Maximum Security, King for a Day, Mucho Gusto top Haskell probables

Monmouth Park expects a cast of seven for Saturday’s $1 million Haskell Invitational (G1), with its principals at a crossroads. Maximum Security is looking to regain his Kentucky Derby (G1) form after an upset loss at the hands of the progressive King for a Day, while Mucho Gusto aims to answer a distance question in this 1 1/8-mile “Win and You’re in” for the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).

Maximum Security

Maximum Security had arrived at Churchill Downs unbeaten from four starts, rising from a lowly $16,000 maiden claiming score to become a dominant Florida Derby (G1) winner. The Gary and Mary West homebred appeared to make it five straight in the Kentucky Derby, only to be disqualified for interference and placed 17th.

Skipping the rest of the Triple Crown to aim for the Haskell, Maximum Security was the 1-20 favorite to capture the local prep, the June 16 Pegasus, but was overturned by the improving King for a Day. Trainer Jason Servis told Monmouth publicity that he believes Maximum Security is beginning to recover his pre-Derby form.

“I would say he is starting to point that way,” Servis said on July 6. “Right now he’s doing good.”

Servis sounded enthusiastic after Maximum Security turned in his final Haskell work on Monday. Based on the Jersey Shore since the Kentucky Derby, he took to the Monmouth track early for his customary open gallop under exercise rider Alvaro Tomas.

“He did super. Really good,” his trainer said. “He went a mile in 1:53 and change. He got the first half in a minute and came home in :53 and change.

“I’m feeling good about him.”

King for a Day

The Todd Pletcher-trained King for a Day wasn’t exactly a total shock in the Pegasus as the 5-1 second choice. A solid fourth in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club (G2), the Uncle Mo colt did not make his sophomore debut until the Sir Barton on Preakness Day, and proved worth the wait with a convincing score. Then the Pegasus marked a new career high second off the layoff.

“That was a huge win for him to beat the horse who crossed the finish line first in the Kentucky Derby,” Pletcher told NYRA publicity. “He’s perhaps a horse that has been on our radar. We’ve thought a lot of him since he came here last year. We gave him a little time after he ran at Churchill in the fall and so he was a little behind schedule for the Triple Crown but came back in the Sir Barton on Preakness Day and looked impressive and took another move forward with a win in the Pegasus.”

At his Saratoga summer home, King for a Day covered a half-mile officially in :48.39 over the Oklahoma training track July 13. Hall of Famer John Velazquez was aboard for the move in company with Just Right, who clocked the same time ahead of the Finger Lakes Derby.

Red Oak Stable Racing Manager Rick Sacco provided details in the Monmouth notes.

“He went the half in :48.33, five-eighths in 1:01.10, was out three-quarters in 1:14 and out in seven-eighths in 1:28,” Sacco said. “It was a maintenance work but he was in the bridle strong and (Velazquez) never moved on him.”

“He breezed really well,” Velazquez said. “Right on schedule which is what Todd wanted and it was a very nice work.”

Pletcher noted that King for a Day was spot-on for the Haskell, which could propel him into the August 24 Travers (G1).

“Certainly, the way he went this morning I would be enthusiastic about going,” the trainer said of the Haskell, “assuming that everything is in good order.

“It’s a little better scheduling for the Travers now that the Haskell is moved forward eight days sooner than it used to be. So that gives him the possibility of coming back in the Travers if everything goes well.”

Mucho Gusto

Bob Baffert owns the record with eight Haskell wins, the most recent courtesy of Triple Crown champion American Pharoah (2015), and the Hall of Famer bids for number nine with Mucho Gusto.

Although by a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner in Mucho Macho Man (2013) and out of a mare by Classic near-misser Giant’s Causeway (2000), Mucho Gusto has shown more speed than stamina so far. Two of his four graded victories have come going seven furlongs – last November’s Bob Hope (G3) at Del Mar and the May 18 Laz Barrera (G3). He’s rolled in two of three starts at 1 1/16 miles. Second in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) in his two-turn debut, Mucho Gusto later romped in the Robert B. Lewis (G3) and added the June 6 Affirmed (G3) over stablemate Roadster.

The admirably consistent colt has finished out of the top two only once, a third in the Sunland Derby (G3), in his only attempt at nine furlongs. That might not be a true bill about his effectiveness at this trip, since he was embroiled in a speed duel on the rail.

Moreover, as an April 26 foal, Mucho Gusto has every right to strengthen with maturity. And Baffert observes that the Michael Lund Petersen runner is on an upward curve.

