Separate the Kentucky Derby Contenders From the Pretenders

Roadster -Photo by Ernie Belmonte

Roadster (photo by Ernie Belmonte).

The favorite has won the Kentucky Derby (G1) six years in a row. This streak will be on the line when a full field of 20 three-year-olds take to the track at Churchill Downs for the 145th Run for the Roses on Saturday, May 4.

This season, however, the real question will not be can the favorite win again, but who will be the favorite at post time? Who deserves to be? The picture definitely did not get any clearer this week when morning-line favorite Omaha Beach was scratched.

Derby preps have been run for months and several contenders have distinguished themselves in this year’s Road to the Derby, but a true standout among the bunch has yet to emerge as the definitive horse to beat in this year’s Kentucky Derby. In that regard, the 2019 Derby prep season was frustrating because most of the major preps were won by different horses, and many resulted in more questions than answers.

The two horses in the field who did win two major preps were Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and Wood Memorial (G2) winner, Tacitus, trained by Bill Mott, and Lecomte Stakes (G3) and Risen Star (G3) Stakes winner, War of Will, trained by Mark Casse.  Both horses are Derby contenders but are unlikely to be among the favorites.

With Omaha Beach scratched, the Derby post-time favorites will now likely be a Bob Baffert-trainee, either Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Game Winner, or Santa Anita Derby (G1) winner Roadster. Both horses have their merits and both of them could factor into the final result.

Roadster is lightly-raced and seems to be getting good at the right time for the preeminent Triple Crown trainer of our era. Those factors alone could make him a good bet. Game Winner is still at the top of many pundits’ lists, despite the fact that he finished second in both of his prep races as a three-year-old.

It should be noted that in the recent era of Derby chalk, it actually would be no surprise if this year’s favorites made up the exacta. You may remember 2016 when the four Derby betting favorites ran 1-2-3-4, in order of their odds, and resulted in a $30.60 exacta, and a $173.40 trifecta payoff.

If you are looking for 2019 Kentucky Derby contenders at better prices, you certainly won’t be short on options.  This year’s favorites may be in the 6-1 odds range, and the fourth favorite and every subsequent horse in the race could be 10-1 or better. That’s potentially good news for handicappers looking for value in the race.

Maximum Security

Maximum Security (photo by Ben Baugh).

The leading double-digit odds contender in the race could be Fountain of Youth (G2) winner Code of Honor. Many will get off his bandwagon after he ran third behind Maximum Security in the Florida Derby (G1), but Code of Honor got caught too far back that day behind a slow pace, as Maximum Security got away with murder up front on an uncontested lead. Code of Honor lost by six lengths that day, but in terms of the Derby, he looks like the better bet than Maximum Security. Bodexpress, who finished second in the Florida Derby after chasing closest to the pace-setter, draws into the Derby with the scratch of Omaha Beach.  He’s improving and not by any means a toss out.

The Louisiana Derby (G2) yields three potential upset contenders in the Kentucky Derby with first, second and ninth-place finishers By My  Standards, trained by Bret Calhoun, Spinoff, trained by Todd Pletcher, and that race’s beaten-favorite War of Will, trained by Mark Casse.

In this race, War of Will hurt himself a step out of the gate in what was a toss-out loss for him.  Notably, however, all three of these horses did not do well at the post position draw.  Spinoff drew post 19, which may or may not be a disadvantage; War of Will’s and By My Standards’s chances really took historically negative hits when they drew posts one and three, respectively. I feel confident downgrading any horse drawing the one, two and three posts, which have combined to go three-for-120 the past 40 years in the Kentucky Derby.

The first two finishers from his year’s Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland will be in the Derby starting gate, and just like in the Fountain of Youth, perhaps it was the loser who comes out of that race looking like a better Derby contender than the winner. Vekoma, coming off a third-place loss to Code of Honor in the Fountain of Youth, took advantage of a speed bias to win the Blue Grass. But, it may have been runner-up, Win Win Win, who closed against the bias for second who actually ran the more impressive race.

Vekoma should go off in the 15-1 odds range. Win Win Win will be 30-1.

The Wood Memorial (G2) drew a solid, but unspectacular field that included Tacitus versus Withers Stakes (G3) winner, Tax, trained by Danny Gargan, and Gotham Stakes (G3) winner, Haikal, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin. That trio ran one-two-three, in that order, but none of the three horses looked particularly impressive, and others in the Derby field look better.

Two more horses that will take some money will be Bob Baffert’s Improbable, who will try to rebound from back-to-back seconds in the Rebel Stakes (G2)  and Arkansas Derby (G1), as well as Rebel Stakes Division One winner, Long Range Toddy, trained by Steve Asmussen, who lost badly in the Arkansas Derby. Both are questionable to move forward at the Kentucky Derby’s 1 ¼-mile distance.

Top Contenders:

13 – Code of Honor
16 – Game Winner
5 – Improbable
17 – Roadster
8 – Tacitus

Chance at a Price:

19 – Spinoff
14 – Win Win Win

I’m Not Convinced:

21 – Bodexpress
3 – By My Standards
11 – Haikal
18 – Long Range Toddy
7 – Maximum Security
6 – Vekoma
1 – War of Will

Outsiders

20 – Country House
10 – Cutting Humor
4 – Gray Magician
15 – Master Fencer
9 – Plus Que Parfait
2 – Tax

The blurry picture for the 2019 Kentucky Derby finally will become clear on the first Saturday in May. Whoever you land on as your Derby horse from the giant heap of contenders in this year’s race, I wish you success, and I hope you come up with the next Kentucky Derby winner.

Best of luck and enjoy the race!

Noel Michaels
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.

He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.

In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.

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