Johnny D’s Kentucky Derby Analysis, Selections & Wagers

1. War of Will 20-1     M. Casse/Gafflione

A misstep just after the start of the late-March Louisiana Derby resulted in a ninth-place finish at less than even-money. That darkened the form of this otherwise attractive runner. He was sore for a day or two after the race, but soon returned to training. Following 4 reasonable grass efforts to begin his career, this son of War Front broke maiden over a ‘sloppy’ track in November at Churchill. In January, he exercised complete domination over New Orleans-based foes in the Grade 3 Lecomte and in the Grade 2 Risen Star. He’s got enough speed to be close to the lead and exhibited a pounce and kill style all winter. He has pulled at the rider in recent works at Churchill, suggesting he may be close to the early pace. Drawing the dreaded rail Derby post position will force jockey Gaffalione’s hand and they must hit the gas out of the gate. Two questions surround this guy: First, is he be fit enough to win the Derby? The poor non-effort in the Louisiana Derby means he hasn’t had a complete race since mid-February. On the other hand, since August he has raced every month except December, including twice in February. The forced breather actually might be a welcome respite. Second, how good are the horses he was beating in New Orleans this winter? The Louisiana route recently has not been a particularly strong springboard to Kentucky Derby success. We’ll pass on War of Will from a very difficult post position.  

2. Tax  20-1     Gargan/J. Alvarado

With just 4 races to his credit, this gelded son of Arch was claimed for $50,000 out of a maiden score by his current connections. Since then he has finished third in the Grade 2 Remsen, won the Grade 3 Withers and been second in the Grade 2 Wood Memorial. Not bad. In the Wood stretch he made the lead and was gunned down late by Tacitus. That performance leaves questions about his ability to effectively get the Derby distance. His dam has had 3 previous foals that are a combined 1-64, so Tax really is the overachiever in his family. His preference is to race just off the early pace, and he will find it much more difficult to run down leaders this time. While 9 geldings have won the Derby, there’s only been 2 since 1929. We’ll pass on this guy being the third.

3. By My Standards    20-1     Calhoun/G. Saez

This upset winner (22-1) of the Louisiana Derby parlayed a maiden victory into a Grade 2 triumph. He’s made it to the gate once each month since November and has improved Beyer Speed Figures from the mid-70s to 97 last out. He’s worked splendidly for this race, so maybe he’s improved dramatically. The main question after the Louisiana Derby is: Even though By My Standards is obviously doing well, is he this good? It took this son of Goldencents 4 starts to break his maiden. That’s normally not a positive (although it took original Derby favorite Omaha Beach 5 starts to win maiden). In the Louisiana Derby, once favored War of Will encountered severe trouble out of the gate, the race became wide open. Overall, By My Standards doesn’t seem that attractive as a Derby proposition, however, his sharp recent works at Churchill Downs have made him a ‘wise guy’ choice. He’s a possible inclusion in lower levels of exotics.

4. Gray Magician        50-1     Miller/Van Dyke

Unable to muster a Beyer Speed Figure above 90 in 8 races, the last a very nice closing, runner-up try against Plus Que Parfait in Dubai—this son of Graydar seems up against it in the Derby. He hasn’t won a race at 3 and it’s been 9 years since that profile has produced a Derby winner. Plus, in the last 3 months he’s shipped round-trip from California to Maryland, round-trip California to Dubai, and then on to Kentucky. That’s a challenging schedule. Heck, I’m tired just writing about it. And, if you hadn’t guessed, Gray Magician actually is gray. In the Derby, horses of that color are 0-for-the last 25. Pass on him.

5. Improbable             6-1       Baffert/I. Ortiz

Winner of his first 3 races, including the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity, this son of Carson City has a pair of runner-up finishes to his credit this year—a neck loss to Long Range Toddy in a division of the Rebel Stakes and a one-length loss to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby. Both were good efforts and this colt has been at Churchill Downs for a couple of weeks and has looked well during morning work. Small-cup blinkers were added for his last race and he was uneasy in the post parade and fractious in the gate. The blinkers come off for this—a high-percentage move for Baffert in graded stakes races. Perhaps the biggest knock on Improbable is that daddy City Zip is not known for producing distance runners. This colt did negotiate a mile and one-eighth in Arkansas last out, but never was getting to Omaha Beach in the lane. He’s 1 of 3 Baffert runners in here and approaches the race with a solid pattern of improvement. Also, he’s proven over an ‘off’ surface. He figures to come from about mid-pack in the Derby and appears a solid in-the-money possibility with a shot at the top prize.

