The Week in Review: Handicapping the Derby’s Annual Game of Musical Jockeys


Omaha Beach | Coady


Mike Smith has a problem. It appeared that he had his mount for the GI Kentucky Derby when Roadster (Quality Road) won the GI Santa Anita Derby. Now, we’re not so sure, not after Omaha Beach (War Front) won Saturday’s GI Arkansas Derby.

Smith must choose between the two horses who will likely be the first and second choices in the Derby. And whenever he makes his pick, that will likely kick off a domino effect that will determine the mounts on several horses.

Smith, of course, will not make his decision until he absolutely has to. With a little less than three weeks to go to the Derby, there’s plenty that go wrong between now and then. He doesn’t want to commit to one horse over the other only to find out that his choice has spiked a fever and will miss the race.

“It’s a very hard choice,” Smith said Sunday. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. When I get back to California [Monday], I’ll talk it over with my agent.”

Unless Smith has a firm opinion on who is the better horse, and it’s hard to imagine that he does, I’ll set the odds at 3-5 that he rides Roadster and 9-5 that he chooses Omaha Beach.

His decision will be more about the trainers than the horses. Both Baffert (Roadster) and Richard Mandella (Omaha Beach) are Hall of Fame trainers, but only one has won five Kentucky Derbies, and that’s Baffert. Mandella has run six horses in the Derby and has yet to have a horse finish better than fifth.

Smith is also coming off a year where he rode a Triple Crown winner for Baffert in Justify (Scat Daddy). He was also the regular rider for another Baffert superstar, Arrogate (Unbridled’s Song). Would he ever choose to take off a horse coming off a Grade I win, who is trained by arguably the best Kentucky Derby trainer of all time and one for whom he just won a Triple Crown? Add up all the factors and it seems unlikely. That is unless he is firmly convinced Omaha Beach is the better horse.

Then what does Mandella do? Flavien Prat is the most likely answer. After riding Omaha Beach in his first five starts, he took off the horse to ride Gunmetal Gray (Exchange Rate) in the GII Rebel S. Omaha Beach won, while Gunmetal Gray was fourth. But it’s doubtful that Mandella will hold a grudge as Prat is his main rider. Since 2016, he’s ridden 614 horses for him, while Smith has been aboard just 76. Prat has no other mounts for the Derby.

If Smith chooses Omaha, there’s no clear path for Baffert. He also rides Joe Talamo and Drayden Van Dyke, but doesn’t appear to have the confidence in either one to put them aboard a possible Kentucky Derby favorite. He could also reach out to an East Coast jockey, maybe John Velazquez or Irad Ortiz, Jr. Todd Pletcher does have two horses that have the points to get into the Derby in Cutting Humor (First Samurai) and Spinoff (Hard Spun) and Velazquez could obviously have the mount on either one, but both will be among the longest shots in the race.

The other jockey with a tough decision to make is Jose Ortiz. Baffert put him on Improbable (City Zip) for the Arkansas Derby, replacing Van Dyke. He finished second behind Omaha Beach and remains a top Derby contender. Ortiz is also the regular rider of GII Wood Memorial and GII Tampa Bay Derby winner Tacitus (Tapit) for trainer Bill Mott. Improbable could be the better horse of the two, but the prediction is that Ortiz will go with Tacitus. He is based in New York and he’s going to get a lot more business from Mott than Baffert over the next several years. He’ll want to stay on his good side.

How about his brother? Irad Ortiz, Jr. is the regular rider of Win Win Win (Hat Trick {Jpn}). Win Win Win is a nice horse, but will be an outsider in the wagering. Does Ortiz stick with him or take off when, or if, he is offered an open mount on a more highly regarded horse?

Then there’s the Jon Court situation. At 58, he became one of the feel-good stories on the road to the Derby when he guided Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy) to a win in a division of the Rebel. But he is not considered a premier jockey and Long Range Toddy was up the track in the Arkansas Derby. Court has only ridden in three Derbies and none since 2013. Does trainer Steve Asmussen stick with him or go for his number one rider, Ricardo Santana, Jr.?

Easy Does It For Maximum Security

Perhaps it’s worth noticing that Jason Servis’s training style is unlike that of any other trainer in the country. He trains his horses so slowly you can barely call their works works. It happened again Saturday when GI Florida Derby winner Maximum Security (New Year’s Day) worked a half-mile at Palm Meadows in :54.85. In his first workout since the Florida Derby, it was the slowest work at the distance among the 50 horses who went four furlongs. In his prior workout, also at Palm Meadows, he went four furlongs in :52.95, also the slowest work at the distance among 63 horses.

Professional clocker Bruno De Julio said there’s a method to what others might consider Servis’s madness. He notes that Servis’s horses don’t work from a traditional starting spot to the wire.

“He’ll start off, for example, at the half-mile pole, and the horse will start galloping and he’ll go in an :18, :19, :20 clip,” De Julio said. “Then all of a sudden, when he gets to the seven-eighths pole or the mile-pole, he’ll finish off the last half-mile in :52 or the last three furlongs in :38. At Palm Meadows, he doesn’t train them through the stretch. He lets them pull up at the three-sixteenths pole. I think he believes that the stretch run there is affected by wind. The wind comes in at the eighth-pole and dries out the track from the eighth-pole on. It’s looser. With him, he lets them do their main running going around the turn, so he doesn’t have to set them down on a part of the track that is looser and tiring.”

De Julio believes the unusual pattern is among the reasons Servis is successful.

“When people would talk to Bobby Frankel, he’d often tell them horses are overtrained,” De Julio said. “Jason’s style gets horses ready and they’re not overtrained. I think it has something to do with the mental part of it. It teaches a horse to shut down. He doesn’t beat up his horses in the morning like some other trainers do.”

Steve Davidowitz, RIP

Noted handicapping author Steve Davidowitz passed away over the weekend at his home in Summerlin, Nevada at the age of 77. The news was reported by his son, Brad. Davidowitz first became well known in 1977 with the publication of his book, “Betting Thoroughbreds,” which was among the best handicapping books ever written. Davidowitz came into prominence right around the same time Andy Beyer did and was sometimes overshadowed by his fellow handicapper and friend. But Beyer has said that he learned much about the sport and handicapping from Davidowitz.

Betting Thoroughbreds introduced handicappers to terms like “key races” and “track biases.” Now part of everyone’s handicapping lexicon those were terms and concepts that Davidowitz developed.

A prolific writer, Davidowitz was still penning columns for Horse Racing Nation right up to his death.

The cause of his death has not yet been determined.

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