Fresh horses have an edge in the 2019 Belmont Stakes

by Noel Michaels

Notwithstanding the victory in 2018 of Triple Crown winner Justify, the Belmont Stakes (G1) is truly one of the great unheralded graveyards for favorites in all of horse racing. It has become increasingly difficult for a horse who has already won, or even competed, in both of the first two legs of the Triple Crown to win the Belmont Stakes. Because of this, no matter how good the favorite might look in the Belmont Stakes, it is still worthwhile to bet against them.

Part of the reason favorites do badly in the Belmont Stakes is because they are usually already depleted after having run in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness (G1), and are facing off against fresher horses. Additionally, the Preakness, in particular, seems to have become a negative key race in terms of running successfully in the Belmont Stakes.

Dating back to Commendable in 2000, 10 of the last 19 Belmont Stakes winners had not run a race in the five weeks between the Kentucky Derby and Belmont. When you narrow it to four weeks out from the Belmont to accommodate horses exiting the local prep race in the Peter Pan (G2), then 12 of the 19 Belmont winners had at least a four-week layoff going into the race.

Belmont winners Tapwrit, Creator, Palace Malice, Union Rags, Summer Bird, Jazil, Birdstone, Empire Maker and Commendable had all run in the Kentucky Derby but skipped the Preakness in favor of other methods of readying for the Belmont Stakes. Filly Rags to Riches had no race between the Kentucky Oaks (G1) and the Belmont.

Tonalist and Drosselmeyer , the 2014 and 2010 Belmont winners, skipped both the the Kentucky Derby or Preakness but did have a race in the Peter Pan and Dwyer Stakes (G2), respectively. They won the Belmont off four-week layoffs. Before that Lemon Drop Kid was a troubled also-ran in the Derby who also competed in the Peter Pan, which has proven to be an effective Belmont Stakes prep in recent history and is a good place to look for a longshot.

Belmont Stakes winners of yore usually were war horses who danced every dance in the Triple Crown series, but that’s no longer the trend to look for in a Belmont winner. A quintet of recent Belmont winners – Tonalist (2014), Drosselmeyer (2010), Da’ Tara (2008), Rags to Riches (2007) and Sarava (2002) – were making their Triple Crown debuts in the third jewel. The new shooters in this season’s Triple Crown races who are entered in the Belmont Stakes are Joevia, Sir Winston and Intrepid Heart.

This year, only Preakness winner War of Will will have raced in all three Triple Crown races. That has to be considered a negative in terms of his chances to win. Also, Everfast and Bourbon War are exiting the Preakness three weeks ago, which is a possible knock against those contenders.

Finally, the group of Belmont Stakes-bound horses who ran in the Kentucky Derby and then skipped the Preakness, giving them the experience of running in the Derby and also the benefit of five weeks off between races, are Master Fencer, Tax, Spinoff and Tacitus. This year’s advantage could go to these horses, not only to win but also in the exactas and trifectas if you are betting the exotics.

Since Tacitus is the morning-line favorite in this year’s Belmont, you can choose a longshot win bet amongst Tax (15-1), Spinoff (15-1) or Master Fencer (8-1).

Best of luck!

PHOTO: Master Fencer (c) O’Leary

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Maven aims to become American Pharoah’s first stakes winner in Tremont

The Wesley Ward-trained and bred Maven became the first North American winner at stud for Triple Crown winner American Pharoah when he led throughout at Aqueduct on April 19. Now, the chestnut colt will try to become the first stakes winner by his sire when leading a field of nine postward in Friday’s $150,000 Tremont S. at Belmont Park.

Bred in the Bluegrass State, the May foal was heavily backed in his debut and he delivered with a sharp tally under today’s pilot Dylan Davis. The colt broke well and was a bit headstrong, until given his cue at the top of the lane at Aqueduct. He responded like a good one when being challenged by next-out graduate Lebda, finishing a half-length clear under the line.