“If I didn’t think we had a chance to win, I wouldn’t send him,” Baffert said. I think he’s got a chance. If everybody shows up and runs the way they’re capable of, it should be a heck of a race.

“He’s a horse who I think is getting better. He’s very consistent. But he’s going to have to step up in order to compete with these horses.

“This is a horse that is slowly getting there. He’s been pretty solid to this point, but I think he is still getting better. This would be a big accomplishment for him if he were to win.

“I like to take a swing at the fences. Sometimes you have to do that. If he wins, it’s great. Even second would be fine. I’m not going in with the favorite like I usually do, but I think he deserves a chance so we’ll take a shot at it.”

Baffert is wary of Maximum Security on the rebound.

“If Maximum Security runs his race, I think he will be tough,” said Baffert, who also trains champion Game Winner for the Wests. “I thought he just got tired last time.”

Ironically, Mucho Gusto reminds Baffert of a past West colorbearer, Power Broker, the 2013 Haskell runner-up.

“Mucho Gusto is a little like Power Broker. He’s that kind of horse.”

At Santa Anita, Mucho Gusto has fired consecutive six-furlong bullets, exercising in 1:13.60 on July 4 and ratcheting up to 1:12.20 on July 12. Regular rider Joe Talamo retains the mount.

Joevia

Front-running hero of Monmouth’s Long Branch prior to a gritty third in the Belmont (G1), Joevia signaled his well-being by blasting five-eighths in a bullet :58.40 at the Jersey Shore July 13. The Greg Sacco trainee tied with workmate Bal Bay Drive for the fastest of 17 works on the day, two full seconds better than the third.

“He went in :58.2 and was out in 11 (seconds) and change,” Sacco said. “He worked super.

“That was what we were looking for. The other horse (Bal Bay Drive) is a talented horse who just broke his maiden and is going to run on Haskell Day.

“We know he’s a nice colt,” Sacco said of Joevia. “We wanted to go for it today. I didn’t want to pussyfoot into the Haskell. He did it well within himself.”

Everfast

Calumet Farm’s Everfast, second in the Preakness at 29-1, comes off a seventh in the Belmont. The Dale Romans pupil misses much more than he hits, but that doesn’t discourage his trainer, who points out that the speed-laden Haskell sets up for a closer.

“I’m not frustrated by what he has done,” Romans said of Everfast, who has been unplaced in seven of nine graded stakes starts. “To me he’s the little engine that could. He tries hard. It took him a while to get going and to show his talent but that’s starting to happen.

“Finishing second in the Preakness was big and it was also big to only get beat 3 1/4 lengths in the Belmont Stakes. That was a good race he ran.

“You can tell he’s improving. The Preakness was by far his best race. His coming out party was the Holy Bull ([G2] where he was second) and then he let people know he was still around in the Preakness. His Belmont wasn’t a bad race, either.

“The Haskell is one of my favorite races of the year. Any time I have a chance to compete there we’re going to take it. (Calumet Farm owner) Mr. (Brad) Kelley loves the Haskell as well, so he said ‘let’s take a chance.’

“We’ll try to do what Coil did – sit back and then come running late,” Romans added, alluding to the 2011 Haskell winner who mugged his Shackleford. “Nail the leader at the wire. That would be great. I like the way the race shapes up for us. It looks like it’s a nice fit for a closer.”

Everfast, who had been at Churchill, breezed a half over Saratoga’s main track in :49.49 Sunday.

Bethlehem Road and Spun to Run

The two remaining contenders, as of Sunday, are both Parx residents taking a serious class test.

Bethlehem Road was a perfect three-for-three over his home track, including the Parx Spring Derby, before a distant fourth in the Ohio Derby (G3). Trainer Dee Curry thinks a troubled trip at Thistledown compromised the Quality Road gelding.

“I was disappointed in the Ohio Derby because he got bumped hard four times during that race,” Curry said. “The fourth time he got bumped the jockey (Luis A. Rodriguez Castro) said he just seemed to take a deep breath and say `that’s it. I’m done.’

“He has never been bumped the way he was bumped that race. So we’re going to give him a shot in the Haskell. We have nothing to lose.

“We were thinking about the West Virginia Derby (G3) or the Curlin at Saratoga. All of the races we were looking at were a mile and an eighth. I’m at Parx. I’m right next door to Monmouth Park. That might be a plus. I don’t have to go that far. I can keep him home until race day. I think that will be a benefit.

