2019 Kentucky Derby Preview: Taking a Look at the Horses Batting for the 2019 Kentucky Derby
The 2019 Kentucky Derby is upon us, and that’s great news for horse racing fans. For the past few months, even back to late last year, predictors have been trying to figure out who will emerge as champion on the first Saturday in May. Now that the race is finally here, all of that speculation is nearing an end, and it’s time to place your bets.
But not quite. In these last few days before the race, people are furiously compiling every last piece of information to see if they can spot the winner. Of course, the nature of the Kentucky Derby doesn’t make it easy on us. It’s one of the most difficult races in the world to predict.
Why is that the case? Well, first of all, you’re talking about a field of 20 horses, far more than your average two-turn Thoroughbred race. Traffic problems could easily derail even the best of competitors on Saturday.
On top of that, none of these horses have ever been in a race with quite this caliber of competition. While the Derby prep races were tough, they contained several horses that the best entrants didn’t have to worry about. At the Kentucky Derby, the best from all over the world come together to battle it out.
It’s usually difficult to spot the best horses in the Kentucky Derby, but in 2019, it has become close to impossible. The prep races have only served to confuse the matter.
Every time we thought a horse was emerging as a definitive favorite, it seemed to struggle the next time out. And while that was going on, several horses that weren’t even on the Derby radar came out of nowhere to stamp themselves as serious competitors. There have been few Derby prep seasons quite as topsy-turvy as this one.
Perhaps that’s why the original morning-line favorite, Omaha Beach, was listed at 4 to 1. That’s not exactly a mandate from the oddsmaker. And, in another twist to further muddy the waters, Omaha Beach had to be scratched on Thursday.
Now, Game Winner, a horse who has lost his last two races, is the tepid 9 to 2 favorite to win the biggest race in the land. There are several other horses within shouting distance of those odds, suggesting that there is no clear-cut choice. The streak of six straight favorites winning the Derby could be in severe jeopardy.
Luckily, we’ll sort out all of this mess with our comprehensive 2019 Kentucky Derby preview. In it, we’ll go through all 20 of the horses and talk about their Derby qualifications. We’ll also pick our winner, while giving you some tips about what you should be looking for on your program page.
Tips for Betting the 2019 Kentucky Derby
Talk to some handicappers, and they’ll tell you that the Kentucky Derby is unlike any other when it comes to predicting winners in the sport of horse racing. You almost have to come up with your own set of rules that are different from everything else you know. And that doesn’t even take into account other variables that could come up like weather issues degrading track conditions.
The sheer size of the field is the biggest issue that stands out the most. Getting a good trip is more than half the battle in the Kentucky Derby.
Post position is a huge factor in this. Once you get outside the #15 post or so, your chances of winning really start to be adversely affected. By contrast, the horse on the rail (#1 post position) is also at a distinct disadvantage.
Once you take into account some of these factors, you should also consider the following:
- Distance: This will be the first time that any of these horses have raced this long (1 ¼ miles). You really have to take into consideration their ability to get to that extra furlong or so. Studying how they finished out their previous races and considering the distance qualities in their pedigree makes a big difference in this race.
- Style: With 20 horses in the race, there are bound to be horses of every possible running style within the race. If you find there’s a preponderance of one style over the others, the horses in the minority should be given a little bit more consideration. Being able to visualize how the race will turn out can really help you with your handicapping.
- Owning It: I’m a big fan of the theory that, once a horse does something, it owns that performance. In other words, the most recent starts aren’t necessarily the only ones you should be looking at when you’re making your picks. Don’t be afraid to look farther back to performances two, three, or four races prior, as it can help you identify the potential of a horse who might be slumping going into the Derby.
- When: Saturday, May 4, 2019, post time of 6:50 PM ET
- Where: Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky
- Who: 20 three-year-old horses will compete. Horses were made eligible for the field by a points system awarded for performances in predetermined races.