Maven shows four perfectly spaced half-mile works leading up to his stakes bow on Friday. Those morning breezes all came on the green, where Maven could eventually be destined for. The colt is a son of three-time stakes winner Richies Party Girl, who was a one-turn specialist on the turf who registered a victory in the 2013 Juvenile Turf Sprint on Breeders’ Cup Saturday.

The Tremont field attracted some other nice prospects, too. Rookie Salsa is perfect from two starts to date, which includes a 27-1 upset in the Kentucky Juvenile S. for conditioner Jeremiah O’Dwyer. The Two Step Salsa colt won at first asking at Laurel Park prior to his stakes surprise.

Fore Left went off at 6-5 odds in his first start at Santa Anita and led at every call for trainer Doug O’Neill. The son of Twirling Candy makes the cross-country trek for the Tremont, as does jockey Mario Gutierrez.

Ward’s Dixie Mo gives this outfit a pair of players in the field. The daughter of Uncle Mo, who dominated in an off-the-turf sprint at Indiana Grand first time out, will tackle the boys in this heat.

The Steve Asmussen-trained Memorable defeated six foes at Churchill Downs on May 2 and he could be any kind going forward. Kentucky-bred colt put in a sharp half-mile move at Keeneland on Sunday to ready for his stakes debut.

American Pharoah will undoubtedly get stakes winners in 2019, and it would be fitting if his first were the horse who represented him with his initial North American victory at stud.

Maven wins his debut at Aqueduct (c) NYRA/Coglianese Photography

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Fluid three-year-old title race a good thing for second half of 2019

We all knew well ahead of time there was not going to be a Kentucky Derby (G1)-Preakness (G1) double pulled off this year, and given the events that transpired earlier this month that’s not a bad thing.

As much as we look forward to the occasional Triple Crown bid and the mainstream attention the sport receives in those circumstances, it’s also not a bad thing for a championship race to extend into the second half of the year. That wasn’t the case in two of the past four seasons, so the major three-year-old races ahead will presumably have added relevance this time around.

So who’s the three-year-old male division leader after the first two legs of the Triple Crown? If the polls closed today, the race would likely be decided between Maximum Security and War of Will.

A nuanced view of the Kentucky Derby outcome is that Maximum Security was indeed the best horse in the race yet was justifiably disqualified due to bad behavior on the second turn. He also has the victory in the Florida Derby (G1) going for him.

War of Will has a trio of graded stakes wins in the Preakness, Risen Star (G2), and Lecomte (G3), and two excusable losses — in the Louisiana Derby (G2), where he injured himself soon after the start, and the Kentucky Derby, where he was the first to bear the brunt of Maximum Security’s misdeeds while arguably short of complete fitness having not had a useful prep in the preceding 11 weeks.

What about Kentucky Derby winner Country House? While officially the winner of the most prestigious event in the division, the rest of his record to date does not stand up to closer scrutiny. He finished second to War of Will in the Risen Star, fourth in the Louisiana Derby, and third in the Arkansas Derby (G1).

The winner of that Arkansas Derby was Omaha Beach, who perhaps would receive a sprinkling of support if the vote were held now. Also the winner of a Rebel (G2) division, there’s probably quite a few (myself included) who feel that, if not for the untimely throat issue that resulted in his scratching from the Kentucky Derby as the morning line favorite, he might have proved better than all of these over a surface he would have relished. Think of the drama that might have potentially been avoided, too.

Of these four, only War of Will is a likely participant in the Belmont Stakes (G1). Another victory there would undoubtedly give him a leg up on divisional honors. It’s not impossible to stop a horse with two classic wins from winning the divisional championship, but it’s been rare in the Eclipse Award era. The last occurrence was 1994, when Holy Bull defeated Tabasco Cat (though some of us sided against Funny Cide and California Chrome in the interim). Before that you have to go back to 1972, when Key to the Mint outpolled Riva Ridge.

(It also happened in 1969, 1968, 1966, 1950, 1944, 1942, 1939, and 1936.)

