May 26, 2024

Kentucky Derby Report – Baffert, Mott & paddling Blue Grass winner

Tacitus is the 5-2 favorite on the Travers morning line (c) NYRA/Coglianese Photography/Chelsea Durand

Bob Baffert’s barn flexed its muscles with a one-two finish in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and the Kentucky Derby maestro will send a top contender to the upcoming Arkansas Derby (G1). With a pair of Triple Crowns in the last four years and his sights set on a record-equaling sixth Kentucky Derby victory, Baffert could have the top three betting choices at Churchill Downs.

Roadster made a case for Kentucky Derby favoritism by defeating well-respected stablemate and juvenile champion Game Winner, and Improbable will be on display at Oaklawn Park. The King and his court.

Baffert’s synonymous with Triple Crown races but the Kentucky Derby limelight marks new ground for Bill Mott. Tacitus stretched his win streak to three in the Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct, becoming only the second runner to capture multiple qualifiers this year, and was bet down as the 8-1 fourth choice in Pool 4 of the final Kentucky Derby Future Wager as a result. He’s a developing colt with upside for a Hall of Fame trainer and boasts the top BRIS Speed rating (103) this year. And I’m not taking those triple-digit BRIS Late Pace numbers lightly.

The optics proved fascinating as Vekoma dominated the Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland, delivering a 3 ½-length triumph as the 7-5 favorite. His front left has always rolled out instead of taking a straight line forward and while drawing away in deep stretch, Vekoma’s stride became extremely funky as all four legs appeared out of sorts.

After a flurry of three major prep races last weekend, the Road to the Kentucky Derby series concludes with a pair of qualifiers this weekend.

The $1 million Arkansas Derby offers a 170-point bounty (100-40-20-10 scale) and will affect the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, with Omaha Beach (19th in the standings), Country House (23rd) and Improbable (25th) all needing points to lock down a berth. The $200,000 Lexington (G3) at Keeneland offers less points (20-8-4-2) but still has value in this topsy-turvy season, with Anothertwistafate (22nd) and Sueno (24th) the featured contenders.

Santa Anita Derby

After racing close to the early pace, Roadster dropped back entering the far turn and then came again with a wide rally into stretch. He passed four rivals to win going away by a half-length and stamped himself a major Kentucky Derby player.

Baffert touted him as one to watch before the career debut and Roadster won his first start by open lengths as the odds-on favorite at Del Mar last summer. The gray colt emerged from a third-place finish in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) with a throat issue, necessitating minor surgery to clear his airways, and didn’t make it back to the races for six months. Roadster returned March 1 at Santa Anita, stretching out to two turns with a sharp entry-level allowance tally, and he’s now won three-of-four starts for Speedway Stable.

By Quality Road, Roadster counts as half-siblings Ascend, winner of the 1 ¼-mile Manhattan (G1); and Moro Tap, a long-distance specialist who placed in the 1 ½-mile Louisville H. (G3). Those relatives preferred turf but there’s no pedigree concerns surrounding the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby distance with Roadster.

Being lightly-raced doesn’t raise red flags in this era but seldom does a leading Kentucky Derby contender arrive having faced such short fields, with Roadster squaring off against only 14 combined rivals over the last three starts. He’ll be staring at 19 opponents in the post parade under the Twin Spires. And I would prefer to see a triple-digit BRIS Speed rating on the resume, with Roadster netting a career-best 98 figure in the Santa Anita Derby. He garnered a 98 Late Pace after producing triple-digit numbers in the previous two starts.

It was still easy to be impressed by Roadster’s stretch run and he’ll enter on the upswing for a dangerous conditioner, with Baffert owning a record 15 Triple Crown race wins. Mike “Big Money” Smith has served as the regular rider. No one should be surprised to see further improvement from the peaking colt on May 4.

Roadster utilized an unorthodox trip but saved ground until launching his move. Game Winner lost ground the entire way in a short field, with Joel Rosario parking the multiple Grade 1 winner four wide entering the first turn and sticking to an overland route throughout. The Gary & Mary West colorbearer appeared poised to overtake pacesetter Instagrand leaving the far turn but didn’t get past until deep stretch. And while grinding his way toward the front, Game Winner could not withstand the late bid of Roadster.

Unbeaten in four starts last year including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Game Winner has opened 2019 with a pair of setbacks, returning with a nose second to Omaha Beach in the Rebel’s second division. He’ll still be very live in the Kentucky Derby betting.

The last seven Kentucky Derby winners captured their final prep and the top three last year (Justify-Good Magic-Audible) were exiting wins. But don’t buy-in to its importance. Baffert’s first two Kentucky Derby winners, Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998), were beaten in the San Felipe (G2) and Santa Anita Derby before sweeping the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Real Quiet had dropped three straight prior to arriving in Louisville, Kentucky.

Game Winner is as honest as they come and Baffert has compared him favorably to Hall of Famer Silver Charm, a fine compliment indeed. The classy colt registered a 103 BRIS Speed rating winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.

OXO Equine’s Instagrand ran big in defeat but appears unlikely to make the Kentucky Derby field with 30 points. The Pat Day Mile (G3) on the Derby Day undercard will be an option or he could wait for the May 18 Preakness.

