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TDN Derby Top 12 for April 23

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Omaha Beach | Coady photo

By T. D. Thornton

We’re now inside the two-week mark for the May 4 GI Kentucky Derby and big jumps in the pecking order have given way to behind-the-scenes strategizing, jockey intrigue, and the intensity of big-race anticipation. Please note the rankings below are independent from the “Road to the Derby” points leaderboard Churchill Downs uses to determine starting berths. That list can be accessed here.

1) OMAHA BEACH (c, War FrontCharming, by Seeking the Gold)
O-Fox Hill Farms, Inc. B-Charming Syndicate (KY). T-Richard Mandella. Sales History: $625,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 7-3-3-1, $1,121,800.
Last Start: 1st, GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 137.5.
Omaha Beach has the momentum of a three-race win streak, elite-level tactical prowess, a stamina-sturdy pedigree, proven off-track ability, and a stylish résumé that includes back-to-back slugfest victories over the No. 2 and No. 4 contenders on this list. Now you can add the endorsement of Mike Smith, America’s most successful big-money jockey, who last week elected to vacate the mount on Roadster (Quality Road) in order to retain the ride on this War Front colt in the Derby. Smith’s choice will ensure Derby favoritism for Omaha Beach. But the most tantalizing asset is the fact that we have yet to see what this horse can do when fully unleashed to the true depth of his torque reserves. His GII Rebel S. win over the juvenile champ was visually impressive considering Game Winner (Candy Ride {Arg}) was being pushed on for run while Omaha Beach remained hand-encouraged. And in the GI Arkansas Derby, Smith was still sitting chilly turning for home while Improbable (City Zip) was driven hard without eroding the margin. In both of those Oaklawn races, it was a wide gap back to the third-place horses. Trainer Richard Mandella disclosed on Sunday that Omaha Beach has been training and racing with a patched quarter crack since breaking his maiden on Feb. 2. He termed it an “old issue” that has not affected the horse, and Mandella flew out his blacksmith, Ben Craft, from California to Churchill Downs to apply a new patch that went on when Omaha Beach had shoes changed on Sunday.

2) GAME WINNER (c, Candy Ride {Arg}Indyan Giving, by A.P. Indy)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Gary & Mary West. B-Summer Wind Equine (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $110,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGISW, 6-4-2-0, $1,846,000.
Last Start: 2nd, GI Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 85.
If ‘TDN Rising Star’ Game Winner ends up wearing a blanket of roses one week from Saturday, it’s because he’s a been-there/done-that pro who willingly takes cues from his rider, settles into a keen and often-imposing stalk mode, then fights through adversity without shying away from confrontation. Even though he didn’t beat Omaha Beach in their head-to-head tilt, he did determinedly close the gap, and this $110,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) bay did so while racing for the first time in four-plus months while the much tighter Omaha Beach was making his third start of 2019. The elusive Breeders’ Cup/Derby double has only been pulled off twice in 34 previous years (by Street Sense in 2007 and Nyquist in 2016). And you have to go back to Super Saver in 2010 to find any Derby winner who did not win a sophomore race prior to winning the Derby. But Game Winner is poised to buck both of those trends, and if you like his chances, you’ll be rewarded with a square price for the first time in his career. Game Winner has never gone off above 19-10 odds in his six races, but he’s shaping up to be about a 5-1 second choice in the Derby.

3) WAR OF WILL (c, War FrontVisions of Clarity {Ire}, by Sadler’s Wells)
O-Gary Barber. B-Flaxman Holdings Limited (KY). T-Mark Casse. Sales History: $175,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP; €250,000 2yo ’18 ARQMAY. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 8-3-1-1, $501,569.
Last Start: 9th, GII Louisiana Derby, Mar. 23
Next Start: GI Kentucky Derby, CD, May 4
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on War of Will. KY Derby Points: 60.
War of Will has now fired two consecutive bullet workouts at Keeneland, and both have served as “convincers” to his connections that the €250,000 ARQMAY War Front colt is physically ready to pick up where he left off prior to a scary slipping incident leaving the gate in the GII Louisiana Derby. That misstep caused him to lose his action and he was never truly in that race to win it. But to see the bigger picture, rewind War of Will’s career arc back to a solid foundation of five 2-year-old races (four at a mile or longer), including a trip-troubled fifth in the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Trainer Mark Casse then transitioned him to dirt just before the start of his sophomore season, and War of Will responded with three high-impact wins (one in the slop at Churchill and two in stakes at Fair Grounds). Purely from a visual perspective, War of Will catches the eye as a sharp gate-breaker who can fluidly assert himself near the fore of large fields, and the way he advanced upon and inhaled overmatched competition in his first two New Orleans races stamped him as the most authoritative prep-race victor of 2019–until Omaha Beach came along. Right now I’m leaning toward War of Will being the most value-conscious Derby bet, probably somewhere in the 12-1 range.

