March 27, 2023

Kentucky Derby Report – Two Derby legends on my mind

Game Winner clinched a championship in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (c) Coady Photography

The New Year means it’s time to start the Kentucky Derby Report, but the discussion must begin on a sad note with the loss of a legend in John Asher.

No one loved the Kentucky Derby more than John, who left us too soon in August at age 62. A multiple Eclipse Award-winning radio journalist before joining Churchill Downs in 1997, he became spokesman when named vice president of communications in 1999 and worked tirelessly to promote the Kentucky Derby.

John Asher (1955-2018) (c) Coady Photography

John combined a wonderful knowledge and passion for the world’s most famous race. He brought his winning personality to any discussion and was loved and respected by both the backstretch and management.

There was much more to the devoted family man too. John made you feel important regardless of profession or social status and his enthusiasm was infectious. He was an important mentor to me.

John loved talking Kentucky Derby and Thoroughbred racing had no better ambassador.

The Kentucky Derby won’t feel the same to me without John Asher.

Road to the Kentucky Derby

The Road to the Kentucky Derby series determines eligibility for the Kentucky Derby, with 18 berths reserved for the top point earners in the 35 qualifying races stateside. One spot in the 20-horse field will be offered to the horse with the most points in the seven-race European Road to the Kentucky Derby and another for the four-race Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby.

All 20 horses last year qualified through American races and 29 points (Instilled Regard) served as the cutoff.

Here are the point totals for the 20th qualifier since the Road to the Kentucky Derby series was inaugurated in 2013:

2018: 29 points
2017: 30
2016: 32
2015: 22
2014: 20
2013: 10

Over the last five years, the final horse to qualify for the Kentucky Derby field has averaged nearly 27 points.

The 19-race Prep Season runs through the Southwest (G3) at Oaklawn Park in mid-February and awards points on a 10-4-2-1 scale to the top four finishers (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile worth double points).

Point values increase to 50-20-10-5 beginning with the Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds on February 16 and the seven major final prep races are worth 100-40-20-10.

Here’s my recap of the qualifiers to this point:

SHAM (G3), January 5: Odds-on favorite never fired after missing the break and the race’s complexion changed drastically as late runners capitalized at Santa Anita. Gunmetal Gray raced last of seven until the final furlong of the one-mile test and rallied widest of all to strike the front in deep stretch, earning his first stakes with a one-length triumph. The winner stopped the teletimer in 1:38.96 (extremely poky at face value) and registered only an 88 BRIS Speed rating. Mike Smith picked up the mount for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.

Gunmetal Gray posted a convincing maiden win when trying two turns the second time out and recorded a non-threatening second to Game Winner in his stakes bow, the American Pharoah (G1). He left himself too much to do in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), 12th of 13 horses after the opening three-quarters of a mile, and belatedly passed rivals to be a well-beaten fifth.

The gray son of Exchange Rate didn’t offer a dazzling turn of foot in the Sham. Much Better, who stalked the pace in second before taking over on the far turn, appeared on his way to an easy win when three lengths clear in midstretch but ran out of gas late over the tiring track and weakened to third.

Santa Anita’s main track played slow and favored closers late in the afternoon and I won’t put too much stock in the lower Speed number. Gunmetal Gray took advantage of fortuitous circumstances and still has plenty to prove in future engagements, but he remains a colt with upside in my estimation. I like his foundation and Gunmetal Gray appears influenced by a stamina-infused female line.

Coliseum sustained his first loss but can be given a pass for the disappointing sixth as the 3-5 favorite. A smashing wire-to-wire debut winner at Del Mar in mid-November, the gray colt was forced off the pace after breaking sluggishly and failed to settle, tossing his head while trying to pull his way to the front. The Godolphin homebred promises to be sent from the starting gate next time but the Sham does call into question the Tapit colt’s mental fortitude.

JEROME, January 1: Gritty front-running performance by the winner but the one-turn distance at Aqueduct may have been key. Mind Control did not disappoint as the 3-2 favorite, turning back early pressure and withstanding a late challenge from runner-up Our Braintrust to score by 1 1/2 lengths, and the Hopeful (G1) winner has now captured his last three sprint starts, the lone setback since August coming in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. His female family offers little encouragement and the Greg Sacco-trained son of Stay Thirsty appears built for sprint/middle distances.

REMINGTON SPRINGBOARD MILE, December 16: Uninspiring Kentucky Derby prep. Long Range Toddy sprung an 18-1 upset, denying 3-1 second choice Bankit by a head as Steve Asmussen trainees finished 1-2. Winner received only an 89 BRIS Speed rating and Epic Dreamer, the 6-5 favorite off a convincing Belmont Park maiden win, wound up an even sixth.

LOS ALAMITOS FUTURITY (G1), December 8: Dynamite performance from a serious Kentucky Derby contender. Improbable stretched out to two turns and displayed a strong finishing kick to win the 1 1/16-mile event going away by five lengths, garnering his first triple-digit (100) BRIS Speed rating while improving to three-for-three.

