Go with Bob Baffert, Game Winner for 2019 Kentucky Derby

May 1, 2019 3:00 AM

From 1980 thru 1999, not one favorite was able to win the Kentucky Derby.

A change in how horses qualify to run in the Derby started in 2013, with points assigned to key Derby prep races. An emphasis on recent good route form has resulted in six straight winning favorites – Orb (2013), California Chrome (2014), American Pharoah (2015), Nyquist (2016), Always Dreaming (2017), and Justify (2018).

American Pharoah and Justify, both trained by Bob Baffert, were able to win the Triple Crown.

Will Omaha Beach continue the current streak of winning favorites?

He is based in California, where five of the last seven Kentucky Derby winners have been stabled. The winter of 2019 has been anything but normal in Southern California, however, as Santa Anita experienced a rash of breakdowns and was forced to shut down horse racing for several weeks in March to evaluate and renovate the track surface, resulting in the San Felipe Stakes, a major Kentucky Derby prep, being cancelled.

Horsemen were forced to call audibles, but the change in plans did not adversely affect the local contingent as several of the major Kentucky Derby contenders will once again hail from California.

Here is a horse-by-horse look at the Kentucky Derby field in post-position order and with their morning line odds in parenthesis:

1. War of Will (20-1) – He was dominant at Fair Grounds this winter until his hind end slipped out from under him leaving the gate in the Louisiana Derby. He ended being well beaten that day and was lame after the race. He recovered quickly, has worked very well, and likes Churchill Downs, but drew the rail and will likely have to be sent from the opening bell.

2. Tax (20-1) – He was claimed for $50,000 last October and has since won the Withers at Aqueduct and avoided all the trouble in the Wood Memorial to run second to Tacitus. He tries hard, but will need to improve several lengths to win.

3. By My Standards (20-1) – This could be the “wise guy” horse based on outstanding works at Churchill Downs following a huge step forward winning the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds at 22-1. Breeding makes the 10-furlong trip a question mark.

4. Gray Magician (50-1) – Earned his way into the Derby by being runner-up in the UAE Derby in Dubai. Nothing in his U.S. form suggests he is a contender and the road from Dubai has yet to produce a good Derby result.

5. Improbable (6-1) – Trainer Bob Baffert experimented with blinkers in the Arkansas Derby, and Improbable threw a fit in the starting gate prior to the start. To his credit, he ran his race to be second to Omaha Beach, and the blinkers come right back off for the Derby. Some question his ability to get the distance. He has a beautiful long stride, likes Churchill, and has Baffert calling the shots.

6. Vekoma (20-1) – Son of Candy Ride has a unique paddling action with his left front leg and is not a pretty mover. He raced with the track bias winning the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland, so maybe that win was not as impressive as it looks on paper.

7. Maximum Security (10-1) – He showed up in a $16,000 claiming race in his debut. He won by a distance, and has remained unbeaten working his way up the ladder racing only at Gulfstream Park. Always works very slow – trainer Jason Servis depends on long gallops much like trainer Doug O’Neill did when he won the Derby with I’ll Have Another in 2012. On speed figures he is a major player. He will be on or near the early lead.

8. Tacitus (10-1) – Showed he can overcome trouble winning roughly run Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and has proven the ability to ship winning the Tampa Bay Derby. Bred to be any kind and trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott. Caliber of competition he has beaten so far is suspect.

9. Plus Que Parfait (30-1) – Has proven form at Churchill Downs, and his connections get points for management as they sent him to Dubai to face a soft field and win the $2.5 million UAE Derby. That route has yet to produce a Kentucky Derby winner, though.

10. Cutting Humor (30-1) – Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher was very quiet on the Derby trail this year until this one rallied to win the Sunland Park Derby. That field was nothing like what he will face in the Derby.

11. Haikal (30-1) – This colt has raced at Aqueduct only, so the ability to ship and handle different surfaces is unknown. All of his wins have been around one turn, though he did finish willingly to be third in the Wood Memorial behind Tacitus. No early speed means he will need racing luck in huge field.

12. Omaha Beach (4-1) – He blossomed when Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella switched him to dirt and started to train him harder. He loves a wet track, and is proven he can ship by going to Arkansas twice from California to win the Rebel and Arkansas Derby. Jockey Mike Smith opts for him over Roadster for regular client Bob Baffert. That says a lot.

13. Code of Honor (15-1) – He was hurt by slow pace in the Florida Derby and was flattered by suicidal early pace when he won the Fountain of Youth, both at Gulfstream Park. He figures to make his move around the far turn. 

14. Win Win Win (15-1) – Though his best races have been in sprints, he did rally vs. a speed bias to be second in the Blue Grass at Keeneland after getting stopped cold around the far turn.

15. Master Fencer (50-1) – Japan-based runner gets into the race on an international invitation when several others decided to pass. Looks overmatched. Best thing is that it opens Derby wagering to international pools. 

16. Game Winner (5-1) – Won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill to be named champion two-year-old of 2018. Trainer Baffert had to call an audible for sophomore debut when the San Felipe Stakes was cancelled at Santa Anita in March, but was able to get the two prep races he desired. Ran well despite wide trip and early move in the Santa Anita Derby and distance should not be a problem. Beware.

17. Roadster (6-1) – Was considered one of trainer Bob Baffert’s best two-year-olds last year, but was beaten by stablemate Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity and needed throat surgery to correct a breathing problem. He has come back well, winning the Santa Anita Derby over stablemate Game Winner. Florent Geroux has the mount after Smith opted for Omaha Beach.

18. Long Range Toddy (30-1) – Upset Improbable in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn, but did not validate that effort when well beaten in the Arkansas Derby run over a sloppy track. On numbers, he is a cut below the best.

19. Spinoff (30-1) – Had a perfect trip when run down late by Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards. He gets better with each race but must avoid wide trip.

20. Country House (30-1) – Deep closer has never beaten winners and is light on numbers. He should like the 10 furlong trip. Maybe he can tag some tiring speed and impact the bottom slots of the Superfecta and Super High Five.

In how I plan to bet the Kentucky Derby, Bob Baffert has trained two-year-old champion Game Winner to peak in the Derby. He seems the most reliable to run his race and his fighting spirit is his biggest asset.

I will make a win bet on Game Winner and key him in Exacta boxes with Omaha Beach, By My Standards, Improbable, Maximum Security, Tacitus, and Roadster (Exacta box keying 16 with 3,5,7,8,12,17). I will also key Game Winner in the Trifecta as follows: (16 with 3,5,7,8,12,17 with ALL) and (3,5,7,8,12,17 with 16 with ALL).

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