Maximum Security’s next significant goal is the Haskell Invitational (G1) in July, while Country House and Omaha Beach continue to recover from recent ailments. And don’t sleep on another three-year-old popping up or improving late in the year. Recent champions like West Coast, Arrogate, and Will Take Charge were on no one’s championship radar at this point in the season.

While there are two colts with a slight edge over their competition for the Eclipse Award at this point, the beauty of all this is that the race remains very fluid as we approach the Memorial Day holiday and head into summertime. Not a bad thing at all.


(c) Gustavsson

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2019 Kentucky Derby leaves series of what-might-have-beens

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?

In a paper supporting the United States’ changing to Category 1 rules, the Thoroughbred Idea Foundation contends that it does militate against dangerous riding while offering a more consistent standard of adjudication. And consistency, after all, is what connections and bettors alike crave.

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

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Circumstances of Derby DQ less satisfactory than decision itself

I doubt anyone in racing likes the fact that disqualifications are sometimes necessary. Ideally, every race would be cleanly run and the better horse would win every time.

However, we’re dealing with thousand-pound animals that vary in intelligence, ability, maturity, and, during the actual running of races, various states of physical and mental fatigue. There is also, of course, a human element directly involved in these athletic competitions as well, namely jockeys.

Until Saturday, no horse had ever been disqualified from first place in the Kentucky Derby (G1) due to actions that occurred during the actual running of the 1 1/4-mile event. That was a streak of 144 years, and is one reason why reaction to the events of Saturday night have been difficult for some to process. None of us expect, much less desire, the outcome of racing’s signature event to be doubted once the field crosses the finish line.

As in all aspects of life, there’s always a first time. And that first time has triggered plenty of emotion, and much to chew on going forward.

I don’t have many qualms with the ruling per se. There was no valid reason for Maximum Security to have drifted outward several paths on the turn and interfere with War of Will, who was not a “beaten” horse at the time of contact, thus causing a chain reaction. I’m not so sure the same observation can be made regarding Long Range Toddy, behind whom Maximum Security was ultimately placed in the official order of finish.

Far more disconcerting was the path from Point A, the race, to Point B, the decision to disqualify the first-place finisher.

The stationing of patrol judges at various points around the racetrack, as occurred in the old days, has been made largely redundant due to improvements in video camera technology and footage. However, one could argue their absence was sorely missed when no public announcement was made that the stewards were instigating an immediate review of the incident.

That was a puzzling oversight in the eyes of this observer, who was stationed in the grandstand at the eighth pole and clearly witnessed suspicious activity both in real time and while glancing at Churchill Downs‘ Big Board, which provided viewers an overhead view of the action from a camera positioned ahead of the approaching field. The decision to apparently review the action only after two claims of foul were lodged was reminiscent of the situation I witnessed attending the 2016 Delaware H. (G1). In neither case can the lack of proactivity be considered satisfactory.

There was also much to be unsatisfied about in regards to who and who didn’t lodge a foul claim. The connections of War of Will, the horse most immediately impacted by Maximum Security’s errant ways, said Sunday that they chose not to lodge an objection as there would have been no material benefit awaiting them if Maximum Security had been disqualified. At best War of Will would have been placed seventh, which he was, but only the top five finishers earn purse money.

The claim of foul that the public was most aware of was that lodged by jockey Flavien Prat, the rider of Country House. In light of the stewards’ post-race statement, and the footage readily available, Prat’s objection was arguably frivolous. It was certainly one officials can take steps to dissuade others from repeating in the future.

Given what happened in the final quarter-mile between Maximum Security and Country House, I feel confident in thinking the record books will not acknowledge that the better of the two won the Kentucky Derby. That’s the thing that perhaps disturbs most those who disagreed with the decision to disqualify.

While feeling the disqualification was warranted, the “winner” was not the best horse. The outcome of a Kentucky Derby, or any big race for that matter, is most dissatisfying when your head and heart tell you the result does not accurately reflect the merits of the individuals involved.

