2019 Kentucky Derby Preview and Saturday Churchill Downs Stakes Selections

It’s finally here, after months of prep races: the Kentucky Derby!  As we do here every year, Picks and Ponderings will give you the scoop on every horse in the field.

If you’re specifically interested in who’s coming into the Derby (and the Oaks!) hot, and who isn’t, Nicolle has a piece over at the TwinSpires blog that delves into exactly that.

In addition to our horse-by-horse preview of the Derby, we also have selections for the entire card.  Scroll below the analysis of the Derby horses, and you’ll see a chart of our selections and longshots for every race on Saturday’s card at Churchill Downs.

And, for Friday’s Kentucky Oaks, we have a preview of the big race and a chart of full-card selections right here.

Kentucky Derby morning line is the revised one published after the scratch of Omaha Beach was announced Wednesday afternoon. Selections for Race 5, Race 7 (the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile), Race 9 (the American Turf), and Race 11 (the Old Forester Turf Classic) are made for turf only.

  1. WAR OF WILL (15/1) – For a good portion of the Derby trail, I would not have been surprised to be playing him with both hands this Saturday.  He just kept passing all the tests on dirt, from a maiden win (at Churchill, no less!) to crushing the first two races on the Louisiana spur of the Derby trail.  Then his back end came out from under him in the first few strides of the Louisiana Derby.  Then, his worktab has been mixed — some work I’ve liked, some work I haven’t.  Then, he drew the fence. Is WAR OF WILL impossible?  No — he is a talented horse, and this week he looks like just the kind of powder keg who should explode from the rail.  But, between the traffic questions in the opening strides and the major questions that arise when a Casse trainee may be going south, I’ve got to look elsewhere.
  2. TAX (20/1) – Since the Remsen, I’ve been looking forward to seeing him stretch out to the Classic distance.  His prep season was unusual, yet fitting: he has run three times since being claimed for $50,000 by Danny Gargan and his ownership group, with all three of those prep stakes being nine-furlong races. Yes, TACITUS beat him in the Wood — but, perhaps TAX moved too early, and TAX should keep going late in the Derby when others tire out.  There are enough other interesting horses to make TAX’s morning line not too bad — I don’t see him going any shorter than 15/1 — and that makes him worth including.
  3. BY MY STANDARDS (15/1) – One of the “new shooters” — oh yes, I went there, and it’s not even Preakness Week!  It took him four tries to break his maiden, but once he did that, it was off to the races — almost literally, as he came back five weeks later and outfinished SPINOFF in the Louisiana Derby.  The Louisiana Derby hasn’t been the most live of preps in recent years, though how much of that has to do with chance and how much of that has to do with “six weeks off” is anyone’s guess.  (Given the spacing that top racehorses so often take between their races, I lean a bit toward chance).  Of bigger concern, he is by Goldencents out of a mare who, while classy, may not weave in quite enough stamina to keep him going the Derby distance.
  4. GRAY MAGICIAN (50/1) – #AllDayBetTheGrey (spoiler alert!), but not this one.  The UAE Derby isn’t typically the most live Kentucky Derby prep, and this wasn’t a banner renewal of that race.  Minor prep company and even allowance company were a bit too much for him stateside, and it’s hard to think that chasing PLUS QUE PARFAIT home in Dubai will be enough to suddenly make him a world-beater.
  5. IMPROBABLE (5/1) – As part of the three-strong Baffert contingent, he’ll take plenty of money.  It’s hard to knock him getting beaten by OMAHA BEACH comfortably last time too hard, since that one has defected from the Derby.  But?  Usually the Derby winner has won a prep at three.  He hasn’t.  Maybe he’ll be sharper third off the lay.  Maybe he’ll have his head together more than it looked like he did in his last work before the Derby, when he was pulling so keenly early.  Maybe Irad Ortiz will end up being a good fit for him.  That’s a lot of maybe for a horse who’s going to be among the top two or three betting choices in the Kentucky Derby.
  6. VEKOMA (15/1) – Part of the “might be near the lead” brigade, he won the Blue Grass Stakes by…what seems like default.  It wasn’t the strongest final prep; top-to-bottom, the 20-point Lexington a week later was a tougher race.  Speed held beautifully on Blue Grass Day, which was great news for this guy and bad news for WIN WIN WIN.  But, while WIN WIN WIN was coming on, VEKOMA looked like he didn’t want any part of that last furlong.  I can’t wait for him to emerge as one of the top milers or later this year, or early next year.  I can’t endorse him at eight and a half furlongs, much less nine, much less ten.
