After three months on the Kentucky Derby trail, James Willoughby has examined the candidates’ work in fine detail ahead of the great race at Churchill Downs on Saturday. Here is his final assessment.
The Kentucky Derby never fails to excite. It is one of the world’s great races and the qualifying system offers the chance for the rest of the world to run.
One horse - the Japanese-trained Master Fencer – will be taking up that offer in 2019 but countless more tried and failed to earn their place.
Among the domestic aspirants, seven races worth the maximum 100 qualifying points have been run and seven different horses have annexed them.
It’s no surprise that we have a usual highly competitive affair in Saturday’s $3 million Kentucky Derby over 10 furlongs at Churchill Downs - but following the scratching of early favourite Omaha Beach the Bob Baffert-trained IMPROBABLE just got more probable as the likely winner.
The G1 Arkansas Derby is the best form of any trial. It saw Omaha Beach make a move to boss the race running down the back straight and from that point he was always going to be very difficult to beat. That said, Improbable stuck on gamely in his wake.
Going into that contest Improbable’s triple G1 winning stable companion Game Winner was ranked in front of him as a Kentucky Derby prospect.
That was largely because Game Winner’s sire Candy Ride is much more likely to get a Derby winner than Improbable’s sire City Zip but the Arkansas Derby finished that argument.
City Zip, while undoubtedly an influence for speed, is also a half-brother to Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Ghostzapper and It could be that Improbable is more typical of the latter's stock.
Improbable was strong at the end of the Oaklawn race and is clearly peaking at the right time. And there simply isn’t anything in this Derby line-up as good as Omaha Beach.
For this reason Improbable looks sure to give a good account as it is likely we have not seen the full extent of his capabilities and he is training with great freedom and exuberance.
As well as Improbable and Game Winner, Bob Baffert sends out a third G1 winner in Roadster.
This one graduated in the Santa Anita Derby under a terrific ride from Mike Smith when the Hall of Fame rider took him back from a fast pace down the back straight and pounced late on Game Winner, who had covered ground on the turn.
The physics of the issue – Roadster distributed his energy more evenly – suggests Game Winner will reverse the form in a fair fight but there will not be much in it.
Indeed it could be that Roadster finally lives up to his big reputation as he is now improving after having a veterinary tweak.
The unbeaten Florida Derby winner Maximum Security cannot be rated as high as Omaha Beach, Improbable and Game Winner yet, but he is going the right way.
He was impressive at Gulfstream Park, storming clear on the turn and readily holding Bodexpress and the Fountain of Youth winner Code Of Honor in the straight.
The problem is that he hasn’t yet met opponents of truly elite calibre and it is fair to say he enjoyed the run of the race last time.
Tacitus – the leading points-earner in the field – is also entitled to consideration.
He is a big, galloping grey who was less well regarded than his Bill Mott stablemate Hidden Scroll earlier in the year but the latter fell by the wayside as his race distances increased.
Tacitus has thrived and while he doesn’t look pretty doing it, he overcame trouble to win the G2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and can easily add more muscle to his frame.
If the winner was determined by the aesthetics of a horse’s action the G2 Blue Grass Stakes winner Vekoma would be last but on talent he is likely to be nearer first.
In full flight, his forelimbs remind one more of swimming legend Michael Phelps than Secretariat, but he is improving at the right time, judged by a strong-staying Keeneland win which saw him draw clear late and hold the charge of Win Win Win.
The concern with Vekoma is the standard of the opposition he has faced. Prior to the Blue Grass, he was well held in third by Code Of Honor in the Fountain of Youth.
When a horse wins a Derby trial at better than 22/1 odds, it usually pays to be circumspect. And the more you look at the G2 Louisiana Derby, the more you study the data, the more impressed you become with BY MY STANDARDS.
Far from winning because of the run of the race, it really seems as if he won in spite of it.
Going into that Fair Grounds race, impressive allowance winner Spinoff did not disappoint; his raking stride took him into the lead in the straight, and it looked as if he had to win.
But, despite Spinoff pulling further and further away from the field, By My Standards came home even stronger and beat him in cold blood.
Why, then, was such a talented colt going off at 22/1?
Perhaps his trainer Bret Calhoun is less fashionable than some – even after more than 2,600 wins – but the main factor was probably his horse’s lack of seasoning. After four starts he had won only a maiden, albeit by an impressive four lengths.
Surely this means he is open to further improvement heading into the Derby. When you review his performance, it is possible to rate him above the bare result given that he was only angled to daylight in the straight after Spinoff was in full flight.
The Fair Grounds track was slick that day and saw By My Standards stop the clock at 1:49.53 for the nine furlongs – the fastest time in the race since 1977.
Other times on the card were significantly faster than par also but the collateral form is interesting as fourth-placed Country House was beaten almost exactly the same margin by Omaha Beach at Oaklawn subsequently and the six lengths third Sueno was beaten half that distance when occupying the same place in the G3 Lexington Stakes.
By My Standards is an easy mover and seems to be standing up well to the increased intensity of his training and racing schedule.
While his pedigree isn’t that of a Derby horse being by fast miler sire Goldencents it could be that a relaxed way of going helps By My Standards exploit his distance potential.