Submitted by Noel Michaels on Wednesday, April 3, 2019 at 1:44 PM
Two of the Big 6 Kentucky Derby preps are down and there are still four more to go now as we truly head into crunch time in the quest to fill-up the starting gate for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby, to be run four weeks from this weekend on Saturday, May 4. This season even more than ever, these prep race results should prove super important because a standout or standouts have yet to emerge as the definitive horses to beat in this year's Run for the Roses.
The first pair of Big 6 preps to - the Louisiana Derby and the Florida Derby - were both quality races yet both seemed to yield inconclusive results, which has been the recurring theme throughout the 2019 Derby prep season so far. Both races resulted in as many questions as answers.
In the Louisiana Derby, first- and second- place finishers By My Standards, trained by Bret Calhoun, and Spinoff, trained by Todd Pletcher, both stamped themselves as Derby contenders, but it is unclear how much of their success is due to the flop of favorite War of Will, who finished ninth and reportedly returned sore after apparently hurting himself a step of two out of the gate. WOW has been cleared to resume training for the Derby by trainer Mark Casse, but his chances definitely took a negative hit nonetheless based on his Louisiana Derby non-effort. Was the race a total toss-out for him? In my opinion, nothing that happens six weeks out from the Derby is meaningless.
The Florida Derby then drew a very good field as you would expect, but the race failed to live up to expectations when former maiden claimer Maximum Security got an easy solo lead and was allowed to lope around the track wire-to-wire on slow fractions when speedy Hidden Scroll was taken back to rate off the pace. Favored Hidden Scroll never made a run, Maximum Security ran away with the race, and perhaps the day's best effort came from Fountain of Youth winner Code of Honor, who ran on for third from too far back with no help from the slow pace, beaten six lengths for trainer Shug McGaughey. Of the horses exiting the Florida Derby, perhaps the only one to watch moving forward in terms of the Derby will be Code of Honor.
The other recently completed Kentucky Derby prep race was the lesser Sunland Park Derby, which was won in a nice effort by the Todd Pletcher-trained Cutting Humor, who earned enough Derby points to make it into the starting gate at Churchill. Cutting Humor might not be a top-tier prospect, but the Pletcher barn that appeared to be void of Derby prospects a few weeks ago has suddenly come to life with no less than three runners on their way to Louisville with Cutting Humor and Louisiana Derby second-place finisher Spinoff both moving forward and Tampa Bay Derby runner-up Outshine slated for a start in this weekend's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct.
That leads us to the final four Kentucky Derby prep races coming up - the Wood Memorial, Santa Anita Derby, Blue Grass Stakes, and Arkansas Derby - which this season more than ever will be of utmost importance in determining the eventual favorites in the Run for the Roses. I strongly believe the eventual Derby winner will exit one of these four races.
The Wood Memorial (April 6) will draw a solid but unspectacular field that includes Outshine and Bill Mott's Tampa Bay Derby winner Tacitus versus Gotham winner Haikal, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin. Haikal took advantage of a blazing pace that fell apart in the Gotham and set he race up for him as the race's sole true closer. Tacitus ran a nice victory, but also benefitted from a perfect fast pace set-up his winning rally at Tampa.
This year's Blue Grass Stakes (April 6) at Keeneland lacks big names and is setting up as a repository for Derby hopefuls who still have a lot to prove, or who need badly to step-up their games in a hurry to get enough Derby points to get into the race. The long list of horses eligible to exit the Blue Grass as serious Derby contenders include Laurel monster Alwaysmining, Tampa third-place finisher Win Win Win, Nashua winner and Fountain of Youth third-place finisher Vekoma, and Signalman, who iprobably has enough Derby points after a win in last fall's Kentucky Jockey Club and a third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but who must rebound from a seriously dull seasonal bow in the FOY (7th) last time out. The already Derby qualified Jeff Ruby Steaks (sic) winner Somelikeithotbrown enters the Blue Grass needing to prove he can run on the dirt and deserves a shot at Churchill Downs.
The Santa Anita Derby (April 6) is shaping up to be a great race between Bob Baffert's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Game Winner, who was nipped last time out in his seasonal debut in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, and potential up-and-comers Nolo Contesto trained by John Sadler and Roadster, who looms as another big Baffert threat this year. The Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Instagrand also adds to the contention in the race as he tries to rebound from getting cooked in the hot pace in the Gotham last-time out.
Finally, the Arkansas Derby on April 13 is the last of the major preps, scheduled in its usual spot just three weeks out from the First Saturday in May. All eyes will be on Bob Baffert's Improbable who will try to rebound from his first career loss last time out in the Rebel. He will face Rebel division winner Long Range Toddy trained by Steve Asmussen, and the victor of the other Rebel division over Game Winner, Omaha Beach for trainer Richard Mandella. Jerry Hollendorfer's Galilean is no slouch either.
The blurry picture for the 2019 Kentucky Derby should start to become much clearer after the final four definitive prep races are run over the next two weeks. Watch these races carefully, because somewhere in that giant heap of contenders who are competing, you will likely be able to find the next Kentucky Derby winner.