Kentucky Derby

Handicapping the 2019 Kentucky Derby: A closer look at all 19 horses in Saturday’s field

If you had Omaha Beach as your Kentucky Derby horse coming into this week, you weren’t alone.

The Arkansas Derby winner was the 4-1 morning-line favorite and the pick of many horse racing experts after beating the Bob Baffert-trained Game Winner and Improbable in back-to-back races at Oaklawn Park.

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who teamed up with Baffert to win the Triple Crown last year with Justify, broke with his fellow Hall of Famer, leaving his mount on Baffert’s third entry — Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster — to ride Omaha Beach instead.

The bad news came Wednesday, when it was announced that Omaha Beach would not run in the Kentucky Derby due to a larynx problem discovered after that morning’s training session.

The announcement sent many handicappers back to the drawing board. It also shuffled the odds in what was already seen as a race with many possibilities.

Game Winner is now the 9-2 favorite, followed by Improbable and Roadster at 5-1 — giving Baffert the top three choices in the field as he looks for his sixth Derby victory, a feat that would tie Ben Jones atop the all-time list.

Omaha Beach’s defection is also likely to affect Saturday’s pace, which is always an important factor in the Kentucky Derby.

The probable pacesetter is also the race’s only undefeated contender: Maximum Security, who set soft fractions on the front end of the Florida Derby and rolled to an easy victory from there. He won’t get away with running the first half-mile in 49 seconds Saturday — like he did five weeks ago in Florida — but Omaha Beach was among the most likely to challenge him in the Derby’s opening stages, before he was scratched from the race.

Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma — a 15-1 shot — and Improbable could be near the front and pressing Maximum Security, who now has one less formidable foe to worry about.

Here’s what you need to know about each of Saturday’s contenders:

1. War of Will (15-1)

Need to know: He was pegged as a possible Derby favorite before a ninth-place finish — at 4-5 odds — in the Louisiana Derby six weeks ago. War of Will took a bad step in the opening strides, suffered a patella injury, and never factored into the race’s outcome. Mark Casse has been pleased with his training since, and War of Will did get his first victory over a sloppy Churchill Downs track last November.

A good bet? There were already plenty of question marks before he landed the post nearest to the rail, which hasn’t produced a Derby winner since 1986. Another stat: no Derby winner since at least 1940 (when such record keeping began) has finished worse than fifth in its final prep race. And War of Will’s speed figures will need a big jump to contend here. Too many red flags.

2. Tax (20-1)

Need to know: The only gelding in the field won the Withers Stakes in February despite a stumble at the start before finishing second in the Wood Memorial four weeks ago. Tax got first run on the two long shots that set the pace in the Wood, but he was clearly second-best to Tacitus, who he meets again here. Tax’s pedigree suggests that the Derby distance should be no problem. One of only four horses here with at least a 95 Beyer Speed Figure in each of his last two races. (The others are Game Winner, Improbable and Maximum Security).

A good bet? It won’t be a surprise to see him in the money Saturday evening. He should be running at the end but will need to take a pretty big step to contend for the top spot.

3. By My Standards (15-1)

Need to know: He’s been a “buzz” horse in Louisville, where he’s been training over the Churchill Downs track ever since his breakout win in the Louisiana Derby six weeks ago. By My Standards won that one at 22-1 odds with an impressive move in the stretch to outrun Spinoff. He earned a 97 Beyer for that race and has been improving all year. Was the Louisiana Derby an outlier, or is he sitting on a big one?

A good bet? There are some distance concerns here and the inside post isn’t ideal, but it’s going to be difficult to throw him out. Might not offer much value on Derby Day if the buzz continues.

4. Gray Magician (50-1)

Need to know: He didn’t do much of note in seven American starts — with just one victory — before going over to Dubai and finishing second in the UAE Derby. His best Beyer is an 80 — a pretty clear worst in this field — and this year’s UAE Derby field appeared to be pretty weak. Drayden Van Dyke will ride Gray Magician for the first time after making his Derby debut with a fourth-place finish aboard major long shot Instilled Regard last year.

A good bet? On paper, he might be the least likely winner in the field. Gray Magician should be battling Master Fencer for longest odds on the tote board. If he factors into the finish, it’ll be a surprise.

5. Improbable (5-1)

Need to know: He burst onto the scene with a victory on the Breeders’ Cup undercard at Churchill last November, and he’s been in the discussion as a Derby favorite ever since. Improbable was caught at the wire by Long Range Toddy in the Rebel Stakes, then had some problems — didn’t like his blinkers, didn’t like the muddy kickback — while finishing a close, strong second to Omaha Beach in the sloppy Arkansas Derby. He still ran a 99 Beyer in that race. Only Maximum Security has a higher number.

