Kentucky Derby: Horse-by-horse guide and cheat sheet ahead of leg one of the US Triple Crown

Game Winner
Game Winner

Jake Pearson runs the rule over the field for Saturday's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, which is leg one of the US Triple Crown.

Kentucky Derby - Churchill Downs, May 4

1. Tacitus – 12/1

Points: 150, Owner: Juddmonte Farms, Trainer: William Mott, Jockey: Jose Ortiz.

In 2016 Arrogate won the Travers, the Breeders’ Cup Classic and was voted World’s Best Racehorse and Tacit doesn’t half evoke memories of Khaled Abdullah’s great champion; even if it is admittedly more in aesthetics than performance.

Bill Mott’s grey colt may not be quite the horse that Arrogate was but he does have an awful lot of ability and an unquenchable desire to win. This he demonstrated in his most recent outing, the Grade 2 Wood Memorial. If late trouble from the later disqualified Joevia wasn’t enough to put off the son of Tapit then the drifting of Tax almost was. Tacitus dug deep to pass his challenger in the straight and finish ahead of a couple of the horses he will line up against again in the Derby.

Tacitus looked much the best horse in that race and it is difficult to see either of Tax or Haikal reversing the form with him.

2. Omaha Beach - Non-runner

3. Vekoma – 12/1

Points: 110, Owner: R. A. Hill Stable and Gatsas Stables, Trainer: George Weaver, Jockey: Javier Castellano.

This is an interesting horse. Vekoma has slid slightly under the radar amid the hype surrounding the Baffert contenders, but this George Weaver-trained colt has done pretty much everything right.

The son of Candy Ride broke his maiden at the first time of asking before impressively putting to bed the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes at the back end of last year.

His first run this season was in the Fountain Of Youth Stakes where he came up short against Code Of Honor and Bourbon War but suspicions that he may have needed the run were confirmed next time out when he ran out a 3 ½ length winner of the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Whoever you ask about that race will tell you it was a pretty imposing performance. His speed figures were top notch and the calibre of horses that he ran away from prove he has class in abundance.

This is not a horse to rule out lightly and really has as good a chance as any of collecting the spoils.

4. Plus Que Parfait – 25/1

Points: 104, Owner: Imperial Racing, Trainer: Brendan Walsh, Jockey: Ricardo Santana Jr.

Despite being based in the US it was through the Meydan door that Plus Que Parfait earned his Derby call up. After poor efforts in the LeComte and the Risen Star, the Brenden Walsh trained colt was shipped off to Dubai and returned the victor of the UAE Derby.

Undoubtedly this is an unusual route to take and it cannot fill you with confidence that this 14,000+ mile round trip was necessary to amass the points needed.

The race from Meydan does not look to be a particularly strong renewal and this son of Point Of Entry has already recorded defeats against a number of the horses he is due to line up against at Churchill Downs.

5. Roadster – 7/1

Points: 100, Owner: Speedway Stable, Trainer: Bob Baffert, Jockey: Florent Geroux.

Already this horse has had a roller-coaster of a career. As a juvenile Baffert waxed lyrical about his ability and that was justified with his 4 ½ debut win at Del Mar. He then finished third to stablemate Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity before being forced into a six-month layoff due to throat surgery.

The son of Quality Road bounced back with aplomb though, winning his first race of this campaign by 2 ½ lengths.

Then came the Santa Anita Derby, the race that has blown the Kentucky Derby wide open. Roadster was probably not meant to win this race, but when Game Winner took on the pacey Instagrand around the turn for home, the race shaped up perfectly for Roadster’s stalking, late running style and he coasted to victory; and to a handy 100 entry points.

This horse is potentially the best in the field and with a few pacey horses entered, this Derby could suit him down to a tee. In terms of a serious Triple Crown contender, this is the selection you should be looking at. He has the best stamina to ability ratio of any contender in the field and if he does not manage to get to the winning post first at Churchill Downs, don’t be surprised if he does so at Pimlico, and even Belmont.

Tactics will play a huge part here as Baffert has the ability to set this race up for either Roadster or Game Winner. Which horse wins will likely depend on the shape of the race rather than raw ability.

6. By My Standards – 20/1

Points: 100, Owner: Allied Racing Stable, Trainer: W. Bret Calhoun, Jockey: Gabriel Saez.

After a comparatively slow start to life as a Derby contender By My Standards has rapidly gotten hotter and hotter in his pursuit for the crown. Still a maiden as a three-year-old, the son of Goldencents finally broke his duck at the fourth time of asking; running out a 4 ¼ length winner at Fair Grounds.

