LOUISVILLE, Ky. – To Baffert or not Baffert; that is the question.
With the ebbs and flows of a Shakespearian novel, the lead up to this year’s Kentucky Derby has not been one for the faint of heart.
After Wednesday night’s scratch of the morning line favorite, Omaha Beach, due to an entrapped epiglottis, trainer Bob Baffert is once again center stage and in the spotlight.
Baffert now sits in the unprecedented position of having the top three favorites in America’s biggest thoroughbred horse race that he will be trying to win for a record-tying sixth Derby win.
What he doesn’t have on top of any of his three top horses is superstar jockey Mike Smith, who rode Justify to the 13th Triple Crown in history last year. You see, Smith had picked Omaha Beach to ride in the Derby over Baffert’s Roadster (5-1), a horse he rode to victory in the Santa Anita Derby.
On Friday morning, Todd Pletcher replaced Corey Lanerie with Smith aboard Cutting Humor, as Baffert was adamant that he would not take Florent Geroux off of his Roadster mount.
In addition, Roadster moves inside one gate from the dreaded 17 post (0-for-40 lifetime) to post No. 16 with the scratches of Omaha Beach and Haikal.
The 145th Run for the Roses is a mile-and-a-quarter race under the iconic Twin Spires before a projected crowd of over 160,000 fans at Churchill Downs. The race is restricted to 3-year-old thoroughbreds and not a single one of the Derby contenders have ever raced at this distance.
The Derby will be carried by NBC (Ch. 2) starting at 2:30 p.m. EDT. Post time for the Derby is 6:46 p.m.
So which Baffert horse will it be?
As a big backer of Omaha Beach, a horse that certainly had the look of a Derby winner repelling both Game Winner (9-2) and Improbable (5-1) in successive races in Arkansas, those two horses step up immediately as capable to wear the roses in 2019.
Improbable has handled an off track already and with the strong possibility of rain in the forecast, both he and Game Winner have the pedigree to handle a sloppy offering.
The only fear in backing the son of City Zip is how he will handle the 150,000 plus in attendance. At the Arkansas Derby, which was also run on an off track, he was fractious in the gate and was losing it while standing waiting for the gate to open.
“I think with Improbable, the whole key is that he stays within himself and doesn’t lose his cool in the gate like last time. He’s a funny horse, all we can do is lead them up there and root like hell for them and hope when they turn for home and they’re there,” said Baffert.
Game Winner comes into the race as the new morning line favorite after the scratch without a victory in 2019. He was beaten a head by Omaha Beach in the Rebel at Oaklawn and then returned to Santa Anita to get upset by his barn mate Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby.
By nature, last year’s 2-year-old champion is a pressing type, like many others in this Derby. Baffert was unsure how this race will develop given the number of horses that are pressers and stalkers in the field.
“There’s a lot of pressers, a lot of horses with the same style,” said Baffert. “If we all give the same instructions, it could be interesting.”
A horse that can crash the exotics at decent odds is Spinoff (30-1), a Todd Pletcher trainee who finished second in the Louisiana Derby. The lightly raced son of Hard Spun has shown gradual improvement over every race and has the pedigree to stay the 10 furlongs.
His sire Hard Spun finished second in the 2007 Derby and just happened to be stuck within one of the best 3-year-old crops of all time, with Street Sense, Curlin and Rags to Riches winning the three classics that year.
Pletcher thinks he has the goods to surprise on Saturday and the experience Spinoff gained in the Louisiana Derby will pay dividends.
“I thought he ran very well, got bumped a little bit at the start. He was able to recover and put himself in a pretty good position going into the first turn. I think just a lack of seasoning when he made the lead, he idled a little bit and got beat by a good horse. For the second start of the year I think it should propel him forward for this race,” Pletcher said.
The race gave him experience and he got a good mile-and-an-eighth race and from a conditioning standpoint, that’s very important,” said Pletcher.
The two-time Derby winning trainer thinks with the scratch of Omaha Beach makes it even more wide open than it was before the scratch.
“I think this is a very deep group, from 1 to 10 there is not a lot of separation if you are looking at speed figures or past performances, I think it’s a wide open race.”
A horse featured in last week’s long shots column that has the means to close into the superfecta is Win Win Win (12-1). Trained by Michael Trombetta, 52, whose last Derby entrant was the post time favorite Sweetnorthernsaint in 2006, a horse that followed up his seventh-place Derby finish with a second-place finish in the Preakness.
Cleverly named for his Japanese sire Hat Trick, he has the perfect name to attempt to win the first leg of racing’s Triple Crown. A late closing type who finished well in the Blue Grass Stakes, he fits the profile of a horse who can last the distance, takes back early and makes a late run at the front runners.
“After he won the Pasco Stakes [at Tampa] and broke the track record, we figured a 3-year-old breaking a record that’s been set and been hanging around and challenged by older horses, I thought that would give him a chance to become a serious horse,” said Trombetta.
He’s excited to have another go at the Derby and with Omaha Beach’s defection, the opportunity to win just became greater.
“There’s so many horses that have a chance to win this race, that’s what makes it so great,” said Trombetta.
“This is one of the closest Derbies I’ve ever seen,” the Baffert. “Whoever gets the trip will win, I guess. Everything has to be perfect. That’s why I don’t care about any records, or anything like that. I’m just trying to get there with them into the gate,” said Baffert.
“I go into every race the same way with an ‘expect the worst and hope for the best’ attitude, that’s what keeps me sane, otherwise the disappointments are really tough to take,” said Baffert.
We’ll split the two Baffert horses with Spinoff and include Win Win Win with his late running style to round out the super. Two horses I’ll be mixing in with my top three will be Maximum Security (8-1) and Code of Honor (12-1), the Florida Derby horses that have been under the radar this week.
Post Time Kentucky Derby Outlook: 1 – Improbable; 2 –Spinoff; 3 – Game Winner; 4 – Win Win Win
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.
|Saddle Cloth No.||Horse||Morning Line||Trainer||Jockey|
|1||War of Will||15-1||Casse||Gaffalione|
|3||By My Standards||15-1||Calhoun||G Saez|
|4||Gray Magician||50-1||Miller||Van Dyke|
|5||Improbable||5-1||Baffert||I Ortiz Jr|
|7||Maximum Security||8-1||Servis||L Saez|
|9||Plus Que Parfait||30-1||Walsh||Santana Jr|
|10||Cutting Humor||30-1||Pletcher||ME Smith|
|13||Code of Honor||12-1||McGaughey||JR Velazquez|
|14||Win Win Win||12-1||Trombetta||Pimental|
|15||Master Fencer (JPN)||50-1||Tsunoda||Leparoux|
|18||Long Range Toddy||30-1||Asmussen||Court|