4) IMPROBABLE (c, City ZipRare Event, by A.P. Indy)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-WinStar Farm LLC, China Horse Club International Ltd. & Starlight Racing. B-St. George Farm LLC & G. Watts Humphrey Jr. (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $110,000 Wlg ’16 KEENOV; $200,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 5-3-2-0, $619,520.
Last Start: 2nd, GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on Improbable. KY Derby Points: 65.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Improbable, like stablemate Game Winner, will enter the Derby with two honest second-place efforts that demonstrate progression beyond what appears in his running lines. This $200,000 KEESEP City Zip chestnut was four wide on both turns of the GII Rebel S. and only beaten a neck, then came up one length shy of No. 1-ranked Omaha Beach after they locked horns the length of the homestretch in the Arkansas Derby. Improbable did show improved focus in that race (he had been cocking his head in previous works and races), but he was fractious in the post parade and anxious in the gate. Trainer Bob Baffert had been schooling Improbable to be more of a speed-oriented horse and even added blinkers as an experiment in the Arkansas Derby. But after the race Baffert said he didn’t think the blinkers helped, so maybe Improbable will remain a stalker in a Derby that does not have any tour-de-force early speed on paper. Improbable is athletic, light on his feet, and has a long stride. Last Breeders’ Cup weekend, Baffert told TDN this colt was a “50% version of Justify. He’s the same color and has the same markings on his face.” Even if Improbable hasn’t rounded into the other 50% of last year’s Triple Crown winner, another 20% or so of improvement would put him in the hunt as a legit Derby win threat.

5) TACITUS (c, TapitClose Hatches, by First Defence)
O/B-Juddmonte Farms, Inc. (KY). T-Bill Mott. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 4-3-0-0, $653,000.
Last Start: GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 150.
As a Derby prospect, Tacitus brings a unique blend of patience (it might take him a mile to fully uncoil), aggression (he admirably fights for position when he has to, like on both the first turn and the stretch run of his GII Wood Memorial win), and stamina (by Tapit out of an Eclipse champion mare who excelled in dirt routes). Mott doesn’t generally gush about potential Derby prospects when they’re 2-year-olds, but he was on record as saying the colt might be the Classics threat to emerge from his barn. Is a body of four races enough to get Tacitus to the Derby winner’s circle? This gray has needed encouragement to stay engaged in his races, and firing from well off the pace in the 20-horse Derby can be a strategy that leaves even the best of horses at the mercy of traffic. Tacitus has also taken a path of lesser resistance to Louisville, as neither the GII Tampa Bay Derby nor the Wood Memorial drew A-list heavy hitters this year. Historically, only one horse has ever parlayed the Tampa/Kentucky Derbies (Street Sense). And it’s now nearly two decades since any Wood winner went on to capture the Kentucky Derby (Fusaichi Pegasus).

6) ROADSTER (c, Quality RoadGhost Dancing, by Silver Ghost)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Speedway Stable LLC. B-Stone Farm (KY). T-Bob Baffert. Sales History: $525,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GISW, 4-3-0-1, $706,200.
Last Start: 1st, GI Santa Anita Derby, SA, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 100.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Roadster’s stock dipped slightly when Mike Smith chose to ride No. 1-ranked Omaha Beach instead of this $525,000 KEESEP Quality Road gray. I have to think that if Smith believed the two horses were closer together ability-wise, he’d have retained the mount on Roadster considering trainer Bob Baffert routinely supplies Smith with a pipeline of Grade I mounts. But this “tell” might not matter dependent on post position draw, and Florent Geroux is a capable replacement. This athletic-framed colt was highly regarded last summer at Del Mar before he needed soft palate surgery to correct a breathing problem, and Roadster could be peaking at the right time based on the long, loop-the-group drive that he sustained through the GI Santa Anita Derby stretch with enough grinding determination to put away favored stablemate Game Winner. This decade has been good for Santa Anita Derby winners: They’ve won the Kentucky Derby in 2012, 2014 and 2018. But 25 consecutive grays have gone to post and lost the Derby since the last gray, Giacomo, roared home at 50-1 in 2005.

