The prep races for the Kentucky Derby are in the books. We have a field of 20 and, from now until May 4, it is time to slice, dice and figure out who will win the greatest horse race in the world. Those that love the sport will read, watch and try to break it down and come up the winner, the exacta, the trifecta and the superfecta.
What do you look for when scouting? There have been plenty of prep races — prep races that started last fall when this current crop consisted of 2-year-old babies. The point system, to me, has been effective. No longer can a track put together a $1 million race, attract a weak field and have its winner limp into the Derby field. It has brought legitimacy, because the races are picked ahead of time with points given to the top four finishers. There is also a sense of graduation or build-up. The first batch of preps offers 10 points to the winner; the second, 50; and the third, 100. Horses that win a 50-point (winner) race usually are guaranteed a spot in the field. This year, the final spot required 40 points.
The point system has also allowed horses to stay put should they choose. There is the New York road — Jerome, Withers, Gotham, Wood — that can get you to Louisville. There is the Florida route — Holy Bull, Fountain of Youth, Florida Derby; there is the California route, which we know this year was altered, but, still, a first and usually a second in the Santa Anita Derby gets a horse in. There is the Louisiana route — Lecomte, Risen Star and Louisiana Derby — and last, but not least, is the Arkansas circuit consisting of the Smarty Jones, the Southwest, the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby.
There are other races like the Tampa Bay Derby (50 points to the winner), Sunland Park Derby (50), and the Bluegrass (100), but if you keep your horse in one place through the winter and early spring, you can make it Louisville and save some miles on the vehicle as well as some money.
The smart fan/handicapper has to watch all of these prep races. It will take some time, but it’s worth it. The Kentucky Derby is a race of the unknown for many reasons. First and foremost is the distance. The prep races were build-ups; some started at one mile, then 1 1/16 miles and then 1 1/8 miles. The UAE Derby was an exception, requiring the field to cover about 1 3/16 miles (the Preakness distance). We know that May 4 will be the first time that these young colts will go 10 furlongs. They’ll all get the distance, but how fast they get it is, for now, a mystery.
Second is the field of 20. In sum, that’s too many. Most major stakes races cap the field at 14. Keeneland’s Bluegrass Stakes was an example. The race drew 14 starters and it forced one starter up north to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial. We all know that the Derby should not have 20 entrants, but guess what? It’s the Derby, the most prestigious and famous race in the world and anybody who has ever owned or trained a horse wants in. So, why not let ‘em have at it!
That said, there will be bumping, flying dirt, traffic, boxing in, stopping, horses running wide, horses stuck on the rail and so on and so forth. Often, the winner is the best navigator, not the best horse. Twenty horses does make for a great betting race. The favorite is usually 5-1 or 6-1, so there’s a chance to have a good payday when wagering. And if you can get a couple of longshots to place, show and finish fourth, the financial reward could be a handsome one.
When I watch the prep races, I look for a few things. Finishing time is not one of them. We have seen horses break 1:48 in 9-furlong preps then finish up the track in Louisville and we have seen horses do the opposite: run slow in the prep and then dazzle on the first Saturday in May.
The best prep race I recall in recent years was American Pharoah’s performance in the 2015 Arkansas Derby. He glided over a wet track and when that race was over, I thought we had a powder keg here. I was right, but I was far from alone on that one.
Barbaro’s easy win in the 2006 Florida Derby was another one that comes to mind. It was an effortless glide and one month later, he cakewalked to victory at the Derby. Sadly, we all know how it ended for Barbaro. I picked Bernadini to beat him in the Preakness; had Barbaro kept his health, that would have been one stirring stretch drive.
In these prep races I want to see at how easy they make it look. I must admit, I was impressed with Tacitus. I loved his effort in the Wood; when it was time to go, he went and won going away. Bill Mott is the trainer and, like Shug McGaughey, Mott doesn’t run horses unless they are fit as a fiddle. In comparison, D. Wayne Lukas uses races to sometimes get horses in shape. I’m not advocating one over the other, but when a Mott horse enters the gate, they’re ready.
