TimeformUS Kentucky Derby Analysis: Reigning champion Game Winner looks poised to reclaim his crown

Grade 1 Kentucky Derby | 1 1/4 Miles, Dirt, 3-year-olds
Churchill Downs, Race 12, 6:50 p.m. (ET) |Go to TimeformUS PPs >>

Most Likely Winner: Game Winner (#16)

This Run for the Roses is the culmination of a prep season that has cycled through various stages of jumbled disarray. A series of upsets expanded the collection of contenders through February and March. One prep race was canceled entirely, while another was split into two divisions. Horses that would have easily met the threshold for entry in years past found themselves on the outside looking in once the final points were awarded. And finally, in a cruel twist, the likely favorite – one who had only just emerged in the final weeks of the prep season – has been scratched three days out from the race. This Kentucky Derby remains as wide-open as any in recent memory.

The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace at the half-mile split, as should be expected in a field of this size. Yet the precise sorting of the potential front-runners through those opening four furlongs is somewhat uncertain. The Pace Projector informs us that Vekoma (#6) has displayed the best natural early speed and could easily secure a position at the head of the pack, just ahead of longshot Bodexpress (#21), who draws in off the also-eligible list. However, there are a slew of other rivals who may challenge for those positions. Many handicappers believe that Maximum Security (#7) will be forwardly placed – if not operating as the outright pacesetter. However, he has enjoyed relatively slow-paced leads in his prior victories, which is why the Pace Projector cannot place him up with the front-runners.

New-Pace-Projector.jpg

One intriguing aspect of this Pace Projector is the tight grouping of Early Pace Ratings among those toward the middle of the pack. The horse depicted in third – Spinoff (#19) – possesses an Early Pace Rating of 106, whereas the horse projected to be 16th – By My Standards (#3) – has an Early Pace Rating of 91. That 15-point spread across 14 running positions is unusually compact, suggesting that the runners towards the middle of the pack could be far more tightly grouped than the Pace Projector portrays. It also opens up the possibility that a horse predicted to be 5th could easily find himself in 15th early due to nothing but poor racing luck.

There are relatively few true closers in this field compared to past Derbies. The horses most likely to take advantage of a pace collapse, if such a situation develops, appear to be Haikal (#11)Win Win Win (#14), and Country House (#20), who owns the highest Late Race Rating in the field (116).

Let’s make our way through the entire 20-horse field:

#1, WAR OF WILL (20-1): This horse has endured his fair share of poor fortune, and now he must contend with the dreaded rail draw. Things seemed to be going so well for the son of War Front through the first few months of the prep season. Yet everything went awry in the Louisiana Derby, as he completely lost his hind-end action coming out of the gate. In a feat of athleticism, he somehow gathered himself and finished the race, but he was unable to put forth a competitive effort. His connections have decided to press forward and the horse offered a glimmer of hope by training well in the intervening week, yet much of that enthusiasm has been dampened following the post position draw. The main knock on War of Will had always been his relatively slow speed figures, and he never got the opportunity to prove that he was capable of running faster in his final prep. There are just too many obstacles to overcome. Pass.

#2, TAX (20-1): The New York route to the Kentucky Derby – and the Wood Memorial in particular – has gotten an unfair negative reputation from handicappers. It has indeed been a number of years since the race produced a Derby winner, but much of that is due to misfortune and random distribution. Looking back on this prep season, the circuit that produced the highest set of speed figures from start to finish was New York, and the Wood Memorial was the best race of the series. The weight-adjusted 120 TimeformUS Speed Figure that Tax was assigned for his effort in that race is the highest number in this field, one point higher than the winner Tacitus. The ugly incident heading into the clubhouse turn of the Wood has been analyzed to exhaustion – suffice it to say that Tax was clear of trouble throughout and worked out a very good trip. He did make the first move into a fast pace, whereas Tacitus rallied from slightly farther back in the pack, yet it’s hard to argue that Tax was anything more than second best on the afternoon. This versatile colt should be able to adapt to any kind of trip and he’s bred to get the distance. There are certainly reasons to be optimistic about his prospects. I’m not including him among my top selections, but he’s one that I will definitely throw in underneath. Exotics player.