A good bet? He might go off as Baffert’s longest shot, but he might be the most likely of that trio to find the winner’s circle. If he didn’t leave it all on the track while trying to catch Omaha Beach three weeks ago, he could be your winner.

6. Vekoma (15-1)

Need to know: In the Blue Grass Stakes, he stuck near the lead, took over in the final turn, and was never challenged in the stretch. Vekoma has an awkward way of running, but he usually gets the job done — losing only once, while coming off a four-month layoff earlier this year. Javier Castellano rode him for the first time in the Blue Grass and will be back aboard Saturday. Trainer George Weaver is a Louisville native, and Vekoma is second-youngest in this field as a May 22 foal.

A good bet? He hasn’t really done anything wrong, but it’s difficult to see Vekoma running with the likes of Improbable and Maximum Security early and still having enough in the tank for the end.

7. Maximum Security (8-1)

Need to know: The late-blooming colt — a May 14 foal — made his debut in a $16,000 claiming race in late December and has been a phenom ever since. After three romps — by a combined 34½ lengths — against lesser competition, he set a slow pace in the Florida Derby and won going away. He possesses a great turn of foot and is the only contender here with a triple-digit Beyer. (He’s done that twice). All four of his previous starts have been at Gulfstream Park.

A good bet? He’s not getting the easy time up front that he did in the Florida Derby, but does he need it? If he turns for home with the lead — a good possibility — he might be hard to pass. Don’t underestimate him.

8. Tacitus (8-1)

Need to know: The son of Tapit — the leading stallion still looking for his first Derby winner — took four months off over the winter and has been perfect in 2019, coming from well back to win the Tampa Bay Derby and then shrugging off major trouble in the opening moments of the Wood Memorial before winning that one. All of his numbers are moving in the right direction, and he’s trained by the legendary Bill Mott. Jockey Jose Ortiz has been aboard for all four of his starts. “I think he will be better next time,” Ortiz said after the impressive Wood Memorial.

A good bet? The grayest of the three grays will get some casual money, but he deserves to be among the favorites on his own merits. Should be around at the end.

9. Plus Que Parfait (30-1)

Need to know: He won once in six starts in America before going over to Dubai and besting a weak field in the UAE Derby. He was 13th and fifth in his two previous Derby preps — finishing well behind War of Will both times — and no UAE runner has ever finished better than fifth in the Kentucky Derby. “Parfait” did finish second in the major race for 2-year-olds at Churchill last fall — a race won by Signalman, who didn’t accrue enough points to make the Derby.

A good bet? A trip to Dubai and back for a horse that had seemingly no shot to contend here to begin with is way too much. He might be the worst of the six 30-1 shots.

10. Cutting Humor (30-1)

Need to know: He was seventh in the Southwest Stakes before his win over a weak field in the Sunland Derby, a prep that has sent 10 starters to the Kentucky Derby with only two finishing better than ninth (one of those was shock winner Mine That Bird). John Velazquez rode him the last three races but will be aboard Code of Honor on Saturday. Trainer Todd Pletcher landed Mike Smith to ride Cutting Humor in the Derby after Omaha Beach was scratched from the race.

A good bet? It’s hard to see how. Cutting Humor ran his best race by far in the Sunland Derby and appears to be in well over his head in this field. Mike Smith is a Hall of Fame jockey, but he’s not a wizard.

11. Haikal (SCRATCHED)

Need to know: The third-place finisher in the Wood Memorial was scratched from the Derby on Friday morning.

12. Omaha Beach (SCRATCHED)

Need to know: The 4-1 morning-line favorite was scratched Wednesday.

13. Code of Honor (12-1)

Need to know: Lexington native Shug McGaughey is back at the Derby after winning for the first time with Orb six years ago, and the Hall of Fame trainer has been touting Code of Honor for a while now. He came from behind to win the Fountain of Youth Stakes after a pace meltdown, then had no chance to catch Maximum Security after that soft pace in the Florida Derby. Two-time Derby winner John Velazquez has ridden him in four of five previous starts. Code of Honor, a May 23 foal, is the youngest in the field.

A good bet? He wasn’t going to get to Maximum Security with the way the Florida Derby unfolded, but it still wasn’t much of a showing. Don’t think he has much of a chance Saturday.

14. Win Win Win (12-1)

Need to know: He put up a 99 Beyer in a sprint race in January but has been decidedly slower in his only two tries beyond a mile — finishing third in the Tampa Bay Derby and second in the Blue Grass Stakes. He had to swing way wide while coming from behind in both of those races and hit a wall of horses in the Blue Grass. His two grandsires are Derby winners Sunday Silence and Smarty Jones. His original jockey, Derby rookie Julian Pimentel, is back on board after Irad Ortiz jumped to Improbable.

