With Saturday’s victory in the $1 million Haskell Invitational (G1), Maximum Security showed who’s boss in the three-year-old division. He rebounded smartly from a second in the June 16 Pegasus at Monmouth Park, the only time the front-running colt had failed to finish first from six previous starts, and garnered a career-best 104 BRIS Speed rating for the 1 ¼-length decision.
Trainer Jason Servis said the $1.25 million Travers (G1) on August 24 will be next and the “Midsummer Derby” promises to be an exciting affair at Saratoga. Game Winner and Code of Honor were already waiting in the wings following their respective tallies in the Los Alamitos Derby (G3) and Dwyer (G3), and this Saturday’s Jim Dandy (G2) represents the final prep for Belmont (G1) runner-up Tacitus, Preakness winner War of Will and Peter Pan (G3) victor Global Campaign.
The three-year-old division looks capable of making a serious impact in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this fall given questions surrounding the depth and quality of the older male division.
Maximum Security had to survive a stewards’ inquiry for an incident on the far turn of the Haskell when advancing past King for a Day. That rival nearly hit the rail while checking sharply as Maximum Security took his positioning towards the inside and even though it didn’t affect the top two finishers, with Mucho Gusto second best, King for a Day did not persevere and lost any chance for third as John Velazquez protected his mount.
Stewards quickly dismissed the inquiry but for the second time in three starts, Maximum Security has been involved in a situation that arguably compromised another’s chances for a minor award. I’m not blaming the horse, Maximum Security has Luis Saez aboard to guide him and didn’t need to take the path of a weakening rival. The sophomore colt proved best in the Kentucky Derby but was disqualified after Saez failed to keep him straight and unnecessarily impeded a rival leaving the far turn. It was the correct call according to the rules but left a bad taste in the mouth of observers without financial motivation.
Saez received the benefit of the doubt from many after the Kentucky Derby and I was dismayed to see him not exercise more caution on the far turn of the Haskell.
Maximum Security showed his tractability racing an up-close third down the backstretch behind a solid pace and it’s easy to appreciate how he finished. The Gary & Mary West homebred registered a triple-digit BRIS Late Pace rating (101), which had been a staple of three consecutive starts before the Pegasus and is characteristic of a top-class horse.
The Travers is shaping up to be an important prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Maximum Security will be the one to beat following a sharp Haskell win.
Trained by Bob Baffert, the bay son of Candy Ride was perfect during his juvenile campaign and capped his brilliant season with a tally in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Churchill Downs. While winless from a trio of runs at three, the accomplished bay has run creditably in each of his 2019 assignments.
A close second in both the Rebel Stakes (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1), Game Winner was especially wide every step of the way in the Run for the Roses but still gave a good account of himself with his respectable result.
The sophomore division is currently wide-open with no three-year-old taking command at this juncture. Game Winner, with a big second half of the season, could make a case for championship honors at year’s end. And it all starts on Saturday.
His Los Alamitos Derby foes have combined for exactly one stakes win, compared to three Grade 1 tallies for the favorite. Game Winner is expected to roll over his foes and make his way to the Travers Stakes (G1) on August 24 at Saratoga. Anything but a handy win on Saturday will be viewed as a negative for the Baffert pupil.
Game Winner will be equipped with blinkers for the initial time on Saturday, and judging by his string of swift morning drills as of late, the colt will take to the experiment just fine.
If Game Winner does what is expected to do in the Los Alamitos Derby, his next assignment will go a long way in telling us if he is the superstar that raced as a two-year-old, or if the colt is simply a high-class talent that hasn’t separated himself from his fellow sophomores in 2019.
But, if Game Winner struggles on Saturday the answer might be obvious, and the planned trip to The Spa might not come to fruition, anyway.
While the Los Alamitos Derby looks like a public workout on paper for the champion, there is much more at stake for him going forward. This is the race that will lay the foundation for the second half of the season.
PHOTO: Game Winner winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Churchill Downs on November 2, 2018 (c) Coady Photography/Churchill Downs
The wild conclusion to Saturday’s 145th Kentucky Derby (G1) typified the whole trail – plot twists that left the three-year-old picture as sloppy as the Churchill Downs track.