Wood Memorial

Tacitus overcame an extremely rough trip in the early stages of the Wood Memorial, knocked around repeatedly by a chain reaction started by an opponent crossing in front of horses, and had to get back in stride after being clipped from behind by another rival on the first turn. That versatility could come in handy in a 20-horse Kentucky Derby field.

After settling about 10 lengths off the pace along the backstretch, Tacitus launched a fierce rally once he came under a ride on the far turn. In fact, it was nearly a carbon copy of his win in the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby (G2) where Tacitus appeared to be going nowhere before being asked by Jose Ortiz. He responds both times with an eye-catching turn of foot, quickly erasing a 7 ¼-length deficit with three furlongs remaining in the Wood. The lightly-raced colt has lacked focus so far, relying upon the jockey for instructions, and that begs the question: what happens when he figures it out?

Tacitus broke his maiden the second time out at Aqueduct in early November and came back from a five-month hiatus to post an 8-1 upset in the Tampa Bay Derby, scoring by a comfortable 1 ¼-length after rallying fast to the lead in midstretch. The Juddmonte Farms homebred improved to three-for-four in the Wood, earning career-best Speed (103), E2 Pace (100) and Late Pace (101) ratings. He may not have beaten the strongest field but Tacitus looked good drawing away from runner-up Tax in the latter stages and will bring formidable BRIS numbers to the Kentucky Derby.

A son of Tapit, who has sired three winners of the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes, Tacitus is out 2014 champion older mare Close Hatches, a five-time Grade 1 winner over a route of ground. Storm Cat sired the second dam in this classy female family.

Tax avoided early trouble and loomed a threat after rallying into contention off the far turn. The Arch gelding dueled with Tacitus before yielding in deep stretch, winding up 1 ¼ lengths behind the winner, and backed up his win in the February 2 Withers (G3) at Aqueduct. Turf will always be an option given his distinguished female family and Tax has registered triple-digit BRIS Speed ratings in the last three starts (103-102-101). Danny Gargan trains for R.A. Hill Stable and Reeves Thoroughbred Racing.

Haikal closed plenty of ground while never a serious threat to the top two and finished a clear third in his first two-turn attempt. The Kiaran McLaughlin pupil stamped his ticket winning the March 9 Gotham (G3) at a one-turn mile and Haikal will bring a closing kick to the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Blue Grass

Vekoma showed speed from post 2 and floated a little wide into the first turn of the Blue Grass, allowing Somelikeithotbrown to advance along the rail and show the way. Vekoma tracked closely in second until the completion of the far turn and surged into the stretch with a widening advantage. The athletic chestnut rolled unopposed to the wire.

A convincing winner of his first two starts in New York, including the Nashua (G3) at a one-turn mile, Vekoma found himself in traffic for the first time when returning this year in the March 2 Fountain  of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park and wound up a non-threatening third. The Candy Ride colt had to go fast to establish favorable positioning in the Blue Grass, registering 105 E1 and 114 E2 Pace ratings, and equaled a career-best 101 BRIS Speed rating. But Vekoma came home slowly, completing the final three furlongs in 39.38 seconds.

While his tactical speed could prove advantageous in the Kentucky Derby, Vekoma faces a challenge at the 1 ¼-mile distance with his pedigree. He hails from the Grade 1-winning sprinter Mona De Momma, a daughter of champion sprinter Speightstown. Vekoma will remain a promising prospect for trainer George Weaver and owners R.A. Hill Stable and Gatsas Stables even if the Kentucky Derby doesn’t turn out favorably.

Win Win Win was stopped leaving the far turn and after regaining his momentum, the Michael Trombetta-trained colt closed ground to edge Signalman by a nose for third. Win Win Win was exiting a third as the 7-5 favorite in the Tampa Bay Derby, coming up empty after rallying into contention by upper stretch, and it’s fair to ask whether he’ll be good enough next time. But his late kick will offer some appeal underneath in Kentucky Derby exotics.

Signalman enjoyed a good stalking trip behind the early runners but lacked a punch in the final furlongs. Third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he concluded his two-year-old season with a Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) win at Churchill Downs but has put himself in a perilous position by opening 2019 with a seventh in the Fountain of Youth and a third in the Blue Grass. Signalman currently sits 18th on the leaderboard with 38 points but could be surpassed by runners in the Arkansas Derby and Lexington this weekend.

Scully’s Kentucky Derby Top 10

1 OMAHA BEACH: Combines speed & resiliency; poised to run a big one in Arkansas Derby
2 LONG RANGE TODDY: Displayed enormous improvement beating Improbable last time
3 TACITUS: Mott & Tapit haven’t been a factor in the Derby; this could be the year
4 GAME WINNER: How do you leave the hard-knocking colt out of the top three?
5 ROADSTER: Santa Anita Derby winner merits serious respect
6 IMPROBABLE: Exits wide trip in return, no surprise if he runs well in Arkansas Derby
7 MAXIMUM SECURITY: Florida Derby winner will bring dangerous speed to Louisville
8 BY MY STANDARDS: Up-and-comer promises to be overlooked off Louisiana Derby upset
9 VEKOMA: Respect his talent but worry 10 furlongs will be too far
10 ANOTHERTWISTAFATE: Will know more after the Lexington