If that run was impressive then his next was positively astounding as he returned the 40/1 winner of the Louisiana Derby. In doing so he saw off opposition including Spinoff, Country House and War Of Will – all of whom will line up again at Churchill Downs.

The Louisiana Derby form is not the strongest line you can follow however and despite the obvious improvement of this Bret Calhoun trained colt, even if he cements the form, the likelihood is there will still be a few horses from other form lines finishing ahead of him on the big day.

7. Maximum Security – 10/1

Points: 100, Owner: Gary and Mary West Stables, Trainer: Jason Servis, Jockey: Luis Saez.

Maximum Security comes into the Derby as the only undefeated horse in the field. The question mark over him is whether he can replicate his previous performances against a field of top quality horses.

The son of New Year’s Day won his first three races by a combined 34 ½ lengths are there can be no doubt about his speed and his ability to front run a field into the ground.

His fourth race cemented his status as a serious contender as he brushed away all competition in the Florida Derby, putting in a gate to wire performance and finishing 3 ½ lengths ahead of the rest of the field.

Gary and Mary West’s three-year-old only knows one way to run if his four previous runs are anything to go by and it is likely he will hit the front early and try and put this race to bed as quickly as possible. That may play into the hands of horses with a more natural stalking style of running such as Roadster and Improbable. Setting rapid early fraction may have worked so far for Maximum Security but it could work against him here.

8. Game Winner – 6/1

Points: 85, Owner: Gary and Mary West Stables, Trainer: Bob Baffert, Jockey: Joel Rosario.

When Game Winner blitzed America’s best two-year-olds in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, it looked inevitable he would go on to win the Kentucky Derby and contend for the Triple Crown. However, for whatever reason, he just has not seemed to kick on again this season.

It is a difficult situation to assess as connections will have had to plan his season to the minutest detail to ensure he is 100% fit for the big day. Because of this, it is impossible to say whether his two runner-up finishes this season have been because of lack of fitness, or due to a lack of ability.

Having said that, his run in the Rebel Stakes was actually a pretty impressive one all things considered. This was his first outing of the season and he came up against a horse that is now the Derby favourite. In fact, it looked for all the world as though the son of Candy Ride had run down Omaha Beach and pipped him on the line, only to be denied in a photo finish.

His last race was a little more disappointing, however. Supposedly, Baffert had told jockey Joel Rosario not to let Instagrad get away early, but when Game Winner moved forward to take on the front runner he left the race wide open for Roadster.

As Roadster and Game Winner are both trained by Baffert, it will be interesting to see if he adopts the same tactics in the Derby or if he switches things up to give Game Winner a better chance. The colt did not look fully extended at the finishing post and perhaps had a little more in the tank.

9. Code Of Honor – 16/1

Points: 74, Owner: William Farish, Trainer: Claude McGaughey III, Jockey: John Velazquez.

This son of Noble Mission has already competed in some high profile races in his short career. He was a very highly regarded juvenile but was forced to miss the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile due to illness. Before this setback he had broken his maiden at the first attempt and finished second in the Grade 2 Champagne Stakes.

His three races this season have all come at Gulfstream Park and it is safe to say that the McGaughey trained colt has been slightly hit and miss.

His seasonal debut in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes produced a lacklustre effort which saw him finish a disappointing fourth.

He showed his true colours next time out though as he cruised to a somewhat unexpected victory in the Grade 2 Fountain Of Youth Stakes. He had some good horses behind him that day including fellow Derby contender Vekoma.

In keeping with his up and down season his next run was again a little underwhelming. Admittedly he did run into the talented Maximum Security - who ran out gate to wire winner – but Code Of Honor never really got close enough to make a real go of the race. Perhaps connections were satisfied with the points already amassed and were not too keen on giving their horse too hard a race.

This horse is so unpredictable I would be hesitant to rule him out in a hurry. He has a battling mentality and did I mention he is the full nephew of Frankel?

10. Haikal – Non-runner

11. Improbable – 8/1

Points: 65, Owner: WinStar Farm, Trainer: Bob Baffert, Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.

Another Bob Baffert trained superstar but again one who hasn’t quite cut the mustard this season. Improbable has had some big hoofs to fill after being housed in Justify’s old stable at the WinStar Farm and in the beginning it looked as though he was well on his was. After recording handsome speed figures while winning his first two races he then dismantled the Los Alamitos Futurity to stake his claim on this year’s Kentucky Derby.