  7. MAXIMUM SECURITY (8/1) – First the wiseguys questioned what a horse coming in from the claiming and starter ranks could do in the Florida Derby.  He won.  Now, “he’s a sixteen claimer!” has been replaced by “he set such a slow pace in the Florida Derby!”  Is that a better critique?  Sure.  Is that enough to talk me off of him as a serious Derby prospect?  No way.  We still don’t know how good he is, but he has passed each test. He has even come from off the pace in one of his races, should WAR OF WILL grab the lead from the rail.  Sure, there are quite a few horses who have been able to track at least near the lead — but “speed is its own bias” so often proves true as ever in the Derby.  Especially in the points era?  Without one-way speed, a sneaky sprinter, or a Palace Malice-style experiment, speed horses tend to hang on pretty well even if there’s plenty of pace on paper.  If there’s only a moderate amount?  You can’t sleep on a horse who is this fast early, especially one coming in from such a live prep as the Florida Derby.
  8. TACITUS (8/1) – He raced in two final preps — the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and the Wood Memorial (G2), and won them both.  The Wood hasn’t been the most live prep in recent years, but TACITUS is better than the average horse who has been coming to the Derby from Aqueduct.  He only has four races under him, but he has shown the ability to ship, he can handle an off track, and both his pedigree (by Tapit out of Close Hatches) and his races make ten furlongs look well within his reasonable range of distances.  And, even though he has gotten a bit of a rap as a closer, he doesn’t have to be.  Not only did he sit closer in his two maiden attempts, but in the Wood, he sat closer to the pace than he did in the Gotham despite having early trip trouble in the Wood.  That gives jockey Jose Ortiz options.  All in all, he has the look of a contender.
  9. PLUS QUE PARFAIT (30/1) – After a pair of empty preps in New Orleans, he had better luck in Dubai.  His pedigree isn’t bad for stamina, being by Point of Entry (a G1 winner at distances from 9f through 12f) out of an Awesome Again mare who is half to a pair of 9f stakes horses.  But, he’ll have to beat tougher foes than GRAY MAGICIAN and Manguzi on Saturday.
  10. CUTTING HUMOR (30/1) – If the Kentucky Derby trophy went to the horse with the best name, this son of First Samurai out of the delightful mare Pun would easily win.  Alas, the Kentucky Derby is a horse race, and his chances aren’t quite as good. The Todd Pletcher trainee held gamely over a dogged Anothertwistafate in the Sunland Derby (G3), but needs another move forward from that outing, and it’s hard to get excited about a Sunland Derby horse in the Kentucky Derby without a compelling pedigree, pace, or form related reason.
  11. HAIKAL (30/1) – He was hard to get excited about in the Derby already: it doesn’t look like a year for deep closers, and both his pedigree (he’s a Daaher half to Takaful) and his race record (with scores in the Winkfield and the Gotham) suggest he’s a very nice late-running miler. With the news that he is fighting a foot abscess?  It’s even harder to think Saturday is his day.
  12. OMAHA BEACH (SCR) – He was coming in the one to beat after a confident score in the Arkansas Derby, but was diagnosed with an entrapped epiglottis, for which he’ll have surgery and a break.
  13. CODE OF HONOR (12/1) – Among the closers, he has the most appeal.  After all, he has some distance pedigree.  He keeps the crafty and experienced John Velazquez aboard (and Velazquez ditches a pair of Pletchers to ride him for McGaughey!).  You’ve got to have some talent to close over as speed-friendly a track as Gulfstream, and he did the best he could with an absolutely sluggish pace in the Florida Derby.  But, I’d have a bit more confidence in him as more than just a good horse to consider for underneath rungs if he had ever again showed anything close to the early speed he had in his debut victory at Saratoga.
  14. WIN WIN WIN (12/1) – He is the only horse I liked even a little bit coming out of the Blue Grass, because he bucked a speed bias, rallied from the clouds, and came in second.  But?  He faced the weakest final prep field in any of the stateside final-level preps.  And, without a pace collapse, the Kentucky Derby doesn’t tend to suit deep closers.  Yes, he did show speed in his first two starts — but he has settled into a closer role in his races against classier horses, and that’s what I’m more inclined to trust here.  He could run on past some tired horses for fourth or fifth, but it’s hard to see him coming on for more than that.
  15. MASTER FENCER (50/1) –  One of these days, I’ll either have to consider a horse from the Japanese or European Roads to the Kentucky Derby, or be prepared to be clowned by one.  This is not that day.  He has yet to win a stakes race, but earned his berth by closing for fourth in the Hyacinth and then for second in the Fukuryu, while never looking like a winner in either  He just had the most points of any horse who was willing to ship out to the United State for the Derby.  These international Roads to the Derby are an intriguing and even exciting experiment to make the race more international, but in a race that doesn’t look great for deep closers, I am not excited about taking a deep closer who was a cut below even in the Japanese preps.
