The 145th running of the Grade 1, $3 million Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve is one of the more wide open editions of the race in recent memory. Only one horse, Tacitus, has won two “Road to the Derby” races in succession and many of the favorites in prep races for the Derby have failed to live up to expectations.
Game Winner, the Eclipse Award juvenile champion, has finished second as the prohibitive favorite in both of his races this year. Similarly, Improbable, like Game Winner, was undefeated as a 2-year-old, also finished second in both his starts as a 3-year-old. Bob Baffert, who has won the Derby five times including two of the last four years with Triple Crown Champions Justify and American Pharoah, trains Game Winner as well as Improbable. Baffert also trains Roadster, who has won both races this year though the first of the two was not a stakes race. Roadster made his second start of the year in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, the same stepping stone to the Kentucky Derby which produced last year's winner Justify, as well as 2014 Derby winner California Chrome and 2012 winner I'll Have Another.
Other major Derby prep race winners include Grade 2 Wood Memorial Stakes winner Tacitus, who overcame significant traffic trouble to win, as well as Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma. Other winners include Grade 2 Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards, Grade 1 Florida Derby winner Maximum Security, Group 2 United Arab Emirates Derby winner Plus Que Parfait, Grade 3 Sunland Derby winner Cutting Humor and a slew of horses who finished second or third in those prep races – Country House, Gray Magician, Haikal, Long Range Toddy, Master Fencer (JPN), Spinoff, Tax, War of Will, Win Win Win and Bodexpress. Omaha Beach was withdrawn from the race Wednesday afternoon and will not run.
Roadster showed me what I needed to see in the Santa Anita Derby to make me believe he has the tools to win the Kentucky Derby this year. Although jockey Mike Smith rode both Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby and Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby and opted for the latter (although now scratched), what Smith did in the Santa Anita Derby with Roadster is the reason I believe Roadster can win this year's Kentucky Derby.
In the early stages of the Santa Anita Derby, Roadster was fifth of six on the inside of other horses and two lengths behind the leader when Smith let the colt drop back of his own accord, going to nearly five lengths behind the leader with a quarter-mile to run. Roadster was then allowed to go to the outside although there were no horses inside of him until and he continually accelerated to be head and head with the leaders in mid-stretch, eventually pulling away to win by a half-length. I believe what Smith was doing was educating Roadster to get ready for one of the longest stretch runs in any track in North America at 1,234 feet, and that education may serve him very well in the Kentucky Derby.
Having continually improved since his debut last July when he earned a 90 Equibase Speed Figure, Roadster finished third behind Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity in September, earning a 96 figure, then was given six months off to mature. He certainly did mature over the winter, running two turns for the first time and winning in March without a prep race first while earning a 104 figure, then improving to 106 in the Santa Anita Derby. Being as the Kentucky Derby will be his third start off a layoff, Roadster should peak in this race and given he's already been educated as to how to run down the long stretch at Churchill Downs, I believe he can win.
Plus Que Parfait showed talent as a 2-year-old when beaten a neck in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last November, but his first two races as a 3-year-old were complete clunkers, first finishing fifth in the LeComte Stakes and then 13th in the Risen Star Stakes. However, he was an entirely different horse in his next start on March 30 in the United Arab Emirates Derby. Adding blinkers for that race, Plus Que Parfait was in traffic until about an eighth of a mile to go when he found room to run in between horses, accelerated and got the lead. He continued to run strongly to the wire, holding off the late challenge of Gray Magician with minimal effort.
When we can identify the reason for a turnaround in performance, as is the case with Plus Que Parfait adding blinkers, we can more easily assess whether the effort was a fluke or can be repeated. The effort earned a 112 figure which is even a bit better than the now scratched favorite Omaha Beach earned winning the Rebel Stakes and if he can repeat the effort and if Roadster does not move forward as expected in his third start as a 3-year-old, Plus Que Parfait could post the upset.