#3, BY MY STANDARDS (20-1): No other participant has generated more buzz based purely on his training regimen than this colt. By My Standards has always been a solid work horse and trainer Bret Calhoun noted the improvement in his training prior to his win in the Louisiana Derby. I find that race to be one of the more difficult preps to analyze. There was not much depth to the New Orleans 3-year-old division behind War of Will, and his failure to show up with a competitive effort left the door wide open in the Louisiana Derby. Two new faces, By My Standards and Spinoff, were able to capitalize, but we still don’t have concrete validation of the drastic improvement on their prior form. By My Standards worked out a fantastic trip under a crafty Gabriel Saez, saving ground and avoiding traffic in a compact field. The Goldencents colt handled the 1 1/8 miles on that occasion, but his pedigree raises some red flags as he attempts to stretch out an extra furlong. I would not fault anyone for taking a shot with him at anywhere around his 20-1 morning line odds, but he feels like he could get bet down off that price. A minor award may be his ceiling.

#4, GRAY MAGICIAN (50-1): The UAE Derby was a very weak prep race – if we can even call it that – and his prior U.S. performances are vastly inferior to those of his rivals. Pass. 

#5, IMPROBABLE (6-1): For a period of months over the winter, many regarded Improbable as the best of Baffert’s trio in the Derby. Racing fans were justifiably enamored of his 2-year-old résumé, which included a win over this Churchill Downs strip and a breathtaking Grade 1 victory. Yet, like his Baffert-trained stablemate Game Winner, his reputation has been somewhat tarnished since then through a series of defeats. Some have jumped off the bandwagon, yet I believe it would be premature to dismiss this colt.

His loss in the Rebel was somewhat disappointing, as he appeared to have secured the victory at the top of the stretch before Long Range Toddy burst out of the pack to run him down. But Improbable was wide around both turns and may have moved to the lead too soon under an impatient ride. He faced a new set of obstacles in the Arkansas Derby: the addition of blinkers, an increase in distance, and his first wet track. However, those hurdles proved to be secondary to his main foe – the starting gate. Improbable threw a fit in his stall while waiting for the rest of the field to load, and would have been on the verge of getting scratched had the situation escalated any further. Once the field was dispatched, more adversity awaited him. He found himself uncharacteristically far off the pace as runners to his outside were gunned to the front. The rail was generally not the place to be on that Oaklawn card and Improbable was briefly pinned inside heading into the clubhouse turn before Jose Ortiz angled him into the center of the track. From there he tracked Omaha Beach and was simply turned away by that foe in the lane. Baffert wisely removes the blinkers for this Derby start since they seemed to have no positive impact last time.

Improbable

Much has been made of this chestnut’s pedigree, and I believe the general skepticism of his ability to get the distance is unfair. City Zip is an incredibly versatile sire who has produced progeny that have excelled over a variety of distances. He has managed to sire 10-furlong Grade 1 winners with his son Collected and daughter Dayatthespa. Furthermore, the bottom side of Improbable’s pedigree is loaded with stamina influences. His A.P. Indy dam was a turf router who competed at distances up to 1 3/8 miles, and she hails from the same female family as Kentucky Derby runner-up Hard Spun.

I had originally considered three contenders for my top selection, of which Omaha Beach was one. With his defection, I can narrow it down to a pair of Baffert trainees. I ultimately went to one of Improbable’s stablemates, but I would still use this horse prominently in every slot, both in exotics and multi-race wagers. A top contender.

#6, VEKOMA (20-1): While I believe Improbable has been unjustifiably maligned as a horse with distance limitations, skepticism regarding Vekoma’s stamina is probably fair. His dam was a pure sprinter and his female family does not inspire confidence that he will able to successfully negotiate the Derby distance. That said, we have seen horses outrun their pedigrees, especially in recent years, and Vekoma may possess the talent to do just that. Whereas others have revealed their quality over time, this colt has been fast right from the start. He was one of the most impressive 2-year-olds of 2018, and he validated those performances with a decisive victory in the Blue Grass last month. The one knock against his overall form is that he has not improved much on his 2-year-old speed figures. On the other hand, he remains one of the fastest horses in this field, so it’s not as if he needed to step forward.

