TDN Top Triple Crown Contenders

The TDN Derby Top 20

The last couple of anticipatory days prior to the GI Kentucky Derby can seem like a longer wait than the entire six-month prep season that preceded it. Here are the final TDN rankings, listed in “likeliest winner” order:

[Editor’s Note: This list was compiled before the major announcement late Wednesday that likely favorite Omaha Beach–who Thornton had ranked number one–was scratched. Omaha Beach has been removed from the rankings and all other horses have been moved up one slot.]

1) 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.

‘TDN Rising Star’ Game Winner will march into Louisville attempting to do something no horse has done before: Win both the GI Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby without having won a single start in between. Sure, two horses in 34 years have turned the Juvenile/Derby double. But both Street Sense (2007) and Nyquist (2016) won at least one prep, and this $110,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) bay has been second at 1-2 odds in both his 2019 starts. Those runner-up races have to be viewed in the proper context though, because trainer Bob Baffert doesn’t over-crank his Derby contenders, instead preferring to prep his top guns for the rigors of the entire Triple Crown series. So that GII Rebel S. stretch duel in which first-off-the-layoff Game Winner finished a nose behind then-upstart Omaha Beach could be excused a bit, and Game Winner did lead between stretch calls in the Santa Anita Derby before galloping out stronger and longer than winning stablemate Roadster.

Baffert has often used the word “fighter” when describing Game Winner, and this professional grinder fits that assessment based on his imposing stalk mode and willingness to tough it out in late-race confrontations. A bet on the juvenile champ at 5-1 is essentially a gamble that the wily Baffert has timed his unique brand of Derby training right yet again.

2) 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
Equineline PPs. Caulfield on War of Will. KY Derby Points: 60.

A few days ago, my biggest concern about War of Will was that too many pari-mutuel wiseguys were going to climb aboard and depress what I thought would be 12-1 fair-value odds in the Derby. Then the post draw dealt this €250,000 ARQMAY War Front colt the dreaded one hole. While I don’t agree that breaking from the rail torpedoes War of Will’s chances in the Derby, it certainly does make the task more difficult. But at 20-1, I still see enough upside. As a 2-year-old, War of Will was touted by trainer Mark Casse as a potential Derby winner (not something Casse usually does), then this colt signaled over the course of three transitional turf-to-dirt races that he has the athleticism to create his own opportunities by breaking alertly, settling into high-speed cruise mode, and responding with a nice reserve of power that has yet to be fully unleashed. A misstep at the start of the GII Louisiana Derby tarnished War of Will’s form, but three straight bullet works have this colt again building on his early-season prowess. Casse said after the post draw that War of Will could be on the lead in the Derby, and in a race that lacks standout speed, that could be a sensible strategy. War of Will has ample experience racing in crowded fields (none of his eight races have drawn fewer than 11 entrants), and the lone time he drew the rail (in the 13-horse GIII Bourbon S.), he broke fluidly and led until the final call when favored as a maiden against winners. Rain in the forecast? War of Will won his lone slop start by five lengths at Churchill.

3) 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.

The most tantalizing aspect about Tacitus is his aura of untapped potential. This Tapit homebred for Juddmonte out of a distance-loving distaff champion showed a battling spirit when engaging in shoulder-to-shoulder roughhousing through the first turn of the GII Wood Memorial S., and Tacitus was visually intimidating when running down a determined rival in deep stretch over nine furlongs. Prior to that, in the GII Tampa Bay Derby, this first-time-Lasix colt rated willingly, secured a nice midpack stalking spot, and responded to a rousing ride by slipping through an inside path through traffic to win at 8-1 off a four-month layoff. Tacitus is a large-framed horse who sometimes waits on horses when he makes the lead, and while he is responsive to cues form his rider he seems to need active encouragement to stay engaged. Tacitus will get a gut check in terms of class in the Derby, because he’s yet to face Grade I competition and his two Derby preps in 2019 both drew fields on the softer side. Sire First Defence was another Juddmonte homebred whose lone Grade I stakes win was at seven furlongs. But First Defence was out of a Seattle Slew mare, providing a Derby connection in Tacitus’s not-too-distant bloodlines.

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.