One of my first thoughts after the disqualification was announced was a conversation I had just last month with retired Hall of Fame jockey Bill Boland, who rode Middleground to victory in the 1950 Kentucky Derby. When recalling his narrow loss aboard Sword Dancer in the 1959 Derby, and his claim of foul against Tomy Lee that was dismissed, he said:

“The first year I rode in the Derby, they called all the jocks in and they told us, ‘You know, we aren’t going to take a horse down in the Derby. It’s never been done. But if anybody causes any trouble, we’ll give you up to a year.’ So they weren’t going to take a horse down in the Derby unless it was really bad. I think they would now, but in those days they wouldn’t.”

How timely. I would never have guessed that statement could possibly define what was about to happen.

PHOTO: Maximum Security (pink hat) shies off the rail into the path of War of Will (black hat), resulting in his disqualification as the 145th Kentucky Derby (G1) victor and elevation of Country House (light yellow hat) to winner (c) Coady Photography/Churchill Downs

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Dick Powell: The stewards got it right

After an interminable review by the stewards in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby (G1), they got it right.

It was a long and circuitous path to get there but MAXIMUM SECURITY was disqualified and placed 17th, behind LONG RANGE TODDY, and I agree with the decision.

Luis Saez was able to put Maximum Security on the lead despite many challenges on his outside from Long Range Toddy and BODEXPRESS. They raced as a team through a demanding pace over an extremely wet track with WAR OF WILL stalking the trio of leaders down on the inside. Tyler Gaffalione was having trouble getting War of Will to relax as the son of War Front was throwing his head, full of run with nowhere to go.

The demands of the early pace and tiring track were taking their toll around the far turn as the pace slowed down. Gaffalione could potentially see that Maximum Security might not be backing up so he was going to have to go after him. Moving off the rail and bumping with Long Range Toddy, he found room to go after Maximum Security.

One stride later, Maximum Security in front of War of Will, drifted out. The NBC slow-motion cameras showed Maximum Security’s hind legs intersected with War of Will’s lead leg and for a fleeting moment, it looked like the sport of horse racing in America was about to come to an end.

Had War of Will gone down, it would have caused a chain reaction behind him on national TV with more eyes on our sport than any other time of the year during a crisis time for the sport. Thank goodness, Gaffalione was able to pull War of Will off of Maximum Security and avoid catastrophe.

No sooner had this incident happened, Saez seemingly went back to the inside and to tighten up on Johnny Velazquez aboard CODE OF HONOR. Straightened away in the run down the homestretch, the only real threat came from 65-1 longshot COUNTRY HOUSE, who had raced wide every step of the way. Maximum Security was able to hold his lead, Country House was an improbable second and Code of Honor held on for third over a fast-closing TACITUS.

Now here is where it almost went off the rails.

Despite everyone seeing the herd turning for home, there was no steward’s inquiry. Flavien Prat, rider of Country House, claimed foul against Saez aboard Maximum Security even though he was seemingly barely affected by what happened to his inside. According to the official chart of the race, that is the only claim of foul. Nothing from Gaffalione, who had the biggest issue, and nothing from Velazquez, whose issue was smaller. Nothing from Jon Court aboard Long Range Toddy.

At this point, the analysis focused on did the foul, which definitely happened, affect the outcome of the race?

Who is to say that War of Will was not going to pull up alongside Maximum Security and fight him to the wire?

At a crucial moment of the race, as he is basically out of oxygen, another horse forces his rider to pull up to avoid clipping heels. He gets penalized for not running stronger through the stretch and the horse that caused him to avoid clipping heels gets rewarded? I don’t think so but I know I am in a minority in my position.

There is a movement to adopt rules where the stewards, in all states, would have the right to determine whether the foul against the horse cost that horse a placing. It would have ruled that War of Will was not going to pass Maximum Security and would have let the result stand.

What is missing from that scenario is how do we keep the sport as safe as possible?

Breakdowns are not just horses getting injured. Sometimes they are caused by traffic problems and sometimes they are caused by errors from connections, jockeys and trainers. We can’t legislate against bad decisions but we can have a stronger deterrent.