His first outing of the season saw him beaten by Long Range Toddy in the first half of the Rebel Stakes. Improbable travelled nicely through the race and hit the front with a furlong to go. Long Range Toddy finished the stronger and came from a few lengths back to steal the win but you can’t help but feel that Drayden Van Dyke had a little more horse under him than he let on in the closing stages.

The same cannot really be said about Improbable’s next outing however. This time he had Jose Ortiz aboard and there is no doubting he was giving the colt a fair old ride in the Arkansas Derby. In a dingdong finish between the WinStar colt and Omaha Beach, you would have to say that Mike Smith aboard Omaha Beach was the one doing the least amount of work.

That is not to say however, that Improbable cannot reverse the placings if he is in top condition on May 4.

12. War Of Will – 25/1

Points: 60, Owner: Gary Barber, Trainer: Mark Casse, Jockey: Tyler Gaffalione.

Has this War Front colt peaked too early? War Of Will has won three of his last four races but the one he lost was his most recent and that must be a genuine worry for connections.

Along with Gray Magician and Long Range Toddy, this Mark Casse trained colt is the most experienced in the race with eight run to his name already and despite competing in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, I feel pretty safe in saying that War Of Will wasn’t the most impressive two-year-old, recording only one win from five starts.

His three-year-old campaign has been a different story altogether though as he has matured into a powerful, winning horse. His seasonal debut saw him take the LeComte Stakes in striking fashion before putting to bed any calls of fluke with a convincing win in the Risen Star Stakes, finishing ahead of Code Of Honor and Plus Que Parfait.

His last run however must have set off a few alarm bells among connections as a poor start to the race meant he had to sacrifice his favoured front running position and left him well back in the pack. This meant his usual pace setting style of running was not an option and he clearly did not have the stamina to keep up with the leaders. This will be a serious concern coming into a 10 furlong race full of quality. He needs to get a good break and hope he can put the race to bed early but there will be a few out to do the same and they could end up having a negative effect on each other.

The Gary Barber owned colt deserves his place in this year’s Derby after a splendid three-year-old campaign but he seems to have hit his ceiling and this looks a very tough ask.

13. Long Range Toddy – 33/1

Points: 53.5, Owner: Willis Horton Racing, Trainer: Steven Asmussen, Jockey: Jon Court.

Recent form would suggest that Long Range Toddy’s victory in the Rebel Stakes was the exception and not the rule. Undoubtedly that was a career highlight performance and was worthy of a place in the Derby, but the race must be taken with a pinch of salt due to it being Improbable’s seasonal debut and Galilean having something of an off season.

Taking nothing away from the victory but the form with Improbable was reversed with ease next time out in the Arkansas Derby, a race in which this Steve Asmussen colt struggled.

This son of Take Charge Indy is by no means a bad horse but will do well to get anywhere near the places in a field like this.

14. Tax – 20/1

Points: 52, Owner: R. A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Lynch, Hugh and Corms Racing Stable, Trainer: Danny Gargan, Jockey: Junior Alvarado.

In just five runs Tax has shown that he unquestionably belongs in top class company. He may not be a winning juggernaut – having only won two of his five race – but he has never finished outside the places.

He opened his season with victory in the Withers Stakes before taking on Tapit stride for stride in the Wood Memorial. A few called foul play on that occasion as Tax seemed to impede the Juddmonte colt in the home stretch but it was a solid performance nonetheless.

This Gargan trained three-year-old has mixed it with some top horses already but was realistically well beaten by Tapit last time out. It is difficult to see him reversing that form but he could be in with a chance of a place.

15. Cutting Humor – 20/1

Points: 50, Owner: Starlight Racing, Trainer: Todd Pletcher, Jockey: TBA.

You probably won’t find a more improved horse than Cutting Humor in this field. After a disappointing campaign finishing up and down the field in run of the mill maiden races, this son of First Samurai shocked the majority of people by winning the Sunland Park Derby and claiming a place in this year’s Kentucky Derby.

The Sunland Derby may not have been the best prep race but it still needed winning and that is what Cutting Humor did - and he and runner-up Anothertwistafate pulled almost six lengths clear of the rest of the field.

20/1 seems a little short for a horse that snuck into the Derby via the back door however and I could not justify recommending him to anyone at that price.

16. Win Win Win – 25/1

Points: 50, Owner: Live Oak Plantation, Trainer: Michael Trombetta, Jockey: Julian Pimentel.

Win Win Win or Place Place Place? This Michael Trombetta colt has been the model of consistency during his career having never finishing outside of the places but has yet to win a Graded race.

