May 31, 2020

Kentucky Derby Report: Possible pacesetters

Vekoma and jockey Javier Castellano win the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) at Keeneland on April 6, 2019 (c) Coady Photography/Keeneland

Pace analysis is always a key component of Kentucky Derby handicapping but determining the pacesetter in the 2019 edition involves some guesswork.

Here are five candidates I’ve identified as possible pacesetters in Kentucky Derby 145:

Vekoma brings the top last-out BRIS E1 and E2 Pace ratings (105 and 114) into the Run for the Roses following a front-running score in the Blue Grass (G2) at Keeneland. He did concede the early advantage to a longshot rival, tracking closely in second before surging to a commanding lead on the far turn, and has never led wire-to-wire recording three wins. But the chestnut colt doesn’t bring the smoothest stride to a 20-horse field and tuned up with a swift five-furlong workout last Friday. Trainer George Weaver and Javier Castellano may be planning to send from the break and Vekoma could be the quickest of the bunch.

Unbeaten Maximum Security has led wire-to-wire in three of his four wins and sprinted clear at the start of the Florida Derby (G1), establishing slow and uncontested fractions in a convincing triumph. The former claimer showed his versatility when employing stalk-and-pounce tactics in his second career start and his Early Pace numbers aren’t overwhelming, but Maximum Security still possesses fine gate speed. It will be no surprise to see him flash to the front with Luis Saez.

War of Will broke sharply and raced up close from the start of wins in the Lecomte (G3) and Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds earlier this season, and he will try to rebound after failing to get away smoothly and taking a funny step in the early stages of the Louisiana Derby (G2). The athletic colt looked like a front-end presence blitzing a half-mile bullet workout (:47 3/5) at Churchill Downs Saturday, displaying plenty of speed from the start while under a stiff hold from the rider, and trainer Mark Casse has spoken of how smartly the son of War Front gets away from the starting gate. A definitive longshot, War of Will’s best chance may come on the engine and I won’t be shocked to see him outbreak rivals and hustle forward under Tyler Gaffalione.

Omaha Beach broke running in his stakes debut, leading wire-to-wire in the second division of the Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn Park, and has the speed to challenge for pacesetting duties if Mike Smith desires. But the long-striding colt settled nicely during the opening quarter-mile of his Arkansas Derby (G1) triumph and can’t be classified as a need-the-lead type. Omaha Beach appears likely to establish positioning just off the early leader in the Kentucky Derby.

Don’t count out Improbable! He’s never led after the opening quarter-mile in five career outings but likes to race up close, and Grade 1-winning juvenile has been keen early in a pair of nice works at Churchill Downs. A smashing winner of the Street Sense on the Breeders’ Cup Friday undercard, Improbable clearly relishes the local main track and rates as an intriguing prospect to be sent from the starting gate by new rider Irad Ortiz Jr. War Emblem, the third of five Bob Baffert horses to win the Kentucky Derby, dominated the 2002 edition from the start and the Hall of Fame conditioner has orchestrated wire-to-wire Grade 1 wins at the 1 ¼-mile distance with horses who had never employed those tactics, with Arrogate and West Coast rolling to impressive wins in the 2016-17 runnings of the Travers (G1). Improbable may not wind up on the lead but he’ll be forward in my estimation.