The road to the Kentucky Derby (G1) usually finds me head over heels in love with one contender, and I rarely sway away. This year has been the exception. For the first time in years I have not found a standout.
This has made my job more interesting and difficult, but a lot more fun.
With a crop of colts who look to be of similar talent, it has been like searching for a needle in a haystack to come away with the most likely winner. There is still a mix of contenders and pretenders, but the line dividing those two groups is less distinct.
Because the field appears to be evenly matched, there are two pressing questions.
Who drew well, and who will handle the crowd?
A horse can possess immense talent and lose all concentration once he steps into the paddock or turns for home to the wall of sound reverberating from beneath the twin spires.
Until then, who doesn’t love discussing which horses will peak on the first Saturday in May? I’m going to make a few predictions, because what is the Kentucky Derby without someone pretending they have a crystal ball?
1. War of Will WoWs.
He was the name on everyone’s lips until he wasn’t. After dominant victories in the Lecomte (G3) and Risen Star (G2), War of Will ran a dismal ninth in the Louisiana Derby (G2).
It was soon revealed the son of War Front suffered a patellar injury at the start of the race. Trainer Mark Casse wasted no time in continuing the strapping bay colt’s training, with his target always the Kentucky Derby.
Since War of Will has arrived at Churchill Downs, he has looked as well as any, and appears to be the type of hose who is unfazed by the bustling surroundings.
He drew the dreaded No. 1 post, and most of the time he would be an automatic toss. But after favored Omaha Beach’s defection and news of Haikal’s foot abscess and a potential scratch, War of Will may move to the second gate, off the rail in a field of 19.
If he does, I think he gets away cleanly and assumes position on or near the lead. Casse has stated previously that War of Will’s strength is his ability to break quickly and efficiently, which is something he will desperately need to do Saturday.
I am going out on a major limb here at a big price. I’m picking War of Will to win the Kentucky Derby.
2. Game Winner won’t be a winner this time.
I have tried to figure out a scenario in which this son of Candy Ride claims the Garland of Roses, and I can’t. Game Winner is as tough as nails and his presence in the race is not to be taken lightly.
But he is not a horse who will make the lead with a final acceleration and draw clear. He is a horse who will grind his way down the stretch and either be passed or never pass the leader.
Starting from post 15 after Omaha Beach’s scratch, Game Winner could be in a better spot. He will now break from the first auxiliary stall and may not be able to avoid some serious bumping and grinding when the gates spring open. He also has a knack for finding wide trips. I don’t see much changing for him Saturday, only this time he will be running five or six wide for 10 furlongs.
Would I be happy to be wrong about his chances to win? Absolutely. I have immense respect for this horse, who has a ton of heart. With that determination, and a certain silver-haired trainer, Game Winner might prove me wrong, and I won’t be mad about it.
3. A win for Improbable is improbable
Improbable enters the Kentucky Derby off of two consecutive losses. The Baffert-trained colt is battle tested, and in post 5 he should be able to break cleanly and relax into position without much incident.
But there is concern over his breeding. A son of City Zip, there is a possibility 10 furlongs may be outside Improbable’s comfort zone.
I’m also not fond of what I have seen during his morning training at Churchill Downs. Typically a powerhouse mover whose fluidity never fails to be eye-catching, he has appeared to be less fluid in Louisville.
Dragging his rider around the oval in a manner I am not used to seeing from him tells me the pressure of the atmosphere may be having an impact. In addition to added energy he is exerting physically, he is having difficulty keeping his head forward on the task at hand. Looking around while galloping isn’t something that brings me much comfort just days before the Derby.
While I am certain Improbable has a bright future, I do not see him winning the Kentucky Derby.
4. Tax flies under the radar and grabs a piece
Why is no one talking about how well this horse looks in the morning? On the muscle and happy to be doing his job, Tax is going unnoticed by most—and that’s fine with me. At morning-line odds of 20-1, the son of Arch seems a very live longshot.
He drew post 2, but if Haikal scratches, he will move to the third gate from the inside. This small change in position will only help him, since he prefers to be forwardly placed. He breaks well enough to get clear of traffic early. His mental maturity will come into play, allowing him to sit back, relax and let others do all the hard work up front.
Is Tax a win contender? Probably not.
But with a ready-to-rumble appearance in the mornings and double-digit odds, he’s worth a shot.
5. Maximum Security is a win contender.
After his Florida Derby (G1) victory, I haven’t been drinking the Kool-Aid.
Until Omaha Beach’s scratch, I hadn’t given much thought to Maximum Security as a possible winner
If he goes to the lead, I do not like him. But if he can rate off of the leaders, he goes from a place possibility to a win contender.
He possesses a fair amount of acceleration once he makes the lead, and if he is able to position well, he may find himself on the lead at the top of the stretch.
Be sure to play your thoughts on Kentucky Derby day!