He didn’t show much speed after the break and when Drayden Van Dyke nudged him slightly to gain better positioning into the first turn, Improbable took off as if it was go-time and then had to be urged to relax on the backstretch. Runner-up Mucho Gusto proved game on the lead when confronted nearing the conclusion of the far turn and Improbable continued to gain valuable experience while under a drive, eventually powering past and netting a 105 BRIS Late Pace rating (completed final five-sixteenths in 30.36 seconds).

Improbable showed an affinity for Churchill Downs when posting a 7 1/4-length win in the one-mile Street Sense on the Breeders’ Cup Friday undercard. Out of a mare by A.P. Indy, the City Zip colt hails from the female family of 2007 Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) runner-up Hard Spun and I was left with the impression that Improbable could have much more to offer.

REMSEN (G2), December 1: Well-built colt passed his first two-turn test in commendable fashion. Based at Parx, Maximus Mischief ran fast and crushed the competition when opening his career with daylight wire-to-wire wins over maiden and entry-level allowance foes. He shipped to New York for the 1 1/8-mile Remsen and Frankie Pennington accompanied the Butch Reid-trained son of Into Mischief.

Prominent from the start, Maximus Mischief faced a challenge from Tax before accelerating clear in upper stretch and rolled home to a 2 1/4-length decision. He received an excellent 106 BRIS Speed rating.

His pedigree looks suspect for 1 1/4 miles – out of speedy mare by Songandaprayer and the lone sibling to race recorded her best effort at 4 1/2 furlongs – but Maximus Mischief appears to have more scope than the pedigree page suggests. The front-running sophomore is certainly an imposing presence physically.

KENTUCKY JOCKEY CLUB (G2), November 24: Determined win over a sloppy track by an up-and-comer. After saving ground from his innermost post, Signalman altered course to find room in upper stretch and gamely outfinished Plus Que Parfait by a neck. His 95 BRIS Speed rating came back a little light but I like the progress Signalman is making for Kenny McPeek.

Bred by Monticule, the breeder of Big Brown, Signalman is by General Quarters, who now stands in Turkey. Signalman does have some class in the female family and the strapping colt recorded a non-threatening second when making his stakes debut in the Breeders’ Futurity (G1) at Keeneland. He improved upon the performance in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), dropping far back during the early stages from post 13 before rallying boldly for third, and earned a commendable 99 BRIS Speed. Brian Hernandez Jr. rides.

Plus Que Parfait was exiting a maiden tally at Keeneland in his first two-turn dirt start and dropped further off the pace than he was accustomed to in the Kentucky Jockey Club before launching a wide rally on the far turn. By Point of Entry and out of an Awesome Again mare, the Brendan Walsh-trained chestnut features a nice mix of speed and stamina in his pedigree and rates as an intriguing individual.

BREEDERS’ CUP JUVENILE (G1), November 2: Classy performance from soon-to-be-named champion juvenile male. Game Winner entered undefeated for Bob Baffert but pretty much things his own way beating up on short fields in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and American Pharoah. He had plenty of work to do from off the pace nearing the conclusion of the backstretch and admirably responded to the challenge at Churchill Downs, rallying into contention on the far turn and grinding his way to the front in deep stretch of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Game Winner edged away under the wire to a 2 1/4-length decision and netted a career-best 103 BRIS Speed rating. Joel Rosario has been up for the last two starts. A son of Candy Ride, sire of 2017 Horse of the Year and 2016 Kentucky Derby third-placer Gun Runner, Game Winner hails from an unraced A.P. Indy mare.

Knicks Go backed up his 70-1 upset in the Breeders’ Futurity with a front-running second. He didn’t fire when following with an 11th over a sloppy track in the Kentucky Jockey Club and has plenty of speed in his female family, but the Paynter colt outperformed expectations in the Juvenile at 40-1 odds.

BREEDERS’ FUTURITY (G1), October 6: Biggest upset in the seven-year history of the points system. Knicks Go showed the way on a short lead and accelerated into the stretch with a commanding advantage, drawing off to a 70-1 shocker. Trained by Ben Colebrook and ridden by Albin Jimenez, the gray colt didn’t show much in his first two stakes attempts at one-turn but relished the stretch out to 1 1/16 miles. Knicks Go earned BRIS Speed ratings of 92 (Breeders’ Futurity) and 100 (Breeders’ Cup Juvenile) before concluding 2018 with a disappointing showing.

CHAMPAGNE (G1), October 6: Complexity led wire-to-wire over a one-turn mile at Belmont Park but will focus upon sprint/middle distances at age 3. Code of Honor turned heads in a runner-up performance, falling on his head out of the starting gate and rallying into contention on the far turn to be a clear second. But the Shug McGaughey-trained son of Noble Mission was scratched from scheduled engagements in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Remsen and came back this year with a disappointing fourth at odds-on in the January 5 Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream Park.

AMERICAN PHAROAH (G1), September 29: Game Winner showed speed from the start and drew off to a 4 1/2-length decision, earning his first points toward a Kentucky Derby berth. Gunmetal Gray was never a threat finishing a clear second.

