LOUISVILLE — There is almost always one horse. Much of the Kentucky Derby is about the massive scale of the event: The attendance, the parking, the drinking, the betting, all carried out in mind-boggling numbers that represent the Derby not just as an iconic American sporting event, but as a sort of a sports-and-culture freak show of excess. Which in many ways it is, and this is part of its charm. Or something. This size-matters calculus extends to the breadth of the field for the race itself—20 horses, bigger (by several) than any other major race in the United States, a stampede of horse flesh that is at once breathtaking and terrifying.
But when race week arrives, in the quiet corners of the Churchill Downs backstretch, they whisper about a single horse. There are 20 in the starting gate, they will say, but we’re all chasing that one. Everybody has a chance, they will say, unless he runs he best race, then we’re running for second. I like my horse, they will say, but have you seen that horse in his workouts?
One year that horse was a fast little red colt named Smarty Jones. Before sunrise one morning he skipped over the track like a waterbug and opposing trainer Bob Baffert said, “We’re all in trouble if he runs like that Saturday.” Two years later it was a giant beast named Barbaro who lit up the mornings; I stood near the track with two-time Derby-winning trainer Nick Zito, who said, “Right there, that horse, he’s had the best week here by far.” The list goes on: Big Brown in 2008, California Chrome in ’14, American Pharoah in ’15, Justify in ’18. Always one horse looking down at the others, playing a quiet game of King of the Hill.
This year that horse was Omaha Beach. Winner of three straight races this spring, including impressive victories in a division of the Rebel Stakes and the Arkansas Derby, Omaha Beach has the regal look of greatness and the experience of having raced and fought and won, a rare combination in this era of infrequent racing and gentler handing for Derby-bound horses. Omaha Beach is both fast and tough and seems better prepared for the rigors of the Derby, and the Triple Crown, than most three-year-olds in the spring of the year. But Omaha Beach is not running. Early Wednesday evening came the news that Omaha Beach had been scratched with a condition called an entrapped epiglottis. It is a minor health issue, and Omaha Beach is expected to be racing by the summer. But he is out of the Derby, and rival trainer Todd Pletcher, a two-time Derby winner and Hall of Famer, said, “It’s about the most significant defection you could possibly have.”
Omaha Beach’s departure unfolded in two waves across Churchill Downs. In the first, there was immediate sympathy for Omaha Beach’s trainer, Richard Mandella, a respected 68-year-old Hall of Fame trainer with a professional resume that lacks only a Derby, and who would have been universally praised had he won the race. But the Derby doesn’t work that way. On Thursday morning, Omaha Beach peered out from stall No. 15 in Barn No. 28, unaware as always. “This horse,” said Mandella Thursday morning. “If you had seen him around the barn, you can see how special he is. It just seemed like everything was so in line. In fact, I actually had a thought: Is this too perfect? And we found out it wasn’t.” (Note: Mandella also said that Omaha Beach had developed a slight sore throat about a week ago, but had quickly bounced back to full health. Or so it had seemed.)
The second wave came in evaluating the effect of Omaha Beach’s departure. Suddenly a Derby with a solid—if not overwhelming—favorite appears utterly wide open. And on Thursday, Haikal became the second scratch of this Kentucky Derby, due to a hoof abscess on his left front. “Never seen the field so close,’’ says Baffert. But that’s a bit of misdirection, too. It’s a very tight field at the top, for sure, but suddenly Baffert’s three starters—2018 Breeders Cup Juvenile winner, Game Winner; Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster; and Improbable—are the top three choices in the morning line and could potentially leave the starting gate as the top three picks as well. Baffert, who took the spotlight with Triple Crown winners American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in ’18, said, “I was just planning on coming in here nice and quiet, stay under the radar, let Omaha Beach be the star….”
This is not the first time a likely Derby favorite has been scratched close to the race. Most recently, I Want Revenge was scratched on morning of the 2009 Derby and Uncle Mo was scratched the day before the ’11 Derby; both were highly regarded morning line favorites. (Neither event was as seismic as ’12 Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another getting scratched from the Belmont Stakes on the day he would have attempted to win the Triple Crown, forestalling that feat for four years, when American Pharoah ended the 37-year gap between Triples.) But the withdrawal of The Big Horse is always a destabilizing moment at the Derby, buzzkill for the masses, but a blast of opportunity for every other trainer in the race. That noise you hear is the sound of opportunity knocking.
In the category of deserving veterans, Mandella is conveniently replaced by Bill Mott, 65, also inducted in to the Hall of Fame long ago (1998), winner of multiple Breeders Cup races (10 in all) and respected by his peers in a way that some trainers are not. He comes to Churchill Downs this year with Tacitus, winner of the Wood Memorial prep race in New York. Mott has started eight horses in the Derby, dating back to 1984. None have finished better than seventh. On Wednesday morning, I met Mott outside his Churchill barn and asked which year presented his best chance of finally winning the Derby. “2019,” said Mott. “And before that, 2018.” Last year Mott started Hofburg, who got a lousy trip and hung on for seventh place.
