The 145th Run for the Roses is set for Saturday May 4 at world-renowned Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. This year’s Kentucky Derby features a field of 19 three-year-old horses and post time is at 6:50 p.m. ET. The first leg of the Triple Crown is the middle race in terms of length, as the horses will be tasked with running 1 1/4 miles around the dirt track in front of upwards of 150,000 spectators.
Before we dig deep into the field, it is important to look at the expected track conditions. These are obviously subject to change as race day approaches, but chances of rain between 40 and 60 percent are on the forecast from post draw day on Tuesday to the race on Saturday. The track could be thick and muddy, which will certainly impact how you handicap and bet the race. Keep that in mind.
Something else to keep in mind is the post position. With the long race and such a big field, post positions come into play a lot here in this race. The starting gate was introduced in 1930. Here are the results dating back to then by post position:
|Post||Most Recent Win||Win%||In The Money%|
|3||Real Quiet (1998)||5.6%||21.3%|
|4||Super Saver (2010)||5.6%||16.9%|
|5||Always Dreaming (2017)||11.2%||24.7%|
|6||Sea Hero (1993)||2.2%||14.6%|
|8||Mine that Bird (2009)||9.1%||19.3%|
|9||Riva Ridge (1972)||4.7%||20.0%|
|12||Canonero II (1971)||4.1%||12.2%|
|14||Carry Back (1961)||3.1%||18.8%|
|15||American Pharoah (2015)||8.8%||14.0%|
|16||Animal Kingdom (2011)||8.5%||21.3%|
|18||Gato Del Sol (1982)||3.1% (only 1)||15.6%|
|19||I’ll Have Another (2012)||3.7% (only 1)||7.4%|
|20||Big Brown (2008)||5.9% (only 1)||11.8%|
You would think that the Auxiliary Gate that is required for Posts 15 through 20 would be more of a problem, but seven of the 19 winners this century have come from the outside, including superstar American Pharoah. Two additional winners have come from Post 13.
Having room in these crowded fields can be a big asset for both jockey and horse.
Now that we’ve got the post position starts out of the way, here are the hopefuls for the Fastest Two Minutes in Sports, the 2019 Kentucky Derby:
(Author’s note: Edits were made to this article with the scratch of race favorite Omaha Beach on Wednesday evening. All edits in italics.)
|2||War of Will||M. Casse||T. Gaffalione||15/1|
|3||Tax||D. Gargan||J. Alvarado||20/1|
|4||By My Standards||B. Calhoun||G. Saez||15/1|
|5||Gray Magician||P. Miller||D. Van Dyke||50/1|
|6||Improbable||B. Baffert||I. Ortiz Jr.||5/1|
|7||Vekoma||G. Weaver||J. Castellano||15/1|
|8||Maximum Security||J. Servis||L. Saez||8/1|
|9||Tacitus||W. Mott||J. Ortiz||8/1|
|10||Plus Que Parfait||B. Walsh||R. Santana Jr.||30/1|
|11||Cutting Humor||T. Pletcher||M. Smith||30/1|
|12||Code of Honor||C. McGaughey||J. Velazquez||12/1|
|13||Win Win Win||M. Trombetta||J. Pimental||12/1|
|14||Master Fencer||K. Tsunoda||J. Leparoux||50/1|
|15||Game Winner||B. Baffert||J. Rosario||9/2|
|16||Roadster||B. Baffert||F. Geroux||5/1|
|17||Long Range Toddy||S. Asmussen||J. Court||30/1|
|18||Spinoff||T. Pletcher||M. Franco||30/1|
|19||Country House||W. Mott||F. Prat||30/1|
|20||Bodexpress||G. Delgado||C. Landeros||30/1|
The board changed considerably with the scratch of Omaha Beach in post 12. Bodexpress now draws the 20th post with the extreme outside gate. It is an awful turn of events for Richard Mandella, who was to have his first Derby horse in 15 years. Haikal has also been removed from the race. Post 1 is now vacated and the field will use Posts 2 through 20.