If you know where the line is, you will go up to it as close as possible. If the line gets tighter, you will still go up to it as close as possible, but the line is now tighter. Riders ride to what they can get away with. Maybe after Saturday, where the stewards faced the ultimate challenge in a race that is sometimes viewed with the reputation that anything goes, all races will be adjudicated in a way that our sport is safer than ever.

PHOTO: Maximum Security (pink cap) comes off the inside and into the path of War of Will, with Country House on the outside, on the turn of the 145th Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs on May 4, 2019 (c) J. Pomeroy

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Nicole Schiveley’s Kentucky Derby 2019 Analysis

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!

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Spot Plays for 2019 Kentucky Derby Day

A smashing 14-race card will take place at Churchill Downs on Saturday which is headlined by the 145th running of the $3 million Kentucky Derby (G1). As was done with the Oaks card, I have tabbed some long shot runners who figure to show improvement over the expected wet going.


I’m Looking Up (#8) (10-1) will make his first run of the season with a trainer change to Dallas Stewart. The Speightstown colt is bred to thrive with the wet conditions. His half-brother, multiple Grade 2-winning millionaire Smooth Air, was two-for-two in the slop including a tally in the 2008 Hutcheson Stakes (G2). This four-year-old will show speed coming in fresh.


Trainer Bob Baffert has two in the field, and it’s the longer-priced one who appeals to me. Emboldened (#6) (8-1) is a deep closer who will appreciate the extra furlong in this spot. The Elusive Quality filly lacks the credentials of many in the affair, but she has big upside and figures to move forward over the off-going. The chestnut will be running on late beneath jockey Joel Rosario.


The Mike Maker-trained Do Share (#1) (10-1) sports a 6-3-1-1 mark on wet surfaces, and he comes in off of a smashing Tom Fool Handicap (G3) victory when registering a sensational 116 BRIS Speed figure. The Candy Ride gelding has a big turn of foot and lands in a field with a trio of confirmed front runners. The Kentucky-bred will have Irad Ortiz Jr. in the silks.


Transylvania Stakes (G3) third The Black Album (#12) (12-1) endured an awful voyage in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) when a somewhat unlucky eighth. The dark bay colt faces a tough task from this post, but he will appreciate some give in the ground in his second run of 2019. Jose Ortiz riding adds to the confidence level on the Rodolphe Brisset trainee.


Grade 2 star War of Will (#1) (15-1) was a 5 3/4-length maiden winner at Churchill Downs over a sloppy, sealed surface last fall. The Mark Casse pupil is training up a storm of late and will be a serious pace presence at the very least in the Run for the Roses.


Tony Small (#5) (12-1) finished a smart runner-up from the 12 post position going two turns on debut at Fair Grounds. The Tom Morley trainee possesses a strong wet-track pedigree and could be the one in the get-out race on Saturday. He figures to improve with a race under his belt.

PHOTO: Roses on Kentucky Derby Day (c) Coady Photography/Churchill Downs

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Kentucky Oaks 145

Want to make the trainer of a horse in the Kentucky Derby think really hard?

by John Camardo and Pete Fornatale

Ask him if he’d rather get a root canal or draw the rail in the big race.

Take a deep dive into post position handicapping and analysis.

That’s maybe a slight exaggeration but not much of one. Since the 1990s at least, trainers have lamented drawing the rail as if it’s a built-in excuse to run a poor race. And a first look at the data over the past 28 years indicates why that is: the two inside gates are a collective 0 for 56 since 1991.

The theory goes that the cavalry charge into the first turn creates problems for the inside runners, causing them to potentially have to check or get buried down inside in uncomfortable spots. But it’s also possible that the poor performance of the inside gates is an aberration more than anything else. After all, this is the only two-turn race in America where trainers don’t want to be drawn inside, and it would seem that a horse with positional speed should be able to make his own trip from down there simply by getting out of the gate and getting position going forward. Let’s take a deeper look into the post-position data for the last 28 years:

Examining the above, we see that based on the odds they went off in the race, the inside post and second posts should have won at least 1 time each.  Extending that, the first post has run second once, and never run third.  The second post position has done slightly better at running in the money with 2 second place finishes, and four third place finishes.

