Back to square one.
You could sense the minds whirling, the keyboards clacking and the pencils scratching late Wednesday — or at least I could — after the announcement that Omaha Beach, the 4-1 favorite in the $3 million Kentucky Derby, would be withdrawn from Saturday’s storied race due to a breathing problem.
It was a crushing disappointment to fans and hard-core horseplayers alike
For the latter, it meant shredding betting strategies developed since post positions were drawn on Tuesday, or just giving up. A few did suggest they would throw in towel, but most players I spoke with said they would at least look to see if new opportunities presented themselves.
Smart idea, I say. Where chaos exists, opportunity awaits.
I can’t tell you I’ve grasped all the implications of the change, but I offer these observations for your consideration:
■ Game Winner, the Bob Baffert-trained son of Candy Ride is an exceptional horse — maybe the best in the Derby field — and the new 9-2 favorite with Omaha Beach’s departure. But the chalk must start from a tough post — No. 15 — and will need every bit of artistry that jockey Joel Rosario can muster to avoid another wide trip that would cost him any chance of a win. Read on to see who I and the #RJhorseracing handicappers are going to be backing.
■ The scratch of Omaha Beach changes the pace picture, but how exactly will it play out? The Richard Mandella-trained colt likely would have either held the lead or been in hot pursuit before the field hit the second turn. Without him, Florida Derby winner Maximum Security could sneak away to another easy lead and take the field gate to wire unless a few other horses in the field with “sneaky” speed fill the void. The horses capable of doing that include Gray Magician, Cutting Humor, Spinoff and Bodexpress. My guess is no one will be sent hard to the front, which would further compromise the chances of come-from-behind horses like Country House, Win Win Win and Japanese entrant Master Fencer.
■ The weather may play a role in determining the outcome of the race, with various weather websites putting the chances of rain Saturday between 74 and 90 percent. If the track comes up wet, give War of Will, Maximum Security and Plus Que Parfait a boost, as all have shown a fondness for mud of some form. Meantime, downgrade the chances of Gray Magician, Long Range Toddy and Bodexpress, all of whom have shown a distaste for it.
Enough for now. Let’s get on with the picking.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers are doing double duty with the $1.25 million Kentucky Oaks, the Derby equivalent for 3-year-old fillies, on Friday at Churchill Downs as well as the main event.
In the former, the crew is strongly backing Bellafina, the 2-1 morning line favorite, over Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Jaywalk (8-1), who is 0-for-2 in a pair of starts this year, and Champagne Anyone (6-1).
In this speed-laden lineup, I think Bellafina may be vulnerable, so I’ll take a shot with the Steve Asmussen-trained Lady Apple (20-1), with Champagne Anyone and Bellafina in second and third, respectively.
In the Derby, the crew is siding against trainer Bob Baffert’s favored Game Winner (9-2), one of three entrants the Hall of Famer will saddle in the Derby, in favor of Tacitus (8-1). They have Game Winner second, narrowly ahead of Maximum Security (8-1).
“Tapit colt looked great in the Wood,” wrote crowd ‘capper Mas Yoshinaga of the group’s pick, referring to the Bill Mott-trained steel-gray son of Tapit’s win in the Wood Memorial on April 6 in his last start.
I’m also going to try to beat the favorite with Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards (15-1), who leaped out of the maiden ranks to vanquish more seasoned foes in that Grade 2 contest on March 23. The Brett Calhoun-trained colt will need to take another step forward to win here, but has the advantage of having run well over a sloppy Churchill Downs racetrack in his debut last year. I’ll take Improbable (5-1) and Maximum Security to fill out the other top slots.
New players are always welcome to join the #RJhorseracing handicappers in unraveling a pair of challenging equine puzzles each week. Simply drop me an email or follow me on Twitter and let me know you’d like to get involved.
Ellis Starr’s Kentucky Derby analysis
Roadster showed me what I needed to see in the Santa Anita Derby to make me believe he has the tools to win the Kentucky Derby this year. In the early stages of the Santa Anita Derby, Roadster was fifth of six on the inside of other horses and two lengths behind the leader when jockey Mike Smith let the colt drop back of his own accord, going to nearly five lengths behind the leader with a quarter-mile to run. Roadster was then allowed to go to the outside although there were no horses inside of him until and he continually accelerated to be head and head with the leaders in mid-stretch, eventually pulling away to win by a half-length. I believe what Smith was doing was educating Roadster to get ready for one of the longest stretch runs in any track in North America at 1,234 feet, and that education may serve him very well in the Kentucky Derby. Having continually improved since his debut last July when he earned a 90 Equibase Speed Figure, Roadster finished third behind Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity in September, earning a 96 figure, then was given six months off to mature. He certainly did mature over the winter, running two turns for the first time and winning in March without a prep race first while earning a 104 figure, then improving to 106 in the Santa Anita Derby. Being as the Kentucky Derby will be his third start off a layoff, Roadster should peak in this race and given he’s already been educated as to how to run down the long stretch at Churchill Downs, I believe he can win.
