Handicapping the 145th Kentucky Derby


Justify wins the 2018 Kentucky Derby

Saturday May 4th is the day of the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby. It's the day we horseplayers wait for all year because it presents a wagering opportunity not found in any other race. A packed twenty horse field of three year olds trying a distance they've never run before and may never run again.


We get to know all the runners in this race through a series of prep races that pit a cross section of them against each other in different races leading up to the Derby. We know who has been winning the prep races and how fast they've been running and who is improving and who is regressing.

Because the field is so large and the permutations and combinations of probable outcomes is so great, those of us skilled enough or lucky enough to come up with the right combinations are very happy indeed.


Post position in this race can make or break a horse's chances within seconds of the gate opening. Like some sort of giant amoeba, the field expands and contracts in a virtual pinball game run into the first turn. There is nothing like it! Horses that can clear and avoid the crush at the start have a decided advantage.


Since the advent of the points system in 2013, the race dynamics have definitely changed. It is much more likely now to see front end speed horses controlling a measured pace and deep closers faced with the daunting task of passing horses that still have some punch left in the stretch.


1. War of Will Like Omaha Beach, he turned into a real killer when he hit the dirt, but his form on the lawn wasn't too shabby either. He spent January and February beating up on weaker fields in the Le Comte and the Risen Star, then turned in a dud in the Louisiana Derby. The excuse makers were out in force after that one, but they saw something I didn't. It's not like there is going to be less bunching at the start of this race. Drawing the one post severely compromises his chances. He'll have to gun it out of there and hope for the best.

I congratulate him on his success in these lesser dirt stakes, but I think this horse's future is on the lawn. If he wins, I'll be the one on the rail ripping up tickets. I'll pass.

2. Tax Besides Maximum Security's laugher on the front end in the Florida Derby, horses do not get better trips than Tax had in the Wood Memorial. He was sitting in third about six lengths behind two dueling longshots and the rest of the field was three or four lengths behind him because of all the trouble in the first turn. Horses in this spot usually wait for someone from the rear to come up, then they pull away around the speed and romp to victory. When Tacitus loomed up, Tax did pull away, but Tacitus kept coming and easily went by at the end. It is even more of an indictment of Tax when you factor in the trouble Tacitus had early in the race. He will never get a better trip than he had in the Wood and he couldn't win that. He draws a very difficult inside post and could be caught in the crush. No thanks.

3. By My Standards It took him four tries to break his maiden, but then he pulled off the shocker in the Louisiana Derby at 22:1. He got the perfect inside stalkers trip that day and ran down Spinoff in the last 100 yards. If you play the Fairgrounds, you know that the rail is the place to be and the middle of the track is where horses go to fade away like old soldiers. I tend to shy away from horses who get perfect trips, especially when the horse they beat (Spinoff) had the much more difficult three wide trip in that race. War of Will was also in that race and people seem to be giving him an excuse for his up the track finish, but I'm not. This horse is definitely on the upswing, but he will have to improve further to contend here. He will be sitting mid pack and making a late run, but I can't see him out finishing Tacitus. I'll pass.


4. Gray Magician He's still eligible for non winners of one other than maiden, claiming, or starter, but then, so was Alysheba. He doesn't remind me of Alysheba and Chris McCarron is not riding anymore.

5. Improbable He was run down late in a division of the Rebel by Long Range Toddy in a race that looked like it was in the bag. He ran a nice second in the Arkansas Derby after acting up at the gate, but they could've gone around two more times and he was not getting by Omaha Beach. He is a very nice racehorse, trained by the right guy, and he will win a lot of races, but I don't see any wins at a mile and a quarter in his future. He will make a run at some point, but I don't see him winning. I'll pass.


