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By Anil Mukhi | 03 May 2019 |

Anil Mukhi

For 144 years, ever since Aristides charmed 10,000 racegoers in fine weather back in 1875 by recording a victory in the inaugural Kentucky Derby, the first Saturday in May has seen a bunch of trained-to-the-minute three-year-old Thoroughbreds lining up at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, to contest the race also known as the “Run for the Roses”. Should human beings act responsibly and save the earth from a mass extinction, there is no reason why the same phenomenon will not be witnessed for the next 144 years as well!

There is the same desperate rush to make the field this year as in recent times. An upper limit of 20 was first introduced in 1975, and subsequently in 2012 came the point system to determine which horses actually qualified. The 145th and latest renewal is set for 6:50 p.m. Eastern Time on Saturday, May 4th (4:20 a.m. on Sunday, May 5th, in India). From amongst the current crop, foaled in 2016, all that have the ability to win, barring those on the repair list, appear to be in the line-up. They include a rare Japanese contender.

The field is listed in the attached table:

145TH KENTUCKY DERBY Presented by Woodford Reserve












War of Will


Mark Casse


Tyler Gaffalione







Danny Gargan


Junior Alvarado





By My Standards


Bret Calhoun


Gabriel Saez





Gray Magician


Peter Miller


Drayden Van Dyke







Bob Baffert


Irad Ortiz Jr.







George Weaver


Javier Castellano





Maximum Security


Jason Servis


Luis Saez







Bill Mott


Jose Ortiz





Plus Que Parfait


Brendan Walsh


Ricardo Santana Jr.





Cutting Humor


Todd Pletcher


Corey Lanerie







Kiaran McLaughlin


Rajiv Maragh





Omaha Beach


Richard Mandella






Code of Honor


Shug McGaughey


John Velazquez





Win Win Win


Michael Trombetta


Julian Pimentel





Master Fencer


Koichi Tsunoda


Julien Leparoux





Game Winner


Bob Baffert


Joel Rosario







Bob Baffert


Florent Geroux





Long Range Toddy


Steve Asmussen


Jon Court







Todd Pletcher


Manuel Franco





Country House


Bill Mott


Flavien Prat








Gustavo Delgado


Chris Landeros



Before any discussion on the prospects of the runners, one must point out that rain has been forecast on Saturday. There is said to be a 90% chance of precipitation and the high temperature will be around 19 to 20 degrees Celsius. Hence the going could well be sloppy, thereby aiding some runners while shackling others.

Proceeding in point-wise order, we start off with Juddmonte Farms’ homebred Tacitus (by Tapit), who tops the list with 150 points. Although this breeding operation is better known for its Turf performers, it has maintained a healthy level of interest in Dirt runners as well, culminating in the fabulous performances a couple of years ago of Arrogate (by Unbridled’s Song), acquired at auction and now a stallion at their US division in Kentucky. Tacitus is superbly bred for the job as a son of the second-highest priced stallion in North America from the $2.7 million earner Close Hatches, successful at Gr.1 level on five occasions.

Winner thrice from four starts, the grey comes in here off a scintillating effort in the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct. He has never encountered a wet track. In the shape of Bill Mott he has an experienced trainer who has handled the likes of Cigar and Drosselmeyer, but who has never won the Kentucky Derby, an anomaly in his CV that should be put right this year. The last grey to triumph was Giacomo in 2005 and the most recent winner to have taken the Wood Memorial route was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. Perhaps it’s about time for these trends to once again have their day?

Exactly half of the last 10 Kentucky Derby winners have been schooled in California, although some of these have taken the “Eastern” route by way of prep races, as for example Nyquist in 2016. Veteran Richard Mandella, stabled at Santa Anita, chose to ship his ward Omaha Beach (by War Front) to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas where he recorded wins in both the Rebel Stakes (Div. 2) and Arkansas Derby, which earned him 137.5 points and made him the Kentucky Derby favourite for a while. However, a bout of coughing on Wednesday morning resulted in the discovery of an entrapped epiglottis and unfortunately he has had to be withdrawn. Jockey Mike Smith, who chose the colt over Bob Baffert’s trio, thus will have to sit it out.

Conceived in June, Vekoma (by Candy Ride), who has 110 points, won’t even be three until 15 days after the Kentucky Derby! However, the last foal of his Gr.1 winning dam looks mature and is cast in the mould of his paternal half-brother, Gun Runner. Said to have an equable temperament and a fierce will to win, he has won 3-from-4, his only blemish being a sub-par effort in the Fountain Of Youth Stakes in early March. George Weaver’s ward definitely has to be one on the short list.