Vekoma

There has been plenty of discussion about Vekoma’s ungainly galloping action – it is a sight to behold – yet it has not hindered him in any of his races yet. As the Pace Projector highlights, Vekoma possesses a high cruising speed, so I would not be surprised to see those chestnut legs awkwardly paddling off the far turn with the lead. The final quarter mile might be a struggle for him, but horses who arrive at the eighth pole in front tend to do quite well in this race. I have reservations, but it would be unwise to dismiss a horse with so much natural talent. Don’t underestimate.

#7, MAXIMUM SECURITY (10-1): This horse is one of the most polarizing members of the field. A quick glance at his form could prompt some to mistake Maximum Security for the Derby favorite. He’s won his four starts by a combined 38 lengths and put forth the most dominant performance that we saw among the final round of Derby prep races. However, there are some obvious red flags here. This colt debuted for a $16,000 tag back in December, so there are clearly some holes in him. Jason Servis elected to take the path of least resistance from there, building his confidence in starter allowance races. He was supposed to get a serious test in the Florida Derby with Hidden Scroll in the field, yet Maximum Security was able to secure an easy lead once that rival was rated. All of the fractions for that race are color-coded blue in TimeformUS PPs – indicative of an extremely slow pace – so Maximum Security still had plenty left in the tank at the quarter pole. If he is to make the lead in the Kentucky Derby, it is all but guaranteed that he will have to run significantly faster than he did last time. Can he withstand early pace pressure and still produce the same burst of speed in the stretch? I’m highly skeptical. His training regimen coming into this race has been nothing short of bizarre compared to his rivals’, but it’s nothing out of the ordinary for Servis. That said, we have been given few clues as to how he’s actually doing since those cryptic mock drills at Palm Meadows reveal nothing. At the end of the day, I’m never going to support a horse who has to overcome true adversity for the first time in a race like the Kentucky Derby. Pass.

#8, TACITUS (10-1): This colt seemingly has it all – competitive speed figures, a regal pedigree, and a versatile running style. He served notice that he had returned as an improved 3-year-old in the Tampa Bay Derby, and he bettered that performance in the Wood Memorial last time out. While some competitors endured worse during the incident heading into the clubhouse turn of that race, Tacitus hardly came through unscathed. He was steadied sharply when the field came together like an accordion soon after the break, and he then was forced to alter course as Tax abruptly shifted out a path heading into the turn. Despite that trouble, he showed great poise in gathering himself to complete the rest of the race with professionalism. He did show a bit of greenness in the final sixteenth of a mile, but he already had the victory secured by that point.

Tacitus

The sky is the limit for this progressive colt, and the stretch-out to 1 1/4 miles should be within his scope. Jose Ortiz certainly has options in terms of potential trips, though I would be somewhat concerned if he winds up too far back in the early going. As noted above, I don’t anticipate that this race is going to fall apart in the late stages. Some may downgrade him because he has not garnered much praise for his recent workouts, but he’s never been a particularly striking work horse in the mornings. I expect another solid effort, and I would not be at all shocked if he’s right there at the end. Major player.

#9, PLUS QUE PARFAIT (30-1): As mentioned in regard to Gray Magician, the UAE Derby was not a particularly strong race, and he benefited from one of Jose Ortiz’s best rides. I believe his prior U.S. performances are apt indicators of where he stands in relation to this field. Pass.

#10, CUTTING HUMOR (30-1): The Sunland Derby received a respectable speed figure, but make no mistake – that was a second-tier prep race. Runner-up Anothertwistafate is a nice horse, but he’s not quite at this elite level. Cutting Humor never hinted at possessing Grade 1 ability in his prior starts, and I believe he will have trouble reproducing his Sunland form under these circumstances. Pass.

#11, HAIKAL (30-1): This Shadwell homebred would have been right at home in the pre-points era, when sprinters regularly qualified for this race. Kentucky Derby pace collapses have become less likely in recent years and this year’s race is likely to feature an early tempo that is closer to moderate than suicidal. Haikal has earned some adequate speed figures in his recent starts, but he has also been incredibly fortunate in his stakes appearances. He rode a strong rail bias to victory in the Jimmy Winkfield and then benefited from a blazing early pace in the Gotham. He was even somewhat lucky in the Wood Memorial by avoiding the trouble heading into the clubhouse turn. I suppose it’s possible that he could pass enough tired runners to get a piece of this race, but anything more than a minor award seems like wishful thinking. Superfecta filler. 