Versatility and athleticism are on ‘TDN Rising Star’ Improbable’s side heading into the Derby. This long-striding, $200,000 KEESEP City Zip chestnut hasn’t won since his big white blaze flashed home first in the GI Los Alamitos Futurity last December, but his pair of second-place efforts in two sophomore preps this season are both better foundation-building races than they might seem on paper. Improbable was four wide on both turns of the GII Rebel S., only beaten a neck, then he came up one length shy of Omaha Beach after a length-of-stretch hookup in which Improbable exhibited better focus (not cocking his head to the grandstand like in previous works and races). This colt did get hot and bothered pre-race and in the gate prior to his last Oaklawn start, and a check of his temperament in the Churchill paddock and post parade on Derby day is a must before backing him. Note that Improbable’s wet-track ability is also better than the second-place try in the Oaklawn slop that appears in his PP cut. On the Breeders’ Cup undercard at Churchill last November, he romped by 7 1/4 lengths in the Street Sense S. Although Equibase lists that surface as “fast,” the track condition had just been upgraded for that race after a two-inch deluge of rain, and it still held considerable moisture.

5) 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.

The horses ranked Nos. 3, 4 and 6 on this list all have something in common: As 2-year-olds, their trainers all identified them as potential Derby threats. Roadster, though, had quite a detour in his career arc. After breaking his maiden with flair, this $525,000 KEESEP Quality Road gray ran a non-threatening third in the GI Del Mar Futurity, and it was subsequently revealed he had a breathing issue that required correction by soft palate surgery. He then parlayed an allowance comeback score into a quest-for-qualifying points win over stablemate Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby, although it’s of note that rating from well back was not the stated game plan trainer Bob Baffert had articulated before the race (Baffert had emphasized speed). So what exactly will be Roadster’s running style from post 17 on Saturday? Florent Geroux has never ridden him in a race, and Roadster himself is unfamiliar with running in large fields (outside of his 10-horse maiden race, he’s raced once in a five-horse and twice in a six-horse field). Roadster is light on his feet and is an athletic mover, and recent history is on his side: Santa Anita Derby winners have won three Kentucky Derbies this decade, in 2012, 2014 and 2018.

6) PLUS QUE PARFAIT (r, 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.

If you read between the past performance lines–which in Plus Que Parfait’s case means dismissing two poor tries at Fair Grounds because trainer Brendan Walsh said he didn’t care for that surface–you can make a case for him being an intriguing overlay at 30-1 in the morning line. 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. The trouble is, the G2 UAE Derby (which Plus Que Parfait won by three-quarters of a length over a field that featured only minor Group 2 and 3 winning/placed horses) is historically not a productive race for Kentucky Derby aspirants. Ten winners of the UAE Derby have gone on to compete in the Kentucky Derby, and the best finish among them was sixth, along with two DNF’s and a 20th-place try.

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.

Win Win Win has hovered within sniffing distance of the top-tier Derby contenders for the better part of four months, and now it’s time to see if he lives up to the “under the radar” potential some sharpies have ascribed to him. His 2019 campaign so far includes a seven-furlong track-record stakes win at Tampa, a five-wide third behind Tacitus in the Tampa Derby, and an against-the-grain second when closing into a potent speed bias in the GII Blue Grass S. After riding the colt in his last two stakes, jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. vacated the Derby mount on this Hat Trick (Jpn)-sired homebred to partner with Improbable instead. So Win Win Win will be reunited with Julien Pimentel, who was aboard for all three of this colt’s prior wins at Tampa and Laurel.

8) 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.

Code of Honor’s light-bodied, nimble frame has the potential to be an asset in a crowded Derby field, especially considering that his pedigree suggests he’ll be a stayer over longer ground. Still, Code of Honor is a May 23 foal who’s had trouble putting together back-to-back solid efforts this winter and spring, and this first-crop Noble Mission (GB) homebred needs to outrun his reputation of being an opportunist who capitalizes only under favorable circumstances. But you also have to consider the intentions of the human connections here: Neither owner/breeder W.S. Farish nor trainer Shug McGuaghey are known as gung-ho Derby chasers, so when they keep a colt like Code of Honor pointed on the Classics path, there has to be a stronger reason than what we can see on paper. And passing up 15-1 odds on a two-time Derby winning jockey like John Velazquez is a pari-mutuel risk that you shouldn’t consider lightly.

9) LONG RANGE TODDY (c, Take Charge Indy–Pleasant Song, by Unbridled’s Song)
O/B-Willis Horton Racing, LLC (KY). T-Steve Asmussen. Lifetime Record: GSW, 8-4-1-1, $854,459.
Last Start: 6th, GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 53.5.