The disqualification of a daylight winner in Maximum Security, and elevation of 65-1 shot Country House, polarized the racing world and angered many fans.
As my colleague Vance Hanson has ably summarized, Maximum Security committed a blatant foul in veering out and imperiling War of Will, who amazingly was not brought down in the process. That was the decisive point since War of Will was traveling smartly into contention, unlike the others hampered in the domino effect, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress. Inadvertent spooking, or otherwise innocent intent, can’t remove this central fact of the case.
Once we move from the “guilt” phase to the penalty phase, however, that’s where the controversy erupts.
According to the rules, Maximum Security’s infraction arguably cost War of Will a better placing than eighth, and therefore demotion is warranted. The stewards’ decision was completely commensurate with the law, although demoting him all the way below Long Range Toddy was less defensible on the evidence.
Yet in an attempt to do justice to the aggrieved, I’d argue that another injustice is being committed. The purpose of any race, above all a classic, is to determine the best horse. When the best horse on the day is disqualified in favor of the soundly beaten runner-up, it’s understandable for disagreement to break out.
As a number of industry voices pointed out in the aftermath, other major racing jurisdictions around the world operate under rules that would have allowed Maximum Security to keep the trophy. Under these “Category 1” rules, the standard isn’t whether the interfered horse was cost a better placing, but rather if there’s strong evidence that he or she would have finished in front of the horse responsible for the interference.
In this case, the stewards would decide whether War of Will was likely to have beaten Maximum Security if he hadn’t been hampered. That’s a much higher burden of proof for a disqualification than if he were cost a better placing, the current “Category 2” rules that guide stewards in the United States and Canada. Since War of Will regrouped, and raced in contention for much of the stretch before tiring, it’s going beyond the evidence to rule that he would otherwise have passed Maximum Security.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club’s Chief Steward, Kim Kelly, explained how the decision looks different from a Category 1 perspective in a May 5 South China Morning Post article:
Under the ‘Category Two’ rules as I understand them, the stewards in Kentucky were perfectly entitled to do what they did.
However, certainly in Hong Kong, there would be no changes to the placings. He was the dominant horse in the race. No case could be successfully argued that those horses, if not for that interference, would have finished in front of (Maximum Security).
At the top of the straight it appeared as though he was under siege but over the 200m (final furlong) he actually extended away from the field, so he was clearly the best horse.
I’d be surprised if any ‘Category One’ country would change the placings. It’s likely, from the shots that I’ve seen, that the jockey would’ve incurred some form of penalty.
That brings us to an alternative remedy to disqualifying the best horse on the day: fines or suspensions for the jockey aboard the offender, in this case Luis Saez. But does such a system promote the safety and welfare of both horse and rider?
For the record, I believe the alternative (known as Category 1) produces more consistent outcomes which benefits more stakeholders. In these instances, someone is always aggrieved, I get it, but nothing is going to undo that War Of Will, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress got $0
Protecting our equine and human athletes and preventing an accidental Derby winner like Country House? Sounds right to me, unless opponents of Category 1 can propose persuasive counterarguments.
Now moving away from the “third rail” and back onto less controversial ground:
Considering that Omaha Beach was two-for-two in the slop, the morning-line favorite had every right to deliver another top-notch effort in Derby 145, and his scratch looms as the most gnawing “what-if.” But for Omaha Beach’s entrapped epiglottis, the Maximum Security fracas may have been over a minor award. Or on a more sober note, perhaps Omaha Beach was spared potential disaster had he been alongside when Maximum Security veered out.
Game Winner was heroic despite a virtually hopeless trip. While I freely admit my bias in favor of my principal rooting interest, the objective evidence backs me up. Not only was he behind the eight-ball after his problematic start for Joel Rosario – color me shocked that he was next to last early – but he was also hung out unconscionably wide. According to Trakus, Game Winner negotiated 103 feet (!) more than Maximum Security. That’s far in excess of his four-length margin of defeat.