The scratch of Omaha Beach also moved the odds around. The three Baffert horses are now the favorites, as you can see from the updated morning line odds. Game Winner is now the 9/2 favorite. The rest of the board has moved accordingly, including Maximum Security and Tacitus down to 8/1.
As a general overview of the field, a very familiar name is on the board is a starting point. That name is Bob Baffert, who had the Triple Crown winner in Justify last year and maybe the best horse of all time in American Pharoah in 2015. Mike Smith was atop Justify and Victor Espinoza was atop American Pharoah. That’s not to say that Baffert can’t win with Irad Ortiz Jr., Joel Rosario, or Florent Geroux, but he’s never won a Kentucky Derby with any of those guys. In fact, of the three of them, Rosario has the only Derby win, which came on Orb in 2013.
Todd Pletcher and Bill Mott have a couple of horses each in the field. Pletcher has two Derby wins to his name, with Super Saver and jockey Calvin Borel in 2010 and Always Dreaming with John Velazquez in the irons in 2017. In Mott’s storied career, he only has one Triple Crown race to his name. That was the 2010 Belmont Stakes with Drosselmeyer.
In fact, Baffert, Pletcher, and Claude “Shug” McGaughey are the only trainers in this race with a Derby win. McGaughey was the winner in 2013 when Rosario won atop Orb.
Let’s take a look at the 20 horses one by one and put together a betting card:
- War of Will (Casse/Gaffalione) 15/1
After placing fifth at the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, War of Will made the dirt transition with this race in mind. A win at Churchill Downs, a win at the Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, and another win at Fair Grounds in the Risen Star put War of Will on the map. A very disappointing ninth-place finish at the Louisiana Derby soured opinions on this colt to a degree, but mostly because of injury and not performance.
Getting pinned against the rail is a bad draw for War of Will, who did show some promise in the Road to the Kentucky Derby. Is it really possible that the March 23 injury isn’t a factor? We’ll have to wait to see, but this is a horse at less than 100% likely to run in some muddy conditions.
Long shot to hit the board
- Tax (Gargan/Alvarado) 20/1
This is a pretty fresh horse without any major races at two years old. A pretty strong second-place finish at Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial on April 6 featured some excellent closing speed from Tax. After a great start out of the gate, Derby rookie Danny Gargan reeled Tax in for a big close at the end to run down the long shots that paced the field through the first mile. Tacitus won by a half-length by simply outrunning Tax down the stretch.
Gargan won’t be able to lay back with Tax as much here. A hot start out of the gate would help, but multiple horses pushing to the rail hurt in the Wood Memorial. Another interior draw doesn’t help here, as Tax could have made some strides with some free room on the outside. He dusted a weak field in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, but he’s with the big boys now.
Long shot to hit the board
- By My Standards (Calhoun/Saez) 15/1
A win in the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds was enough to open up some eyes about By My Standards, a colt that previously ran in a lot of weaker fields at Fair Grounds and hit the board, but never carried over good practice times into good race times.
Bret Calhoun has been around this business a long time and has his first horse worthy of a spot in the Derby. Goldencents, who won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in 2014 and 2013 before retiring to stud is a pretty nice bloodline. Goldencents was fifth in the 2013 Preakness and won the Santa Anita Derby on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. A disappointing 17th in the Kentucky Derby may be what the horse is best remembered for, but he found the board a lot in his other races.
Long shot exotics candidate
- Gray Magician (Miller/Van Dyke) 50/1
Gray Magician finished place to Plus Que Parfait in the UAE Derby back on March 30. At least Gray Magician has some inexperience in a crowded field, as the UAE Derby had 13 horses.
Gray Magician showed good speed to the outside after managing to get out high on the pack, but that’s a lot easier said than done starting from the interior in the Derby.