On the plus side, this Take Charge Indy homebred enters the Derby with seven solid races of two-turn experience and some visually impressive efforts in which he remained calm under pressure while in traffic. He also has the benefit of coming from the barn of a trainer who has hit the board four times in the Derby (including twice in the past three years with decent-odds horses). But you have to wonder if Long Range Toddy already ran the race of his life when he outlasted first-off-the-layoff Improbable in the slower division of the Rebel S. Another concern is that this is a colt with no true, well-defined running style, and the Derby is a tough spot to try to figure out what might work best. “I feel like I don’t need to push him as hard early as I did in the Arkansas Derby,” said jockey Jon Court. “I just need to sit quiet, maintain my position and try to save what I can for the stretch because ultimately that’s what’s most important.”

10) TAX (g, Arch–Toll, by Giant’s Causeway)
O-R. A. Hill Stable, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Hugh Lynch & 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 represents a betting conundrum in the Derby, but 20-1 is square value. This Arch gelding out of a Giant’s Causeway mare is bred to excel at 10 furlongs, and visually, his Aqueduct races have been encouraging because he muscles his way to contending positions and doesn’t shy away from in-race engagement. Tax will need to employ those heat-of-battle skills in trying to overcome a disadvantageous gate draw in post two, but that’s not his only Derby obstacle. Tax’s chief liability is that he has yet to mix it up with elite-level competition. He twice ran for maiden-claiming tags before taking a path of lesser resistance (the New York winter preps), and the only A-level horse he’s ever had to deal with was Tacitus. He fought resolutely but was worn down by that rival when beaten 1 1/4 lengths in the Wood Memorial. But Tax did gallop out on even terms with Tacitus after the wire, and didn’t act discouraged despite the defeat.

11) 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.

The overachieving Vekoma has been proving critics wrong throughout his brief 3-for-4 career and will set out to do so again in the Derby. This $135,000 KEESEP Candy Ride (Arg) colt is a compact, light-framed speedster who doesn’t necessarily need the lead to win, but should be in the hunt early, pace-wise. Even in his lone defeat (third in the Fountain of Youth S.), Vekoma never stopped battling even when passed in deep stretch, signaling his willingness to chip away when others might pack it in. But Vekoma will be regarded as a suspect bet in the Derby for three reasons: 1) His Blue Grass S. win was aided by a speed-friendly Keeneland surface–seven of eight main-track winners that day were first or second at the second call; 2) Vekoma is prone to shifting and drifting through the stretch, and this lack of late-race focus has surfaced in every one of his races; 3) With 2004 champion sprinter Speightstown as his dam-sire, the bottom of his pedigree doesn’t exactly scream “10 furlongs.”

12) CUTTING HUMOR (c, First SamuraiPun, by Pulpit)
O-Starlight Racing. B-Dell Hancock & Bernie Sams (KY). T-Todd Pletcher. Sales History: $135,000 Ylg ’17 KEESEP; $400,000 Ylg ’17 FTSAUG. Lifetime Record: GSW, 6-2-2-1, $516,967.
Last Start: 1st, GIII Sunland Derby, SUN, Mar. 24
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50.

Although 30-1 in the morning line underlays his true chances by about 20 points, this First Samurai colt has all the ingredients to be the horse who blows up the Derby trifecta/superfecta by sneaking in at a huge price. After all, this is a $400,000 FTSAUG track-record holder (GIII Sunland Derby) from the barn of a two-time Derby-winning trainer (Todd Pletcher). Ignore at your own pari-mutuel peril.

13) 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-William I. Mott. Lifetime Record: GISP, 6-1-2-1, $260,175.
Last Start: 3rd, GI Arkansas Derby, OP, Apr. 13.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 50.

If you have deep enough pockets, this is the type of horse you toss into your vertical exotics just for insurance based primarily out of respect for the Bill Mott barn. ‘TDN Rising Star’ Country House has run second, third, and fourth against graded stakes company in recent starts. But he’s a May 8 Lookin At Lucky foal who has been green at times during his stretch runs, so it’s tough to make the case that he’s zeroing in on a major breakthrough effort from post 20.

14) HAIKAL (c, Daaher–Sablah, by Distorted Humor)
O-Shadwell Stable. B-Shadwell Farm (KY). T-Kiaran McLaughlin. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-3-1-1, $373,900.
Last Start: 3rd, GII Wood Memorial S., AQU, Apr. 6.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 70.

