With less than a week to go before the 145th Kentucky Derby (G1) on May 4, here are five things to know going into what must be considered a fascinating and contentious renewal of the 1 1/4-mile classic.
1. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has the gloves off in his quest for a record-tying sixth victory in the Run for the Roses as reigning juvenile champion Game Winner, Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Roadster, and the Grade 1-winning Improbable all figure to be among the top four or five betting choices. While Game Winner and Improbable were his two leading prospects entering the winter, both finished second in their respective two preps, and no Baffert trainee has turned in his first win of the season in the Derby since Real Quiet (1998). Roadster, on the other hand, has perhaps come to the fore after defeating Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby and belatedly living up to Baffert’s reported belief last summer that he might be the best colt in the barn. The record Baffert seeks to tie is that of Ben Jones, who won six Derbies from 1938 through 1952, primarily for the Calumet Farm juggernaut.
2. The streak of winning favorites could be extended to seven if, as seems quite possible, Omaha Beach goes favored and runs to the positive vibes he’s given off since arrival at Churchill Downs. Owned by Rick Porter, whose horses have run second in the Derby on two previous occasions, Omaha Beach is trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, a highly-respected member of his profession but one who hasn’t taken too many serious shots at this race in the past 30-plus years. Mandella’s enthusiasm for this colt as been evident and infectious in many respects. Though Omaha Beach lost his first four races, three of which were on turf and two of them in photo finishes, the son of War Front has turned the corner with three straight victories over a variety of surfaces including a division of the Rebel (G2) and the Arkansas Derby (G1) against two of the Baffert colts.
3. Bill Mott, who from 1986 through late 2017 held the distinction of being the all-time winningest trainer in Churchill Downs history, is taking what many consider his best shot at winning the Derby for the first time with Tacitus. Owner-breeder Juddmonte Farms has also come close without winning, and in Tacitus they’ve given Mott a colt with the genetic tools to get the job done. By superstar sire Tapit, the gray is the first foal out of Eclipse Award-winning mare Close Hatches, who Mott also trained. After a career-opening fourth last October, Tacitus has reeled off three straight wins, including the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and Wood Memorial (G2). Avoiding much of the trouble that compromised others in the latter prep, Tacitus has thus displayed a touch of maturity and gained valuable experience running in a race where congestion and problematic trips can arise.
4. The only undefeated colt in the field has so far proven to be one of the fastest and yet he remains a bit of a mystery and isn’t attracting much pre-race buzz. Maximum Security‘s background has much to do with the latter. The son of New Year’s Day wiped the floor with his rivals in his first three outings, but those came against $16,000 maiden claimers and in two starter allowances. However, he proved up to the challenge stepping up in class in the Florida Derby (G1), setting a moderate pace and storming home to a 3 1/2-length score in his first start beyond seven furlongs. Seeing out a 10th furlong against a much stronger field will be demanding, especially if the tempo will be significantly quicker as many expect. But whose to say Maximum Security wouldn’t be able to run the rest off their feet if allowed to a la Spend a Buck? Trainer Jason Servis seeks to emulate his brother, John, who trained Smarty Jones to a Kentucky Derby victory in 2004.
5. There are several intriguing contenders expected to start at double-digit odds. By My Standards, who seeks to become only the third horse to win the Kentucky Derby after taking the Louisiana Derby (G2), has visually impressed observers since arriving from his winter headquarters in New Orleans. A maiden graduate only five weeks before the Louisiana Derby, the Bret Calhoun-trained colt is coming to hand at the right time. Code of Honor hopped on many people’s Derby lists last year after an impressive debut win and troubled second in the Champagne (G1), but flies in under the radar after a win in the Fountain of Youth (G2) was book-ended by relatively so-so finishes in two other preps. Owner Will Farish, the master of the famed Lane’s End Farm in Versailles, last won a Triple Crown race way back in 1972 (Preakness Stakes [G1] with Bee Bee Bee). Also looking to bounce back to better form is War of Will, who dominated the Lecomte (G3) and Risen Star (G2) before disappointing as the odds-on choice in the Louisiana Derby. He virtually lost all chance a few strides out of the gate when his hind end gave way, resulting in a muscle injury. Back in better health, the colt displayed eye-catching cruising speed winning his first two preps and figures to be forwardly placed.
PHOTO: The 2019 Kentucky Derby trophy (c) Coady Photography/Churchill Downs