We are now just ten days away from the 145th Run for the Roses. All the prep races have been run and the field is basically set, although history tells us a defection or two between now and May 4th is certainly possible and almost expected. To this point, the 3yo crop of 2019 has not produced any awe inspiring moments. A small handful of nice colts will highlight a field that feels very average to this point in its sophomore season. Most of the hay is in the barn, but there is plenty of action still worth monitoring at Churchill Downs and elsewhere as most of the participants will have their final works over the weekend and into early next week. Prior to those key morning rehearsals and any late defections, here are the elite eight of this group:
8 – By My Standards – The Bret Calhoun trainee took 4 starts to break his maiden and then parlayed that initial victory into instant graded stakes success in the Louisiana Derby. He has a stalking style that should suit him well and just seems to be peaking at the right time. The Goldencents colt has had 3 solid breezes at Churchill Downs since his last race in New Orleans, including a 3/4 mile work in 1:12 and 4 on Monday.
7 – Maximum Security – The only unbeaten horse in this year’s field was available for a $16,000 tag just 5 days before Christmas. By Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner New Year’s Day, this colt has progressed through the ranks against mostly short fields and questionable competition. The 3yo group based in Florida this winter was as poor as it has been in quite some time. Louis Saez was able to walk the dog up front in the Florida Derby and was never challenged, winning by an easy 3 1/2 lengths. This horse has done nothing wrong in the afternoons and could develop into something special, but the fact that his connections were willing to part with him for a paltry sum just over four months ago speaks volumes about the quality of competition he has faced since.
6 – War of Will – Excluded from the previous elite eight due to a brief injury scare exiting the Louisiana Derby, this son of War Front has rebounded to post 3 very nice morning moves at Keeneland, including two 5 furlong bullets most recently. The Mark Casse trainee triumphed three straight times after a 5th place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, finally breaking his maiden when trying the main track for the first time at Churchill in November. The maiden breaking score preceded two dominant stakes performances at the Fair Grounds. Those impressive efforts came against large fields and vaulted him near the top of many early Derby contender lists prior to his puzzling effort in the Louisiana Derby. He appeared to slip shortly after leaving the gate and was just spinning his wheels in behind in the run to the first turn of that final prep. The colt never got involved and ended up ninth. Speculation soon ensued that he may have been injured, either during the race or perhaps even prior. Connections had him checked from head to toe and found nothing amiss, promptly resuming normal training activity. His recent works indicate that he has put whatever happened that day behind him. He has as much bottom as any horse in the race with 8 lifetime starts to his credit and most of them beyond a mile. His tactical speed and versatility are weapons that will give him every chance if he is good enough.
5 – Improbable – The son of City Zip was all out to try and catch Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby and just could not do it. He was obviously irritated in the gate prior to the race, and who knows if his antics took anything out of him. Baffert believes the blinkers he wore were the likely cause of his behavior and has decided the colt will not don the equipment in his Derby run. He posted a solid half mile breeze at Churchill on Monday in :48 flat, and like War of Will, he does already own a win around the Louisville oval.
4 – Tacitus – The Juddmonte homebred by champion sire Tapit out of champion race mare Close Hatches is one of the few with two major prep race trophies on his mantle – the Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial. His grinding style and pedigree both lead one to believe that distance will most certainly not be an issue for him. Hall of Famer Bill Mott is still searching for his first garland of roses, and this colt looks to be his best chance yet. Lightly raced with only 4 starts under his belt, he is improving considerably with each start. The biggest concern with this horse is the traffic that he will likely have to deal with coming from the middle of the pack or perhaps even further back than that.
3 – Game Winner – The top 3 are very difficult to separate, and last year’s champion juvenile winds up behind the others simply because he lost to each of them in his only two starts this term. A wide trip may well have been his undoing when nearly getting to Omaha Beach in the faster division of the Rebel, although that foe did gallop out well in front after passing the wire. The champ dropped another tight decision in a dog fight with stablemate Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby. Though he is winless in 2019, he was in the picture both times he took to the post against top level competition. He does have his championship form to fall back on, including his authoritative Breeders’ Cup conquest over the Churchill strip. Baffert calls him Hercules and says he can run all day – toss at your own risk.
2 – Omaha Beach – There are 3 individuals included in the information for each entry in a horse race that are worth paying attention to – the horse, the trainer, and the jockey. I have always believed, quite staunchly, that their importance lies precisely in that order. The wagering public vastly overrates the importance of riders, and will likely make this son of War Front the Derby favorite due in large part to the presence of Mike Smith on his back. It’s easy to see why Smith decided to ride this exquisitely bred colt in the biggest race of his career. He has already beaten two-thirds of the Baffert trifecta – handing Game Winner his first loss in the Rebel and then stiff-arming Improbable through the stretch of the Arkansas Derby. In addition, Omaha Beach also passed the sloppy track test in Hot Springs – can anyone even remember the last time the Derby was actually run on a fast track? Winning his 4th in a row in Louisville would be a surprise to no one.
1 – Roadster – The flashy Quality Road colt backed up his initial 1st place ranking in this column with a huge rally to take down stablemate Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby. The very capable Florent Geroux will pick up the mount vacated by Mike Smith. The more important factor though is the trainer and the 4 weeks that he will have had between races to tighten the screws on the talented sophomore he believed was the best of his bunch from the very beginning. Baffert is unmatched when it comes to preparing horses for not only the Derby but the entire Triple Crown grind. This horse lost time as a 2yo after the Del Mar Futurity due to throat surgery and made his belated 3yo debut in a Santa Anita allowance in March. With just 2 races under his belt this year, he is a fresh horse and poised to make another big move forward on Derby day.