Haikal has the closing kick, the speed figures, and the race record (3-1-1 from five starts) that all say he will be firing late in the Derby. But he’s never won beyond a one-turn mile and has never raced over any surface other than Aqueduct. Haikal won the Winkfield S. and the GIII Gotham S. there by capitalizing on gratuitous speed setups, and he shied from both left- and right-handed stick work when roused for the drive in that latter race. In the Wood Memorial, Haikal was a best-of-the-rest third, four lengths behind the top two.

15) MAXIMUM SECURITY (c, New Year’s Day–Lil Indy, by Anasheed)
O/B-Gary & Mary West (KY). T-Jason Servis. Lifetime Record: GISW, 4-4-0-0, $649,400.
Last Start: 1st, GI Florida Derby, GP, Mar. 30.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 100.

I can wave away the fact that Maximum Security began his career in a $16,000 maiden-claimer because his trainer, Jason Servis, is pretty shrewd at such moves and this New Year’s Day colt subsequently ran up the score by a combined 24 3/4 lengths in a pair of optional claiming/allowance races. But convincing myself that Maximum Security’s GI Florida Derby walk-a-thon win is legitimate/repeatable in the Kentucky Derby is a little more difficult. Speed-figure adherents will tell you that back-to-back triple-digit Beyers stamp this colt as the real deal. But Maximum Security has enjoyed pressure-free sailing through the stretch in all four of his starts and wins over a track (Gulfstream) that clearly plays to his running style. The Derby is bound to be a far more challenging go.

16) SPINOFF (c, Hard Spun–Zaftig, by Gone West)
O/B-Wertheimer et Frere (KY). T-Todd Pletcher. Lifetime Record: MGSP, 4-2-0-0.
Last Start: 2nd, GII Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 23.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 40.

Just because Spinoff doesn’t have enough depth in his past performances to get a true read on him doesn’t mean he’s a Derby tossout. It’s just harder to figure out what he’ll do based off a five-furlong maiden win, a third in the GII Saratoga Special S., a gaudy 11 ¾-length Tampa allowance romp, and a trip-troubled second-place run while sparring for the lead in the GII Louisiana Derby. Sire Hard Spun was a MGSW who ran second in the very deep 2007 Breeders’ Cup Classic. Dam Zaftig was a graded stakes dirt winner over seven furlongs and a one-turn mile.

17) GRAY MAGICIAN (c, Graydar–Burg Berg, by Johannesburg)
O-Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Gary Barber & Wachtel Stable. B-Twin Creeks Farm (KY). T-Peter Miller. Lifetime Record: GSP-UAE, 8-1-3-2, $584,140.
Last Start: 2nd, G2 UAE Derby, MEY, Mar. 30.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 41.

You could make a minor case for Gray Magician to snag a minor Kentucky Derby share based on the way he closed capably to be second in the G2 UAE Derby. But this horse is a true outlier on paper as a win threat. He’s never won beyond the maiden ranks from eight tries and would need to improve his best Beyer Speed Figures by about 20 points to realistically contend.

18) BY MY STANDARDS (c, GoldencentsA Jealous Woman, by Muqtarib)
O-Allied Racing Stable, LLC. B-Don Ladd (KY). T-William Bret Calhoun. Lifetime Record: GSW, 5-2-2-1, $653,710.
Last Start: 1st, GII Louisiana Derby, FG, Mar. 23.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: 100.

This Goldencents colt parlayed a maiden win into a 22-1 Louisiana Derby upset, but that race is widely regarded as a prep whose complexion completely came undone when favorite War of Will slipped leaving the starting gate and was a non-factor. By My Standards was in the right place at the right time to pick up the faltering speedsters, and will likely take back leaving post 3 to attempt another one-run swoop from off the pace. His sire was 17th in the 2013 Derby, but capped his career with back-to-back wins in the 2013 and 2014 GI Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

19) MASTER FENCER (c, Just a Way {Jpn}–Sexy Zamurai, by Deputy Minister)
O/B-Katsumi Yoshizawa (JPN). T-Koichi Tsunoda. Lifetime Record: SP-Jpn, 6-2-2-0, $234,392.
Last Start: 2nd, Fukuryu S., NAK, Mar. 31.
Equineline PPs. KY Derby Points: N/A.

Gained entry into the first leg of the Triple Crown after earning minor-share points in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby series and the horses ahead of him declined their invitations. This son of Just A Way {Jpn) ran in a pair of 10-furlong turf races to start his career, then won a maiden and an allowance, both at nine furlongs on the dirt. Master Fencer rallied from last to finish second in his most recent race, the Fukuryu S. Mar. 31 at Nakayama, a course that is considered very sandy and deep.