OPINION: “The Pressbox’s” 2019 KY Derby Rankings — First Edition / Guest Commentators (New 1 Added) / & Gift Give-Away

(Trainer Bob Baffert chats after Game Winner’s victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

HorseTrainerJockeyLast RaceNext RaceComments
1Game WinnerBob BaffertJoel Rosario1st in Breeders’Cup JuvenileG2 San Felipe Stakes on 3/9/19Undefeated 2YO Champ
2ImprobableBob BaffertDrayden Van Dyke1st in Cash Call FuturityG2 Rebel Stakes on 3/16/19Yet To Be Tested
3InstagrandJerry HollendorferDrayden Van Dyke1st in Best Pal StakesG2 San Felipe Stakes on 3/9/19Spectacular Until Shelved
4War of WillMark CasseTyler Gaffalione1st in the LeComte StakesG2 Risen Star Stakes on 2/16/19Turf Pedigree, Dirt Runner
5Dream MakerMark CasseFlorent Geroux1st in FG AllowanceG2 Tampa Bay Derby on 3/9/19Maybe Most Raw Talent
6RoadsterBob BaffertMike Smith2nd in Del Mar FuturityUndecidedShelved Early; Must Return
7Maximus MischiefRobert E. Reid, Jr.Jose Ortiz3rd in G2 Holy BullG2 Fountain of Youth Stakes on 3/2/19Too Good To Give Up On
8Mucho GustoBob BaffertJoe Talamo1st in G3 Robert B. LewisUndecidedComing On Strong
9Gunmetal GrayJerry HollendorferMike Smith2nd in Robert B. Lewis StakesG2 San Felipe Stakes on 3/9/19Tough SOB
10Standard DeviationChad BrownIrad Ortiz2nd in GP AllowanceG2 Fountain of Youth Stakes on 3/2/19Watch Out
11Mr. MoneyW. Bret CalhounGabriel Saez4th in Breeders’ Cup JuvenileG2 Risen Star Stakes on 2/16/19Training Well at FG
12Long Range ToddySteve AsmussenRichard Eramia2nd in Smarty Jones StakesG3 Southwest Stakes on 2/18/19Longer The Better?
13Sparky VilleJeff BondeJoel Rosario1st in G2 San Vicente StakesG2 San Felipe Stakes on 3/9/19Getting Better
14MihosJames JerkensJohn Velazquez5th in G2 Holy Bull StakesG2 Fountain of Youth Stakes on 3/2/19Another Shot
15Knicks GoBen ColebrookAlbin Jimenez5th in G3 Sam F.Davis StakesG2 Tampa Bay Derby on 3/9/19What Happened?
16SignalmanKen McPeekBrian Hernandez1st in KY Jockey Club StakesG2 Tampa Bay Derby on 3/9/19Long Delay
17Well DefinedKathleen O’ConnellPablo Morales1st in Sam F. Davis StakesG2 Tampa Bay Derby on 3/9/19Speedy Type
18KinglyBob BaffertDrayden Van Dyke2nd in SA AllowanceG2 Risen Star Stakes on 2/16/19Deep Bench
19Harvey WallbangerKen McPeekBrian Hernandez1st in G2 Holy Bull StakesG2 Fountain of Youth Stakes on 3/2/19Improving
20Bourbon WarMark HennigIrad Ortiz, Jr.1st in GP AllowanceG2 Fountain of Youth Stakes on 3/2/19Best to Come
Others
1Hidden ScrollBill MottJoel Rosario1st in GP MSWG2 Fountain of Youth Stakes on 3/2/19Another Justify? Not Me
2Gun ItSteve AsmussenRicardo Santana, Jr.3rd in FG AllowanceG2 Risen Start Stakes on 2/16/19Raw Talent
3Our BraintrustMark CasseJose Lezcano3rd in G3 Withers StakesG2 Rebel Stakes on 3/16/19Didn’t Finish Strong Enough
4TaxDanny GarganJunior Alvarado1st in G3 Withers StakesGotham Stakes on 3/9/19Guts
5King of SpeedJeff BondeKent Desormeaux6th in G1 Cash Call FuturityEl Camino Real Derby on 2/16/19Poly or Turf
6More IceJerry HollendorferDrayden Van Dyke3rd in Eddie Logan StakesEl Camino Real Derby on 2/16/19Poly or Turf
7DessmanBob BaffertFlavien Pratt2nd in G2 San Vicente StakesUndecidedDeep Bench II
8Gray AttemptJinks FiresShaun Bridgmohan1st in Smarty Jones StakesG3 Southwest Stakes on 2/18/19Speedster
9Global CampaignStanley HoughLuis Saez1st in GP AllowanceUndecidedNeed to See Again
10Network EffectChad BrownJavier Castellano2nd in G2 Remsen StakesGotham Stakes on 3/9/19Watch Out II

Every week, all the way to that magical and mystical “First Saturday in May,” I will be providing my current “Kentucky Derby Rankings,” thoughts and opinions on this crop of 3-year-olds has they prepare for the biggest race of their careers.

These picks and “rankings” will be slated by our own devices, and based solely on our observations, thoughts, and views. But we certainly welcome the ideas, comments, suggestions, criticisms, and opinions of others. So much so, in fact, that each week in our posting column, we will reach out and include quotes from others that are adamant in their research, and dedication to the industry, and to the Kentucky Derby, in particular.