6. Vekoma      20-1     Weaver/Castellano

Winner of 3 of 4 starts, including the Grade 3 Nashua and Grade 2 Blue Grass, this son of Candy Ride figures close to the early pace. Hall-of-Famer Javier Castellano, seeking his first Kentucky Derby win, will ride. Like with Tacitus there’s some question about the quality of opponents that have chased him home. Supporting this theory is that the only time Vekoma met top-ranked foes in the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth, he finished third. Vekoma’s got some rough-looking action as he paddles his lead leg like he’s doing the breast stroke. Obviously, it doesn’t bother him, although he did drift in and out through the stretch in the Blue Grass. Add it up and Vekoma seems up against it. He will appreciate mud on Derby Day.

7. Maximum Security 10-1     Jason Servis/Luis Saez

Unbeaten, untied and unscored upon, this son of New Year’s Day figures to be around 6-1 on Derby Day. That’s right, an undefeated horse with 4 wins by margins as narrow as 3 ½ lengths to as wide as 18 ¼ lengths figures to be a decent price! That’s why you gotta love the Derby…20 runners, a possible 5-1 favorite and more value than you can shake a rolled up Daily Racing Form at. This guy has speed, won the Florida Derby and is trained by Jason Servis, a fellow that checks in at 33%! So, what’s not to like? Horseplayers are a funny lot. They put stock in something called ‘class,’ so that when a horse that broke his maiden for $16,000 shows up the Kentucky Derby, they immediately toss him. No matter that since then no foe has gotten within yelling distance of this colt. Following the Florida Derby, he pulled up on the backside looking as if he’d just breezed a half. His ears were straight up, begging to do something else. One other knock is that he galloped along on an easy pace up front in the Xpressbet Florida Derby. Detractors feel he won’t have a similar luxury in Kentucky. That’s probably true. Does he need the lead? Not according to his winter domination in Florida. How will he react when better horses come calling? Will Maximum Security have the appropriate answer? I’ll take a decent price to find out. He’s a major player in here and a wet track won’t matter.

8. Tacitus        10-1                 Mott/J. Ortiz

A winner of 3-of-4 starts, this son of Tapit will have plenty of backers. He’s earned respect. Following 2 races at 2, including a maiden score, Tacitus returned in March of his 3-year-old year to win the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby. In April, he returned to win the Grade 2 Wood Memorial. He figures to race from off the pace and has shown the ability to overcome challenges. Early in the Wood, he was bumped and jostled but still managed to deliver a top effort. Still, a closer in the Derby will have to be fortunate to be successful. Hall-of-Fame trainer Bill Mott, one of the all-time leaders in wins at Churchill Downs, has never won a Derby and is a sentimental choice. What concerns this horseplayer are two points: Who has Tacitus whipped? Can he overcome the Wood Memorial alumni drought (15 years and 33 0-0-0)? He’ll be around for an in-the-money finish until my final cut.

9. Plus Que Parfait      30-1     Walsh/Leparoux

This ridgeling won the UAE Derby in Dubai last out. Trouble is that race was March 30. Asking a 3-year-old to ship halfway around the world to run a winning race and then to return to contest the Kentucky Derby, all in a bit over a month, is ambitious. Have to let this one beat me.

10. Cutting Humor      30-1     Pletcher/Lanerie

Hall-of-Fame jockey John Velazquez bails on this mount to stay with Code of Honor. That suggests that the Sunland Derby victor may be a cut below the best in here. He was nowhere in the Southwest and mustered up a maiden win at Gulfstream Park West before that. He really hasn’t done much in his 6-race career and has been away from the races for 6 weeks. He would be the first winner of the Sunland Derby to take the Kentucky version. We’ll pass on him.

11. Haikal       30-1     McLaughlin/R. Maragh

Never worse than third in five starts, this son of Daaher was considered by some a late-running sprinter best suited at up to a mile. Then he closed well to finish third behind Tacitus and Tax in the Wood at a mile and one-eighth. Does he have the chops to make up ground in this deep field? That’s the question with this guy. He closed from far back to win the Grade 3 Gotham and Jimmy Winkfield Stakes but these foes are much tougher than what he faced in either of those races. He’d have to overcome the 15-year-long 33 0-0-0 Wood Memorial graduate jinx to do better than fourth.