Anyone who viewed the Dubai World Cup carnival in March could not have failed to notice the tremendous effort put up by Plus Que Parfait (by Point Of Entry), who garnered 100 of his 104 points by sneaking through to victory in the UAE Derby. This route to the Kentucky Derby has been a spectacular flop so far – one readily recalls the miserable failure of the much-vaunted Mendelssohn last year. The best result for this road to the Derby starting gate has been the fifth-placed effort of China Visit, who later became a more-than-useful sire in India. Until the feat of winning both these races has actually been achieved, it would be wiser to wait and watch. Of course, the Brendan Walsh-trained rig is very talented and could well turn out to be the one that breaks the hoodoo – he has run well on sloppy right here at Churchill Downs last year – though one doubts it.

Mention the Kentucky Derby to a casual racing fan and you might be asked the question “What does Bob Baffert run”? And that is because the silver-haired schooler enjoys the distinction of tutoring five wearers of the Derby sash – including a pair that went on to lift the elusive Triple Crown in American Pharaoh and Justify. Baffert has his customary strong team assembled for this annual assault on the “Run for the Roses”, consisting of

Roadster (100 points), Game Winner (85 points) and Improbable (65 points). All are well-fancied and one of them will probably start as the public choice. For the record, the last six renewals have been won by favourites! Roadster (by Quality Road), also a grey, was a $525,000 yearling who has already recovered his purchase price from 4 starts, all under Mike Smith, 3 of which were attended with a victory. As mentioned, Smith moved his tack elsewhere for this race, so Florent Giroux will take the reins on the Santa Anita Derby winner. Like Tacitus he has never run on anything but a fast track. Still, he ticks most of the boxes and is a lively prospect.

Game Winner (by Candy Ride) looked a likely future Derby winner at the end of his two-year-old season, which he ended with the Eclipse award for champion two-year-old male in North America. At that time his record read 4-from-4, but he has not added another win since in two attempts in 2019. That said, he knuckled under by only a nose and half a length respectively on those two occasions so is very close to being unbeaten. His association with Joel Rosario is a long-standing one and he is very much in the shake-up here.

Finally, Improbable (by City Zip), who scored on debut, has previous experience at Churchill Downs where he blew away his rivals in a stakes race at 2 by over 7 lengths despite a troubled passage. The white-faced chestnut also won the Los Alamitos Futurity with ease to remain unbeaten in his juvenile season. However this year, as the distances stretch out, he has found one too good at both this starts – the Rebel Stakes (Div.1) and the Arkansas Derby. Strictly speaking, he should find the trip a shade too far. On his sole appearance on sloppy ground he was a notable runner-up to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby.

By My Standards (by Goldencents) took 4 tries to break his maiden, then was set a tough task in the Louisiana Derby but answered the call in fine fashion. Still, one wonders if that provides enough of a foundation to tackle a task as weighty as this.

The Florida Derby has been the most successful trial in recent times, with 3 winners of that race, namely Always Dreaming, Nyquist and Orb, doubling up in the past 6 years, so the chances of this year’s hero, Maximum Security (by New Year’s Day) look good on paper. When scoring at Gulfstream Park the colt was recording his fourth win from as many starts, worth 100 points, so is unbeaten, with all his wins being by open lengths. That said, Gary & Mary West’s homebred, handled by Jason Servis, is a late foal like Vekoma and a front-runner to boot, which is a difficult tactic to pull off in the Kentucky Derby. Nevertheless, his odds of 8 to 1 seem generous. His fourth dam was a half-sister to the obscure Mighty Seaman who stood as a stallion in Rajasthan half a century ago but made no impact. Incidentally, the same lucky owners have another string to their bow in Game Winner!

Lady Cecil – mother of 2019 Indian Turf Invitation Cup winning trainer James McKeown – fine-tuned the regimen followed by Noble Mission, a full brother to Frankel, to such great effect that he improved to win a Group 1 in England at the age of 5. Sold for stud in Kentucky – perhaps not the ideal market for a late-developing, stamina-laden turf star – by owner-breeder Juddmonte Farms, he may reasonably have been expected to take time. However, he has sparkled early and one of his best is Code Of Honor, a ward of Shug McGaughey. As the trainer of a previous Kentucky Derby winner in Orb, McGaughey knows what’s needed and can be expected to wring out some improvement from the enigmatic colt, who has worked well. He has the further advantage of the presence of the great Johnny Velazquez in the saddle. Still, a place may be the most the late-finisher could aspire too.

On balance, Baffert’s trio of Game Winner, Roadster and Improbable, along with Tacitus, Vekoma and Maximum Security appear to constitute the core from which the winner should emerge.