His never-say-die attitude rallying down the stretch to cross the wire sixth (elevated to fifth) reminded me of another Bob Baffert juvenile champion, Lookin at Lucky, who soldiered on after being clobbered in the 2010 Derby. (The racing fates must have had a good laugh since Lookin at Lucky is the sire of Country House.) With a halfway sensible passage through Derby 145, Game Winner quite possibly threatens Maximum Security, and owners Gary and Mary West might have had the exacta. Invoking the Lookin at Lucky parallel, might there be a rider change for Game Winner?
The work-in-progress Country House finally put it all together. A fan since his show-stopping maiden win at Gulfstream Park, I was delighted by his runner-up effort, even amid all the goofy lugging-in, in the Risen Star (G2). But the expected move forward in the Louisiana Derby (G2) didn’t happen, and it took a third-place swing through the last-chance-saloon in the Arkansas Derby (G1) to scrape into the Derby 145 field. So I’d infamously dropped him from my top 10 because he just didn’t appear to be progressing. The Run for the Roses was coming too soon, and maybe the light bulb would come on for Saratoga or even next year. Whether things just clicked under Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott’s tutelage, or the rider switch to Flavien Prat was a key factor, Country House worked out a far more sensible trip than imagined. And Game Winner got the trip I envisioned for Country House!
Master Fencer vindicated the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby. I’ve been supportive of attracting Japanese participation, but would have preferred to see one ranked higher than fourth on the Japan Road leaderboard. My biggest hang-up with Master Fencer was that he wasn’t the best dirt sophomore in his homeland. But after his blistering charge, altering course from dead last turning for home, to snatch seventh (placed sixth) and nip at Maximum Security’s heels past the wire, he not only proved his merit. Master Fencer also prompted the tantalizing “what if” about his presumed betters. If we’d lured Japan Road winner Der Flug – or fellow unbeaten Chrysoberyl who missed the points races – might they have gone even closer? All the more reason to look forward to Kate Hunter’s recruiting efforts for 2020.
Country House in the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle (c) Coady Photography/Churchill Downs
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!
With the exception of Japan Road invitee Master Fencer, who continued his routine exercise at Keeneland, the other 19 Kentucky Derby (G1) contenders turned in workouts between last Thursday and Monday.
MONDAY, APRIL 29
At Palm Meadows, unbeaten Florida Derby (G1) winner Maximum Security was credited with a half-mile move in :53.80. In trainer Jason Servis’ methodology, however, that was simply the finale to a gallop.
“He went a mile in 1:58 and came home, I want to say, in 25 (seconds) for the last quarter,” Servis said. “He galloped out a mile and an eighth in 2:12 and cooled out good. All systems are, ‘Go.’”
Servis commented on how the Palm Meadows clocker timed the move.
“They’re getting the last (half-mile) when the horse is breezing a slow mile,” Servis said. “That’s something that probably needs to be addressed at some point.
“I think it was after his second race that I took him off the rail, so to speak, and started doing the open miles. It’s just a maintaining thing, trying to avoid injuries that would set us back. Maybe in a fast breeze there is more risk than what I’m doing.”
At Churchill Downs, Long Range Toddy, victorious in the first Rebel (G2) division before a sixth in the Arkansas Derby (G1), breezed a half-mile in :47.80. The Steve Asmussen pupil was caught in fractions of :12.60, :24.20, and :35.80, and proceeded to gallop out five furlongs in 1:01.20 and six in 1:12.40.
“Hopefully, we’ll have a fast track like we had (Monday) morning,” the Hall of Fame trainer said, unlike the sloppy going in the Arkansas Derby. “He worked beautifully this morning. At this time of the year, the three-year-olds have to step up. He stepped up big time in the Rebel and hopefully can continue to improve. He’ll need to put up the race of a lifetime in the Derby.”
SUNDAY, APRIL 28
Churchill’s Sunday worktab was busier with six Derby hopefuls out for major moves.
Bill Mott’s duo of Wood Memorial (G2) hero Tacitus and Country House commenced a five-eighths drill in company, bursting through to the inside of Maryland shipper Win Win Win and his workmate as they tooled along. But Win Win Win sailed past the Mott duo in deep stretch in his half-mile work. Tacitus and Country House caught back up with Win Win Win entering the clubhouse turn as they matched strides until Win Win Win eased to the outside with his task accomplished.