Tacitus also showed a lot of physical toughness, as well as heart, in his most recent race when victorious in the Wood Memorial last month. Near the start of the race, Tacitus was bumped pretty hard and caused jockey Jose Ortiz to momentarily lose his balance. Shortly after that, a horse nearly crossed in front of Tacitus going into the first turn and he clipped that horse's heels, almost falling. Recovering nicely but finding himself seven lengths behind the leader with about three-quarters of a mile to run, Tacitus shows a big burst of speed on the turn to get the lead by a head with an eighth of a mile to run, holding off the challenge of Tax to win by a length and one-quarter at the finish.
As with others, Tacitus is on a pattern for a peak effort in the Derby as he's making his third start of the year and Equibase figures of 105 and 106. As a son of Tapit, sire of multiple graded stakes winners such as Frosted, Cupid, Creator and Tonalist, there is little doubt Tacitus has anything but the makings of a potential Derby winner and so he's another deserving of respect when considering who can win this year.
By My Standards doesn't appear to be as fast as Roadster or some of the others, as he earned just a 93 Equibase figure when winning for the first time (in his fourth career start) in February and then a 96 figure when winning the Louisiana Derby. However, By My Standards showed the mental toughness of a top level horse in the Louisiana Derby. Mental toughness is a key to running well in the Kentucky Derby given the 20 horse field and the likelihood for traffic trouble.
In the Louisiana Derby, By My Standards was stuck behind a wall of horses turning for home, slowing his momentum, before jockey Saez guided him to the inside for running room, at which point By My Standards accelerated nicely to take the lead. By all reports, By My Standards has improved both physically and mentally since his last race with a pair of exceptional workouts at Churchill Downs. By My Standards has excellent tactical speed to allow him to be towards the front of the pack, and may be able to spring the upset by improving off his last effort.
Maximum Security is undefeated in four races including a dominant three and one-half length win in the Florida Derby on March 30. That was his first race around two turns and he passed the test with flying colors as he controlled the tempo on the front end from start to finish. Although he led from the start in the Florida Derby as well as in a February start in a seven furlong sprint, Maximum Security demonstrated he does not need the lead to win when rallying from third to win in January.
Having earned a career-best 109 figure winning that seven furlong race in February, it might seem like a regression to a 102 figure effort in the Florida Derby, but considering Maximum Security had no challengers for nearly the entire race, he could have run faster. Trainer Jason Servis trains his horses rather unconventionally by working them very slowly and at longer distances than most other trainers. As such, Maximum Security has been galloping a mile nearly every day at three-quarter speed and if nothing else, he may be the fittest horse entering the Derby. Considering the winners of the Florida Derby in 2013 (Orb), 2016 (Nyquist) and 2017 (Always Dreaming) all won the Kentucky Derby, Maximum Security could add to that list with a top effort.
Win Win Win rounds out my annual sextet of main contenders and although I don't believe he has the same probability to win as any of the other five, he has a high probability to finish second or third at the least and help us profit in the exacta or trifecta. Racing around two turns for the first time in the Tampa Bay Derby in March, Win Win Win closed from far back in seventh to finish third behind Tacitus, who improved to win the Wood Memorial the next month.
Win Win Win then entered the Blue Grass Stakes and although no threat to three and one-half length winner Vekoma, Win Win Win showed a good deal of ability after being steadied in traffic and losing momentum with five-sixteenths of a mile to run. After that trouble, he rallied from eighth to pass all but the winner in the final stages. In a recent workout at Churchill Downs, Win Win Win showed a strong competitive instinct because even though he was not in company with two other Derby entrants (Country House and Tacitus), when he saw them in front of him he insisted on accelerating past them to be in front. This competitive desire could prove very helpful in the late stages of the Derby and as Win Win Win is likely to go to post at high odds given he did not win his most recent Derby prep race, he is definitely a horse I want to use on any exacta or trifecta tickets I play.
The rest of the Kentucky Derby field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures is Bodexpress (103), Code of Honor (111), Country House (99), Cutting Humor (103), Game Winner (110), Gray Magician (98), Haikal (104), Improbable (109), Long Range Toddy (109), Plus Que Parfait (96), Spinoff (101), Vekoma (110), War of Will (107). Master Fencer (JPN) has only run in Japan and has no figures.
Plus Que Parfait
By My Standards
Win Win Win
You can get Ellis' full card detailed analysis and betting recommendations for all the races at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, Saturday May 4, at Equibase.com
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