- Improbable (Baffert/Ortiz Jr.) 5/1
With a second to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby and a second to Long Range Toddy in the Rebel Stakes, Improbable heads into the Kentucky Derby as one of the favorites. He rolled to the Grade 1 win in the Los Alamos Futurity and now returns to Churchill Downs after a win in the Street Sense last November. He did that as a 1/5 favorite, so it was hardly a surprise. That was with Drayden Van Dyke in the irons in that race and also the Rebel Stakes.
Jose Ortiz will be atop Tacitus instead of Improbable, so Irad Ortiz, who was the most successful jockey in earnings last season, draws the assignment. This was a fairly late change, just about two weeks before the post draw, but he is taking over for his younger brother, so the two likely shared some notes about the horses in question.
Irad Ortiz Jr. was with WinStar Farm and Creator for the 2016 Belmont Stakes, his only Triple Crown victory.
This is an ultra talented colt, but the blinkers are coming off for this race with rainy and muddy conditions likely. Ortiz didn’t run him in any of the lead-up events and it seems like WinStar may have made this call over Baffert. This could be a case of an ultra talented shorter price not hitting the board.
I’m not going to look to stay away, but I won’t be exposed on the #5.
Obvious contender; but tread lightly
- Vekoma (Weaver/Castellano) 15/1
The jockey is what really stands out here, as Javier Castellano is a huge name in the racing world. He’s made a ton of money, but this race has eluded him. He’s got two Preakness wins and also won the Kentucky Oaks in 2016 with Cathryn Sophia, but he hasn’t had the goods in this race as of yet.
A win in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland was certainly an impressive showing, especially after coming up short a month before at Gulfstream in the Fountain of Youth Stakes. Vekoma was never a big factor in that race, running well behind the leaders for a while. That was not with Castellano, though, who seemed to have a better idea in the Blue Grass when the push the proverbial gas. He was a 9/5 favorite in that race and held up.
Much has been made of the awkward stride of Vekoma. Could that be a factor in the muck if we’ve got a muddy track? Weight has been an issue off and on with this horse as well. Maybe Castellano has put all the pieces together.
Complete wild card
- Maximum Security (Servis/Saez) 8/1
Maximum Security is a hard horse to handicap. Largely untested in the lead-up to the Derby, including a relatively easy win in the Florida Derby, many believe that Maximum Security has the best pure speed in this field. It can be hard to tell because Jason Servis doesn’t push his horses very hard in training. He might just be one of those guys that beats up on the bums and struggles when the lights are the brightest.
It’s really hard to say because we haven’t seen him do much in these big races, but Servis has been in the money a lot in his career. That Florida Derby did feature Hidden Scroll, who was thought to be a pretty strong contender for the Kentucky Derby, and also Code of Honor, who is getting a little bit of love in advance of Saturday’s race.
On pure speed and talent, this horse is right there. We just don’t know how he’ll stack up with a stronger field and comparable talent.
Medium shot to hit the board
- Tacitus (Mott/Ortiz) 8/1
Tacitus most definitely has the bloodline with Tapit and Seattle Slew in the family. This horse almost runs in contrast to Maximum Security as a horse that doesn’t practice well, but shows up like Allen Iverson in the game. That was true with some excellent closing speed in the Wood Memorial and a similarly impressive performance in the Tampa Bay Derby.
Tacitus is also a pretty even-keeled horse. There have been some incidents in the lead-up to the Derby and he has been no worse for the wear. With the potential of mud flying around the track and all of the horses in close proximity, he seems like the type of horse to keep on trucking. He even got pushed outside in the first turn at the Wood Memorial and rebounded nicely on the backstretch.
The eighth post has been the third-best for winners and Tacitus has as good of a shot as any with Jose Ortiz in the irons.
A pick to hit the board
- Plus Que Parfait (Walsh/Santana Jr.) 30/1
A win overseas in the UAE Derby hasn’t done much to improve the perception of this three-year-old. A strong second in the Kentucky Jockey Club is a nice fallback for supporters, but there really isn’t much to like about this horse. Jose Ortiz went overseas for that win.
A jockey change, a lack of North American results, and a spot in the middle between contenders on one side and contenders on the other. Not seeing much of a chance here.