“I’m a small trainer,” added Curry, who would be the first female trainer to win the Haskell. “I don’t get these kinds of opportunities with a horse that fits in this type of race very often. Sometimes you have to take a chance.”

Spun to Run, two-for-two since stretching out to two turns, hasn’t raced since his entry-level allowance romp on March 23. The Hard Spun colt subsequently underwent surgery to correct a trapped epiglottis, and trainer Juan Carlos Guerrero has been so pleased with him that the Haskell holds appeal.

“He came back perfect (from the surgery),” Guerrero said. “I started looking at the races available and this made sense to me. It’s an easy ship from Parx. I know Maximum Security is a good horse but I’m not sure he is the same horse he was. He just got beat, so we know he can lose.”

Spun to Run will pick up a new rider in Paco Lopez along with the addition of blinkers.

“I look at this as a wide-open race,” Guerrero commented. “There are two really nice horses in it but I think my horse is sitting on a very good race.

“I think he is right there with these horses. He was good without blinkers. To me, blinkers move him up five lengths – which puts him right there with these horses. And it’s a $1 million race. So why not try?”

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Will any others throw their hats into the ring? We’ll find out in the next couple of days as entries will be drawn Wednesday.

Photo: King for a Day runs down disqualified Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security to upset the Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park on Sunday, June 16, 2019 (c) Equi-Photo/Bill Denver

 

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Overview of championship divisions as Breeders’ Cup prep season begins

As the Breeders’ Cup Challenge series kicks off stateside with Monday’s Shoemaker Mile (G1), it’s an opportune time to assess the state of the various divisions at this still relatively early stage of the season.

CLASSIC/DIRT MILE

The older dirt male division is in need of new leadership after the retirements of Classic (G1)-winning champion Accelerate and Dirt Mile (G1) star City of Light. The January 26 Pegasus World Cup (G1) marked their mutual career finale, with City of Light impressing and Accelerate winding up third en route to their new lives as Lane’s End stallions.

Accelerate’s connections – Hronis Racing and trainer John Sadler – hope that their recruit Gift Box becomes his successor. The son of Sadler alum Twirling Candy has shaped as a potential heir so far, winning his first two for the barn and beating a couple of high-profile rivals in the process. Edging ill-fated Battle of Midway in the December 26 San Antonio (G2) in his first start off the layoff, Gift Box outgamed McKinzie in the April 6 Santa Anita H. (G1). Now Gift Box tries to advance the Accelerate parallel by following up in Monday’s Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1). If he turns the Big ‘Cap/Gold Cup double, he’ll claim two major scores over the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic track and trip.

McKinzie, long highly regarded by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, came right back to dominate the May 3 Alysheba (G2) on Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill Downs. While this counts as a form boost for Gift Box, McKinzie has displayed more spark in the seven-to-nine furlong range than at 1 1/4 miles so far. A disappointing 12th behind Accelerate in last fall’s Classic, McKinzie went down by only a nose in the Big ‘Cap, but the question remains if he finds the trip a tad beyond him at the highest level. If so, the Dirt Mile might loom as a more attractive Breeders’ Cup option. McKinzie could earn an automatic berth in the “Win and You’re In” Metropolitan H. (G1) on Belmont Day.

The Met Mile will take some winning with an all-star cast set to line up, from Godolphin’s globetrotting Thunder Snow, and trip specialists Coal Front and Firenze Fire, to stretch-out sprinter Mitole (see below). Thunder Snow, last seen nipping Gronkowski to become the first two-time Dubai World Cup (G1) winner, plans to revert to a mile as he begins another Classic quest. The Saeed bin Suroor trainee was third to Accelerate and Gunnevera last November. Gunnevera also tried the March 30 Dubai World Cup, faring best of the U.S.-based contingent in third. Other Breeders’ Cup/World Cup veterans due back in action include Seeking the Soul and the turf/dirt Grade 1 winner Yoshida, both reportedly on course for the June 15 Stephen Foster (G2), a “Win and You’re In” for the Classic.

Another dual-surface Grade 1 hero, Catholic Boy, promises to be a force on the New York dirt this summer. That’s the strategy after his comeback score in the grassy Dixie (G2) on Preakness Day. The July 6 Suburban (G2) and the Whitney (G1), a Classic “Win and You’re In” August 3, are on his radar according to trainer Jonathan Thomas. Considering that his 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic ended virtually as it began when he was banged up early, Catholic Boy deserves more opportunities on dirt. Yet his turf prowess continues to give him options. Note that Thomas has inherited multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Diversify from the late Rick Violette Jr., and it will be interesting to see how his campaign is mapped out.