Country House on the rail, and Tacitus flanking him, clocked five furlongs in 1:00. The tandem posted fractions of :12.20, :24.20, :35.80, and :48, and galloped out six furlongs in 1:12.80, seven furlongs in 1:26, and a mile in 1:39.80.
“My team was ready to break off,” Mott said, “and they (Win Win Win and workmate) probably didn’t know we were going to work. All the riders did a really good job and I really have to commend all of them. It’s not going to hurt them and they better get used to (traffic) if they’re not already or they’ll get a surprise on Derby Day. It’s pretty crowded out there.
“We have a week to go until the Derby and we look like we’re in good shape. They finished up right together. They may have been a head apart. I told them if they could work together, that would help each other during the work. Both of my horses have pretty laid-back dispositions and they probably needed their company to encourage each other. For me, it worked out perfectly.”
Win Win Win, who dusted his company in :47.60, was caught in splits of :24.20 and :36. The Mike Trombetta trainee galloped out five furlongs in 1:00.20.
“That was a little different, but it worked out well,” jockey Julian Pimentel said of the work that unfolded unexpectedly when the Mott pair barreled through on the inside, when Win Win Win surged by, and when they all re-engaged. “He went about his business and he wanted to go get them.”
Louisiana Derby (G2) winner By My Standards continued to tout himself in the mornings with a strong half in :48.40. After initial fractions of :12.40, :24, and :36.40, the Bret Calhoun pupil galloped out with good energy, covering five furlongs in 1:00.60, six in 1:12.80, and polishing off seven in 1:26.60.
“Well, that couldn’t have gone any better,” Calhoun said. “It’s just a blessing how well he’s doing entering the Derby. He’s doing everything we’ve asked him to do and just moves so effortlessly around the racetrack.”
Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) hero Improbable, runner-up in the Arkansas Derby, rolled through five furlongs in company in 1:00.60. A touch overeager early as he dragged Florent Geroux up to, and past, his workmate, the Bob Baffert runner recorded splits of :11.80, :23.60, and :36.40. He kept motoring six furlongs in 1:13 and galloped out seven, in hand, in 1:25.60.
“He loves this track,” Baffert said. “I just love the way he kept on galloping out today.”
“I don’t think he was rank,” said Geroux, who will ride stablemate Roadster in the Derby as Irad Ortiz Jr. picks up Improbable. “He was just maybe a little bit keen and feeling good. He’s very easy (to ride) actually. Down the lane he was responding exactly to what I was asking him to. I could have gone faster if I wanted to. I could have gone a touch slower if I wanted to. He was just very cooperative.”
Fountain of Youth (G2) victor Code of Honor, third in the Florida Derby, zipped four furlongs in :46.80 to post the second fastest of 76 on the day. The Shug McGaughey pupil reeled off splits of :11.80, :23.20, :35.20, and galloped out five in :59.40 and six furlongs in 1:13.20.
“I told (exercise rider Brian Duggan) to go in :48,” the Hall of Famer said, “but the track was pretty good this morning.”
SATURDAY, APRIL 27
Arkansas Derby star Omaha Beach likely solidified Kentucky Derby favoritism by working five-eighths at Churchill in :59. The second best of 43 at the distance, eclipsed only by four-year-old multiple Grade 1 winner McKinzie’s :58.60, Omaha Beach showed push-button tractability as he rated off workmate Kowboy Karma before dismissing him rapidly.
“He felt good, very good,” said Julien Leparoux, who was subbing for Derby rider Mike Smith after the work was postponed to the weekend for better weather. “When I asked him, he went.”
Omaha Beach recorded fractions of :12, :23.60, and :35.40, and capped the move with a six-furlong gallop-out in 1:12.80.
Hall of Fame horseman Richard Mandella, looking for his first Derby victory, was delighted.