SCRATCHED 12. Omaha Beach          4-1       Mandella/Smith        

Unfortunately, Omaha Beach has an entrapped epiglottis, a fairly minor issue, and Hall-of-Fame trainer Richard Mandella was forced to scratch him from the Kentucky Derby.

13. Code of Honor       15-1     McGaughy/Velazquez

Winner of the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth from off the pace, this slightly-built son of Noble Mission was no match for Maximum Security in the Xpressbet Florida Derby. The pace in the former was conducive to closers while the latter saw Maximum Security gallop along uncontested up front. There should be an honest-but-not-rapid pace in the Kentucky Derby, so this closer may have a tough time catching all of the frontrunners. Code of Honor’s resume is darkened by a sub-par performance in the Mucho Macho Man when, at 80 cents to the dollar, he failed to fire and finished fourth out of 6. Don’t see him as a ‘win’ contender in here, but he could pick up some pieces late.

14. Win Win Win        15-1     Trombetta/Pimental

Look for this son of Hat Trick near the back of the Derby pack. He closed well enough to be third in the Tampa Bay Derby behind Tacitus and was a late-arriving second in the Blue Grass behind Vekoma. His best race was a track-record setting performance in the Pasco Stakes going 7 furlongs at Tampa. Jocket Irad Ortiz leaves this guy to ride Improbable and Julian Pimental returns aboard the colt he has won with 3 out of 4 times he’s ridden him. Win Win Win has never been worse than third in 6 career starts. Since only the Pasco has been fast enough to make him any kind of threat in here, it’s difficult to endorse him.

15. Master Fencer      50-1     Tsunoda/Leparoux

This Japanese-bred son of Japanese-bred sire Just a Way, and Sexy Zamurai, a Deputy Minister dam, makes the long trek from the Land of the Rising Sun to contest the Kentucky Derby. Someday a horse from Japan might win or hit the superfecta in the Derby. This isn’t it.

16. Game Winner       5-1       Baffert/Rosario

The 2-year-old champ’s 4-race unbeaten streak came to a stunning conclusion as the heavy favorite in the Rebel Stakes at the hoofs of Omaha Beach. Game Winner, who hadn’t been out since November, lost by a nose to a foe that already had had two races in 2019. In the Santa Anita Derby, Game Winner did all the dirty work by disposing of Instagrand in the stretch, but then was out-finished a half-length by stablemate Roadster. Critics argue that this guy hasn’t improved much over his 2-year-old figures and that’s true, but he hasn’t gone backwards either. He’s eligible to run a big race in Louisville for Baffert and figures to be around mid-pack early without too much late-running to do. He deserves a prominent position on tickets.

17. Roadster   6-1       Baffert/Geroux

It’s unusual to go 4-deep on a final Kentucky Derby Qualifying Points list before encountering a Bob Baffert-trained runner. And Baffert’s got 3 entrants in the race? So, what gives? Is this an ‘off’ year for the white-haired conditioner? Yes, if you can call a year when a trainer gets 3 runners to the Derby an ‘off’ year.  In this son of Quality Road we find the winner of the Santa Anita Derby–an outstanding springboard to Louisville success. Roadster has had 4 starts with 3 wins, his only disappointment coming in the Del Mar Futurity when stablemate Game Winner got there first. Following that effort, a throat issue was discovered and subsequently surgically treated. The operation seems to have worked. At 3, he’s won an allowance race and the Grade 1 local Derby. His Beyer Speed Figures have improved in each career race and so have his Thoro-Graph figs. Jockey Mike Smith, who had ridden Roadster in all four starts, elects to ride Omaha Beach in the Derby instead. Capable youngster Florent Geroux will pinch hit. Expect to find Roadster off the early pace, but not too far back. Roadster will need to improve a bit to win the Derby, but he’s headed in the right direction for a trainer who already has won 5 of these Derbies, 1 short of the all-time record. Pop culture fans may recall that last summer, when asked by TMZ paparazzi for the name of his best horse, Baffert touted this guy. Also, Roadster is grey and a horse of that color is 0-for-the-last 25. Trends aside, Roadster must be respected.