7) WIN WIN WIN (c, Hat Trick {Jpn}-Miss Smarty Pants, by Smarty Jones)
O-Live Oak Plantation. B-Live Oak Stud (FL). T-Michael Trombetta. Lifetime Record: SW & MGSP, 6-3-2-1, $367,300.
Last Start: 2nd, GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50.
This Hat Trick (Jpn)-sired homebred has a pair of Derby-winning grandsires in his pedigree (Sunday Silence and Smarty Jones), and he started his sophomore season with a track-record score over seven furlongs at Tampa Bay Downs. He has intrigued but not truly delivered on his potential in a pair of two-turn stakes preps since then, although you could point to realistic excuses in both those efforts. In the Tampa Derby, Win Win Win was hooked five wide off the turn as the beaten fave behind upstart Tacitus, who has since gone on to convincingly win the Wood Memorial. And at Keeneland, Win Win Win was closing against the grain of a fairly potent Blue Grass Day speed bias. He has never been off the board from six lifetime starts, but then again, he’s also never won around two turns or at any other track besides Tampa or Laurel. At somewhere in the vicinity of 20-1 in the Derby, I’ve got him on my bet list as a horse to play underneath in exotics as insurance, but not as a key win threat.

8) PLUS QUE PARFAIT (r, 3, Point of EntryBelvedera, by Awesome Again)
O-Imperial Racing LLC. B-Calloway Racing LLC (KY). T-Brendan Walsh. Sales History: $24,000 RNA Wlg KEENOV ’16; $135,000 Ylg KEESEP ’17. Lifetime Record: GSW, 7-2-1-2, $1,590,400.
Last Start: 1st, G2 UAE Derby, MEY, Mar. 30
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 104.
Every year, the G2 UAE Derby winner has a perceived advantage at having won the longest race among any of the Kentucky Derby hopefuls (1 3/16 miles). But that’s a theoretical edge that has never translated into better than a sixth-place try in Louisville. This $135,000 KEESEP Point of Entry ridgling has dark-horse potential, though, if you dismiss his aberrational losses at the Fair Grounds on the basis of trainer Brendan Walsh’s assertion that Plus Que Parfait just didn’t like the track there. In five races over four other surfaces, he has never finished worse than third and has never been more than 3 1/2 lengths behind the winner. Plus Que Parfait showed promise in Dubai cutting through traffic for a sustained 2 1/2-furlong winning bid, and Walsh has said this ridgling has a mature enough temperament to handle the Derby hoopla. Plus Que Parfait will reunite with jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. in the Derby. The two teamed for a maiden win at Keeneland last October in front of second- and third-place finishers who subsequently won graded stakes.

9) VEKOMA (c, Candy Ride {Arg}Mona de Momma, by Speightstown)
O-R. A. Hill Stable & Gatsas Stables. B-Alpha Delta Stables, LLC (KY). T-George Weaver. Sales History: $135,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: MGSW, 4-3-0-1, $788,850.
Last Start: 1st, GII Blue Grass S., KEE, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 110.
Vekoma owns three wins from four starts (two of them in graded stakes) but seems stuck with the “overachiever” label. Part of that has to do with him being a May 22 foal who is physically smaller in stature than his peers. Another part is his lack of stretch-run focus (he is prone to shifting and drifting and cocking his head; as a 2-year-old he was on the wrong lead). A third factor has to do with his GII Blue Grass S. victory being aided by a speed-friendly Keeneland surface (seven of eight main-track winners that day were first or second at the second call). But $135,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt keeps ending up in the winner’s circle after most of his races, so he must be doing something right. The main question Vekoma will have to answer in Louisville deals with his pedigree: With 2004 champion sprinter Speightstown as his dam-sire, is 10 furlongs under constant pace pressure in a 20-horse field within his grasp?

10) TAX (g, Arch–Toll, by Giant’s Causeway)
O-R. A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Lynch, Hugh and Corms Racing Stable. B-Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider (KY). T-Danny Gargan. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-2-2-1, $326,300.
Last Start: 2nd, GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 6
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 52.
Tax is aiming to carve out a reputation as the $50,000 maiden-claimer who got away. He’s run third, first, then second in a trio of graded New York stakes since being claimed at the end of the Keeneland fall meet, and as an Arch gelding out of a Giant’s Causeway mare, it was evident that he had no problems distance-wise in back-to-back nine-furlong tries. In the Wood Memorial, Tax muscled his way to a contending position from the one hole despite traffic to his outside that resulted in a disqualification, and he settled well on the backstretch run behind daylight-margin duelers. Tax got first run on the wilting pacemakers, then fought on resolutely while pinned on the inside with the assertive Tacitus bearing down on him. This gelding’s ability to consistently attain a prime stalking position will likely serve him well in the cavalry charge that comprises the crucial first turn of the Derby.

