John Clay

As 2019 prep races heat up, which horses are the top Kentucky Derby contenders?

Justify looking good day after winning Triple Crown

One day after winning the Belmont Stakes to complete the Triple Crown, Justify looked bright and alert. Trainer Bob Baffert said the colt would return to Louisville, but there are no set plans for his next possible race.
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One day after winning the Belmont Stakes to complete the Triple Crown, Justify looked bright and alert. Trainer Bob Baffert said the colt would return to Louisville, but there are no set plans for his next possible race.

When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, if you’re tired of Bob Baffert, you’re out of luck.

Less than three months before the 145th renewal on Saturday, May 4, the trainer of recent Triple Crown winners American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018) looks to again have a deep and talented barn as the Derby prep season starts to pick up its pace.

The 66-year-old Baffert, who has won the Derby five times, has four of the top six choices in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wagering in Game Winner, Improbable, Mucho Gusto and Coliseum, though the latter of the four finished a disappointing third in last Saturday’s San Vicente and might be off the trail.

Still, there is a lot of time and races between now and Derby day. This weekend features the El Camino Real Derby and the Risen Star before March heats up with the Fountain of Youth (March 2), the San Felipe (March 9) and Tampa Bay Derby (March 9).

Here’s a look at the horses to watch:

Five top contenders

Game Winner: A perfect 4-for-4 with his victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November at Churchill Downs, the son of Candy Ride, owned by Gary and Mary West, has yet to make his 2019 debut. Baffert has indicated he might send Game Winner to the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes on March 8 at Santa Anita Park.

Improbable: Owned by the group of WinStar, China Horse Club and Starlight Racing that brought you last year’s Triple Crown winner Justify, Improbable is also unbeaten. The son of City Zip is 3-for-3 with a win in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity on Dec. 8. Baffert has yet to announce Improbable’s plans, but the colt worked 5 furlongs in a quick :58.40 at Santa Anita on Feb. 1.

Instagrand: Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Instagrand could take on Game Winner in the San Felipe. The son of Into Mischief has raced just twice, winning both starts, including the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar on Aug. 11. He hasn’t raced since, however. Instagrand was a $1.2 million purchase by Larry Best at the Fasig-Tipton Florida Select 2-year-olds in training sale last year.

Hidden Scroll: Legendary trainer Bill Mott has never won the Kentucky Derby and this might be his best chance. Hidden Scroll was impressive in his Jan. 26 debut at Gulfstream Park, winning by 14 lengths with an eye-popping Beyer figure of 104. Owned by Juddmonte Farms, the son of Hard Spun could show up next in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream on March 2.

Signalman: Trained by McPeek, Signalman finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, second in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and first in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill last year. The son of General Quarters is expected to make his 2019 debut in the Tampa Bay Derby on March 9.

Best of the rest

Dream Maker: After finishing 12th in the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland, the son of Tapit picked up some Derby buzz by winning an allowance race at Fair Grounds by 8 1/2 lengths on Feb. 9. Trainer Mark Casse is talking the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby for this colt.

Global Campaign: Unraced at 2, the son of Curlin turned heads by winning an allowance race over the Grade 1-placed Standard Deviation on Feb. 9 at Gulfstream for trainer Stanley Hough. He is expected to run in the Fountain of Youth on March 2.

Gunmetal Gray: Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, the son of Exchange Rate ran second in the Robert Lewis on Feb. 2 after winning the Grade 2 Sham Stakes on Jan. 5 at Santa Anita. Owned by West Point Thoroughbreds in partnership with Hollendorfer and Pearl Racing, Gunmetal Gray has won two of his six career starts.

Harvey Wallbanger: Trained by Lexington’s own Kenny McPeek, the son of Congrats won the Grade 2 Holy Bull at Gulfstream on Feb. 2. It was Harvey’s second consecutive win after breaking his maiden on Nov. 17 at Churchill Downs. In five lifetime starts, the colt has two wins and three second-place finishes.

Knicks Go: A disappointing fifth in the Sam F. Davis last weekend, the son of Paynter has turned into a mystery for trainer Ben Colebrook. After winning the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland and finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Knicks Go ran 11th in the Kentucky Jockey Club, then fifth in this 2019 debut.

Mind Control: The winner of the Jerome Stakes on Jan. 1 at Aqueduct is expected to run in the Gotham on March 9 leading to the Wood Memorial. A son of Stay Thirsty, Mind Control has won three of his five lifetime starts for trainer Gregory D. Sacco.

Mucho Gusto: The winner of the Feb. 2 Robert Lewis, the son of Mucho Macho Man is another colt trained by Baffert. Mucho Gusto was second in the Los Alamitos Futurity after winning the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes last November.