Also not to be forgotten is the Sadler-trained Catalina Cruiser, who flopped as the hitherto unbeaten favorite in the 2018 Dirt Mile. The Hronis colorbearer is slated to return in the True North (G2) on Belmont Day, and it would be no surprise to see the lightly raced five-year-old get back into the Breeders’ Cup picture. Tenfold was still behind the developmental curve when third to Justify and Bravazo in last year’s Preakness (G1), but might have turned the proverbial corner in the Pimlico Special (G3). Although the well-bred son of Curlin has to build upon that bare form, Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen believes “the sky is the limit.”

Unlike the 2018 Triple Crown, this year’s sophomore scene is in a continuous state of flux. Preakness winner War of Will would assume pro tem leadership if he can add the Belmont (G1), but a more thoroughgoing stayer (like Tacitus) is eligible to interject. Waiting in the wings are Kentucky Derby (G1) demotee Maximum Security, who’s eyeing the Haskell Invitational (G1), a Classic “Win and You’re In” July 20; promoted Derby winner Country House and last year’s champion two-year-old male Game Winner, both on the Travers (G1) path; and the sidelined Derby favorite, Omaha Beach. Although all would need to step up to cope with the elder brigade, in any Breeders’ Cup division, Vekoma and Improbable could emerge as factors for the Dirt Mile.

TWINSPIRES SPRINT/TURF SPRINT/FILLY & MARE SPRINT

The respective top four from last year’s Sprint – two-time champion Roy H, Whitmore, Imperial Hint, and Promises Fulfilled – are all still around, and seven-year-old X Y Jet finally won his Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1). But it’s a measure of the vitality of the division that new faces are commanding attention.

Chief among them is Mitole, who extended his winning streak to six in the Churchill Downs (G1) on Derby Day. Whatever happens in his Met Mile experiment, the Asmussen speedster figures to be a major threat come TwinSpires Sprint time. Cistron’s turf-to-dirt move worked beautifully in his Kona Gold (G2) tour de force at Santa Anita. The seventh furlong of Saturday’s Triple Bend (G2) found him out, as Air Strike caught him, but back in the vicinity of six, the Sadler pupil can continue to make hay out west – pending Roy H’s return from the foot trouble that ruled him out of the Golden Shaheen.

The versatile World of Trouble, just denied by two-time champion Stormy Liberal in the 2018 Turf Sprint, has since compiled a four-race skein across turf and dirt, notably including the Carter (G1). Trainer Jason Servis might well opt for another shot at the Turf Sprint. As a more mature four-year-old in their rematch, World of Trouble is capable of turning the tables on a Stormy Liberal who’s settled for minor awards in his ensuing three. One top contender who missed last year’s Turf Sprint, Imprimis, is two-for-two this term. Most recently overcoming a bad stumble at the start to mug Bound for Nowhere in the Shakertown (G2), the Joe Orseno charge will fly the flag at Royal Ascot.

Trainer Peter Miller has turned the Sprint/Turf Sprint double in both 2017-18 with repeat champs Roy H and Stormy Liberal, respectively, and two distaffers are adding to his hand this season. Belvoir Bay is a more natural Turf Sprint candidate, and she already has world-class form versus males as the runner-up in the Al Quoz Sprint (G1) (beating Stormy Liberal) on World Cup night. Yet she’s shown ability in stakes events transferred from the Santa Anita turf to the main track, scoring in the Las Cienegas and finishing second in Sunday’s Monrovia (G3). Stablemate Spiced Perfection is among the Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) contenders by virtue of her La Brea (G1) and Madison (G1) scores.

Mia Mischief is arguably atop the female sprint division thanks to her victory in a loaded Humana Distaff (G1) over Marley’s Freedom, Amy’s Challenge, and Spiced Perfection. Perhaps over the top when ninth in last year’s Filly & Mare Sprint to upsetter Shamrock Rose (whose career is reportedly in limbo due to injury) and Chalon, Mia Mischief could be a different proposition in this year’s edition.

The filly who beat Mia Mischief in an epic Test (G1) at Saratoga, Separationofpowers, has a right to get involved as well. The Chad Brown pupil promises to move forward off a comeback third in the Vagrancy (G3) to Heavenhasmynikki. Also worth mentioning, if only for the Breeders’ Cup home court angle, is Danuska’s My Girl, in the midst of a four-race winning spree at Santa Anita including the Las Flores (G3) and Desert Stormer (G3).

