With April fast approaching, we’re entering the heart of Kentucky Derby prep season. The perceived top contenders have run their first races of the year and most are readying for their final pre-Derby tests.
We don’t have a clear favorite, and it’s healthy to remember that as of April 1, 2018, eventual Triple Crown winner Justify had run exactly two career races, neither of them a graded stakes. So there’s plenty we don’t know, especially given the interruption of racing at Santa Anita Park, home base for several of the nation’s top 3-year-olds, after a rise in horse deaths.
Those caveats aside, the likely top of the field is beginning to come into focus, and with that in mind, here are 10 contenders to keep your eye on between now and the first Saturday in May.
Trainer Bob Baffert would have gone down as an all-time great if he’d retired a decade ago, but at age 66, he seems to reload with another set of potential Derby favorites every spring. Baffert has the two leading contenders right now, and of those, Improbable might have a touch more upside. He was caught and lost by a neck to Long Range Toddy in the March 16 Rebel Stakes, leading some handicappers to question his focus. But he had to make up a lot of ground after breaking outside, so it wasn’t as if he delivered a dud effort. Improbable is owned by the same group that backed Justify, and no one is better than Baffert at getting a talented 3-year-old to peak at the optimal moment. Rising star Drayden Van Dyke has ridden Improbable to date, but Jose Ortiz, one of the nation’s finest jockeys, will take the mount for the Arkansas Derby. Next race: Arkansas Derby, April 13
Here’s Baffert’s other contender and the most accomplished 3-year-old in the class after his victory in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He was beaten for the first time in his division of the March 16 Rebel Stakes, but delivered his usual game effort in trying to pass Omaha Beach. He’s never run poorly in five career starts and will be back home at Santa Anita for his final prep. Jockey Joel Rosario rode Orb to victory in the 2013 Derby and has been a fixture among the nation’s top-earning riders for a decade. There’s nothing to dislike about this potential favorite, other than the fact that Juvenile champions have not tended to win the Derby. Next race: Santa Anita Derby, April 6
Here’s your most likely candidate to derail the Baffert train. Handicappers fancied this rapidly improving colt even before he held off Game Winner in the Rebel Stakes. But that victory, his second in six career starts, stamped him as a legitimate contender. California-based trainer Richard Mandella might not be a familiar name to the casual fan, but he’s in the Hall of Fame. And you couldn’t ask for a steadier hand than 53-year-old jockey Mike Smith, who rode Justify to the Triple Crown last year. Omaha Beach will get a shot at Improbable in his final prep race, and if he wins that showdown, he would have a strong claim to go off as the favorite May 4 at Churchill Downs. Next race: Arkansas Derby, April 13
Code of Honor
Trainer Shug McGaughey is more cautious than most in pushing his 3-year-olds toward the Derby but excels at bringing his contenders to timely peaks. That could be the case for this chestnut colt, who won the March 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes after a poor showing in his first race of 2019. If he builds on his effort in Saturday’s Florida Derby, he will go into Churchill Downs as a leading contender, if not the favorite. Two-time Derby-winning jockey John Velazquez adds to his case. Next race: Florida Derby, March 30
Long Range Toddy
He showed poise and great acceleration in the stretch when he chased down Improbable in the Rebel Stakes. But he’s divisive because nothing in his previous results suggested he was capable of such an effort. Long Range Toddy will face a stacked field, including Improbable, in the Arkansas Derby, so he’ll have a chance to quiet skeptics. Trainer Steve Asmussen is one of the leading horsemen of his generation, and the absence of a Derby victory is the only significant hole in his resume. At age 58, jockey Jon Court is looking to make a late splash on the biggest stage in American racing. Next race: Arkansas Derby, April 13
The Los Angeles Times gathered a roundtable of three well-known experts with more than a century of knowledge working in the horse racing industry to try and dig down into what went wrong at Santa Anita and where things go from here.
He existed on the periphery of the Derby discussion before surging to victory as a 22-1 underdog in the March 23 Louisiana Derby. The 100 points from that victory guarantee him a spot in the Derby field, and the 97 Beyer speed figure he earned suggests his potential is up there with the best in this 3-year-old class. Trainer Bret Calhoun has long racked up wins in Louisiana and Texas. Jockey Gabriel Saez is best known for riding the filly Eight Belles, who collapsed and was euthanized after finishing second to Big Brown in the 2008 Derby. By My Standards could be a popular choice for bettors looking to steer away from the status quo. Next race: Kentucky Derby, May 4
He took a significant step forward by winning the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby after a four-month layoff and some unremarkable workouts. If he can do as well or better as a likely favorite in his final Derby prep, he’ll go to Churchill Downs as a solid contender. Tacitus has been ridden by Ortiz, but that seems likely to change given Baffert’s decision to put him on Improbable. His trainer, Bill Mott, is another Hall of Fame selection seeking his first Derby win. Next race: Wood Memorial or Blue Grass Stakes, April 6
He carries a great name for a Derby horse and has reportedly upped his training intensity after a second-place finish in the Fountain of Youth, where he threatened Code of Honor with a late move. If he’s able to turn the tables Saturday, he could emerge as the top contender from the Florida prep season. His rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., led the nation’s jockeys in earnings last year. His trainer, Mark Hennig, has been a consistent winner but has never broken through on the Triple Crown stage. Next race: Florida Derby, March 30
Trainer Todd Pletcher normally has multiple candidates primed for the Derby, but his 3-year-old group is less accomplished than usual this year. Spinoff made his case with a strong second-place finish in the Louisiana Derby despite a wide trip. He only has four career starts and will have to wait six weeks for his chance at Churchill Downs, but Pletcher has never feared bringing inexperienced contenders to the big stage. Like Code of Honor, Spinoff is ridden by Velazquez, who will probably have his choice of Derby mounts. The jockey’s unusually close relationship with Pletcher could factor into his calculus. Next race: Kentucky Derby, May 4
Is it even possible for Baffert to bring a sleeper to Churchill Downs? If so, this is the horse. Baffert has said Roadster generated more buzz than either Improbable or Game Winner before throat surgery forced him out of training last year. He looked good winning his first start back March 1, and if he shows further improvement in the Santa Anita Derby, look out. He’s ridden by Smith, who also rides Omaha Beach, so that could pose a dilemma come mid-April. Next race: Santa Anita Derby, April 6
Five others to watch: Hidden Scroll (trainer Bill Mott), Cutting Humor (trainer Todd Pletcher), Instagrand (trainer Jerry Hollendorfer), Haikal (trainer Kiaran McLaughlin), War of Will (trainer Mark Casse).