Nolo Contesto: After a dazzling run with Accelerate, trainer John Sadler appears to have a Derby contender in this son of Pioneerof the Nile, sire of American Pharoah. Nolo Contesto broke his maiden in impressive fashion on Jan. 4 at Santa Anita. He was scratched from the Feb. 2 Robert Lewis because of the track conditions. He could run in the San Felipe.

Omaha Beach: The son of War Front, trained by Richard Mandella, has already raced twice this year, finally breaking his maiden with a win at Santa Anita on Feb. 2. Owned by Rick Porter’s Fox Hill Farms, the colt has done much better on dirt after starting out on the turf.

Tax: Trained by Danny Gargan, Tax won the Grade 3 Withers on Feb. 2 at Aqueduct. The son of Arch by a Giant’s Causeway mare has two wins, a second and a third in four lifetime starts. He has been pointed toward the Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks on March 9 at Turfway.

War of Will: The son of War Front won the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes on Jan. 19 for trainer Mark Casse. He drew the No. 14 post for Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes, but still should be the favorite at Fair Grounds. A fifth-place finisher in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, the colt is 2-for-2 since being put on the dirt.

Win Win Win: Aptly named, the son of Hat Trick has won three of his four career starts, including the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay on Jan. 19. He has yet to run in stakes company, however, for trainer Michael Trombetta and owner Live Oak Plantation.

Well Defined: Trained by Kathleen O’Connell, the gelding won the Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday. It was the third win in seven starts for the son of With Distinction, who long-term we could see in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Road to the 2019 Kentucky Derby

(With date-race-winner)


  • Sept. 15 - Iroquois - Cairo Cat
  • Sept. 29 - American Pharoah - Game Winner
  • Sept. 29 - Juddmonte Royal Lodge - Mohawk
  • Sept. 30 - Juddmonte Beresford - Japan

  • Oct. 6 - Champagne - Complexity
  • Oct. 6 - Breeders’ Futurity - Knicks Go
  • Oct. 7 - Prix du Jean Luc Lagardere - Royal Marine
  • Oct. 27 - Vertem Futurity Trophy - Magna Grecia
  • Nov. 2 - Breeders’ Cup Juvenile - Game Winner
  • Nov. 24 - Kentucky Jockey Club - Signalman
  • Nov. 24 - Cattleya Sho - Make Happy
  • Dec. 1 - Remsen - Maximus Mischief
  • Dec. 8 - Los Alamitos Futurity - Improbable
  • Dec. 16 - Springboard Mile - Long Range Toddy
  • Dec. 19 - Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun - Nova Lenda


  • Jan. 1 - Jerome - Mind Control
  • Jan. 5 - Sham - Gunmetal Gray
  • Jan. 19 - Lecomte - War of Will
  • Jan. 25 - Smarty Jones - Gray Attempt
  • Feb. 2 - Robert B. Lewis - Mucho Gusto
  • Feb. 2 - Withers - Tax
  • Feb. 2 - Holy Bull - Harvey Wallbanger
  • Feb. 9 - Sam F. Davis - Well Defined

Upcoming (date-race-track)

  • Feb. 16 - El Camino Real Derby (Golden Gate)
  • Feb. 16 - Risen Star (Fair Grounds)
  • Feb. 17 - Haycinth Stakes (Tokyo)
  • Feb. 18 - Southwest (Oaklawn)
  • March 1 - Patton Stakes (Dundalk)
  • March 2 - Fountain of Youth (Gulfstream)
  • March 6 - Condition Stakes (Kempton Park)
  • March 9 - Gotham (Aqueduct)
  • March 9 - San Felipe (Santa Anita)
  • March 9 - Tampa Bay Derby (Tampa Bay Downs)
  • March 9 - Jeff Ruby (Turfway)
  • March 16 - Rebel (Oaklawn)
  • March 23 - Louisiana Derby (Fair Grounds)
  • March 24 - Sunland Derby (Sunland)
  • March 30 - UAE Derby (Meydan)
  • March 30 - Florida Derby (Gulfstream)
  • March 31 - Fukuryu (Nakayama)
  • April 6 - Wood Memorial (Aqueduct)
  • April 6 - Blue Grass (Keeneland)
  • April 6 - Santa Anita Derby (Santa Anita)
  • April 11 - Cardinal Condition (Chelmsford City)
  • April 13 - Lexington (Keeneland)
  • April 13 - Arkansas Derby (Oaklawn)

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John Clay is a sports columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader. A native of Central Kentucky, he covered UK football from 1987 until being named sports columnist in 2000. He has covered 20 Final Fours and 37 consecutive Kentucky Derbys.
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