#12, OMAHA BEACH (4-1): Scratched.

#13, CODE OF HONOR (15-1): This colt has seen his fair share of ups and downs through his brief career. He was the universal wise-guy horse for last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile off an eye-catching performance in the Champagne, yet was forced out of the race due to illness. After a bumpy start to his 3-year-old campaign in the Mucho Macho Man, everything went right for him in the Fountain of Youth. An exceptionally fast pace up front allowed him to work out a perfect trip from his advantageous inside post position. He came into the Florida Derby as one of the headline attractions, but the unusual dynamics of that race worked against him. He appeared to secure good position heading into the clubhouse turn, but leader Maximum Security immediately backed down the early fractions, condensing the entire field. By the time Maximum Security picked up the pace on the far turn, everyone else was at a disadvantage. John Velazquez gave Code of Honor every possible chance, saving ground on the turn, but he could only manage to get up for third. Given the massive swings in fortune that this horse has had to endure, it’s difficult to know where his true talent lies in comparison to his rivals. His top speed figure of 113 is a cut below those of the top contenders, and I’m not quite convinced he can improve on that figure as he stretches out to 10 furlongs. Sire Noble Mission has yet to prove himself as a source of stamina, and Code of Honor’s dam was a sprinter. He’s an honest colt and McGaughey knows how to win this race, but I feel that a minor award is likely his ceiling. Using underneath. 

#14, WIN WIN WIN (15-1): This colt has been something of an enigma throughout the prep season. We have now seen him in action six times, yet I still don’t feel that I have a strong sense of his identity. I’m inclined to label him as a closing sprinter, but he ran well enough in the Tampa Bay Derby and Blue Grass to cast some doubt on that characterization. If you believe that the Keeneland racetrack was intensely speed-favoring on Blue Grass day – I’m on the fence about it – then you might want to upgrade Win Win Win’s performance. He did encounter some traffic on the far turn, but I don’t believe that slight loss of momentum cost him a placing; he was going to be second regardless. I see many similarities between this guy and Haikal, yet one difference is that Win Win Win might be half the price of that horse. Another superfecta possibility.

#15, MASTER FENCER (50-1): Stamina will not be an issue for this Japanese invader, as he is the only member of this field to have gone the distance. He’s a plodder who typically rallies from last, and that style is rarely conducive to success in Japanese dirt racing. Sire Just a Way was a multiple Group 1 winner on turf in Dubai and Japan. His female family is more dirt-oriented, as his dam is a half-sister to Grade 2 Rampart winner One Caroline. He’s probably too slow to compete with this group, though he might have a better chance in the Belmont Stakes if he finds American dirt to his liking. Pass.

#16, GAME WINNER (5-1): Last year’s 2-year-old champion has yet to win a race in 2019, but he’s hardly been disgraced in defeat. He came off the layoff in the second division of the Rebel, meeting the vastly improved Omaha Beach. Despite a slow start and wide trip, Game Winner appeared to have a good chance to reel in that rival coming off the far turn. The pair drew away from the rest of the field by over 8 lengths, and Game Winner could never forge past Omaha Beach. Baffert brought him back to California to contest the Santa Anita Derby and he was once again dispatched as an odds-on favorite. Yet this time it was his own stablemate Roadster who proved to be the thorn in his side. However, I think it’s necessary to consider ground loss and pace when assessing the results of this race. Game Winner was contesting the lead while racing three to four wide throughout, whereas Roadster sat off that early duel, saving ground on the rail. According to Trakus figures, Game Winner traveled 38 more feet than Roadster, and 69 more feet than third-place finisher Instagrand. Coming to the eighth pole, it appeared as if Roadster was going to blow by the field, but Game Winner showed plenty of grit in the late stages, responding to Joel Rosario’s encouragement while battling back inside.

Game-Winner

I understand why some have jumped off this colt’s bandwagon following that second defeat. However, I’m not overly concerned with raw results in these prep races. I’m more interested in each runner’s development and trajectory, and I see Game Winner steadily advancing. It’s fair to say that his Rebel performance was on par with his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile effort, but I believe he took a step forward in the Santa Anita Derby last time. That was not the fastest prep race that we witnessed, but he performed admirably relative to his rivals – better than any speed figure can convey. Since then, he appears to have stepped forward in his training. I loved his final workout on April 26, a seven-furlong drill in 1:27 over a dead Santa Anita surface. Game Winner has never been the flashiest work horse in the morning, but he put away his workmate under minimal encouragement and galloped out with serious power. I have never doubted his ability to get this distance, since there is nothing but stamina breeding on the bottom side of his pedigree. His A.P. Indy dam is out of Fleet Indian, a winner of the Grade 1 Personal Ensign and Grade 2 Delaware Handicap, both over 1 1/4 miles.