“I just wanted him to have one more good work; that’s all he needed,” Mandella said. “He got it today. They were supposed to go off together, but it all worked out fine. He went and got him. I really liked that he settled right down after the work. He acts like a professional racehorse. I don’t think this work took much out of him at all. It couldn’t have gone better. It’s all working out just right.
“I’ve never had a three-year-old doing this well this early. He’s just special. Since (capturing the second division of the) Rebel (G2) he’s filled out and just gotten better. He’s pure class. And he’s a kind horse. A horse that’s easy to be around.”
Trainer Mark Casse was likewise happy with War of Will’s bullet half in :47.60, joint-fastest of 79 on the day. His company no more than a target, the Risen Star (G2) and Lecomte (G3) hero was caught in :12, :24 and :36.20 with jockey Tyler Gaffalione aboard. War of Will opened up at will as he galloped out five furlongs in 1:00 and six furlongs in 1:13.60.
“What you got to see this morning, if you weren’t impressed with him this morning, I don’t know what we’re supposed to do,” Casse said.
UAE Derby (G2) winner Plus Que Parfait also bested his company in a five-furlong move in 1:02.00. Trainer Brendan Walsh was satisfied that after opening splits of :12, :23.60, and :36.20, he settled down to clock a half in :49.40 and stayed on steadily to gallop out six furlongs in 1:15.60.
“He has become more aggressive now than how he used to be, which I think is a good thing to see,” Walsh said. “He went a little faster than we wanted early on and the last thing I wanted to do was do too much with him right now. Then, when he left the lead horse, he lazed a little bit and it was fine. I wanted 1:02 and out in 1:15 and that’s exactly how he went.
UAE Derby runner-up Gray Magician, tuning up at trainer Peter Miller’s San Luis Rey base, worked five-eighths in 1:00.40. With Derby rider Drayden Van Dyke up, he overtook his workmate and drew off.
“He worked super and came home really well,” Miller said. “I couldn’t be happier with how he did it. He came home (his final quarter-mile) in :23 1/5 and that was very good. He galloped out another eighth (to get six furlongs) in 1:12 2/5. This is a fast race track here, but it was the way he did it.
“Drayden came and worked him and the horse really did it on his own. He just shook the reins at him once and he opened up on his workmate. He started out about three lengths behind him and finished about 12 lengths ahead.”
FRIDAY, APRIL 26
At Santa Anita, Baffert’s one-two from the Santa Anita Derby (G1), Roadster and Game Winner, pulled away from their respective workmates in a pair of stiff drills beneath Martin Garcia. Each was positioned on the inside and set the pace themselves on the deep surface.
“I had them inside just to keep the pressure on,” Baffert said.
Roadster went out first, after the 6:45 a.m. (PDT) renovation break, and covered six furlongs in 1:13.80.
“I loved the way he went,” Baffert said. “Martin said he felt great and didn’t take a deep breath. That’s one thing about this horse – he’ll go a mile and a quarter. We just don’t know how fast. He handles a deep track, and the really good ones will do that.
“He’ll be fit when he leaves here, because I think the Santa Anita Derby got him pretty fit. After that, I could see a big change in him. He really needed that race.
“As soon as I told him to pick it up, he took off. He was controlling the work and just cruising along…if the horse is good enough, he’s ready.”
File photo of Game Winner working at Santa Anita April 20
Game Winner, last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) champion at Churchill, took to the Santa Anita track after the 7:45 a.m. break and strode relentlessly through seven furlongs in 1:27.
“Game Winner looked awesome; it was perfect,” Baffert said, significantly for a horse who’s not the flashiest worker.
Friday’s other three Derby works came at Palm Beach Downs.
Blue Grass (G2) winner Vekoma breezed a bullet five furlongs in :59.95 in company with fellow George Weaver trainee Majestic Dunhill, who shared the bullet. Derby jockey Javier Castellano was astride for the joint-best of eight moves on the day.
Todd Pletcher’s duo of Cutting Humor and Spinoff also geared up at their winter base.
Sunland Park Derby (G3) winner Cutting Humor blitzed a half-mile in a bullet :48.01, fastest of 15 at the distance. Posting fractions of :13 and :24.80, he galloped out five furlongs in 1:00.80.