- Cutting Humor (Pletcher/Smith) 30/1
Another edit required for this race, with Mike Smith now in the irons for Cutting Humor. It was set to be Churchill Downs resident jockey Corey Lanerie, but with Smith a “free agent” with Omaha Beach out of the race, Todd Pletcher jumped. This horse is now getting lots of attention and the morning line odds listed as of the posting date of this article (Tuesday) have shifted down.
Even though this horse was viewed as a long shot at the outside, things have most certainly changed now.
Long shot could hit the board late
- Haikal Scratched
Haikal wasn’t going to be a factor, but an abscess has taken this colt out of the race.
SCR Omaha Beach (Mandella/Smith) Scratched
What a shame this is, as Dick Mandella’s favorite has to sit out the race. Credit to Mandella for making the right decision with this prized colt. For now, Mike Smith has not been courted by any trainer or stable to be in the irons for this race. We’ll see if that changes, but for right now, the original morning line favorite and last year’s winner atop Justify are out.
- Code of Honor (McGaughey/Velazquez) 12/1
If you want a medium shot to spoil the party, I think this is the one. Shug McGaughey doesn’t show up in the Derby often. The last time he did, it was with the winner, Orb. He’s here now and with a top-end jockey in John Velazquez. Orb’s win also came in some muddy conditions, which would only be fitting here.
After a win in the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, Code of Honor ran a rather unspirited third at the Florida Derby in what was thought to be a fairly weak field. I think that’s the knock this week, but that was a final practice run for the Derby. McGaughey and Velazquez knew what they had coming up. His strong practice times were probably a good enough indication of where this colt is.
This is the fourth best spot for coming in the money historically and Code of Honor should be part of your exotics this week. McGaughey’s been in this business a long time and knows when to put a horse in a certain field. Velazquez is staying on Code of Honor despite offers to go elsewhere. That’s good enough for me.
Add to exotics; bet to win
- Win Win Win (Trombetta/Pimental) 12/1
Smarty Jones isn’t a bad horse to have in the bloodline. What is bad, however, is that Win Win Win now goes to Julian Pimental after Irad Ortiz Jr. was in the irons for good runs in the Blue Grass Stakes and the Tampa Bay Derby.
Even then, Win Win Win could only hit the board and not score a win. The worry here is that this is a burst horse that can run short lengths at blazing speeds. The war of attrition that is 1 1/4 miles is likely too much.
Long shot to hit the board
- Master Fencer (Tsunoda/Leparoux) 50/1
We’ve got a little history here, as Master Fencer is the first Japanese-bred horse to run in the Kentucky Derby. While Julien Leparoux is a world-class jockey, it almost seems like he’d rather be part of history in that regard than atop a horse with a chance to win.
This horse does have turf experience at 1 1/4 miles, but that isn’t enough.
- Game Winner (Baffert/Rosario) 9/2
The Dream Team of the Kentucky Derby is Bob Baffert and Joel Rosario. It seems perfectly reasonable that Baffert would hold back Game Winner as a three-year-old. After all, he answered every bell as a two-year old, including wins in the Del Mar Futurity, the American Pharoah Stakes, and the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
Interestingly, Game Winner lost to fellow Baffert colt Roadster at the Santa Anita Derby to keep the hype level high on that horse and lost to Omaha Beach at the Rebel Stakes. Game Winner looks like one of the horses best equipped to go 1 1/4 miles with a strong cruising speed and a powerful burst.
This horse should go off as the favorite with bettors flocking to the Baffert/Rosario tandem that has been together since the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win. There are a lot of changes in the lead-up to the Derby, but Rosario knows this colt as well as anybody.
If you’re wondering, the last Breeders’ Cup Juvenile to win the Kentucky Derby was Nyquist in 2016. That was the same Doug O’Neill and Mario Gutierrez pairing as the Juvenile race, much like what we have here with Baffert and Rosario.
