Kentucky Derby Prep-Race Overview 2019 (KD-PRO 2019)

April 13 marked the end of the 2019 Derby prep season. The Arkansas Derby and Lexington Stakes wrapped up a crazy early-blooming spring, in which minor preps rang up stronger clockings than major late-spring contests.
With the results in the books and the qualifying points tallied, let’s review the action.
Arkansas Derby: Omaha Beach Surfs to Victory at Hot Springs
Final Time: 1:49.91, 16th fastest in past 20 years
Fresh off a nose-bob victory over Game Winner at Oaklawn Park, Omaha Beach squared off against another heavyweight from the Bob Baffert barn. The track condition changed from fast to sloppy and the main challenger switched from Game Winner to Improbable, but the plot remained the same. Omaha Beach seized control early and proved best late.
After Improbable’s narrow loss to Long Range Toddy in the Rebel Stakes, trainer Bob Baffert blamed jockey Drayden van Dyke’s inexperience as well as Improbable’s lack of focus. On this day Baffert discovered pointing fingers is as unproductive as crossing fingers, with Improbable falling victim to Omaha Beach’s dash-and-dally antics.
As he did in the Rebel Stakes, Mike Smith prompted Omaha Beach to the lead, slowed down the pace and waited for his rival to draw near before asking the Beach to flex some muscle. With a winning margin more convincing than his Rebel nose job, OB’s bandwagon filled to capacity despite the race’s dead-slow final time.
Improbable finished second, about six city blocks ahead of the third-place horse. Credit Improbable for staying close to the lone-speed winner, but list “lack of early speed” as his largest liability. Also, his weak final time suggests this son of sprinter City Zip won’t improve with added distance.
Wood Memorial: Tacitus Wrestles a Win
Final Time: 1:51.23, 32nd fastest in past 35 years
The ancient Greeks would’ve loved Tacitus. His performance in the Wood Memorial resembled a triathlon of sorts: wrestling, running, a bit of gymnastics.
The race turned into a slugfest from the get-go. From post 11, Joevia veered in sharply and clobbered several horses to his inside. As the last domino in the line, Tacitus got body-slammed sideways. Like a real champ he recovered quickly and gained a forward position behind the dueling leaders. But entering the first turn, trouble reared its ugly head again, as Tacitus found himself sandwiched and checking stride sharply in between his two closest rivals.
At this point jockey Jose Ortiz probably expected some horse to leap off the inner rail in WWF fashion and elbow Tacitus in the noggin. Fortunately for Ortiz and the gray son of Tapit, horses don’t have elbows. The clean trip Tacitus enjoyed for the remaining seven furlongs proved to be sufficiently clear running to secure victory.
Tacitus’ fortitude impressed many, but his final time registers as one of the slowest Wood Memorials in three decades. Handicappers might want to cut him some slack on that count, and they definitely should eliminate all other Wood contestants from serious Derby consideration.
Santa Anita Derby: Baffert Wins But Loses
Final Time: 1:51.23, 49th fastest in past 50 years
The bad news for Bob Baffert is that the losing margin increased for Game Winner as the Rebel runnerup stretched out an extra sixteenth of a mile. The good news for Baffert is that his other entry, Roadster, circled the field and roared to victory.
With Santa Anita padding its surface to the max, pace and final times hit unusual lows, making Roadster’s actual speed tough to gauge. We can gauge the talent level of his opposition, though. The non-Baffert horses in this race were abysmal, and Game Winner blew a significant tactical advantage with no excuse in sight. It’s Roadster or bust for Baffert this year, and I recommend betting on bust.
Blue Grass Stakes: Vekoma the Sidewinder Strikes Again
Final Time: 1:50.93, 18th fastest in past 20 years
With one of the strangest strides in racing history, Vekoma blew away the competition. He opened up a three-length lead at the top of the stretch and won by a similar margin.
A head-on view of Vekoma’s stretch run looks mighty similar to stage-coach teams in old Westerns that gallop out of control as a gunfight breaks out. An aerial view of his running lines in your racing form paint a different picture. Three victories in four races, with two coming in graded stakes contests at major tracks and all three showing Vekoma maintaining or increasing his advantage late.
Vekoma contested one of the fastest opening halves this race has seen in many years, but that effort devolved into a pedestrian final furlong of 13.40 seconds. The inability of late-rallying Win Win Win to cut into the lead of the tiring favorite shows this race contained only one legitimate Kentucky Derby contender.