Louisiana Derby runner-up Spinoff tied workmate Last Judgment when clocking five-eighths in 1:00.77. Splits were reported in :13, :25, and :37, followed by gallop-out times of 1:13.60 for six furlongs and seven in 1:27.
THURSDAY, APRIL 25
Belmont Park hosted both Derby workers, Tax and Haikal, the respective second and third from the Wood.
Tax, the Withers (G3) winner, sped a half in :47.80 on the training track while blowing by his workmate. His time was the fourth-best of 79 on the day.
“I thought he worked really tremendous,” trainer Danny Gargan said. “We put a target in front of him because he likes to run at something and :47 and change is fast today. I worked a few horses earlier today and no one worked that fast. Divine Miss Grey went :48 and change and she’s a good work horse. The gallop-out was impressive and he’s training really well.”
On the main oval, Gotham (G3) hero Haikal negotiated five furlongs in company in 1:01.21, matching strides with Taamer before edging clear.
“I loved what I saw this morning,” trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. “He kept going out and finished strong. It was an excellent work.
“He went a little fast last week (bullet half in :47.59 on April 19), but it was probably the track. This week was really nice. The way he galloped out and the way he worked he looked really good. In hand. I really like this work better this week.”
Top photo of Omaha Beach in routine exercise April 22 (c) Rickelle Nelson/Horsephotos.com
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 withTacitus. 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
The general rule for many horsemen training toward a big race is that the last timed workout isn’t the most important. The big work often comes the week before, while the final breeze serves as more of a tune-up.
With that in mind, the weekend’s works for Kentucky Derby contenders around the country were notable.
The only timed Derby work at Churchill Downs (although expected favorite Omaha Beach, off his victory in the Arkansas Derby [G1] galloped over the Churchill main track Sunday) this weekend came from a horse who would need help to get into the field – Blue Grass Stakes (G2) third Signalman. The General Quarters colt trained by Kenny McPeek needs two defections from the current field of 20 to get in, but logged at bullet :59 3/5 five-furlong drill Saturday. Sunday morning, UAE Derby (G2) winner Plus Que Parfait breezed a half-mile, but the fog prevented clockers from ascertaining a time.
Seventy miles or so down the road at Keeneland, Code of Honor logged his second work since his third in the Florida Derby (G1) with a five-furlong breeze in 1:01 Saturday. A day before, War of Will flashed some nice speed at the same distance in Lexington and went on the worktab at 1:00 1/5.
Out West the Bob Baffert-trained duo of Game Winner and Roadster put in stiff drills at Santa Anita Park on Saturday. Roadster, the Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner, logged six furlongs in 1:13 3/5 from the gate, while 2018’s champion 2-year-old male Game Winner covered five furlongs in 1:00 4/5. Farther south, UAE Derby runner-up Gray Magician put in a half-mile work in :48 2/5 at San Luis Rey Training Center for trainer Peter Miller.
On the East Coast on Friday, Wood Memorial (G2) third and Gotham (G3) winner Haikal put in a half-mile breeze in :47.59 at Belmont Park, and Blue Grass second Win Win Win covered five furlongs in 1:01 on the synthetic track at Fair Hill Training Center in Maryland on Sunday, but the lion’s share of workouts took place in Florida.
Palm Beach Downs hosted Blue Grass winner Vekoma (four furlongs in :50.17 Thursday), Sunland Derby (G3) victor Cutting Humor (five furlongs in :59.58 Friday), and Louisiana Derby (G2) second Spinoff (five furlongs in :59.99 Friday), while claimer turned Florida Derby winner Maximum Security galloped his way to a :42 clocking for three furlongs at Palm Meadows Training Center on Sunday.
There were seven Kentucky Derby (G1) prep races run this year that gave 100 points to the winner and with remarkably few defections so far this year, their winners all look like they will make it to the starting gate. Let’s try to rate them in order of influence on this year’s “Run for the Roses.”
In seventh place will be the UAE Derby (G2). It was won by Plus Que Parfait who showed an ability of finishing strong going a longer distance than any of these. He hadn’t done much before that so the trip to Dubai was well worth it with a check for over $1.5 million and a berth in the starting gate. Second-place finisher Gray Magician has enough points and is under serious consideration.