His runner-up performance in the Blue Grass Stakes last time out earned him the crucial points needed for a place in this year’s Derby but how different it could have been. Had he not pipped Signalman to second spot it would have been Win Win Win on the outside looking in rather than the other way.

This son of Hat Trick undoubtedly has ability and perhaps speed is his secret weapon as he started life over 5 ½ furlongs. Since moving up in trip he has finished behind formidable horses such as Tapit and Vekoma. The issue is he will be facing those horses again at Churchill Downs.

17. Country House – 33/1

Points: 50, Owner: Shields, Jr., Mrs. J. V., McFadden, Jr., E. J. M. and LNJ Foxwoods, Trainer: William Mott, Jockey: Flavien Prat.

As far as qualifying goes, Country House certainly did it the hard way picking up points in three separate races – winning none. He has been campaigned very astutely by connections who look to have targeted the most achievable races on the Kentucky Derby trail.

His first attempt was arguably his best as he finished runner-up to War Of Will in the Risen Star Stakes. Next up was the Louisiana Derby where he finished a disappointing fourth behind the likes of By My Standards and Spinoff.

His final prep race was the Arkansas Derby where he finished third to Omaha Beach and Improbable. On the face of it this seems a pretty solid run but in actual fact the front two ended up just under six lengths clear of William Mott’s colt.

Connections have seemingly done everything in their power to get this Lookin At Lucky colt to Churchill Downs but surely he can go no further.

18. Gray Magician – 33/1

Points: 41, Owner: Wachtel Stable, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Barber, Gary, Trainer: Peter Miller, Jockey: TBA.

In similar fashion to Plus Que Parfait, this colt also needed a trip to Dubai to secure his Derby place.

Gray Magician has a pretty woeful record in the US and in all honesty shouldn’t be lining up on this stage against horses of this calibre.

The Graydar colt has competed in one Graded race in American and finished outside the places. He then missed the board again in an Allowance Claimer before finishing runner-up in a Black Type event at Laurel Park.

Peter Miller then shipped his three-year-old off the Meydan to race in the UAE Derby. He put in the performance of his career but came up short against Plus Que Parfait.

The Meydan form is not the line to follow and even if it were I cannot see Gray Magician reversing with PQP.

19. Spinoff – 25/1

Points: 40, Owner: Wertheimer and Frere, Trainer: Todd Pletcher, Jockey: Manny Franco.

Todd Pletcher is notorious for resting his horses as much as possible between races and that is certainly true of this colt. After breaking his maiden on debut a lot was thought about Spinoff and perhaps connections were a little disappointed with his third place finish in the Saratoga Special at the end of last season.

He was next seen in February as he won a generic Tampa Bay claimer nicely before his runner-up finish in the Louisiana Derby gained him the qualifying points he needed to earn a place in this year’s Triple Crown first leg.

His figures coming out of that race were pretty good but the Louisiana Derby has not produced a Kentucky Derby winner since Funny Cide in 2003 and this did not look to be the strongest renewal.

Spinoff is a nice horse with each way claims but I would be very surprised to see him in the winners’ enclosure.

20. Master Fencer – 66/1

Points: Invite, Owner: Katsumi Yoshizawa, Trainer: Koichi Tsunoda, Jockey: Julian Leparoux.

Barring any unforeseen incidents, Master Fencer will become the first Japanese bred horse to compete in the Kentucky Derby on May 4th.

Two other Japanese-based horses have competed in the “Run for the Roses” in the past with Ski Captain finishing 14th in 1995 and Lani returning in 9th place more recently in 2016.

It would be a romantic story for connections were Master Fencer to come out on top at Churchill Downs but in reality it is highly unlikely he will be able to better his compatriots’ previous efforts.

The son of Just A Way earned a place in this year’s Derby after finishing fourth in the “Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby” and as the top three finishers were not Triple Crown declared, Master Fencer was offered the invitation.

On form he has nowhere near enough to compete on this level. The colt will do well to finish in the top half of the field.

Reserve

Bodexpress – 25/1

Points: 40 Owner: Top Racing LLC Trainer: Gustavo Delgado Jockey: Chris Landeros

Bodexpress has reaped the rewards of the unfortunate news that Omaha Beach will not be featuring in this year’s Derby by sneaking in the back door with his 40 qualifying points.

He is yet to win a race in his five starts but his performance in the Florida Derby last time out left slight room for encouragement. Sent off 66/1 outsider son of Bodemeister defied expectations to finish 3 ½ lengths behind the undefeated Maximum Security.

This would be a pretty amazing place to bag his first career win but the chances are slim to nil.

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