- How Long: 1 ¼ miles, which will take the horses around two turns on the track
- Surface: Dirt
The Field (Jockey and Trainer in parentheses, followed by morning line odds)
#1 – War of Will (Tyler Gaffalione, Mark Casse II) 15-1
When it comes to post positions for the Kentucky Derby, you don’t want either extreme. It has proven extremely difficult for horses on the rail to navigate the crush of traffic to their outside in the early going of the races without getting shuffled too far back. That is the pressure that will face Gaffalione in this one.
Here is a case of having to go on faith that War on Will was a little banged up in his disappointing ninth-place finish in his last race in Louisiana. Before that, he looked very much the part of a possible Derby winner, winning three straight with authority. How much you like this colt will depend on how much you believe you can throw out that last race.
#2 – Tax (Junior Alvarado, Danny Gargan) 20-1
The odds for this one didn’t come down at all even after the scratch of Omaha Beach. That just gives you a better chance to get in on one of the best value plays on the card. The speed figures for Tax have been more consistently high-level than anyone else in the field.
Yes, he was beaten by Tacitus fair and square in New York last time out, but he was racing for the first time in two months, meaning that his ability to bounce upward after that start should not be discounted. I’m not sure he’s a winner, especially with the difficult post, but I think he’s definitely in the mix for the exotics.
#3 – By My Standards (Gabriel Saez, Bret Calhoun) 15-1
In January, By My Standards was on no one’s Kentucky Derby radar, as he was still a maiden at that point. A startling 22-1 rally for a victory in the Louisiana Derby changed that in a hurry. Now, he’s being touted as one of the sleeper picks in the race.
I feel like that might be too far a leap to make. Can he repeat that performance, or was it a performance spike that he can’t duplicate again? We’ll find out on Saturday, obviously, but I feel like there are horses with longer odds and also longer track records that make them more trustworthy.
#4 – Gray Magician (Drayden Van Dyke, Peter Miller) 50-1
He punched his ticket to the Derby, and barely so, with a second-place finish in Dubai. In that race, Joel Rosario was on board, but he’ll be riding in the Derby on the much more highly-regarded Game Winner instead. Thus, Van Dyke, who has never been aboard Gray Magician before, will get the last-minute assignment.
Jockey switches aside, there isn’t anything too exciting about this one’s pre-Dubai record. His lone graded stakes effort was a fourth-place finish at Santa Anita in the Grade 3 Sham in January. This is a lottery ticket-type who really can’t be recommended no matter how you twist the narrative.
#5 – Improbable (Irad Ortiz, Jr., Bob Baffert) 5-1
Improbable is one of two Baffert trainees who was an also-ran to Omaha Beach and has to be breathing a sigh of relief that one isn’t going to be there on Derby day. The loss to Long Range Toddy in the Rebel Stakes is a bit more concerning here. Let’s face it: You’re really going to pay the Baffert tax here, as Improbable’s records suggest odds that should be 10-1 or 15-1.
There would have been great value at that level. People with a recency bias might have overlooked what kind of talent he showed at the end of his two-year-old season. Intriguing for sure, but maybe not so much at the price you’ll get at the windows.
#6 – Vekoma (Javier Castellano, George Weaver) 15-1
Vekoma has a funky running style that garners a lot of attention. But the only attention he got in the Blue Grass was for his dominant winning performance, overpowering a 14-horse tangle for an easy victory. It was also the first time that Castellano got the call for him and the two seemed to hit it off.
There is an interesting angle there, as Castellano is still waiting for his first Derby win after a dozen tries. Here is a horse that seems to be peaking at the absolute right moment for this race. And his lack of Grade 1 experience doesn’t disqualify him in this wide-open race as it once might have in the past.
#7 – Maximum Security (Luis Saez, Jason Servis) 8-1
I was really surprised to see the original morning line odds list this one at 10-1. Even with the adjustment to 8-1, it still feels like a bit of an insult to a horse who has won all four of his races by an average of over nine lengths. In his first ever start around two turns at the Florida Derby, he won for fun.