In sixth place, the Louisiana Derby (G2) might send three starters to the Derby but none look like they will be in the top four in the betting. By My Standards will be a longshot, Spinoff will take some money based on the combination of Todd Pletcher with a high BRIS speed rating, and War of Will, who looks like he is bouncing back from his ninth-place finish but does not figure to be bet that much with all the questions surrounding him.
In fifth place, the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) had a big field of 14 and the winner, Vekoma, won it by 3 1/2 lengths. Win Win Win flew home after encountering traffic and barely got second which gives him enough points to run.
In fourth place, the Wood Memorial (G2) was a nice race and its winner, Tacitus, could figure strongly in this year’s Derby. Tax and Haikal will both be longshots but at least Tax has the distinction of running three straight triple-digit BRIS speed ratings.
In third place, the Florida Derby (G1) might not have been the vintage of past ones where the winner went to Churchill Downs to win the Derby but it is a hard race to ignore. Maximum Security is undefeated in four starts on the speed-favoring main track at Gulfstream Park and will have to show he can take his game on the road. Third-place finisher Code Of Honor has been highly rated all year after winning the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2) over Vekoma. He raced erratically in the Florida Derby and was third on a track where speed was not coming back.
In second place, the Santa Anita Derby (G1) had the brilliant Roadster get up in the stretch over last year’s juvenile champion Game Winner. Both horses will be high regarded in the Derby and both will easily be in the top five betting choices.
And, finally, in first place as the strongest Kentucky Derby prep race will be the Arkansas Derby (G1). Even run only three weeks before the Derby, it attracted a strong field where the winner Omaha Beach could be the betting favorite, Improbable will be in the top five, and Country House was the only horse making up ground at the end. Long Range Toddy finished sixth but beat Improbable in the first division of the Rebel Stakes (G2) in his previous start so he will attract attention. The Arkansas Derby might have yielded the betting favorite and the most horses, four, to come out of it. Hard to beat that combination.
Omaha Beach winning the Arkansas Derby (G1) (c) Coady Photography/Oaklawn Park
The 2019 Road to the Kentucky Derby series is now complete and the field is somewhat set. Now comes the wait for final works and possible defections, among other things. Here are general thoughts on each of the Top 25 point qualifiers.
Has lived up to his regal pedigree with back-to-back wins in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and Wood Memorial (G2), the latter a roughly-run affair which may serve him well in a congested field of 20 at Churchill. Juddmonte Farm and Bill Mott overdue for Kentucky Derby success for as much as they’ve put into the game.
Although subject to change, currently #1 on my personal Top 10 list following his win in the Arkansas Derby (G1). Far from a standout in this spot, but appreciate ability to make his own luck by finding favorable position early in a race and talent at turning back stretch challenges. Like Tacitus, owner-trainer (Rick Porter and Richard Mandella) well deserving of a chance to be in the Derby winner’s circle.
A proven winner though not really battle-tested enough in the Blue Grass (G2) on a day when being on or near the lead was highly favorable. Blue Grass also emphasized his strange way of running. Looks a cut below the top players.
Plus Que Parfait
Success in the UAE Derby (G2), a race no Kentucky Derby winner has ever prepped in, hardly erases disappointing runs in the Risen Star (G2) and Lecomte (G3). One of those I’m willing to let beat me.
Earned belated revenge on stablemate Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) after being dealt a loss by that one when favored in last fall’s Del Mar Futurity (G1). Patience being rewarded after giving this colt time to recoup from throat surgery. Still plenty of room for improvement.
By My Standards
Certainly blossoming at the right time for trainer Bret Calhoun, whose optimism was rewarded with a 22-1 upset in the Louisiana Derby (G2). Fair Grounds’ signature event historically hasn’t been the most productive Kentucky Derby prep, but price will be right for those thinking recent trends in that regard can be bucked.
Underestimated by his own connections given career started in a $16,000 maiden claimer followed by two starter allowance appearances. After dominating those three, was left alone on the lead in the Florida Derby (G1). Clearly one of the fastest individuals in the field, but would be surprised if he got that same trip at Churchill.
