Taking Stock: Derby Favorites and Longshots


Roadster | Benoit


The Kentucky Derby is more wide open now than it was before the scratch of favorite Omaha Beach (War Front) despite the presence of some highly qualified prospects, headed by the Bob Baffert-trained Grade I winners Roadster (Quality Road), Improbable (City Zip), and Game Winner (Candy Ride {Arg}), last year’s juvenile champion who is now the 9-2 morning line favorite. The other two are 5-1, followed by Gl winner Maximum Security (New Year’s Day) and Grade II winner Tacitus (Tapit) at 8-1. Every other entry is in double digits, which is value because there are holes somewhere or other in the top five.

Roadster is not a robust colt, has only four starts, has been brought along gingerly after throat surgery and some other issues, and has to race from post 17, where he’ll have to hustle and bustle for position, get knocked around a bit, and lose ground. Does he have the ability to handle that?

Improbable has lost both of his starts this year, at distances of a mile and a sixteenth and a mile and an eighth, and it seems unlikely that he’ll find a mile and a quarter more to his liking. Yes, his sire was capable of getting top runners at 10 furlongs, and, yes, he is from an A.P. Indy mare, but she was atypical for her sire as a turf horse, and though she won at a mile and an eighth, she didn’t stay a mile and three-eighths in stakes competition. A great comparable for Improbable is Hard Spun, who is under his third dam and was second in the Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Game Winner more than lives up to his name, but like Improbable, he’s lost both his starts this year, albeit narrowly, once to Omaha Beach and once to Roadster. He’s a big horse who needs to be hard ridden from a ways out – he’s a grinder without gear-changing ability – and traffic could potentially hamper him, and if not, a wide trip could compromise him as it did most recently in the Gl Santa Anita Derby. Last year, he won the Gl Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill gamely despite appearing not to like the track, but this time around the test will be tougher.

Maximum Security, who like Game Winner is owned by Gary and Mary West but is trained by Jason Servis, is an intriguing colt–a former maiden $16,000 winner–who won the GI Florida Derby on the front end by setting ridiculously slow early fractions. He’s a horse with a lot of speed (though he’s been brought along to the Derby with painfully slow workouts) and will likely be tested on the front end more vigorously than he was last out. Whether he can finish with the same gusto as he did in Florida remains to be seen.

Tacitus gives the impression that he’ll like the 12 furlongs of the Belmont more than the Derby trip and could potentially become his sire’s fourth winner of the last classic after Tonalist (2014), Creator (2016), and Tapwrit (2017).

Of course, any one of these five fine colts could win or place in the Derby, but here are a few more that could do the same with a bigger bang for the buck:

Tax (Arch), 20-1. He breaks from post 2. His late sire, whose son Blame defeated Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Churchill, was known for imparting stamina and later development, and Tax, a progressive colt who was second in the GII Wood Memorial S. to Tacitus last out and before that the winner of the GIII Withers S. and third in the GII Remsen S., shows these attributes. He has run well in three successive graded races at a mile and an eighth and gives the impression that he wants more ground, but not in the style of a plodder picking up the pieces. He races close to the pace, works fast and eagerly in the mornings, has broken from post 1 in three of his last four starts, and is a member of a female family that includes Derby winner Sea Hero and GI Alabama S. winner Elate. He was bred and initially raced by Claiborne and Adele Dilschneider before being claimed by trainer Danny Gargan for $50,000 in his second start. Expect more down the line from this well-bred colt.

War of Will (War Front), 15-1. In post 1, he has the speed to get clear early. He has the same sire as Omaha Beach and the same early profile, too. Both colts started on turf and found more success after switching to dirt. War Front stands at Claiborne, as Arch did, but he’s known more for his European sprinters and milers than his 10-furlong runners, though he’s capable of getting them, like 10.5-furlong G1 Juddmonte International winner Declaration of War. Moreover, the Flaxman-bred War of Will is from a Sadler’s Wells mare who descends from the outstanding family of Aviance, which has a prolific record for producing high-quality middle-distance runners. If not for his unplaced effort – with an excuse – in his last start, War of Will would be one of the favorites for the Derby. He looks “like a man among boys” at Churchill, observer and writer Frances J. Karon says. (She also has glowing comments for Tacitus and Game Winner, FYI.)

By My Standards (Goldencents), 15-1. In post 3, he, like War of Will and Tax, has the tactical speed to get clear and out of trouble. By My Standards is from the first crop of Spendthrift’s Goldencents (Into Mischief), who, it’s worth recalling, won the Santa Anita Derby. His dam A Jealous Woman was a black-type winner on turf at 8-9 furlongs in California, and her sire, Muqtarib (Gone West), was a G2-winning 2-year-old sprinter in Europe who stood in California for $3,500. By My Standards doesn’t have a glittering pedigree, but he’s bred for nine furlongs like most in the U.S. and may have the class to see out 10. He was bought for $150,000 a year ago at the April OBS sale by J. Stevens Bloodstock after breezing in 10.3–not a fast time–and didn’t make his 2-year-old debut until late November. Altogether, he started twice at two, but didn’t win until his fourth start and won the Louisiana Derby next out. He’s an improving, late-developing colt who’s training well, and he has the racing style that gives the impression that he’ll finish well.

Master Fencer (Jpn) (Just a Way {Jpn}), 50-1. Why not? He’s a first-crop son of a top Sunday Silence-line racehorse, and Just a Way’s sire Heart’s Cry is also the sire of U.S. Gl dirt winner Yoshida (Jpn). On the bottom, Master Fencer is from the family of G1 Irish Derby winner St. Jovite. He’s bred to stay, has already raced at 2000 meters (approximately 10 furlongs) twice, at two, and could plod his way into a placing or the superfecta. By all accounts, he’s unflappable in the mornings, has adapted well to his surroundings, and is owned by a successful Japanese owner and breeder who presumably wouldn’t have taken a shot in the Derby if he felt he didn’t have a chance. Master Fencer got to Churchill by earning points through a series of dirt races in Japan, but he is not a black-type winner nor has he placed in a black-type race. His form, therefore, is suspect, because the best Japanese horses race on turf, but Kate Hunter, the Japanese-based representative for Breeders’ Cup; Keeneland sales; the Kentucky Derby; the Preakness; the Belmont Stakes; NYRA; Churchill Downs; and the Pegasus World Cup, tweeted this to me recently: “It is hard to fault this horse or any horse coming from Japan for lack of form when there is no form to be had. Dirt might be their secondary surface but it is no less prominent than turf racing in the US.” Hunter also noted that there aren’t that many black-type dirt races for 2-year-olds and early 3-year-olds in Japan. This means that a horse without black-type credentials like Master Fencer can theoretically keep a North American graded stakes winner out of the Derby, which is a jarring thought no matter where he finishes.

Sid Fernando is president and CEO of Werk Thoroughbred Consultants, Inc., originator of the Werk Nick Rating and eNicks.

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