The three Baffert runners are difficult to separate, but everything appears to be coming together for this colt at the right time. The reigning champion has lost some battles along the way, but I believe he will win the war. The selection.

#17, ROADSTER (6-1): Bob Baffert has always been quite high on this son of Quality Road. He was actually sent off as the odds-on favorite over Game Winner in last summer’s Del Mar Futurity, but a poor effort that day sent him to the sidelines for the remainder of his juvenile campaign. We didn’t learn much in his comeback win against allowance company, but Baffert displayed plenty of confidence sending him right into the Santa Anita Derby off that score. Roadster has never been a speed-crazy horse, but he showed a new dimension last time, rating well off the pace and dropping back on the far turn before launching a furious stretch bid. He displayed the turn of foot of a turf horse approaching the quarter pole, as he got back into the race in the blink of an eye. Yet, that apparent skill is also what concerns me. Roadster does not strike me as a true classic distance type. His speed is his strength, and I’m concerned that his burst of acceleration will be muted over this longer distance. Furthermore, it’s impossible to spin this unplanned rider switch as anything but a major negative. Mike Smith gave this horse the kind of ride that only a Hall of Famer can orchestrate in the Santa Anita Derby, and Florent Geroux just does not possess that same level of finesse. I have never really bought into the hype around this horse as a top Derby prospect, and I’m not going to upgrade him now. I believe he’s the least likely winner of Baffert’s trio. A cut below the top contenders.

#18, LONG RANGE TODDY (30-1): Jon Court gave this colt a beautiful ride in the first division of the Rebel, and they ran down Improbable after saving ground on the turns. Unfortunately, he could not replicate that feat in the Arkansas Derby. It’s possible that he did not care for the sloppy track, but the race also may have exposed some distance limitations. I get the sense that others have stepped forward during the past month, and he’s now just a cut below the top contenders. Pass.

#19, SPINOFF (30-1): This colt might have run the best race in the Louisiana Derby, as he raced wide around the turns while eventual winner By My Standards saved ground. He hit the front sooner than expected as the leaders backed up and just seemed to get a bit leg-weary in the final furlong. I find the Louisiana Derby difficult to place in context of the other preps. It was a fast race, but I’m not sure how those horses stack up against the rest of these from a class perspective. Spinoff clearly has ability, and the 114 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned at the Fair Grounds puts him in the mix. However, his pedigree suggests that he will ultimately be best going a mile, and I got that feeling watching his last race. He faces a difficult task from this outside slot. Pass.

#20, COUNTRY HOUSE (30-1): This colt’s Early and Late Pace Ratings basically tell you everything you need to know. His Early Rating is the lowest in the field and his Late Rating is the highest. If the pace falls apart, he’ll be there to capitalize. He’s bred to handle the distance, so he should be running on strongly in the lane, but that will only get him so far. How many horses he is able to pass will depend entirely on how fast the leaders go. I’m not particularly enthusiastic about his chances, but I could throw him onto deep exotic tickets. Using underneath.

#21, BODEXPRESS (30-1): He benefited from the slow pace of the Florida Derby and still must prove that he can get two turns under less favorable circumstances. This maiden figures to be a serious pace presence from this outside post position, potentially filling a void left by Omaha Beach. Yet it would be a massive shock if he were around at the finish. Pass.

Selections: 16 – 5 – 8 – 6

 

To see how we’re going to play the race, get our Betting Strategies as part of the TimeformUS Kentucky Derby Package.

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1 Response to TimeformUS Kentucky Derby Analysis: Reigning champion Game Winner looks poised to reclaim his crown

  1. ricbldwn says:

    Whew! I don’t relish Dave’s job,but Improbable is my possible today boxed with Spinoff on top,Pletch always gets my respect.So does Johnny V,so I will put him in there too.Omaha Beach is not a far reach either.

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