11) CODE OF HONOR (c, Noble Mission {GB}Reunited, by Dixie Union)
O/B-W. S. Farish (KY). T-Shug McGaughey. Sales History: $70,000 RNA Ylg ’17 KEESEP. Lifetime Record: GSW & GISP, 4-2-1-0, $384,820.
Last Start: 3rd, GI Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 30
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 74.
Classics races aren’t always about brawn and power. Sometimes a race like the Derby is won by a nimble, agile stayer who lucks out with the right trip. If Code of Honor is to win a week from Saturday, that scenario could be the game plan for how he gets it done. This first-crop Noble Mission (GB) homebred is a light-bodied May 23 foal. While consistency has not been his calling card, Code of Honor has flashed glimmers of promise, like in his adversity-overcoming second in the GI Champagne S. or when he reeled in the field in the GII Fountain of Youth S. Although exact foaling date records are sketchy prior to 1940, ten known May foals have won the Derby dating to 1875, and three of those winners had a May 23 or later foaling date: Exterminator in 1918 (May 30), Northern Dancer in 1964 (May 27), and Thunder Gulch in 1995 (May 23).

12) COUNTRY HOUSE (c, Lookin At Lucky–Quake Lake, by War Chant)
‘TDN Rising Star’. O-Mrs. J. V. Shields, Jr., E. J. M. McFadden, Jr. &LNJ Foxwoods. B-J.V. Shields, Jr. (KY). T-Bill Mott. Lifetime Record: GISP, 6-1-2-1, $260,175.
‘TDN Rising Star’ Country House has run second, third, and fourth against graded stakes company in recent starts, but he’s still winless beyond the maiden level. Trainer Bill Mott has expressed confidence that the colt can get 10 furlongs, but Country House is a May 8 foal who has been green at times during his stretch runs. “He keeps knocking at the door and running at the end. He’s the type of horse that would benefit from a fast pace in the Derby and hopefully that’s the case and he can pick up the pieces.” Mott has not yet named a rider on Country House for the Derby.

Rounding out the starting gate…
13) Cutting Humor (First Samurai): The Derby mount is still open on this $400,000 FTSAUG track-record holder (GIII Sunland Derby). If you exclude this colt’s seventh-place puzzler as the beaten fave in the GIII Southwest S., he’s never been off the board in five other starts.

14) Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy): This colt’s seven solid races of two-turn experience under the guidance of a trainer who has hit the board four times in the Kentucky Derby (including twice in the past three years with decent-odds horses) are obvious plusses. But the fact that this Take Charge Indy homebred was a non-threatening sixth in his only go against Grade I competition is what relegates him to long-shot status, probably somewhere north of 40-1 for the Derby.

15) Maximum Security (New Year’s Day): This undefeated wire-to-wire winner of the slow-tempo GI Florida Derby began his career with a 9 3/4-length romp in a $16,000 maiden-claimer at Gulfstream before dominating in a pair of optional claiming/allowance races by a combined 24 3/4 lengths. After Maximum Security stole the Florida Derby under pace conditions that he will be unlikely to replicate in the Kentucky Derby, trainer Jason Servis said, “Candidly, if you read between the lines, there had to be a reason why I ran him for $16,000. Am I glad I didn’t lose him? Hell, yeah. Is he training good and sound? Yes. But there was a reason why I ran him for $16,000.”

16) Spinoff (Hard Spun): Can you find true, legitimate frontrunning speed with staying power in this year’s Derby lineup? I have trouble doing so. Maybe you could make a 60-1 case for this colt, who hails from the barn of a two-time Derby-winning trainer and held on for as long as he could in the Louisiana Derby despite getting roughed up and hooked wide in the early stages of that stakes.

17) By My Standards (Goldencents): The 22-1 Louisiana Derby upsetter worked six furlongs in 1:12.80 Monday at Churchill (2/5) with regular jockey Gabriel Saez aboard. “That was about as good as you can get two weeks out from the race,” trainer Bret Calhoun said. “This horse is just hitting his best stride and I think that’s what we’ll see from him going into the Derby.”

18) Gray Magician (Graydar): Rallied credibly behind Plus Que Parfait in the UAE Derby, but the best stateside races in his past-performance block are a six-horse one-mile maiden romp at Del Mar and a six-horse, one-turn-mile second in a minor stakes at Laurel.

19) Haikal (Daaher): It will be a big jump from one-turn success exclusively at Aqueduct to 10 furlongs in the Derby. This colt is an opportunist, though, who knows how to close into collapsing pace scenarios, and there is enough stamina foundation deeper into his pedigree to aid his stretch-out journey.

20) Master Fencer (Jpn) (Just A Way {Jpn}): This year’s Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby invitee was fourth on the points scheme, and his connections accepted the Derby invitation after the first three qualifiers opted out. He ran in a pair of 10-furlong turf races prior to winning two nine-furlong dirt events, then rallied from last to finish second in his most recent race, the Fukuryu S. at Nakayama on Mar. 31.

 

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