Florida Derby: Maximum Security Handcuffs Rivals
Final Time: 1:48.86, 6th fastest in past 20 years
Former crack sprinter Maximum Security seized the early lead, slowed the pace to a crawl and exploded late to draw away to a nearly four-length victory. The first two-turn attempt for Max Sec presented no challenges, but the winning time rates as excellent. He clocked in with a time faster than the winning Florida Derby efforts of prior Kentucky Derby winners Nyquist, Orb, Barbaro and Monarchos.
The inability of the other contenders to run faster than 1:13.0 to the half tells you all you need to know about their Derby chances.
Louisiana Derby: By My Standards Raises the Bar
Final Time: 1:49.53, fastest in past 10 years
By My Standards, despite inheriting an inexpensive sprint-oriented pedigree, notched his second victory around two turns. In his three longest career races, he now owns two wins and one placing. The fastest and most impressive victory came in his longest race to date, the Louisiana Derby.
His winning time exceeds the clockings of recent Kentucky Derby combatants Gun Runner and Girvin. It’s also the fastest winning time for this race since it returned to nine furlongs in 2010. You have to go back through 21 contests at this distance to find a faster winning time for the Louisiana Derby.
Can this colt continue to outperform his pedigree? Nothing in his fast-early and fast-late victory suggests he can’t.
Second-place finisher Spinoff, a highly regarded Todd Pletcher trainee, finished five lengths ahead of the next-closest horse. The former 11-length allowance winner surrendered a one-length lead in the stretch and proved to be no match for the winner. Heavily favored War of Will, looking for a sweep of the Louisiana prep races, never lifted a hoof in this contest.
Sunland Derby: Cutting Humor Shaves Time Off Track Record
Final Time: 1:46.94, Fastest in past 20 years
Cutting Humor pressed a hot pace, grabbed a short lead turning for home, and held off the late charge of Anothertwistafate. The final time and every segment leading up to it registered as fast.
Pletcher’s Cutting Humor benefitted from a perfect ride by John Velazquez, while the runnerup ran into brief trouble on the final turn before getting clear and charging after the winner. Baffert’s Mucho Gusto faded to a distant third.
The track might’ve been playing a bit fast, but the credentials of the top three finishers look stronger than those of horses in prior runnings of the Sunland Derby. Respect for the winner is warranted.
Rebel Stakes I: Omaha Beach Thumbs His Nose at Juvenile Champ
Final Time: 1:42.42, 3rd fastest in past 20 years
The replay shows Mike Smith sitting chilly on the lead aboard Omaha Beach until BC Juvenile Champ Game Winner draws nearly even in mid-stretch. At that point Game Winner holds a significant edge in momentum and seems poised to blow on by. But Smith finally (belatedly?) asks the Beach to kick it in, and OB prevailed by a nose.
Was Smith being confident or cocky? Was he taunting Bob Baffert for not offering him the mount on Game Winner?
The margin of victory shows up as a nose, but Game Winner was all-out against a horse just playing games. Never before has a nose foretold such a huge quality difference between two graded stakes winners.
Rebel Stakes II: Long Range Toddy Achieves the Improbable
Final Time: 1:42.49, 4th fastest in past 20 years
After sitting just behind a leisurely pace, jockey Jon Court pulled Long Range Toddy clear to the outside and ran down the leaders to win by a neck at 8-1. Baffert’s highly regarded Improbable surrendered a one-length lead in the stretch but finished well clear of the rest of the field.
The words “surrendered a one-length lead in the stretch” applied to a horse closing from off the pace should raise huge red flags with all Kentucky Derby fans and forecasters. That particular performance flaw adds up to more disappointments, especially as distances and the level of competition increase.
Tampa Bay Derby: Tacitus Writes Himself into History
Final Time: 1:41.90, Tampa Bay Downs stakes record
Never has a huge gray horse gone so unnoticed. Bettors ignored him and sent him off at 12-1. Restrained early by Jose Ortiz, Tacitus vanished into the crowd at the back of the field. He then launched a sustained closing bid, cloaked by the bright silks of backpedaling rivals on either side of him. Even the Tampa Bay track announcer failed to see Tacitus sneaking to the lead and noted his presence only steps before Tacitus hit the wire as the winner.
Let history show that Tacitus posted fast pace and final figures and showed great maturity and maneuverability.
Roger LeBlanc
April 22, 2019

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