Kentucky Derby 2019 contenders and pretenders

April 16, 2019 10:09am

We now stand only 19 days from Kentucky Derby 2019, and it's time to sift through the information, making heads and tails of who can actually win America's most prestigious race. With that in mind, and with only the pre-race training to be done before they step into the starting gate on May 4, I present to you my annual list of Derby contenders and pretenders.

The Contenders

Game Winner (Candy Ride - Indyan Giving, by A.P. Indy): For an undefeated champion at 2, who topped off his season with a decisive victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, things have not gone quite to plan this year. Fear not, though, Game Winner supporters: Despite his 0-for-2 record at age 3, the son of Candy Ride has run a pair of quality races while establishing plenty of foundation for the big one. As seen in the last two, he does not have a talent advantage over a few others in here, but he does posses the heart of a champion. If he works out a good trip from the middle of the pack, Game Winner could climb back to the top in time to wear the roses.

Improbable (City Zip - Rare Event, by A.P. Indy): Like his Bob Baffert-trained stablemate, Improbable has seen his undefeated record fall to the wayside with two straight losses in 2019. He also has run a pair of strong races in defeat. On Saturday, Improbable looked both uncomfortable in the starting gate and in the slop before making his move in the Arkansas Derby. His run fell short to the streaking Omaha Beach, but coming back to Churchill Downs, a track over which he looked so good on at 2, could be all the chestnut needs to find his best stride.

Omaha Beach (War Front - Charming, by Seeking the Gold): Still a maiden through his first four races, the handsome Richard Mandella-trained colt has become one of the hot horses on the Derby trail with three consecutive victories, beginning with a romping maiden win at Santa Anita in early February. Two of those victories came in the slop, but his performance while winning over a fast track in the Rebel Stakes was equally solid. He clearly has come around at the right time, and has the tactical speed to put himself in a good position in any type of race.

Roadster (Quality Road - Ghost Dancing, by Silver Ghost): Once a red-hot juvenile prospect, this son of Quality Road fell out of favor a bit when beaten by Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity. Throat surgery and a layoff ensued, and the Baffert charge has come back sharp, moving once again to the forefront of the division. His score over Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby points him out as one of the most impressive and talented horses of the crop. He can win from multiple early positions, but lacks both experience against big fields and away from Southern California. Neither, however, proved to be a problem for Justify last year.

Tacitus (Tapit - Close Hatches, by First Defence): While the other four top contenders on this list have raced against each other, this regally bred colt has faced a little less quality in winning the Tampa Bay Derby and the Wood Memorial. Still, a stakes-record performance through traffic, and then overcoming a rough-and-tumble run at Aqueduct, point him out as a horse of quality. His two races as a juvenile showed potential, but his victories at 3 have clearly showcased a major step forward under the watchful eye of trainer Bill Mott. Another move forward on the first Saturday in May could well see this one prove best in Louisville.

The Pretenders

By My Standards (Goldencents - A Jealous Woman, by Muqtarib): Another who was a maiden not that long ago, he has really has come to hand of late for trainer Bret Calhoun. The son of Goldencents rallied up the inside to upset the Louisiana Derby. He's already made a positive impression since arriving to Churchill Downs, and rates as one of the more interesting Derby longshots to hit the board.

Code of Honor (Noble Mission - Reunited, by Dixie Union): From some of the same connections who won the Kentucky Derby back in 2013 with Orb, Code of Honor has been a consistent closer throughout his five-race career. A solid second in the Champagne at 2, he's looked a bit spotty in his three races this year, but suffered from a real lack of pace in his last, when third in the Florida Derby. A more favorable setup going 10 furlongs at Churchill Downs could make him one of the biggest threats to the top five.

Country House (Lookin At Lucky - Quake Lake, by War Chant): This late Mott runner looked promising when second a few starts back in the Risen Star, but simply has not looked fast enough while finishing fourth in the Louisiana Derby and third in the Arkansas Derby. At best, he now looks like a threat only to pass tired horses for a minor award in Kentucky.

Cutting Humor (First Samurai - Pun, by Pulpit): An improving sort trained by Todd Pletcher, he improved off a disappointing run in the Southwest Stakes to gamely hold off Anothertwistafate for victory in the Sunland Derby. He'll need another step forward to be heard from late in Louisville, though, as the competition gets that much deeper.

Gray Magician (Graydar - Burg Berg, by Johannesburg): No real threat against second flighters here in America, the Peter Miller trainee stepped up to run second in the UAE Derby. Back in the States, he looks up against it in our Derby.