The only horse under 4-1 in the bunch was Fly So Free back in ’91, and he got away from the gate just fine and ran a respectable – if disappointing fourth. The next lowest odds on the list belong to Crypto Star, who was fifth, and while connections complained about the draw at the time, it didn’t cause him noticeable trouble.

Lookin at Lucky was a shorter priced horse who broke from the first post position.  He went off at just over 6 to 1.  He was crunched toward the rail causing him to check by the horses breaking from the third and fourth post positions, those horses being Paddy O’Prado and Stately Victor.  Could the trouble at the beginning have cost this horse a win?  What we can say is that it caused him to check back early in the race, led him to be almost 20 lengths from the leader up the back stretch, and finally ended with him finishing up into 6th place.  Let’s say he had won.  That would’ve put the stat for the first post position as 1/28 and line it up just under the expected number of wins.  Something to think about.

There are also plenty of runners who’ve gotten away just fine from the inside and outrun their odds — Looking At Lee is a recent example.  The comment line on this horse reads “dream ins trip to 1/8” – and what a dream trip it was.  Always Dreaming was simply better on this day, and his being forwardly placed played well to his advantage.

For what it’s worth, I took a look at the comment / trouble lines that each horse has associated with it.  The first post position had “trouble” at the start in 7 of 28 trips which is just about the average rate that horses saw trouble across all posts.  However, the second post position saw trouble in 11 out of 28 trips which is tied for highest, second only to post position 9 (13 trouble comments early out of 28 starts, and is also winless).

(Note, in doing this analysis, I counted comment lines that included phrases such as ‘off slw’, ‘bang’, ‘bobble’, ‘bump’ and many others, to try to get an indication of how much trouble horses from posts encounter).  Least trouble came from posts 5, 10, 13, 16, 17 and 20.  These posts have combined for over half of the wins in the 28 years!

I’m not here today to tell you that the one hole is a good draw in the Derby. It could be the unusual configuration or because of the gate placement that the inside horse doesn’t have the benefit of the running rail for the first few strides.  However, I am here to point out that there are a few potentially legitimate excuses for why it is winless in the last 28 years.

Another post that appears to be deleterious to a horse’s chances looking at the raw data is the 14-hole. There might be a reason for this.

First, let’s consider the gate configuration.  Post 14 is on the end of the main starting gate, and an auxiliary starting gate is located just to the outside of it.  The auxiliary gate is angled slightly toward the rail, and this creates a scenario where it is possible the fourteen can be pinched, and forced to check back.  That is evident from the discussion above about trouble comments.  See this chart for a full look at trouble comments:

The fourteen post saw a significant number of early trouble comments and I have to think the positioning of that outside gate – if a horse ran straight from the aux gate he’d hit the rail before the first turn – is the reason why.  It’s interesting to note that all of the top three posts in terms of trouble frequency have 0 wins combined and it doesn’t feel like a pure coincidence. And if I had a horse in the Derby, I’d be at least as worried about drawing the 14 post as the 1.

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What to take away from Kentucky Derby contender works with clocker Gary Young

The special Kentucky Derby editions of Turf Talk features exclusive analysis with highly respected clocker Gary Young. Analysts Scott Shapiro and Ed DeRosa discuss with Gary how Kentucky Derby contenders look as they prepare for the First Saturday in May. Find the 2019 episodes all in one place, listed below!

May 1, 2019
Gary shares opinions on his first handicapping looks for the Kentucky Derby field. What do the works tell him about performance from Post Position and Odds applied?

April 30, 2019
Track time for several Kentucky Derby hopefuls.

April 29, 2019
Featuring the works of Long Range Toddy and more!

April 28, 2019
Featuring the works of Kentucky Derby contenders Tacitus, Country House, By My Standards and more!

April 27, 2019
Featuring the work of Kentucky Derby contender Omaha Beach.


TURF TALK video archive playlist

PHOTO: Coady Photography/Churchill Downs

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