Bet to win
- Roadster (Baffert/Geroux) 5/1
A really tough spot here for the Baffert horses as they’ll run side-by-side with each other out of the gate. Roadster is a really hard horse to handicap because of a lack of work. He went from September to March without running a notable race, but showed up and beat Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby after finishing third in Game Winner’s victory at the Del Mar Futurity last year.
Some have speculated that Baffert made some moves with far and away the top two horses in that race so that Roadster could get some points and be a clear cut entry into the Kentucky Derby. It does seem like Game Winner is the stronger bet. Roadster could very well make the board and could ride right behind Game Winner to the front of the pack.
Staying there might be the tougher part.
My worry about betting Roadster here is that Game Winner could leave it in the dust and the rest of the horses falling in line could block Roadster out.
I’ll be leaving this one off my card.
Could hit the board, but not mine
- Long Range Toddy (Asmussen/Court) 30/1
Long Range Toddy was strong in the Rebel Stakes and in a lot of the early races, but a sixth in the mud at the Arkansas Derby coupled with a long way to the rail makes it easy for me to keep this one on the sidelines.
If the weather conditions improve, then it’s entirely possible that Long Range Toddy makes a run. I’m not convinced.
Long shot to hit the board
- Spinoff (Pletcher/Franco) 30/1
Spinoff wasn’t raced much as a two-year-old and hasn’t been run much as a three-year-old either. A place in the Louisiana Derby was enough to gain entry to the Kentucky Derby field, but By My Standards and even Country House outclassed Spinoff. War of Will suffered a minor injury and finished ninth, otherwise things could have been a lot different for Spinoff.
Todd Pletcher doesn’t have an Always Dreaming or a Super Saver this year.
- Country House (Mott/Prat) 30/1
Lookin At Lucky is a nice sire to have, but this gate spot coupled with some slow starts at the gate aren’t going to help here at Churchill Downs. This is a speed horse that could make a push in the middle of the race because this isn’t a race group blessed with speed, but the sloppy conditions may slow that down.
If you want to throw Country House in some exotics to finish third or fourth with that late burst, be my guest. I’m not sure I’m that confident.
Long shot to hit the board
- Bodexpress (Delgado/Landeros) 30/1
There’s a strong bloodline here for Bodexpress, who comes from the loins or Bodemeister, the runner-up in the 2012 Kentucky Derby and also Preakness Stakes. As far as Bodexpress himself, there isn’t a whole lot to go on. A finish between Maximum Security and Code of Honor in the Florida Derby was quite a strong effort. He didn’t race in anything big as a two-year-old and ran up against Hidden Scroll in his first stakes race down at Gulfstream Park.
Starting from the far outside may not be a bad thing, as there is plenty of room to run, but the late entry and the perception of the Florida Derby field will keep Bodexpress from being on a lot of betting tickets.
Long shot to hit the board
After looking at all 20 horses, the top three contenders, listed by post position, in my eyes are Omaha Beach (scratched), Code of Honor, and Game Winner. Tacitus would be fourth on my list. Now, with Omaha Beach out of the field, I’m looking a little bit harder at Maximum Security, who won’t have that challenge coming from the outside of Omaha Beach crowding to the middle of the track.
This is about as wide-open of a Kentucky Derby as we’ve had in recent years. We’ll have a couple favorites in the 4/1 range, but some good prices on others. Justify was a 3/1 morning line favorite after the post position. The favorite this year is 9/2.
With Omaha Beach out, I do prefer Code of Honor to Tacitus and Maximum Security, so maybe those two as a straight win play on its own or a win-place-show ticket. Same with Code of Honor. Then Code of Honor, Maximum Security and Game Winner in a trifecta box, with Code of Honor keyed as the winner on a separate ticket.
Keep a close eye on the weather, as some of the quicker horses like Maximum Security or Improbable could move if the rainy forecast changes.
To recap, for now, I’m looking at these options:
Win: 8, 12, & 15
Exactas: 13 & 15 box; key 15 with 12, 7 & 8
Trifectas: 8, 12, 15 box; box with others as forecast changes
Long shot for supers/box tri, 10