Like Mandella, Mott keeps any Derby desperation tucked away behind a poker face. “The Derby is not the main focus of what I do,” says Mott. “It’s a segment of what I do.”
About 50 meters from Mott’s barn is Baffert’s barn, which during Derby week is chockablock with spectators and B-list celebrities (yesterday: Avery Johnson!) a way station for every equine tourist who rose early to seek something, anything good enough to post on Instagram. His three horses are all good: Game Winner won his first four starts and has finished second twice this spring, to Omaha Beach and Roadster. Roadster, with four lifetime starts—two before throat surgery last fall and two since—is still a work in progress, but full of talent. Improbable is a rambunctious sort who doesn’t love the paddock or the starting gate, but chased Omaha Beach home in the Arkansas Derby. Two weeks ago when I saw Baffert in California, he praised his horses and qualified his praise like so: “No Pharoahs or Justifys this year.” He praised Omaha Beach more profoundly, clearly a fan.
In a sense, Omaha Beach’s defection removes its most compelling character, but it does not change the character of the race itself. It remains a race in which most of the field would love to stalk or otherwise chase a fast pace and then run for the wire. Omaha Beach would have run this way as well, just most likely faster than the rest. Now it’s a race to be third, fourth or fifth in the first turn, as ever. “So many horses with the same running style,” says Baffert. “We can’t all get to the same spot.”
The value of that stalking position is likely to be dictated by two other horses: War Of Will and Maximum Security. They are the speed in the race. War Of Will is an interesting case; after stakes victories in Louisiana in January and February, he was the 4-5 favorite in the Louisiana Derby, but ran poorly and finished ninth. The official chart ominously says he “lost action,” in his stride. Trainer Mark Casse found nothing wrong with War Of Will in the aftermath and moved on to the Derby. Perhaps his Louisiana Derby race was a hiccup. The Derby post position draw brought another: He drew the No. 1 post position, from which all manner of peril can ensue. The only way to avoid that peril is for jockey Tyler Gaffalione to gun War Of Will into the lead, which he will try to do. “My horse is fast,” says Casse.
If War Of Will gets away clean and takes the lead, he is likely to find himself matching strides with Florida Derby winner Maximum Security, who on Dec. 20 of last year was run by trainer Jason Servis—brother of John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones—in a $16,000 claiming race, which means that anybody could have claimed him after his nine-length victory. Nobody did. Maximum Security has won three races since, by a combined 28 lengths. He led the Florida Derby from wire to wire.
Hence: If War Of Will gets a clean run and meets up with Maximum Security, there is a possibility that the two of them will run very fast on the front of the race. Baffert, for one, expects this scenario to play out. “It’s going to be hot up front,” he says. (Note: If War Of Will breaks poorly or otherwise gets caught up in early traffic, Maximum Security could potentially get an easy lead, which means, look out.)
A speed duel on the front end would put half the field in play coming from behind. Tacitus. The Baffert trio. And others. Like Vekoma, the Blue Grass Stakes winner who runs with his left front leg flopping oddly out to one side. Or By My Standards, who won the Louisiana Derby that War Of Will lost and has been improving with every start. Or Code Of Honor, who won the Fountain of Youth prep race for trainer Shug McGaughey (winner of the 2013 Derby with Orb), but was compromised by a rugged trip in the Florida Derby and finished third. Or Win Win Win, the second-place finisher in the Blue Grass, who has brought 52-year-old trainer Michael Trombetta back to the Derby for the first time in 13 years. They all have a chance, and others, too. It is a bettor’s Derby.
My analysis: I agree with Baffert—it’s going to be fast. Once that’s in play, it comes down to which horses are given, or take, an advantageous trip around the Churchill Downs oval. Much of this is out of the riders’ hands. (Another thing that’s out of the riders’ hands is the weather; it’s expected to rain Saturday in Louisville, producing the fourth consecutive off track for the Derby. Omaha Beach loved wet tracks. Only Maximum Security has won in the mud in 2019, and that was at six furlongs in January.)
War Of Will and Maximum Security are fast, solid horses. My gut feeling is that they will get tired after fighting for, or maintaining, the lead. A year ago Justify battled Promises Fulfilled through very fast fractions of 22.24 seconds for a quarter mile and 45.77 for a half, before rolling away to win by two and a half lengths. But Justify was a special horse, a Triple Crown winner 112 days after his first start. (Still mind-boggling).
That leaves this race to the stalkers and, possibly, the closer. (Although I don’t think so, because the stalkers are good.) The sport probably has Baffert fatigue at this point, but my stance is that Omaha Beach was the best horse in the field and he was all-out to beat Game Winner in the Rebel. Game Winner subsequently was run down by Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby. Both of them will be there. As will Tacitus. My picks:
1. Game Winner