6. Vecoma He won the Bluegrass as easy as you please on a track favoring front end speed, but he was facing a much weaker group than he encounters here. Prior to that he finished behind Code of Honor and Bourbon War in the Fountain of Youth. He has speed and that should help him clear the mayhem at the opening bell, but I cannot envision him putting away Omaha Beach, Maximum Security, and possibly Spinoff, and still holding off all the pressers and closers. He will play a key role in the early pace of this race, but I don't think he is good enough to win. I'll pass.

7. Maximum Security He is the wild card in the race and the key to this year's Kentucky Derby. A speed horse who debuted in a 16k claimer and reeled off four in a row including the Florida Derby. He reminds me of Timely Writer in a way. Timely Writer debuted in a 30k claimer (they say his owners, a couple of meat packers from Boston, wanted to cash a bet) and went on to win the Hopeful and the Florida Derby before a series of misfortunes took him from us. He was an early favorite in the lead up to the 1982 Derby. Depending on how you interpret Maximum Security's Florida Derby, he is either a speed freak like Justify who can control the front no matter what the pace or he's the luckiest horse in the world who was allowed to canter around the Hallendale track like a lead pony in one of America's premier Derby preps. I'm coming down on the latter interpretation for a couple of reasons. There were six dirt races at Gulfstream on Florida Derby day (2, 3, 4, 8, 11, 14) with the last being the Florida Derby. They ranged from 7 furlongs to the mile and an eighth of the Florida Derby. Speed horses won them all. The internal fractions were sizzling for all except the Florida Derby. I know the fractions for 7 furlongs and mile races are going to be much faster, but I don't believe that excuses the inordinately slow pace of the Florida Derby. After going 6 furlongs in a pedestrian 112 and 4/5, Maximum Security hit them with a 23 second quarter and it was sayonara. It was the perfect setup and I don't think he'll get anything close to that in the Kentucky Derby. It will be interesting to watch how horses like Omaha Beach and Vecoma approach this horse. Will they vie for the lead early or sit just off the pace. Either way, I don't think this horse will make it all the way around on the front. I'm taking a stand against him.

8. Tacitus

Well he has certainly done nothing wrong in his brief career. He just keeps getting better and better. In the Tampa Bay Derby he exploded late to win comfortably. In the Wood Memorial he got squeezed into a vise on the first turn and still managed to recover and win comfortably. He was chasing Tax in the Wood and Tax got the ideal trip sitting behind two dueling longshots. In most circumstances Tax would have won, but Tacitus showed the kind of grit that serves horses well in the Kentucky Derby and simply wore down Tax despite the trip.


The more I look at his races the better I like him. He may actually improve quite a bit in the Derby because we know from watching his races that he will like the added distance. He's bred to be any kind and his races show it. The only knock I can see is that he's a closer, so he will have to circle most of the field when he comes with his run. You'll get a square price because most people don't like the Wood as a Derby prep.


The pace in this year's Derby should be legitimate. I don't anticipate any 49 second half miles. It should set up his late run nicely. He is my pick to win!


9. Plus Que Parfait Usually when horses come over from Dubai, they run awful in the Derby. Still, when you throw them out, you wonder if this is the one who will upset the applecart. This horse has already run over here though. He was trounced twice by War of Will and even beaten by Signalman. No chance!

10. Cutting Humor He won the Sunland Derby with a nice late run after getting buried by some of these in the Southwest. I can't see him weaving his way through this field. This is a much tougher bunch and he would need a huge move forward to contend. No thanks.


11. Haikal He's a deep closer who showed impressive late punch in a few shorter races, but when stretched out to a mile and an eighth in the Wood Memorial, the usual closing punch was gone. Both Tacitus and Tax finished well clear of him in the Wood and I see no reason to expect a reversal of fortune here. He will have to pass the entire field in this race to win. Even if there is a complete pace meltdown, there are other more likely candidates to benefit. I can't see it. No thanks.

12. Omaha Beach

The now horse is as steady as they come. His dramatic improvement after switching to dirt reminds me of Cigar. I know it's not fair to compare him to Cigar, it's just the sudden improvement after the switch in surface. Three for four on the dirt with a division of the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby in his pocket is a nice place to be heading into the Derby.