Haikal (Daaher - Sablah, by Distorted Humor): While he's rallied every time out, his first try around two turns in the Wood Memorial showed that he's likely more effective at shorter distances. Consistent and a hard trier, I wouldn't be surprised if he makes his way into the top half of the Kentucky Derby, but it's hard to see him threatening for the top spots.

Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy - Pleasant Song, by Unbridled’s Song): A real disappointment when sixth in the Arkansas Derby, the result either proves that he is not quite at the level of the very best or that he doesn't care for slop. My guess is that it is a little bit of both. Given a different surface in the Derby, I could see him run a much-improved race, but as far as actually winning, now that would be a surprise. 

Master Fencer (Just A Way - Sexy Samurai, by Deputy Minister): The Japanese entrant likely has too many obstacles to overcome to succeed at Churchill Downs. That's adding to the fact that his form in Japan does not stand out,

Maximum Security (New Year’s Day - Lil Indy, by Anasheed): From claimer to unbeaten Florida Derby winner, Maximum Security has earned his buzz in recent weeks. Now comes the Kentucky Derby. He will not get an easy lead on moderate fractions again as he tries to carry his speed a full 10 furlongs against the best of his generation. I can see why plenty like him, but I believe his fairytale story will hit a wall as the field turns for home. 

Plus Que Parfait (Point of Entry - Belvedera, by Awesome Again): He deserves the roel of longshot in here considering his two poor performances to begin the year. But on the other hand, there are a few things to like: Pedigree to run long, a good race when last seen at Churchill Downs, and a bold move between horses in the UAE Derby. He's a possibility if you are looking for a bomb to fill our the bottom of your exotics.

Spinoff (Hard Spun - Zaftig, by Gone West): An interesting and improving runner for trainer Todd Pletcher, he's only run twice this year, and in both efforts, he gave the impression of a talented runner. He came up a little short in the Louisiana Derby, and now he really steps up in Louisville. A horse to watch out for probably a bit later in the season.

Tax (Arch - Toll, by Giant’s Causeway): Like Maximum Security, a former claimer who's made good, it's hard to knock the form of this one. He's run nothing but solid races in three stakes tries in New York. Having said that, Tacitus was clearly the better horse in the Wood down the stretch, after having a tougher early trip. A nice horse to be sure, but a Kentucky Derby winner? Likely not. 

Vekoma (Candy Ride - Mona de Momma, by Speightstown): There's not much to argue with in this one's past performances. He's fired each time, with only a third behind Code of Honor in the Fountain of Youth ruining a perfect record. The smallish colt, with a funny stride, will now be asked to carry his speed going a mile and a quarter in the Derby. In the Blue Grass he benefitted from the track bias. This time around, I expect there will be too much pressure early for him to get the job done.

War of Will (War Front - Visions of Clarity (IRE), by Sadler’s Wells): One of the early favorites for the Derby, he ran a forgettable race in the Louisiana Derby. An awkward stride soon after the start resulted in a mild injury. The good news is that he seems to have bounced back, and is working well at Keeneland. If his last is truly a throwout, then he becomes a playable wildcard in here. Still, I have my reservations about a horse who came out of his last race sore.

Win Win Win (Hat Trick - Miss Smarty Pants, by Smarty Jones): One of my favorites from the list of pretenders, he displayed real speed while winning the seven-furlong Pasco by a pole earlier this year. In his last two, a third in the Tampa Bay Derby and a second in the Blue Grass, he was left with too much to do in the stretch. Still, Win Win Win rallied strongly in each, and at Keeneland, he fought a strong speed bias to earn a spot in the Kentucky Derby.


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Meet Brian Zipse

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat, Forego, and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, American Pharoah and Justify. Before coming to the Nation, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. His new racing partnership venture, Derby Day Racing, invites more fans to experience the thrill of racehorse ownership.

The Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, Brian authored a daily column as Zipse at the Track, created the popular racing show, HorseCenter and added his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Now a Senior Writer for HRN, Brian continues to contribute his thoughts on racing, as well as hosting HorseCenter. A big supporter of thoroughbred aftercare, he serves as the President of The Exceller Fund.

Brian's work has also been published on several leading industry sites. He has consulted for leading contest site Derby Wars, is both a Hall of Fame and NTRA poll voter, and is a Vox Populi committee member. 

A horse owner and graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives just outside of Louisville with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra.

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