By: Rob Longley for Woodbine.com
TORONTO, April 12, 2019 – With the Road to the Kentucky Derby set for its final lap this weekend, there isn’t much we know for certain regarding this year’s Run for the Roses.
Starting with who is the likely favourite, for example.
While it’s possible that Omaha Beach or Improbable could claim that title three weeks later, should either win Saturday’s Arkansas Derby – the final major prep for the first Saturday in May – it’s more likely that the opening jewel of the Triple Crown will be viewed as an incredibly competitive affair.
The Road to the Derby points series, which was inaugurated by Churchill Downs in 2013 to provide a more fair qualifying standard than purse earnings, is as tight as it’s ever been. In fact, it’s almost a certainty that a record number of points will be needed to earn one of the 20 spots in the starting gate.
In the six years the system has been in place, the last qualifier has needed an average of just shy of 24 points with the highest cutoff being the 32 he compiled in 2016. Prior to this final weekend of points on the line, the cutoff is 27.5 points.
Which brings us back to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas where there’s a decent showdown shaping up between Rebel Stakes winner Omaha Beach and Bob Baffert’s highly-touted colt, Improbable, a runner-up in a Rebel division.
Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella’s Omaha Beach is the 5-2 second choice in the morning-line for the 11-horse field, but seen by many as the likely horse to beat. Mandella recognizes the challenge posed by Baffert – both from Improbable and his one-two finishers in last week’s Santa Anita Derby, Roadster and two-year-old champion Game Winner.
“The colt that won the Santa Anita Derby was very impressive the other day, and Game Winner still ran a good race,” Mandella said on an NTRA conference call this week. “Third time back in the Derby (for Game Winner), it might be his best race.
“So, there’s plenty of competition out there and we’re worried about all of them. But I wouldn’t trade with anybody.”
Several other trainers will make a similar argument, especially given there is no clear standout among this competitive three-year-old crop at this point. Omaha Beach gets his hype by beating Game Winner by a nose in the Rebel, but many believe Roadster is the most formidable of the trio of potential Baffert starters after winning the Santa Anita Derby.
Baffert seemed to talk down Improbable’s chances this week, acknowledging he’s complicated his chances with a couple near misses earlier this year.
“Improbable, now he has to run lights out in the Arkansas Derby,” Baffert said this week. “He needs to run first or second if he’s going to get in the Derby. It comes down to points, but then again if you can’t run well (in Arkansas), do you need to be in the Kentucky Derby?”
Easy for Baffert to say with two other viable options. But by Saturday night, the field for the 145th running of the Derby should be taking shape. And who knows, perhaps a favourite will have emerged.
In the NTRA’s weekly poll of top 10 three-year-olds, no less than seven colts received at least one first-place vote with Roadster taking the top spot over Tacitus and Game Winner … Woodbine trainer Mark Casse remains on the Derby trail with his colt, War of Will. The former turf specialist is training in Kentucky after suffering a minor injury in the Louisiana Derby, his final Triple Crown prep … Though it only offers 20 points to the winner, the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland is also on the Road to the Derby menu this weekend with Anothertwistoffate looking to guarantee a spot with a win. The Blaine Wright trainee is currently on the outside looking in with 30 points.
DERBY TOP FIVE
1. Omaha Beach, trainer Richard Mandella
In keeping with the tumultuous Road to the Derby this spring, we have a new colt atop our board for this week. Though he’s the second choice in the Arkansas Derby, he’s already knocked off two-year-old champion Game Winner and will try to beat another Bob Baffert colt, Improbable, this weekend. And with a win in the Arkansas Derby, he could head to Louisville as the likely early favourite.
2. Tacitus, trainer Bill Mott
Cracking our top five at the right time of year, the Mott trainee does so because of his impressive showing in last week’s Wood Memorial but also because he is a back-to-back prep race winner, a rarity among this year’s crop. Watch the Wood a little closer and look at the contact he endured at the start, yet he still found a way to unleash a big effort. That experience should serve him well at Churchill Downs.
3. Roadster, trainer Bob Baffert
All spring, the talk from the Baffert barn has alternated between Game Winner and Improbable, a pair of colts that could still be serious factors in the Derby. But the latest now horse is the Santa Anita Derby winner, a highly-touted prospect last summer and the real deal now.
4. Game Winner, trainer Bob Baffert
A runner-up finish to his stablemate in the Santa Anita Derby is not a knock that worries us much given that it’s highly unlikely Baffert had him 100 per cent cranked up for that effort. Though he’s had a pair of runner-up efforts as a three-year-old, he’s still the two-year-old champion and a serious horse.
5. War of Will, trainer Mark Casse
Lost some supporters with his troubled trip in the Louisiana Derby, a race that you can toss given his stumble at the start. The colt is somewhat out of sight, out of mind in the hustle of the past few weeks of prep races but Casse remains high on him and earlier this spring he looked like the one to beat.