Like Tacitus, this is a horse with grit! He dug in and held off Game Winner in the Rebel when it looked certain that Game Winner was going by him, then he dug in against Improbable in the Arkansas Derby and they could have gone around again and Improbable was not going by him.

This is a horse with great tactical speed and a champion's fighting spirit. My only knock is that he seems to be the one who will have to deal with Maximum Security. I seriously doubt he's going to let Maximum Security canter around there like he did in the Florida Derby. He will have to sit on his shoulder close enough to let him know he's there, try to take over at the top of the stretch, then hold off all the pressers and closers. It's a tough assignment. I wouldn't be all that surprised if Smith tries to put Maximum Security away at the start and take the lead, but there are downsides to either approach.


I have no quarrel with those who like this horse, but I just don't see the race setting up for him. He'll be on all my tickets because if anybody bosses them around, it will be him. I just like Tacitus a little bit more.


13. Code of Honor He has been on my radar since his wire to wire maiden breaker at Saratoga last summer. The burst of speed he showed when circling the field in the Champagne after a bad break was the most impressive move by a two year old that I saw last year. He made me a nice score when he sat the perfect inside stalker's trip winning the Fountain of Youth, but what do we make of his Florida Derby? I think the Florida Derby is a complete toss. No horse other than Hindoo or Seabiscuit was going to close on that track that day after the setup Maximum Security got. Still, he will have to make a big leap forward to win this race. His breeding screams for distance and he will finally get some here, but as much as I like him, I have trouble seeing him winning this race. I will probably wind up using him underneath with a small win saver, but I like others in here more.

14. Win Win Win He's been beaten by several of these, but he's usually in the same zip code at the end. He's a one move closer who will be trying to time his late move perfectly. He had no chance in the Bluegrass after getting shuffled back to last on a speed favoring track and running into traffic throughout, but he stayed on gamely and was picking them up at the end. He closed widest of all in the Tampa Bay Derby and lost by two lengths to Tacitus. There is always a horse who is running late in the Derby after all the others have stopped. This year it figures to be Win Win Win. He will be all over my tickets including the top spot in a few. I count twelve horses in here who like to be on or near the lead by the 2nd call of their races, this guy will be running by most of them late. If a bomb wins the Derby, I think it will be him!

15. Master Fencer En Garde? Aucune chance!

16. Game Winner Last year's two year old champion has never run a bad race, but he comes into the Derby on a two race losing streak. Omaha Beach held him off in a division of the Rebel and Roadster blew by him late in the Santa Anita Derby. Based on his resume he should be the favorite in this race, but I can't get over a few nagging doubts about him. First, why didn't he go by Omaha Beach in the Rebel? Omaha Beach did all the heavy lifting putting away the speed in that race and should have been easy pickings, but he dug in and wouldn't let Game Winner go by him. Second, why didn't he cruise to victory after passing the tiring speed horses in the Santa Anita Derby? I know the new Santa Anita track is tiring, but I don't like the way he caved in the final yards. Everyone's pre-race favorite this year was Game Winner and overall I believe he has accomplished the most, but Mike Smith gets off the horse (Roadster) that blew by him in the Santa Anita Derby. Why? Doesn't it make sense to stay on a horse you know can beat Game Winner? I will probably go back and forth on him a few more times, but I'm leaning towards tossing him.

17. Roadster

I thought he lost his action early in the Santa Anita Derby, but it actually wound up helping him because the three in front of him hit the wall mid-stretch on that strange, new, tiring Santa surface and he went waltzing by. One of those backing up to let him by was Game Winner in one of his lesser moments.


You have to wonder about Mike Smith leaving the horse who just beat Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby, but Roadster is unlikely to get the garden setup in the Derby that he got that day and he would have to pass a lot more horses than he did at Santa Anita. I wouldn't be surprised if he gets a call in the Derby, but I don't think he'll hit the board. I'll pass.


