The field of leading Kentucky Derby contenders has shifted considerably in the past two weeks, with upsets in both the Florida Derby and the Santa Anita Derby. Often, the Derby favorite is clear coming out of the first weekend in April, but that’s not the case this year.
An unusually loaded field will compete in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby, and until that business is settled, we can’t turn our eyes completely to Louisville and the first Saturday in May.
With that in mind, here are the latest top 10 contenders to watch as we await the last major prep.
Keep in mind that trainer Bob Baffert rated Roadster the most talented 2-year-old in his stable before throat surgery forced the colt out of training last year. So no one should have been overly surprised when Roadster roared from near the back of the pack to pass his more accomplished stablemate, Game Winner, in the Santa Anita Derby last Saturday. California has the richest crop of Derby contenders, and Roadster now has a claim to be the best of those, which also means he has a good chance to go off as the favorite at Churchill Downs. Baffert and his go-to jockey, 53-year-old Mike Smith, did not need much prep time to turn Justify into a monster last year. Can they pull off a similar trick this time around? Next race: Kentucky Derby, May 4
He can still push his way to the front of Baffert’s gifted stable with an impressive win against stacked competition in this Saturday’s Arkansas Derby. 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. No one is better than Baffert at getting a talented 3-year-old to peak at the optimal moment. And jockey Joel Rosario, who will ride Improbable for the first time this weekend, is one of the best in the world. Next race: Arkansas Derby, April 13
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 National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame. Omaha Beach will get a shot at Improbable in his final prep race, and if he wins that showdown, would have a strong claim to go off as the favorite at Churchill Downs. Such a scenario would also leave Smith, who rides both Omaha Beach and Roadster, with a difficult choice. Next race: Arkansas Derby, April 13
He overcame an early bump to win as the favorite in last Saturday’s Wood Memorial. Between that victory and his performance in winning the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby, this Bill Mott-trained colt is clearly on the upswing, with an appealing blend of battle-testedness and upside. Gone are earlier concerns raised by a four-month layoff and a series of unremarkable workouts. He probably won’t be the Derby favorite because the California horses are ascendant, but he has a strong claim. We have another jockey dilemma brewing here, because Jose Ortiz rides both Tacitus and Improbable. Next race: Kentucky Derby, May 4
He’s now 0-for-2 in 2019. But you can’t really say the 2018 2-year-old champion ran poorly in either race. He’s yet to come up empty in any of his six career starts, so it’s hard to bump him too far down the list. Despite a wide trip, he was in position to win last Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, only for Roadster to chase him down in the stretch. Did Game Winner peak too early, or is he a top-notch competitor who was simply edged out twice by equally talented foes? With Baffert preparing him and Joel Rosario riding, he cannot be counted out at Churchill Downs. Next race: Kentucky Derby, May 4
He was available for a $16,000 claim less than four months ago and went into his final prep, the March 30 Florida Derby, with zero Derby qualifying points. He exited as one of the top contenders after he easily took and held the lead in the most important race of his career. Skeptics will say he was handed the most favorable race scenario imaginable, but the undefeated colt nonetheless came away with the highest Beyer Speed Figure, 101, from the latest round of preps. Trainer Jason Servis has been hot this year, as has jockey Luis Saez, who ranks fifth in North American earnings after finishing eighth in 2018. Next race: Kentucky Derby, May 4
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 elite competition, including Improbable and Omaha Beach, 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 Triple Crown stage. Next race: Arkansas Derby, April 13
He pushed his way into the top group with a decisive win in last Saturday’s Blue Grass Stakes. That race featured one of the least glamorous fields of the top Derby preps, and this George Weaver-trained colt had an ideal trip. But advanced analytics say he’s been one of the fastest horses in his class since last fall, despite his unusual stride. And he’s ridden by Javier Castellano, who hasn’t finished lower than third in North American earnings since 2010. Next race: Kentucky Derby, May 4
By My Standards
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. The main factor working against him is the perceived weakness of the Louisiana fields compared with those in California, Florida and Arkansas. Next race: Kentucky Derby, May 4
Code of Honor
He was bumped early in the Florida Derby and failed to make a concerted charge down the stretch. But he still has plenty of points to qualify for the Derby and could be dangerous in Louisville if he’s handed a fast early pace to set up his late move. 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. Two-time Derby winning jockey John Velazquez adds to Code of Honor’s case. Next race: Kentucky Derby, May 4
Five more contenders to watch: Spinoff (trainer Todd Pletcher), Tax (trainer Danny Gargan), War of Will (trainer Mark Casse), Cutting Humor (trainer Todd Pletcher), Win Win Win (trainer Mike Trombetta).
145th Kentucky Derby
First jewel of the Triple Crown series
at Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
May 4, 6:50 p.m.
TV: Chs. 11, 4