The older fillies and mares might have their hands full, however, if Brad Cox’s dynamite sophomores Covfefe and Break Even maintain their form through the fall. Covfefe smashed Pimlico’s six-furlong track record when posting 1:07.70 in the Miss Preakness (G3), two weeks after Break Even put on an exhibition of speed in the seven-furlong Eight Belles (G2).

DISTAFF

Reigning champion Monomoy Girl’s reappearance has been postponed after a “mild case” of colic a couple of months ago, and it remains to be determined if her dominance at three will carry over to four. In the meantime, rival Midnight Bisou has won three straight graded events at her optimal distance of 1 1/16 miles, capped by the Apple Blossom (G1).

As sophomores, there was little between Midnight Bisou and Monomoy Girl at that trip – witness the Cotillion (G1) where the champion was disqualified and Midnight Bisou awarded the victory. Nine furlongs proved more of a stretch for Midnight Bisou, as evidenced by her placings, including a third in the Distaff. She remains at 1 1/16 miles for the “Win and You’re In” Ogden Phipps (G1) on Belmont Day.

Fellow Asmussen trainee She’s a Julie, who sported a progressive profile at three, is likewise perfect so far at four. She earned a Grade 1 breakthrough with a hard-fought decision in the La Troienne (G1) over Beholder Mile (G1) heroine Secret Spice and comebacker Blue Prize. She’s a Julie will bid for a Distaff ticket in the “Win and You’re In” Fleur de Lis (G2) on Foster night.

At Santa Anita, the oft-frustrating Paradise Woods put it all together, for the moment at least, in her Santa Margarita (G2) conquest. Has new trainer John Shirreffs figured her out, or will she relapse? In any event, her ability to fire when in the mood at her home track must be kept in mind for the Breeders’ Cup.

Last year’s hard-charging runner-up in the Distaff, Wow Cat, just returned to the worktab Sunday for Brown. The former Chilean Horse of the Year and Triple Crown winner took time to acclimate, hitting her peak last fall, and she might become the star of the Spa this summer. But that also depends upon Elate. Although beaten by Midnight Bisou in both the Azeri (G2) and Apple Blossom, the Bill Mott mare is entitled to find herself again going longer.

As with the three-year-old males, the fillies are establishing a pecking order, and much improvement is required to challenge their elders. Serengeti Empress made a statement in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), but her hit-and-miss tendencies are a concern. Black-Eyed Susan (G2) winner Point of Honor has loads of upside, as does Dunbar Road, both of whom lacked sufficient points to make the Oaks. And as disappointing as Bellafina has been at Churchill, she puts her best foot forward at Santa Anita. Her plans will crystallize after she shortens up for the Test.

TURF/MILE/FILLY & MARE TURF

European stars Enable and Magical, who fought out the finish in a memorable Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), remain in the picture. Enable, pointing for an unprecedented third Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), is on course for a five-year-old debut at Royal Ascot. Magical has been unbeatable this season for Aidan O’Brien, already racking up three Group wins versus males. After her romp in Sunday’s Tattersalls Gold Cup (G1), she is in the mix for the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at the Royal meeting. That’s one option for Enable, along with the Hardwicke (G2) in her 1 1/2-mile wheelhouse.

Yet the American turf, so muddled last year, has produced a clear divisional leader in the Brown-trained Bricks and Mortar. The inaugural Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) hero has not only added the Mervin H. Muniz Memorial (G2) and Old Forester Turf Classic (G1), but he’s seen his form franked as well. Channel Maker has since captured the Man o’ War (G1), getting the jump on Arklow, and Delta Prince shortened up to take the Maker’s 46 Mile (G1).

The major hesitation about Bricks and Mortar from a Breeders’ Cup perspective is that it’s not easy for a horse who reaches peak form in January to stay on the boil. And the Brown barn has others sure to step up over the course of the year, including last year’s Arlington Million (G1) exacta of Robert Bruce and Almanaar (who just garnered Saturday’s Monmouth [G2]). Aside from his well-known crew, watch out for Chilean import Ya Primo, who crushed the Gran Premio Latinoamericano (G1) in 1:56.68 for 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles).

The 2018 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) result left more questions than answers, and hopefully this year’s renewal will offer more clarity. The victorious European shipper Expert Eye is now at stud, but near-misser Catapult is still in action. Seeking a Breeders’ Cup berth in Monday’s Shoemaker Mile, the Sadler charge hopes to defend his home turf from the aforementioned Delta Prince. Another 2018 Mile alum who could try again, Sir Michael Stoute’s Mustashry, hit a new career high in the May 18 Lockinge (G1) at Newbury.