  16. GAME WINNER (9/2) – When is the last time we had a Derby morning line favorite who didn’t win any of his preps at 3?  Have we ever had a Derby morning line favorite who didn’t win any of his preps at 3?  I mean this rhetorically, at least for the time being, but here we are.  In all seriousness, neither of his preps this year were bad: OMAHA BEACH got his nose down ahead of him in their division of the Rebel Stakes, and then ROADSTER mowed him down in the Santa Anita Derby.  It’s hard to say the two-year-old champion has taken a nose dive at three.  It’s far more accurate to say that the top echelon of his class, at least, has caught up with him.  I’m not excited to use him on top…but it’s hard to envision an intra-race exotic play without at least some combinations with GAME WINNER underneath.
  17. ROADSTER (5/1) – Even so close to the Kentucky Derby, there’s not a lot about which I am certain.  However, I was impressed by the confidence with which ROADSTER reeled in GAME WINNER in the final furlong of the Santa Anita Derby.  I wasn’t sure how much stock to take in ROADSTER’s allowance win with which he started his three-year-old season — he beat a bunch of not-quite-Derby-prep horses the way he ought to if he was going to be pointed toward a Derby prep next out — but the Santa Anita Derby was a true reversal of the last time they met, in the Del Mar Futurity (G1), when ROADSTER came in the Buzz Horse and GAME WINNER left the better horse.  And, beyond the prep race form?  I’m not worried about the son of Quality Road making it 10f, given that he is a half-brother to a pair of longer-winded turfers in Ascend and Moro Tap.  Pace-wise, he has never been one to drop too far off and leave himself too much to do.  In a year when the Derby picture is as muddled as ever, I’m seeing the most clarity around ROADSTER, and I’m taking him on top.
  18. LONG RANGE TODDY (30/1) – Horse racing can be a humbling game.  I was cautiously warming to him approaching the Rebel, and after he did so well, I was positively bullish on him going into the Arkansas Derby.  Then, the Take Charge Indy kicked in.  As much as I hoped Take Charge Indy would be a good longer-distance influence?  His first crop made those hopes of mine look somewhere between silly and misinformed, and the Arkansas Derby suggested LONG RANGE TODDY wasn’t much different from the rest of his get, in that sense.  He’ll dance this dance, perhaps get a break since he has been running since August, and then be ready to win some “B” Derbies at 1 1/16 miles this summer or fall.
  19. SPINOFF (30/1) – He’s the other half of the “oh, you thought Pletcher didn’t have a Derby horse this year?  Think again!” contingent, squeaking into the Derby field with the 40 points he got from finishing 2nd in the Louisiana Derby.  He is a fresh horse, making just his third start of the year and his fifth lifetime, and he has some early speed.  But, it’s hard to love the fact that John Velazquez (Pletcher’s usual “A” rider) takes the call for CODE OF HONOR on Shug McGaughey instead.  And, in his last work leading into the Derby, I wasn’t crazy about a forwardly-placed horse having to be pushed along quite so much to engage his workmate (eminently live Pat Day Mile entrant Last Judgement).  If you’re seeing something I’m not, either in his race form or his work?  Go ahead.  Have fun.  He’ll be north of his 30/1 morning line, and I’m not in the business of talking folks off of 30/1 bombers.  But, even in a thorny year like this one, you can’t use them all.
  20. COUNTRY HOUSE (30/1) – Without a true sprinter or a random blinkers-on (hello, Palace Malice!) in this year’s Kentucky Derby, it’s not looking like a good year to be a deep closer in the Derby.  He has plenty of talent, as we learned in his impressive maiden win.  But, even if he gets his quirky mind straight, it’s difficult to imagine him doing better than passing a bunch of tired horses for fourth or fifth.
  21. BODEXPRESS (30/1) – Draws in with the scratch of OMAHA BEACH. Maiden ran second in the Florida Derby, chasing off a slow pace set by MAXIMUM SECURITY. The pace probably won’t be quite as slow today, but it doesn’t stand to be a cracker either. That helps his case, although ground loss is a worry from the 20 hole, and his poor race over the slop is an even bigger worry with a rainy forecast.


#17 ROADSTER (5/1)
#8 TACITUS (8/1)

Longshot: #2 TAX (20/1)


Below are all of Nicolle Neulist’s picks for Kentucky Derby day at Churchill Downs.  This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card; full picks will be up by Friday morning. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment or tweet us at @picksponderings!

For anyone on a mobile device or another browser that struggles with embedded spreadsheets, read the standalone copy here.


You can take “Picks & Ponderings” with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Arlington International Racecourse. And you can get “Picks and Ponderings” in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking “Create Subscription.” It’s a FREE service, and you’ll never get any unwanted spam.

Leave a comment