Reigning juvenile champion has narrowly lost his two prep runs this year while getting less favorable trips than Omaha Beach and Roadster, respectively. Would still like to have seen evidence of a real step forward off his two-year-old form. At this point, inclined to try and beat him if he’s first or second choice in the wagering.
Code of Honor
Had plenty of pace to run at to succeed in the Fountain of Youth (G2), far less when a well-beaten third in the Florida Derby. Will Farish winning a Derby 47 years after his only classic win in the Preakness (G1) would be very popular in local circles and beyond, but trip-dependent colt will need help.
Did not experience the trouble others did in the Wood Memorial, yet still finished four lengths third after dropping back 14 lengths off the pace. Has talent, but has the look of being more effective around one turn than two.
Unruly prior to the start of the Arkansas Derby and broke from a less favorable part of the track before getting out into the open down the backside. Seemingly did not care for the sloppy track either, but might very well have been rebuffed by Omaha Beach on a fast track as well. I like him, but below Omaha Beach at present.
War of Will
Talented colt with impressive cruising speed had little real opposition in the Lecomte and Risen Star, then unluckily injured himself leaving the gate in the Louisiana Derby in which he was heavily favored. Any hiccup of that sort, even six weeks before the Derby, is something you don’t like to see. Would need a career effort to bounce back.
Long Range Toddy
Perhaps didn’t fancy wet conditions in the Arkansas Derby when a well-beaten sixth. Didn’t need a huge effort as he had already cemented a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate when edging Improbable in a Rebel (G2) division, but still would have preferred something more aesthetically appealing. Suspicions remain about his relative class.
Easily one of the best claims of recent years with a victory in the Withers (G3) and placings in the Wood Memorial and Remsen (G2) after being haltered for $50,000 last fall. Enjoyed a decent trip in the Wood after some early trouble and was simply second best to Tacitus. Hard-trier looks like a longshot to use in the lower rungs of the exotics.
Just lasted in a swiftly-run Sunland Park Derby (G3), but previously showed not to be first team among Pletcher-trained three-year-olds. Doubt a 10th furlong is what he really wants.
Win Win Win
Placed in both the Tampa Bay Derby and Blue Grass but no significant win threat either time, even when considering some of the trouble in running at Keeneland. Not fast enough at present.
Show some immaturity when second in the Risen Star, closers like him were not all that effective in the Louisiana Derby, and never threatened Omaha Beach and Improbable in the Arkansas Derby while getting himself qualified. Mott’s best chance in this race is obviously with Tacitus.
Like Plus Que Parfait, qualified in the UAE Derby after displaying inferior form in prior U.S. preps. Would be a big surprise.
Lightly-raced son of 2007 Derby runner-up Hard Spun was a solid second in the Louisiana Derby in his two-turn stakes debut for Todd Pletcher, but as mentioned earlier the infrequency at which the Fair Grounds feature has a bearing on the Kentucky Derby result is a slight concern. Eligible to improve, though, and he’ll be a price.
Chased Maximum Security all the way around the track in the Florida Derby, which was run at a slow tempo early. Perhaps better than your average maiden contender in this race if he gets to run, and Dad ran second here in 2012. However, no one of his ilk has worn the roses since Broker’s Tip in 1933.
Likes Churchill Downs well enough with a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and victory in the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) to his credit, but has yet to produce a breakout performance. Looks too slow to be considered a win contender, though a possible Superfecta kicker if he gets to run.
Needed a victory in the Lexington (G3) to assure his participation in the Kentucky Derby, but fell short of that goal. Waters will be much deeper if he lucks into running with the help of several defections.
Consistent check-getter placed in all four Derby preps he tried this year, albeit most were weaker tune-ups. Not classy enough.
Was expected to secure enough qualifying points in the Florida Derby when well-backed, but hindered by the slow pace set by Maximum Security. Connections reportedly philosophical that he didn’t come to hand early enough to make noise on the first Saturday in May. A potentially competitive colt for the summer, though.