The ubiquitous Brown is well stocked in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1) division too. His embarrassment of riches begins with reigning champion Sistercharlie, whose return timetable was reportedly affected by illness. The Eclipse Award winner is expected to be back for a Diana (G1) title defense. Also worth waiting for is Uni, last seen landing the Matriarch (G1). In the interim, their trainer can rely upon the likes of Rushing Fall, who picked up right where she left off in the Jenny Wiley (G1); new recruit Homerique, a sharp winner of the Beaugay (G3) in her U.S. debut; and fellow ex-Euros Environs and Precieuse. Although Newspaperofrecord was overturned by Rusty Arnold’s Concrete Rose in the Edgewood (G3), the previously undefeated sophomore is entitled to regain her luster down the line.

Outside of the Brown sphere, Fair Grounds stakes winners Mitchell Road and Beau Recall have made a splash on the big stage. The Cox-trained Beau Recall captured the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2) on Derby Day, and Mitchell Road, Country House’s half-sister and stablemate, wired the Gallorette (G3) on Preakness Day. Both are under consideration for the Just a Game (G1) on Belmont Day, where Rushing Fall is expected to lead Team Brown. Out on the West Coast, Vasilika bids to extend her current streak to four in Monday’s Gamely (G1).

Turning to the internationals, last year’s Filly & Mare Turf runner-up, Godolphin’s Wild Illusion, resumed with a useful sixth versus males in Sunday’s Prix d’Ispahan (G1). Trainer Charlie Appleby forecasts improvement next out, likely in the June 28 Pretty Polly (G1) at the Curragh. O’Brien’s Magic Wand has been busy since her fourth in the Filly & Mare Turf, placing second to Bricks and Mortar in the Pegasus Turf and third to Channel Maker in the Man o’ War.

So that’s the general lay of the land on Memorial Day weekend. Now on to Breeders’ Cup prep season!

Gift Box edges McKinzie in the Santa Anita H. (G1) (c) Benoit Photo

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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) Horsephotos.com/Cecilia Gustavsson

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Projected cast for 2019 Preakness: How the Middle Jewel is shaping up

For the first time since 1951, the principals from the Kentucky Derby (G1) are all absent from the Preakness (G1). But if the Middle Jewel doesn’t lend itself so much to a “rematch” story line, Saturday’s classic in Baltimore is giving a few Derby competitors a fresh playing field versus several up-and-comers.

Leading the cast is Improbable, who aims to give Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert a record eighth Preakness. The 4-1 post time Derby favorite, he crossed the wire in a fairly even fifth (promoted to fourth via the disqualification of Maximum Security). That was the second straight sloppy track that the big chestnut encountered, following his runner-up effort to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby (G1).

Despite the fact that he was beaten only a length by the early Kentucky Derby favorite at Oaklawn, I didn’t get the sense that Improbable was in love with the slop. To me, he gave off the vibe of one tolerating it and plowing through on class. Then again, the blinker experiment had him all at sea from the beginning of the Arkansas Derby anyway, so I could be misreading or over-interpreting it. In any event, the blinkers-off Improbable did not really pick up in the slop at Churchill as he was beaten a shade over three lengths, and he’s manifestly better than that.

If the advance forecast holds, Improbable stands to get a fast surface at Pimlico, and we could well see him back to his best. The City Zip colt remains capable of the brute power he showed in last fall’s Street Sense and Los Alamitos Futurity (G1).

War of Will would like a word with Maximum Security after the fracas on the Derby far turn, but until he gets that opportunity, the Mark Casse trainee at least deserves a clean trip in the Preakness. While we’ll never know exactly how much the interference cost him, War of Will maintained his contending position for a long way before fading to eighth (elevated to seventh). And the immediate postrace quotes suggested he just got tired. Casse relayed what jockey Tyler Gaffalione had told him: “if he could have gotten him to relax a little he thought he would finish a little better.”

Indeed, War of Will had every right to feel it that last furlong even if he hadn’t been hampered or raced too keenly in the early going. Remember his awkward steps at the beginning of the Louisiana Derby (G2), where he lost his action and never factored in ninth? He got virtually nothing out of his final Kentucky Derby prep, six weeks ahead of the first Saturday in May. So War of Will had not had a proper race since his Risen Star (G2) victory back on…February 16.