He has a hot trainer in Servis and sneakily good bloodlines. I’m not sure why he’s not the favorite going into the race, as he is the one horse that has the air of a super-horse about him. But you can take advantage if the public underrate him as well and get the winner at surprisingly valuable odds.
#8 – Tacitus (Jose Ortiz, Bill Mott) 8-1
He earned the most points in the Derby prep races, for whatever that’s worth. And he proved his versatility by winning graded stakes in both Florida and New York. Finally, he’s trained by Billy Mott, who is really only missing a Derby win to make his stunning career complete.
The concern here is that this one needs to get a hot pace in front of him before he can really uncork. That is a variable that is hard to trust, even in a race as crowded as the Derby. Still, as a horse who is improving with each start, he can’t be thrown out.
#9 – Plus Que Parfait (Ricardo Santana Jr., Brendan Walsh) 30-1
The win in Dubai vaulted him in the points standings to put him comfortably in the field. But does that put him in the mix as a possible upsetter? Well, if you look at what he did before that race, you might not feel too confident about his chances.
He finished second and fifth in a pair of graded stakes with a decidedly late-running style. The hope, if you’re going to take a shot with this horse, is that the victory in Dubai gave him a shot of confidence, because there is some real talent there. But it doesn’t seem like he should be anything more than a Hail Mary superfecta play at best.
#10 – Cutting Humor (Corey Lanerie, Todd Pletcher) 30-1
The highly respected Todd Pletcher is in his corner, so he has that going for him. And he is coming off his best performance in a win in the Sunland Derby, a Grade 3 event that punched his ticket to Churchill. That race was a marked improvement over anything that came before, so maybe the light came on.
Still, even in that race, he was holding on for dear life to win at the end, and that was against a nine-horse field without Derby hopefuls. The extra distance might prove to be too much, even if he can somehow get out near the front. Probably an also-ran in the crowded field.
#11 – Haikal (Rajiv Maragh, Kiaran McLaughlin) 30-1
The deepest of closers, he comes from the barn of Kiaran McLaughlin, another decorated conditioner without a Derby win in his past. Haikal has always been a late-runner, even when he was going around one turn to start his career. In the Wood, he came from the clouds to finish 3rd, albeit well back of Tacitus.
It’s no secret that this one will be laying back off the pace in the early going while Maragh looks for an open lane to close. Even 1 ¼ miles might not be long enough, however, for this one to be in contention as a possible winner. Come back for the Belmont and it might just be a different story.
#13 – Code of Honor (John Velazquez, Shug McGaughey) 12-1
Well, the connections jump at you right off the bat. Velazquez is a two-time winner, most recently with Always Dreaming just two years ago. And McGaughey led Orb to victory back in 2013, while also posting a second and third-place finisher in the past.
Alas, the horse that they’re backing here might not have the stuff to improve upon that record. While the style of the race may favor them more than it did when Code of Honor finished well beyond Maximum Security, it still does not mean that the horse has the stuff to take advantage of it. He just seems to be a bit overmatched in here.
#14 – Win Win Win (Julian Pimentel, Michael Trombetta) 12-1
Here is another one who is counting on a flying early pace to get it done. In his in-the-money finishes in the last two graded stakes, he was in another time zone from the others. Then he rallied to make it respectable and it was enough to put him here.
I still don’t think this race sets up that well for these types. You can make a case that there will be a mad scramble for the lead, but it seems more likely that it will be a lot of horses on the front staying close but not pushing it overly hard. That leaves a horse like Win Win Win most likely a bit too far back to contribute in this one.
#15 – Master Fencer (Julien Leparoux, Koichi Tsunoda) 50-1
The Japanese qualifier is as much of an unknown quantity as there is in the field. He will be making his first ever United States start in the Derby. All six of his previous races came in his native Japan.
The quality of Japanese thoroughbred racing is excellent, but it is not quite at the level of the graded stakes circuit here in the United States. Master Fencer won only two of his six starts in Japan with losses coming in his last two races. You can talk yourself into long shots in this field, but you probably should think twice about trying it here.