18. Long Range Toddy            30-1     Asmussen/Court

He’s got one race in an 8-race career that gives him a look at a slice in this race. That’s when this son of Take Charge Indy closed to nail heavily-favored Improbable by a neck in a division of the Rebel Stakes. That afternoon, jockey Jon Court delivered a riding masterpiece for the victory. Court, at 58, will be the oldest jockey ever to ride in the Kentucky Derby. Before the Rebel, ‘Toddy won the Clever Trevor and Springboard in Hot Springs and then finished a close second in the Grade 3 Southwest. He’s a tough customer, but it doesn’t seem like he’s fast enough to compete with these. In what must be a statistical anomaly, post 17 is 0-40 in the Derby. The scratch of Omaha Beach moves Long Range Toddy into post 17.

19. Spinoff      30-1     Pletcher/Franco

His last race is his best—second by three-quarters of a length behind By My Standards in the Louisiana Derby. Before that he romped in an allowance at Tampa and finished third in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special in August. Like original probable favorite Omaha Beach and solid contender Roadster, this son of Hard Spun has improved Beyer Speed Figures in each of his races. Overall, his efforts have not been as fast as either Omaha Beach (scratched) or Roadster and he would need an additional forward move to contend. It’s been 6 weeks since his last race and he’s coming in off a loss and the last to do that was Super Saver in 2010—coincidentally, also trained by Todd Pletcher. He’s got enough speed to flee the outside post and to find a soft landing spot before the first turn. He’s lightly raced and still learning, so improvement is possible. It’s probably asking too much to expect him to win, but he’s an interesting lower-rung exotic player at a big price.      

20. Country House      30-1     Mott/Prat

Early in the race, this son of Lookin At Lucky can be found near the back of the Derby pack. He has closed well on occasion to get a piece of pie in the Risen Star, second behind War of Will; in the Louisiana Derby, fourth behind By My Standards; and in the Arkansas Derby, third behind Omaha Beach. His last race in Arkansas was his best, so there’s that. His late-running style might find him passing some tired foes late, but he really doesn’t look like a trifecta threat. Perhaps  a use in the bottom rung of the superfecta for those going deep in that leg.

21. Bodexpress           30-1     Delgado/Landeros

Originally marooned on the Also-Eligible list, the Xpressbet Florida Derby runner-up at 71-1 now moves into the Derby starting gate with the scratch of Omaha Beach. He’s still a maiden but he chased Maximum Security around the Gulfstream oval through a slow pace to be second. He was well-beaten in Hidden Scroll’s ‘sloppy’ track maiden romp in January and second by a neck in a very fast seven-eighths race. He’s gotten better with each race, but he’ll need to improve again to have any chance in here.  

Bottom Line: The Wednesday evening defection of Omaha Beach threw this Derby into a bit of chaos. Moving up a slot in my pecking order are Game Winner and Maximum Security. The former has trained well, looks great and owns a 2-year-old champ resume—which is nice. Although completing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile/Kentucky Derby double is rare—Nyquist and Street Sense. Maximum Security has been training in Florida, has speed and is a real question mark on many levels. Two things are certain: He’s fast enough to be close to the lead and he should be fit. He’s an unbeaten Xpressbet Florida Derby winner, too. Not bad.

Ones to Beat: 7. Maximum Security, 16. Game Winner

Next in Line: 5. Improbable 17. Roadster

Favorite Price ITM Chance: 19. Spinoff

Most Likely Exotic Fillers: 2. Tax 3. By My Standards, 8. Tacitus, 13 Code of Honor

Suggested Wagering Strategy

$1 Trifecta ($28)

7 with 5, 7, 16, 17, 19 with 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 13, 16, 17, 19

$.50 Trifecta ($56)

5, 7, 16, 17 with 5, 7, 16, 17, 19 with 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 13, 16, 17, 19

For Superfecta Lovers Only

$1 Superfecta ($108)

7, 16, with 5, 7, 16, 17 with 5, 7, 16, 17, 19 with 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 13, 16, 17, 19

Have a great Oaks and Derby weekend!

Race On!

Johnny D’s Kentucky Derby Analysis, Selections & Wagers

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