Thus War of Will’s pattern of races – but not his overall profile – reminds me of Bravazo last year. Bravazo also won the Risen Star, got nothing out of a bizarre trip in the Louisiana Derby, ran a sneakily-good sixth behind Justify in the Churchill slop, moved forward a light year at Pimlico, and almost upset the Triple Crown winner. War of Will has the same entitlement to improve off the Derby, along with the advantage of being a naturally more brilliant performer than Bravazo.

The other two exiting the Derby are Win Win Win and Bodexpress. Win Win Win, who brought exotics appeal in the wake of a troubled but hard-charging second in the Blue Grass (G2), raced far back early at Churchill and got no closer than 10th (officially placed ninth). The Mike Trombetta pupil is eligible to return to his prior form, but still needs to step up to become a win threat. Bodexpress, part of the collateral damage on the Derby far turn, is still a maiden albeit one with a respectable level of form for Gustavo Delgado. Runner-up to Maximum Security in the Florida Derby (G1) two back, the Bodemeister colt aims to become the first to break his maiden in the Preakness since Refund (1888).

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The historical trends strongly favor Derby alumni winning the Preakness, but the 2019 Triple Crown trail hasn’t exactly gone according to script. This is just the type of year for a new shooter to defy the stats.

The most logical place to look is among the “bubble” horses who might have been a tad unlucky not to make the Derby field, and Bourbon War is Exhibit A. Trained by Mark Hennig, the Tapit blueblood brings the rich vein of Florida form that stood up well in the Derby. Bourbon War was a closing second to Code of Honor in the Fountain of Youth (G2) and fourth in the Florida Derby, where he had no chance given the race shape benefitting the front runners. (Saturday’s Peter Pan [G3] is an additional data point, with Fountain of Youth alum Global Campaign prevailing.)

Sometimes my penchant for counterfactuals can lead me astray, but just as a thought experiment, what if Bourbon War had been in the Wood Memorial (G2) instead of the Florida Derby? Isn’t there a reasonable chance he gets more points at Aqueduct than at Gulfstream (all he needed was a third in the Wood)? And gets in the Derby? In that alternate universe, Bourbon War might have brought a stronger resume into Baltimore. At a minimum, the talented colt is adding blinkers for the Preakness and figures to get an honest pace.

The “what-if” game applies to Marylander Alwaysmining in a slightly different way. He’s compiled a six-race winning spree capped by the Federico Tesio – a Preakness “Win and You’re In” – without venturing into Derby scoring races. Yet he’s turned in Brisnet Speed figures in the high 90s of late, implying that he would have been competitive had connections attempted Derby preps. Trainer Kelly Rubley’s patient game might prove wisest in the end, as Alwaysmining enters the biggest test of his life riding a wave of confidence. And he’s not without some collateral form, having beaten Win Win Win in the Heft last December. His defeat of Gray Magician, the future UAE Derby runner-up, in the Miracle Wood is less compelling but still noteworthy. A front runner in the first five races of his current skein, Alwaysmining proved he could stalk and pounce in his 11-length demolition job in the Tesio.

Bubble list veteran Signalman has perhaps the most gnawing what-might-have-been for his connections. Had they entered as an also-eligible, he would have drawn into Derby 145 upon the scratch of Haikal. Signalman had scored his signature win in last fall’s Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) in similarly sloppy conditions at Churchill, following a third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) over the same track. The same points don’t promise to carry over to Pimlico. Moreover, Signalman has yet to perform up to his 2018 form, most recently finishing third in the Blue Grass. He’ll have to move forward markedly third start off the layoff for Ken McPeek.

Owendale has the look of a rapid improver after capturing the Lexington (G3) with a monster circling move. The proverbial light bulb came on one start too late, unfortunately, to make the Derby. The Brad Cox trainee had made no impact in his stakes debut in the Risen Star, winding up eighth behind War of Will and promoted Kentucky Derby winner Country House. Although not as gaudy as the Gulfstream form, the Risen Star has its own graduate success stories, with Plus Que Parfait going on to take the UAE Derby (G2) and Mr. Money garnering the Pat Day Mile (G3). In hindsight, there was no disgrace to being unplaced in the Risen Star, and Owendale’s dynamic breakthrough at Keeneland came at the expense of several Derby trail veterans.

Chief among them is “bubble” horse Anothertwistafate. After dominating the El Camino Real Derby – the first “Win and You’re In” for the Preakness – on his home Tapeta at Golden Gate Fields, Anothertwistafate met with disadvantageous trips in his ensuing Derby points races on dirt. In the Sunland Park Derby (G3), Cutting Humor was already launching his winning move by the time Anothertwistafate could angle out, and his rally fell a neck short. Nevertheless, Cutting Humor had been summarily dismissed by Bourbon War in a Gulfstream allowance, so on a literal reading of form, Anothertwistafate has a gap to close with him.

