This year’s Run for the Roses is gearing up to be one of the most wide-open in recent memory.
The morning-line favorite, Omaha Beach, was given 4-1 odds, but he was scratched Wednesday evening. One of Bob Baffert’s horses, Game Winner, was given 5-1 odds and his other two, Roadster and Improbable, were each issued morning-line odds of 6-1. Just two horses, Gray Magician and Master Fencer, are listed at 50-1 compared to five horses opening at that price a year ago.
“I think anyone could win it,” Baffert told Eric Crawford of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “You have to get the trip, and the post is important. Last year we came in with Justify, and he was a man among boys, and American Pharoah. This year is different. With them I knew I had the horse and felt like I needed a little luck. Now I’ve got three nice horses, and there’s a lot of parity. It’s wide open.”
With so many talented Derby contenders you need to find a horse with a solid résumé, a quick turn of foot and improving form to help weed out the pretenders. It also helps to bet on an older 3-year-old colt to win it all.
Officially, every racehorse’s birthday is Jan. 1, so a horse that is born, or foaled, in May will be racing against other 3-year-olds born in June despite there being a one-month difference in actual age. How significant is a one-month difference? It’s huge.
“I will buy late May foals but not June,” Pletcher told Lexi Pandell of Wired Magazine in 2016. “When looking at yearlings I will look at the foaling date and keep it in mind. Perhaps a May foal will seem undersized or a January foal will seem very mature.”
Since 1966, no horse born in June or later has ever won the Kentucky Derby. In fact, eight out of every 10 winners since then have been foaled in January, February or March. Since 2013, the first year of the Derby points system, all six Derby winners had a February or March foal date. Every Triple Crown winner since Secretariat has either a February or March foal date, too.
This alone rules out half the field. Vekoma, Roadster, Maximum Security, Code of Honor, War of Will, Long Range Toddy, Tax, Cutting Humor and Country House were all born in April or May.
In addition, the past eight Derby winners entered on the first Saturday in May came in fresh off a victory and 42 of the past 43 winners were sharp in their last prep race (top-three finish or within four lengths of the victor), with the past 68 winners having all raced at 1⅛ miles before trying the classic 1¼-mile distance at Churchill Downs. Plus Que Parfait, War of Will, Long Range Toddy and Gray Magician all get at least one strike against them.
Speed is also important. Derek Simon, senior editor at U.S. Racing, found that since 1992 only Mine That Bird (2009) has won the Derby after earning a last-race Brisnet speed figure of 95 or less. Horses in the 2019 field that haven’t met the mark include Code of Honor, War of Will, Long Range Toddy and Country House. Speed figures for Plus Que Parfait, Gray Magician and Master Fencer are unavailable.
Plus, no Blue Grass Stakes winner has won the Derby since Strike the Gold in 1991. The last horse to compete in the Blue Grass and win the Derby was Street Sense in 2007. That is bad news for Vekoma and Win Win Win. Since 2003, only two horses — Empire Maker and Funny Cide — finished in the top three of the Wood Memorial before doing the same in the Derby, so Tacitus, Tax and Haikal each has a mark against them. And no horse since 1970 has won the Kentucky Derby when the Louisiana Derby has been its final prep. By My Standards, War of Will and Spinoff all last ran at the Fair Grounds before Saturday’s race. Bodexpress, winless in five starts, will seek to be the first maiden since 1933 (Broker’s Tip) to win the first leg of the Triple Crown.
Plus Que Parfait, the winner of the UAE Derby, doesn’t have history on his side, either: since 2000, the best Kentucky Derby finish by a UAE Derby runner has been fifth (Master of Hounds, 2011). The last foreign-bred to win the Derby was Sunny’s Halo (Canada) in 1983. The last foreign-bred to produce a top-three finish in the Derby was Bold Arrangement (Great Britain) in 1986. Neither bodes well for Master Fencer.
Jennie Rees’s research found how fast a horse finishes in its final prep is crucial, especially over the last three-eighths of a mile. According to data compiled by Pat Infante, each of the past seven Kentucky Derby winners — and 17 of the last 19 — ran the last three-eighths of its final Derby prep race in 38 seconds or less. Sixteen of those 19 also ran the final eighth of a mile in 13 seconds or less.
Those that didn’t finish strong enough in their last prep include two of the favorites, Roadster and Game Winner, plus War of Will, Long Range Toddy, Vekoma, Tax, Win Win Win, Gray Magician, Tacitus, Plus Que Parfait and Haikal.
That leaves just one horse out of the field of 20 without a strike against it: Improbable.
Undefeated in three starts as a 2-year-old, Improbable’s career includes an impressive, five-length romp in the Los Alamitos Futurity, a second-place finish by a neck in the Rebel Stakes and another second-place finish in the Arkansas Derby.
Improbable is the son of City Zip, a Grade 1-winning sprinter and a half brother to 2004 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and Horse of the Year Ghostzapper. He also shares a connection to Justify, last year’s Triple Crown winner, by having the same trainer and owner.
Improbable’s running style is also a plus. He earned five out of eight Quirin speed points in his career, indicating he likes to stay in touch with the leaders at the first call (or half-mile marker), and his running lines show he likes to sit third or fourth with just a length or two separating him from the leader at both the first and second call (three-quarter mile mark). With a lack of true speedball types in the race, horses in the first flight should be able to conserve enough energy to carry them through the classic distance of 1¼ miles without tiring down the stretch.
Correction: A prior version incorrectly credited an article to Scott Serio. This has been fixed.