#16 – Game Winner (Joel Rosario, Bob Baffert) 9-2
He becomes the default favorite, and, if he goes off as the favorite, he has the comfort of knowing that the betting choice has won this race the last six years in a row. His two losses this year, after going four-for-four as a two-year-old, have been by less than a length combined.
Still, it was a bit concerning how he lost a late lead to his stablemate Roadster in his last race. And he hasn’t shown the same dominance that he did as a freshman. Maybe he can reach back and wake up the echoes, but I wouldn’t be too eager to bet on that at these odds, even with Baffert at the helm.
#17 – Roadster (Florent Geroux, Bob Baffert) 5-1
I quite frankly don’t understand how you can make Game Winner the favorite after Roadster beat him fair and square in the Santa Anita Derby. Just because he didn’t have the accolades as a freshman, it feels like Roadster is getting short shrift. This is the case despite the fact that nobody, with the exception of Omaha Beach and Maximum Security, has been better this year.
Not to mention the fact that his stalking style suits this race very well. I still believe in Maximum Security, and there isn’t much value in putting Roadster in the exotics. But if you think Maximum Security is a paper tiger, Roadster is the next best choice.
#18 – Long Range Toddy (Jon Court, Steven Asmussen) 30-1
His claim to fame came when he upset Improbable in one of the divisions of the Rebel Stakes. He also has a sentimental factor on his side, as jockey Jon Court will become the oldest to ever ride in the Derby on Saturday. Whether that’s enough to recommend him is questionable.
If you’re a believer in the bounce-back factor, you might be willing to throw out his disappointing effort in the Arkansas Derby and believe that he’ll regain his form. Still, in eight career starts and tied for most of anybody in the race, that win in the Rebel is an outlier. I don’t think he’ll be able to recapture the magic from this daunting post position.
#19 – Spinoff (Manuel Franco, Todd Pletcher) 30-1
Once again, you’ve got a Pletcher entry, so that’s the big positive here. Spinoff made a big jump in competition to battle it out in the Louisiana Derby. But he acquitted himself quite well, finishing second only when By My Standards rallied to knock him off in the final strides.
That race in the Louisiana Derby also featured him getting him a roughed-up trip, or else he might have sustained and won. But a good trip isn’t likely in this one from that post position. And he doesn’t seem to have the talent level to overcome that against this elite field on Saturday.
#20 – Country House (Flavien Prat, William Mott) 30-1
Well, the good news is that, with the scratch of Omaha Beach, Country House isn’t on the farthest outside post anymore. There is also the advantage of experience. He has battled his way through three graded stakes already this year, and although he hasn’t won any of them, he at least has been competitive.
Because he starts his move a little bit earlier than some of the other deep closers, and because the connections are excellent, I actually like him as one of several possible exotic plays. And you’re bound to get good odds because of the post. As someone who’s not a speed horse, that post won’t bother him as much as some.
#21 – Bodexpress (Chris Landeros, Gustavo Delgado) 30-1
Somehow it would be fitting for this Derby season to end with an also-eligible who’s still a maiden drawing in and winning it, right? And hey, the bloodlines are there. As you can tell by his name, his Dad was Bodemeister, one-time runner-up in the Derby and sire to 2017 champ Always Dreaming.
Those are all good stories, but the truth is that Bodexpress is only here because he was best of the rest at 71-1 behind romping winner Maximum Security in the Florida Derby. Still, he has never won before. The chances of him breaking that losing streak in the Kentucky Derby aren’t great.
I’m a believer in the super-horse, having seen several of them in the past few years, including two Triple Crown winners. Right not, Maximum Security is the only one in this field who can still claim to get to that level. And I think he is your winner here.
Put him in the exacta with Tax, who I like for the place. After that, Roadster is probably in the mix, with Vekoma and Country House as intriguing long-shot plays. Good luck on your wagering.