehorse, one who just grinds and grinds and keeps on pounding away. He should be tough in the June 8 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, but I couldn’t justify moving him ahead of any of the top three because he was the third betting choice and essentially lived up to advance billing. Same goes for Game Winner, he’s as honest as the day is long and talented but we already knew that. … Japanese invader Master Fencer ran his final quarter-mile in 24.60 seconds, fastest in the 19-horse Derby field, and averaged 36.9 miles per hour for the final quarter, according to Trakus, also tops in the field to pass 12 horses. Considering he took a right turn out of the starting gate and trailed the field, the 58.60-1 longshot did well to finish seventh (officially sixth after the DQ). We could see him next in the Belmont Stakes.
The Kentucky Derby was a rough spot for a clunker from the Santa Anita Derby winner. He was very wide early, made a bit of a move, and then faded to finish 16th (he was moved up to 15th because of Maximum Security’s DQ). Roadster had not run a bad race in four previous starts, but received the lowest Equibase Speed Figure of his career (89), 17 points below his career best. The Kentucky Derby was his first start on a sloppy track and he was wide throughout, traveling 117 feet (about 13 lengths more than Maximum Security according to Trakus), so perhaps this turns out to be a race we draw a line through as an anomaly. “I am disappointed to be honest,” Roadster’s jockey, Florent Geroux, said after the Kentucky Derby. “He broke all right but never traveled down the stretch the first time. He started picking up horses down the backside, but when I hit the half-mile pole, I was just out of horse. I am not sure if he didn’t like the track but it felt like he never ran.” Roadster is definitely better than he showed on May 4.
The hype horse leading into the Kentucky Derby turned out to be more sizzle than substance in finishing 12th (officially 11th after the DQ) and never really picking up his pace. The Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby winner was 13th early, dropped back to 15th, passed a few horses, and then faded while having very little impact on the race. Past performances showed a second and a third in two races on an off (wet) track, but it’s still possible he didn’t care for the soupy surface. Trainer Bret Calhoun said the explanation was even simpler than that. “We lost all chances at the break,” Calhoun said. “The outside horse came back on us pretty hard. I think he came out of it okay. I’m not sure what’s next for him.” In re-watching the replay, By My Standards did get sideswiped and was squeezed back, but after that he raced in the clear and never showed much acceleration.
Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma got off to a terrific start and had gained perfect tracking position just behind the leaders entering the first turn. Jockey Javier Castellano asked him to pick up the pace from sixth entering the final turn, but he got no response and Vekoma faded quickly from contention. He was 17th in early stretch, but Vekoma is a fighter and he passed four horses late despite weaving all over the stretch. Give him credit for his tenacity, but it was not a great effort from Vekoma in his first try on a sloppy track. The 92 Equibase Speed Figure he earned was the lowest since his career debut in September 2018 at Belmont Park. “At least he came back in one piece,” trainer George Weaver said. “He might have gotten into a little trouble on the turn, but he was starting to back up anyway at that point. I don’t know if he liked the track. It’s a crazy day. He’s a great colt and we’ll get him back over here when he’s right.”