Tacitus also won the Tampa Bay Derby the same way as he did the Wood. A son of Tapit, he might enjoy the extra furlong come May 4. In the Wood, Tax battled Tacitus hard and was a nice second. He always tries, but he looked like he was all-out and, with an extra eighth to travel at Churchill, I would worry if I was a Tax supporter. That said, to be one of just 20 horses to make it to the Derby says something about how this horse competes. He will fight to the end for sure.
The Florida Derby saw Maximum Security cut easy fractions and, even though the fractions and the final time of 1:48.86 were solid, he faced no stress in the race — none. In a way, it reminded me of Justify’s race at last year’s Belmont. He was allowed to get loose on the lead and, even though the fractions were quick, they were easy. In sum, the field allowed Maximum Security to walk the dog in the race.
In the horse’s defense, when even the mildest threat came at the top of stretch, he pulled away, going from a four-length lead to a seven-length cushion in very fast fashion. He does have AP Indy (Belmont winner) DNA on his mom’s side, so you can make the argument that if Security gets the right trip in Louisville, he can win.
The Santa Anita Derby was the mystery prep race for 2019. We all know the problems that the track has encountered this winter and, with many Santa Anita horses getting their prep work in elsewhere, the SA Derby drew just six horses — but those six put on a good show.
Instagrand cut the fractions and was able to hang in there and battle to the end. Game Winner was sharp in finishing second; but Roadster was able to get clear in the center of the track to win impressively. On the surface, he looks like he has that stalking style that, in the end, wins most of the big stakes races. Mike Smith rode him in his Santa Anita Derby triumph, but decided to ride the since-withdrawn Omaha Beach in the Kentucky Derby.
That tells us all something. They don’t call Smith “Big Money Mike” for nothing and with Smith choosing Omaha Beach, what does that tell us about Roadster? Florent Geroux will jump on Roadster in Louisville — if you’re forced to go to the bullpen, Geroux is far from a bad option.
By My Standards looked great in the Louisiana Derby. This was a good race with a stirring stretch drive. It looked like five horses had a realistic shot at winning, but in the end, By My Standards impressively held off Spinoff in 1:49.53. For some reason, the LA Derby is not taken seriously as a prep race, but one of these days, the LA Derby winner will win the KY Derby — is this the year?
The Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland drew a full-field of 14 on a sunny, Chamber of Commerce-type day in Lexington. It was far from a pretty race. In the stretch Vekoma, kept looking to the right and was running that way too, but he was able to straighten out and pull away. Who knows, if Vekoma can realize the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, we may have a Derby winner here. He certainly is a horse of intrigue. He won, but he looked, in a word, sloppy. But something tells me he is still on the come and his next race could be his best one.
Three-year olds mature at different rates. His veering right was odd indeed, but if he figures it out, could he be blanketed with roses on May 4? Sometimes, it’s good to have some flaws coming in to the biggest race. Some horses look so good in their prep race that they may have peaked. We all know how the game works. If you like Vekoma, you’re going to use his veering positively; if you dislike him, you’re going to throw him out. Some will use Smith’s defection to throw away Roadster, others may not. If you like your horse, you will write your own set of rules for determining your bets. That’s what makes it fun.
The Arkansas Derby was contested on a sloppy track, but those conditions did not affect the two favorites — Omaha Beach and Improbable — in what was a sensational stretch drive. It looked like the Baffert-trained Improbable was going to fly by, but the Richard Mandella trained Omaha Beach dug deep to win in 1:49.91. Both horses will be in the top half of the odds come Derby Day.
I’ve watched the six 170-point prep races (100-40-20-10) and guess what? I can’t offer you anything of value. The six winners certainly deserved those victories, and maybe you will pick one of those six to win the Run for the Roses. The wise guys will be looking at those who finished back a bit and will claim that their horse is sitting on a big one.
Maybe the Sunland Park Derby winner, Cutting Humor will score the upset. If you remember, 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird finished fourth in that race en route to his Derby victory, so you never can tell what might happen when 20 horses race 10 furlongs for the first time before 155,000 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.