With three weeks remaining until the Kentucky Derby, it’s high time that we turn our attention to the 145th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs.
The final major Derby prep races — the Grade 3 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland and the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park — will be run Saturday, cementing the field for Louisville on the first Saturday in May with the possible exception of any contenders who are withdrawn.
Tacitus, the Wood Memorial and Tampa Bay Derby winner, sits atop the Derby points leaderboard with 150 points. The Bill Mott-trained son of Tapit will be joined by 19 other 3-year-olds in the starting gate for the 1¼-mile race. An interesting newcomer joined the field this week, as the connections of Master Fencer announced he will be just the third horse based in Japan — and the first colt bred there — to try to win America’s most-celebrated horse race.
I’ll dig more deeply into the probable field next week, looking at what appear to be the key prep races and the best speed figures posted by the runners. In the meantime, you can check the point standings at KentuckyDerby.com/horses.
A few other tidbits to get you salivating for the “fastest two minutes in sports:”
— Trainer Bob Baffert, who last year saddled favored Justify in the Derby en route to his Triple Crown sweep, appears likely to have three entrants if Improbable turns in another gritty performance in the Arkansas Derby. The colt is 26th in Derby points with 25 and needs to finish at least third Saturday to ensure he gets in the lineup for Louisville. Baffert’s two other runners — Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile conquerer Game Winner — have enough points banked.
— You hear almost every year that “this is one of the most wide-open Derbies ever,” but this time it’s really true. The road to Kentucky always has its unexpected twists and turns, but this year produced more than its share of upsets. So don’t expect to see a heavy favorite in the starting gate barring a monster performance by someone in Saturday’s races.
— In wagering in the fourth and final official Derby futures pool, which closed Sunday, Roadster was the 6-1 favorite, followed by Game Winner and Florida Derby winner Maximum Security at 7-1 and Improbable and Tacitus at 8-1.
— What’s the best Derby storyline so far? There are a few contenders, but I’d put my money on 58-year-old jockey Jon Court, the rider of Long Range Toddy, vying to become the oldest rider to win the Kentucky Derby. If he pulls it off, he would unseat Bill Shoemaker, a mere pup of 54 when he won the 1986 Derby aboard Ferdinand.
Santa Anita update
After a week of training and racing that saw no fatalities, the cloud that has hung low over Santa Anita Park for much of the season has lifted — at least for the moment.
Meanwhile, a meeting of the California Horse Racing Board to discuss shifting some of the track’s remaining race dates to another track was postponed until April 18. Also delayed: A planned day of “whipless” racing Friday in which jockeys were to ride without the cushion crops they customarily use. The Jockeys’ Guild had agreed to the one-day experiment as a “fact-finding” mission, but said it put it on hold at the request of the Thoroughbred Owners of California.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicapping crew is, as you would expect, zeroed in on the $200,000 Lexington Stakes and the $1 million Arkansas Derby.
In the former, to be run at 1 1/16th mile, the crowd ’cappers are edging out on a limb by picking the Louisiana-bred Shang, 10-1 on the morning line, to upend the apple cart by besting Sueno (5-1) and 2-1 favorite Anothertwistafate.
I like their thinking, but I’ll try a different route with Zenden (6-1), a speedy son of Fed Biz who tired late in the Tampa Bay Derby. I’ll use Anothertwistafate and Shang in second and third.
In the 1 1/8th mile Arkansas Derby, the crew is also trying to beat the favorite, narrowly favoring Omaha Beach (2-1 on the morning line) over the Bob Baffert-trained Improbable (8-5). They see Long Range Toddy (5-1) finishing third.
“Omaha Beach won his division of the Rebel with a 110 speed figure. Mike Smith still aboard,” crowd ’capper Howie Reed wrote of the group’s pick.
I think the gang has the right two on top, but I’ll flip them and use Improbable over Omaha Beach. I like Galilean for third.
Ellis Starr’s Arkansas Derby analysis
Galilean will be my top choice to win this year’s Arkansas Derby as I’m expecting big improvement off his third place finish last month in the first division of the Rebel Stakes won by Long Range Toddy. Galilean nearly won his first four races, all stakes, including his debut, as his only defeat in those races came by a neck in the second start of his career. Galilean closed out his 2-year-old campaign with a nine length win when tried in a route for the first time in the King Glorious Stakes. He returned off two months of rest in February and won the California Cup Derby as if he had never been away. His next start came in the Rebel, in which he stalked the pace early in third, moved up to battle neck and neck for about a half mile before settling for third behind Long Range Toddy and Improbable. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer takes blinkers off Galilean for the Arkansas Derby and based on his last effort, that may be the ticket to big improvement off the 105 Equibase Speed Figure earned in the Rebel. The removal of blinkers will help the colt to see on all sides as well as behind him, and that could enable his competitive juices to kick in for a new top effort good enough to post the upset.
Long Range Toddy gets the extreme outside post but that’s not a concern because of the expected faster than average early pace in the race. Grey Attempt stretches out from 6 furlongs and has run very fast early in his previous two route races. One Flew South adds blinkers, which should cause him to show a lot of early speed, and Jersey Agenda is a need-the-lead type who has to go fast early to gain position from his 10 post. All that early pace and positioning allows Long Range Toddy to drop into a great trip possibly just a couple of paths wide going into the first turn, similar to where he was early in the Rebel, in which he rallied from fourth in the last eighth of a mile to earn a career-best 109 speed figure. Prior to that, Long Range Toddy had traffic trouble with a quarter of a mile to run and still managed third. With three wins and one second place finish from his four other route races, it’s obvious Long Range Toddy shows up every time with his “A” game and as such he is a strong contender in this year’s Arkansas Derby.
Improbable was returning from three months off in the Rebel and had his schedule adjusted when his home base of Santa Anita was closed temporarily. A perfect three-for-three in 2018 including a sharp win in the Los Alamitos Futurity with a 103 figure, Improbable still earned a new best 109 figure in the Rebel when coming up a neck shy of Long Range Toddy on the wire in spite of the time off. Likely to improve in his second start off the layoff, Improbable certainly can run well enough to win, but he is likely to be the betting favorite because of perceived improvement in his second start of the year and because his trainer is Bob Baffert. However, it can reasonably be assumed Long Range Toddy can take another step forward as well and potentially deny his foe another win on the wire.
Omaha Beach won the second division of the Rebel last month, earning the best last race figure in the field (110), his fifth straight improvement in speed figures since his debut last summer. The Rebel was his first two-turn race on dirt and he met the challenge with flying colors as he moved up comfortable from third in the early stages to lead by two lengths in the stretch before holding off Game Winner by a nose. Game Winner returned to run in the Santa Anita Derby last weekend and was once again denied by a narrow margin by Roadster. Game Winner’s speed figure regressed to 106 in the Santa Anita Derby and so although Omaha Beach may continue his pattern of improvement that is something to note.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.