A good bet? He’ll probably be picking off horses at the end, but there appear to be longer shots with similar chances.

15. Master Fencer (50-1)

Need to know: The first Japanese-bred horse to make the Kentucky Derby starting gate, Master Fencer got here through the Japan Road to the Derby series, finishing second and fourth in two races on that path. The top three point-getters on the Japan Road weren’t Triple Crown-nominated and passed on the opportunity to run in the Derby. If his last two races are any indication, Master Fencer will be coming from way off the pace. Julien Leparoux will ride him for the first time.

A good bet? He makes for a good story, but he doesn’t make for a very good bet. There’s certainly a layer of mystery to his first race in America, but an in-the-money finish would be a shocker.

16. Game Winner (9-2)

Need to know: He was undefeated in four races as a 2-year-old and capped off that campaign with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. (It’s worth noting that no others from that race made it to the Derby). He’s had wide trips in his narrow defeats to Omaha Beach and Roadster this year, and Joel Rosario will be back for another try in the Derby, which he won aboard Orb six years ago. Baffert’s best Derby shot to start the year is still winless in 2019 but goes into Saturday the favorite.

A good bet? There’s better value elsewhere for your win bet, but Mike Smith noted this week how tough Game Winner is on the track. He called him the horse to beat in this race. He should be there at the end.

17. Roadster (5-1)

Need to know: Baffert was touting him as a Derby contender last summer … before Roadster had even run a race. After an impressive debut, he finished third behind Game Winner in his next race. A breathing issue was discovered after that race, leading to throat surgery and a six-month layoff. Roadster returned in an allowance race and then beat Game Winner with a big move in the Santa Anita Derby stretch. Can he handle the crowd? Roadster broke his maiden in a 10-horse field, but his three races since have come against fields of five or six. Florent Geroux will be aboard after Mike Smith was the jockey for Roadster’s first four races, which all came in California.

A good bet? He’s improved with every race, and he could be a star, but maybe this is too much to ask? He still has questions to answer.

18. Long Range Toddy (30-1)

Need to know: He ran down Improbable in the stretch of the Rebel Stakes — earning a 95 Beyer for that victory — and then bombed in the Arkansas Derby, finishing nearly 15 lengths back in his first race over a sloppy track. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen — winless in 19 previous Derby starts — said the surface was an issue that day. The far outside post won’t do his forwardly placed running style any favors. Jon Court, 58, would be the oldest winning jockey in Derby history.

A good bet? The mud probably was a problem on Arkansas Derby day, though there’s a chance of similar conditions Saturday and his Rebel Stakes win was an outlier anyway. There are better options.

19. Spinoff (30-1)

Need to know: One of five contenders in this field with just four previous races, Spinoff took a six-month break between starts, came back to romp in an allowance race in March and then finished a strong second to By My Standards in the Louisiana Derby. His speed numbers have improved dramatically with every race, and two-time Derby winning trainer Todd Pletcher has been pointing him toward this moment for a while now. Manny Franco rides him for the first time after John Velazquez was aboard for the last three starts.

A good bet? He took the lead and then gave it up in the stretch of the Louisiana Derby, but perhaps he just needed a little experience. A very interesting colt if you’re looking for something to hit the board at very long odds.

20. Country House (30-1)

Need to know: He has only one win in six starts, but he’s been running at the end of all three of his Derby preps. His speed numbers continue to improve with each start, and the outside post shouldn’t be a problem, since he tends to break slow and come from well off the pace anyway. Bill Mott isn’t known to rush young horses along, and he thinks Country House belongs here, noting that the son of Lookin at Lucky gets better with each race. “Hopefully the light will really come on Derby Day,” he said this week.

A good bet? He just always keeps running, and that’s a great trait to have when so many Derby contenders will be fading in the stretch. Could spice up a trifecta ticket with the right trip.

21. Bodexpress (30-1)

Need to know: Bodexpress has never won a race, and he’ll become the 12th maiden since 1937 — the earliest that Churchill Downs has records on the subject — to enter the Kentucky Derby starting gate. (None of those horses finished better than eighth, and no maiden has won the Derby since 1933). Bodexpress got his Derby points by chasing Maximum Security all the way around the track in the Florida Derby, ultimately holding his second-place position in that race and earning a 96 Beyer for the effort. His sire is 2012 Derby runner-up Bodemeister, who is also the father of 2017 Derby winner Always Dreaming.

A good bet? A maiden factoring into the Kentucky Derby finish from the No. 20 post? I don’t think so.