18. Long Range Toddy

After a troubled trip third in the Southwest, he rebounded like a champ running down Improbable late in a division of the Rebel. I had him that day and was looking forward to the Arkansas Derby, but he did nothing. If you want to say it was the mud, you will get a great price in this race, but he may not be as good as some of the high flyers in here.


I can see using him underneath on exotic tickets simply because the price will be right, but I don't consider him a serious contender for the win. I may try a small sentimental win bet, but that's all. His last was awful and this post doesn't help.


19. Spinoff I think this horse may be sitting on a big race. He got beat by By My Standards in the Louisiana Derby so his odds will be really high. His form is well disguised. He ran three wide in the Louisiana race on a track that is notorious for favoring inside speed. He got beat by the horse who got the perfect trip that day, but clearly showed the mile and an eighth was no problem. With a little improvement, he could be right there. He has positional speed, so he should be able to avoid the opening crush. He'll be sitting right behind Maximum Security, Omaha Beach, and Vecoma, so he should be able to save ground. If those top three mix it up a little, he could be sitting in the catbird seat. He'll have to deal with Tacitus and some of the deep closers, but if Omaha Beach doesn't fire his best shot, he has a big chance. The outside won't hurt him as much because of his tactical speed. He's a major contender in here and has to be used.

20. Country House

Coming into the Kentucky Derby with three straight losses against several horses who are in this race is not the usual recipe for winning the roses. He would need a major move forward and nothing he has done so far suggests it is coming. He did run a credible third to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby, so I suppose you could throw him underneath in some supers. I can't see him going by them all, but he could pass a few in the stretch of this race.


If you like him you should demand a very long price, at least 30:1. From this post, he'll have to pass nineteen of them. I'm passing.


Summary

Well that's the field for this year's Kentucky Derby. There is not a lot of high octane front end speed in here, so no more than two or three of them should be contesting the front. There is a chance Maximum Security could clear, so then you have to decide if you think he's good enough to take them all the way. However, over half the field likes to be in the vicinity of the lead by the 2nd call, so I think the pace should be honest and there could be a lot of bunching between the six furlong and mile mark.


Recent Derby's have belonged to the horses running on or near the front. I have not done well in most of them. My last big Derby score was 2013 when Orb won. In the lead up to this year's Derby, I have been focusing on speed horses. Yet, when all is said and done, I'm going with a mixture of speed, stalker, and closer.


I like Tacitus to win the Derby. I think he will be sitting between sixth to tenth early and making his move on the far turn. He's done nothing wrong this year, but this is the acid test and there are some very nice horses he will have to pass. I think he will!


I spent a long time wavering between Tacitus and Omaha Beach, but I don't think this Derby sets up well for Omaha Beach. He's a fantastic horse and has a champion's fighting spirit. He will be on all my tickets.


We all like to search for the horse at long odds who shows up late to blow up the trifectas and superfectas. My search ended with Win Win Win. His late move on the speed favoring Keeneland strip really caught my eye.


I'll be boxing Tacitus, Omaha Beach, and Win Win Win in exactas and trifectas. I'll be betting both Tacitus and Win Win Win to win because of their odds. I'll be adding Spinoff and Code of Honor underneath on a few superfectas.


Postscript - Sloppy Track

In case the track comes up sloppy (the early forecast looks like it may be a distinct possibility), everything changes. I would have to upgrade the chances of Omaha Beach ( as if his chances need any upgrading), Improbable, Maximum Security, and War of Will. The race would lose a lot of its attraction for me if it's muddy and all of my wagering would be scaled back.


I think a sloppy track might actually promote a faster early pace, but it also becomes next to impossible to predict how runners who have never run in the slop will perform. The potential for a merry-go-round of front runners increases, yet some of the biggest longshots in Derby history have come in the mud. I'm hoping for a fast track.


Good luck to all who are playing! Enjoy the spectacle!

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