Plus Que Parfait showed talent as a 2-year-old when beaten a neck in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs last November, but his first two races as a three year old were complete clunkers, first finishing fifth in the LeComte Stakes and then finishing 13th in the Risen Star Stakes. However, he was an entirely different horse in his next start on March 30 in the United Arab Emirates Derby. Adding blinkers for that race, Plus Que Parfait was in traffic until about an eighth of a mile to go when he found room to run in between horses, accelerated and got the lead. He continued to run strongly to the wire, holding off the late challenge of Gray Magician with minimal effort. When we can identify the reason for a turnaround in performance, as is the case with Plus Que Parfait adding blinkers, we can more easily assess whether the effort was a fluke or can be repeated. The effort earned a 112 figure which is even a bit better than the now scratched favorite Omaha Beach earned winning the Rebel Stakes and if he can repeat the effort and if Roadster does not move forward as expected in his third start as a three year old, Plus Que Parfait could post the upset.
Tacitus also showed a lot of physical toughness, as well as heart, in his victory in the Wood Memorial last month. Near the start of the race, Tacitus was bumped pretty hard and caused jockey Jose Ortiz to momentarily lose his balance. Shortly after that, a horse nearly crossed in front of Tacitus going into the first turn and he clipped that horse’s heels, almost falling. Recovering nicely but finding himself seven lengths behind the leader with about three-quarters of a mile to run, Tacitus shows a big burst of speed on the turn to get the lead by a head with an eighth of a mile to run, holding off the challenge of Tax to win by a length and one-quarter at the finish. As with others, Tacitus is on a pattern for a peak effort in the Derby as he’s making his third start of the year and Equibase figures of 105 and 106. As a son of Tapit, sire of multiple graded stakes winners such as Frosted, Cupid, Creator and Tonalist, there is little doubt Tacitus has anything but the makings of a potential Derby winner and so he’s another deserving of respect when considering who can win this year.
By My Standards doesn’t appear to be as fast as Roadster or some of the others, as he earned just a 93 Equibase figure when winning for the first time (in his fourth career start) in February and then a 96 figure when winning the Louisiana Derby. However, By My Standards showed the mental toughness of a top level horse in the Louisiana Derby. In the Louisiana Derby, By My Standards was stuck behind a wall of horses turning for home, slowing his momentum, before jockey Gabriel Saez guided him to the inside for running room, at which point By My Standards accelerated nicely to take the lead. By all reports, By My Standards has improved both physically and mentally since his last race with a pair of exceptional workouts at Churchill Downs. By My Standards has excellent tactical speed to allow him to be towards the front of the pack, and may be able to spring the upset by improving off his last effort.
Maximum Security is undefeated in four races including a dominant three and one-half length win in the Florida Derby on March 30. That was his first race around two turns and he passed the test with flying colors as he controlled the tempo on the front end from start to finish. Although he led from the start in the Florida Derby as well as in a February start in a 7-furlong sprint, Maximum Security demonstrated he does not need the lead to win when rallying from third to win in January. Having earned a career-best 109 figure winning the sprint in February, it might seem like a regression to a 102 figure effort in the Florida Derby, but considering Maximum Security had no challengers for nearly the entire race, he could have run faster. Trainer Jason Servis trains his horses rather unconventionally by working them very slowly and at longer distances than most other trainers. As such, Maximum Security has been galloping a mile nearly every day at three-quarter speed and if nothing else, he may be the fittest horse entering the Derby. Considering the winners of the Florida Derby in 2013 (Orb), 2016 (Nyquist) and 2017 (Always Dreaming) all won the Kentucky Derby, Maximum Security could add to that list with a top effort.
Win Win Win rounds out my annual sextet of main contenders and although I don’t believe he has the same probability to win as any of the other five, he has a high probability to finish second or third at the least and help us profit in the exacta or trifecta. Racing around two turns for the first time in the Tampa Bay Derby in March, Win Win Win closed from far back in seventh to finish third behind Tacitus, who improved to win the Wood Memorial the next month. Win Win Win then entered the Blue Grass Stakes and although no threat to three and one-half length winner Vekoma, Win Win Win showed a good deal of ability after being steadied in traffic and losing momentum with 5/16ths of a mile to run. After that, he rallied from eighth to pass all but the winner in the final stages. In a recent workout at Churchill Downs, Win Win Win showed a strong competitive instinct because even though he was not in company with two other Derby entrants (Country House and Tacitus), when he saw them in front of him he insisted on accelerating past them to be in front. This competitive desire could prove very helpful in the late stages of the Derby and as Win Win Win is likely to go to post at high odds given he did not win his most recent Derby prep race, he is definitely a horse I want to use on any exacta or trifecta tickets I play.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.