IROQUOIS (G3), September 15: The 2018-19 Road to the Kentucky Derby series qualifier kicked off with an upset but the winner has been sidelined since. Overlooked at 17-1 in his third career start, Cairo Cat appeared likely to finish second in midstretch of the Iroquois at Churchill Downs but circumstances changed when even-money favorite and pacesetter Tight Ten suddenly came up empty nearing the wire, coughing up a clear lead. From the first crop of Cairo Prince, who ranked third among freshman sires, Cairo Cat registered a 92 BRIS Speed rating for the off-the-pace win and trainer Kenny McPeek announced afterward the colt would need time off due to a physical issue. Cairo Cat hasn’t returned to the worktab.

Baffert Factor

Bob Baffert has paraded a pair of Triple Crown victors over the last four years, becoming only the second trainer to win the coveted series more than once. He’s the king, breaking D. Wayne Lukas’ record with his 15th Triple Crown race win in last year’s Belmont Stakes, and it’s easy to take for granted what the Hall of Famer accomplished with Justify, who became the first unraced juvenile since Apollo in 1882 to win the Kentucky Derby.

In this era of lightly-raced horses, Baffert guided Justify through an undefeated six-race campaign that included four Grade 1s and the Triple Crown in a 111-day window. A master of his craft.

Baffert now owns five Kentucky Derby trophies, one short of the legendary Ben Jones, and he’s loaded entering 2019.

Here’s a look at Kentucky Derby prospects from the Baffert barn and keep in mind Justify didn’t make his career debut until February 18:

Game Winner: He’s the big hoss right now. A three-time Grade 1 scorer, Game Winner capped his perfect two-year-old season with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and will be named champion juvenile male at the January 24 Eclipse Awards ceremony. He could target the March 9 San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita or the March 16 Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park.

Improbable: He nearly dropped his career debut at 2-5 odds but has been impressive in both stakes appearances. I liked the way he finished in the Los Alamitos Futurity and Improbable may wind up wherever Game Winner doesn’t (San Felipe or Rebel).

Coliseum: Lost some luster with his unplaced effort in the Sham but there’s only been nine undefeated winners in the 144-year history of the Kentucky Derby. Coliseum, who is out of a Grade 1-winning mare by Kentucky Derby runner-up Menifee, was touted by Baffert before romping in his debut and remains eligible to rebound next time. He came out of the setback well according to connections and the February 2 Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita may be an option.

Kingly: A full brother to multiple Grade 2 winner and 2016 Kentucky Derby fourth-placer Mohaymen and a half-brother to 2013 champion two-year-old and sire New Year’s Day, Kingly is a son of three-time leading sire Tapit and did not disappoint when making his lone appearance in a December 1 maiden special weight at Del Mar, winning by nearly a length on the front end. The January 25 Smarty Jones, which be held on Oaklawn’s opening-day program, is a possibility.

Mucho Gusto: Winner of the seven-furlong Bob Hope (G3) in his second start, Mucho Gusto recorded a clear second behind Improbable in the Los Alamitos Futurity and the Mucho Macho Man colt will bring speed to future engagements.

Roadster: Unraced since a third in Del Mar Futurity, Roadster underwent a minor surgical procedure afterward and returned to the worktab in late November. The son of Quality Road has some talent but hasn’t worked since December 19.

Metropol: Bet down to 3-5 in his debut, Metropol prevailed by nearly a length in front-running fashion and the son of Shackleford is eligible to receive some stamina from his dam, a daughter of Street Cry. The one-mile Smarty Jones could be a good spot for his first two-turn attempt.

Tale of the Union: Impressive eight-length debut winner was included in the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool (November 22-25). A New York-bred son of 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, Tale of the Union’s status is in limbo since he hasn’t worked since September.

Magic on Tap: Similar to Tale of the Union, Magic on Tap received praise following a convincing debut tally at Del Mar last summer and was included in Pool 1 of Future Wager. But the Tapit colt has also been missing from the worktab since September.

Kentucky Derby Top 10

  1. GAME WINNER: Breeders’ Cup Juvenile hero the one to beat entering 201
  2. IMPROBABLE: Romped stretching out to two turns in the Los Alamitos Futurity
  3. MAXIMUS MISCHIEF: Parx-based colt remained unbeaten in Remsen
  4. SIGNALMAN: Continued his progression with Kentucky Jockey Club tally
  5. VEKOMA: Unbeaten stakes winner with commendable BRIS Speed numbers
  6. COLISEUM: Giving Tapit colt a mulligan for Sham
  7. GUNMETAL GRAY: Late-running specialist mowed down Sham rivals
  8. MIHOS: Registered 100 BRIS Speed for rallying win in Mucho Macho Man
  9. PLUS QUE PARFAIT: Second when making stakes debut in Kentucky Jockey Club
  10. MUCHO: Hopeful runner-up recently returned to the worktab for Mott

Next Week

No qualifiers will be offered this weekend and I’ll take a closer look at some winners from the stakes, allowance and maiden ranks in next week’s Kentucky Derby Report.