Anothertwistafate’s gap with Owendale isn’t merely hypothetical, but actual, from his 1 3/4-length defeat in the Lexington. Although Anothertwistafate was temporarily in traffic, he did cut the corner into the stretch once clear, and it would be rash to claim he’d have outfinished Owendale. That said, Anothertwistafate didn’t have an ideal scenario on the turnaround. Marooned at Sunland when he couldn’t return to Golden Gate due to an EHV-1 positive back home, the Blaine Wright trainee actually worked in New Mexico before shipping again to Keeneland. Now Anothertwistafate not only has better spacing between races going into the Preakness, but he’s also been training in the friendly confines of Golden Gate. The son of Scat Daddy (sire of Justify) can put a better foot forward at Pimlico.

Like Anothertwistafate and Alwaysmining, Laughing Fox prevailed in a Preakness “Win and You’re In,” in his case the inaugural Oaklawn Invitational. But unlike them, Laughing Fox also competed in a major Derby prep, the Arkansas Derby, and finished a creditable fourth. Although Omaha Beach and Improbable were in a race of their own that day, Laughing Fox was only a length off the third-placer – Country House.

Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, the flashy Union Rags colt had a productive meet in Hot Springs. Laughing Fox won two straight, including a Presidents’ Day allowance in a time comparable to the Southwest (G3) later on the card, before a troubled seventh in the Omaha Beach/Game Winner division of the Rebel (G2). Then he resumed his upward curve, and last out rallied stoutly to beat some useful sorts in the nine-furlong Oaklawn Invitational. The broad parallel is with Owendale, if without quite the same panache.

Oaklawn has produced two more Preakness contenders, both longshots. Warrior’s Charge, a stablemate of Owendale from the Cox barn, came to hand too late for a Triple Crown nomination. So Ten Strike Racing and Madaket Stables must stump up $150,000 to supplement the Munnings colt, who will make an audacious stakes debut off maiden and entry-level allowance romps. Warrior’s Charge promises to contribute to the pace after both wire jobs in solid time.

Hall of Fame trainer and six-time Preakness winner D. Wayne Lukas pitched Market King onto the list Sunday. A distant third in Omaha Beach’s Rebel, he retreated to 11th after a wide trip in the Blue Grass. If you’re trawling for positive talking points, he’s a Niarchos Family-bred blueblood (like War of Will), bred on a similar cross to Owendale (Into Mischief over A.P. Indy), and training forwardly.

Preakness Starting Gate (c) Jim McCue/Maryland Jockey Club

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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) Horsephotos.com/Lauren 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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2019 Kentucky Derby Field with odds

145TH KENTUCKY DERBY

PP HORSE TRAINER JOCKEY ODDS
1 War of Will Mark Casse Tyler Gaffalione 20-1
2 Tax Danny Gargan Junior Alvarado 20-1
3 By My Standards Bret Calhoun Gabriel Saez 20-1
4 Gray Magician Peter Miller Drayden Van Dyke 50-1
5 Improbable Bob Baffert Irad Ortiz Jr. 6-1
6 Vekoma George Weaver Javier Castellano 20-1
7 Maximum Security Jason Servis Luis Saez 10-1
8 Tacitus Bill Mott Jose Ortiz 10-1
9 Plus Que Parfait Brendan Walsh Ricardo Santana Jr. 30-1
10 Cutting Humor Todd Pletcher Corey Lanerie 30-1
11 Haikal Kiaran McLaughlin Rajiv Maragh 30-1
12 Omaha Beach Richard Mandella Mike Smith 4-1
13 Code of Honor Shug McGaughey John Velazquez 15-1
14 Win Win Win Michael Trombetta Julian Pimentel 15-1
15 Master Fencer Koichi Tsunoda Julien Leparoux 50-1
16 Game Winner Bob Baffert Joel Rosario 5-1
17 Roadster Bob Baffert Florent Geroux 6-1
18 Long Range Toddy Steve Asmussen Jon Court 30-1
19 Spinoff Todd Pletcher Manuel Franco 30-1
20 Country House Bill Mott Flavien Prat 30-1
AE Bodexpress Gustavo Delgado Chris Landeros 30-1

PHOTO: Rain sprinkled roses on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs (c) Horsephotos.com/Rickelle Nelson

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Final Kentucky Derby works round-up: notes and quotes from coast to coast

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

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