If you feel compelled to weigh in, don’t hesitate. We would love to include your input, and observations, as well. Difference of opinion is exactly what makes the pari-mutuel game the best in the world, and the Kentucky Derby the greatest race for Thoroughbreds.

Every year, the event sparks the best debates. It creates the most in-depth of research, analysis, and opinion. It begs for all to weigh in. And, it offers the world a chance at fame and fortune. We invite you to join the fray and help spur (to use a horseman’s term) the dialogue and debate.

In addition to my thoughts and deep revelations, I will ask a few people that I have met and have developed a deep appreciation for, to weigh in with their thoughts and comments. I will offer a forum for a few quick quotes and comments on the “Road to the Kentucky Derby.” And, we will print and reproduce those for your enjoyment, criticism and comment, as well.

 

(The Louisville Thoroughbred Society official tumbler. Before you get too excited, that is rum. My personal beverage of choice. Maybe because I drink it when I’m in the Islands.)

And, each week, we will select one comment from you, the viewing and reading audience, and, with your permission, reprint on our site, and all our social media formats. As a token of our appreciation, we will send to you a beautiful drinking glass — which is embossed with the official logo of the Louisville Thoroughbred Society. If you provide you mailing address, we will get that in the mail to you on Monday of the following week.

Lastly, I will offer two comments about two of my selections. One of the horses will be from the top of the list, and the other will be from one of my most favorite “long shots.” Truthfully, the Kentucky Derby is the dream of all. And, it is what keeps both the well-to-do and the dream-chasers running after that same garden of red roses for, lo, all these many years.

Let’s get it started:

Game Winner:

All this son of Candy Ride has done is simple to explain. Hard to do, mind you. Easy to explain.

He’s just been perfect.

That’s all.

In four lifetime starts, he has won all four. Trips to the winner’s circle. Thrills and chills. Victories. Three of those wins have been in G1 races. Not too shabby accomplishments. And, he capped off a brilliant 2YO season with an easier-than-expected, 21/4-length victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last November over the same track that he may get the chance to run over this first Saturday in May.

With all those accomplishments already on the resume, you would think that the undisputed 2YO Champ would be an overwhelming favorite to capture the 2019 Kentucky Derby.

You would think.

And, so I think.

Simply put, until someone, anyone can take the crown away, or, at the very least, make it tilt to one side or another, I will stay on board. Along with trainer Bob Baffert. Along with rider Joel Rosario. Along with owners Gary and Mary West.

While some may foster those lingering doubts, it is not me. Not me. Not right now. I ain’t jumping ship off an ocean cruise liner.

I am staying with Game Winner because of two simple things:

He’s game as hell.

And, he’s a winner.

Gamer Winner.

He’s won over the racetrack in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Box? Checked.

He’s won going two turns, twice at 11/16-miles. Box? Checked.

And, he has shown brilliant enough speed to win going short. Box? Checked.

If you didn’t like Justify a year ago because he never ran as a 2YO, and no horse had won the Derby having not raced as a juvenile since Apollo? Over 100 years of history to fight back. Well, this horse is the polar opposite. He is well accomplished. Well documented. Well heeled. And, well trained.

I’m sticking.

Bourbon War: 

At the opposite end of my first “rankings,” you will find my dark horse. Actually, he is a bay, and that’s kind of shocking, by its’ own right, since this horse is by the remarkable, beautiful gray — Tapit.

Bourbon War doesn’t come to the first round of this Kentucky Derby dance with as many credentials as our top pick. Then again, no other horse does either. But this one may just be one to watch very carefully as we all start to cast a wistful eye towards the future.

The colt broke his maiden at first ask back on Nov. 14 at Aqueduct. Despite bobbling at the start of that 1 mile race over the dirt, Bourbon War righted himself, and set sail on a meaningful trip. By the stretch, he had made the lead. By the finish line, he was 21/4 lengths in front.

Impressive.

Especially when you consider that he whipped a highly-touted runner by the name of Moretti (trained by Todd Pletcher) and the heavy favorite Greyes Creek (trained by Chad Brown) in the event.

Hmmm.

Just a couple of weeks later, Bourbon War was entered in the G2 Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct — stretching out to 11/18 miles and facing winners for the first time. He went 2 wide into the first turn, and 3 wide into the second one. He was 5 wide in the upper stretch. And, he really never got into his running style. He was beaten nearly 9 lengths by undefeated Maximus Mischief. Second was Network Effect. Third was Tax. Solid company.

The race that impressed me the most, though, was the last one. When he ran 11/16-miles in an allowance event at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 18. Do yourself a favor. If you love handicapping the KY Derby, go watch the replay of this one. Seriously. Don’t know what he beat that day, but he beat the hell out of them. And, he did it with authority, coming from the back of the pack and under a forceful ride by Iran Ortiz. He burst through a crowd like a bouncer on Bourbon Street. And, he kicked butt.

Wow Time.

I don’t know exactly what trainer Mark Hennig has in store for this well-bred son of Tapit. (By the way, his mom? My Conquestadory? She was a multiple Graded Stakes winner in her own right.) He may go in the Fountain of Youth next. He may decide to go another route. No matter what it is, though, I will be watching and waiting.

I already bet this guy in the KY Derby Future Wager — Pool #2. But I may not be done with him, yet.

Mark Hennig, another student of the D. Wayne Lukas’ School of Training, is a talented trainer. Knows his way around a good horse. Has conditioned the likes of Star of Cozzene, Raging Fever, Eddington, Merry Meadow, Summer Colony, Gold Mover and others. Knows his way around Louisville and Churchill Downs, too.

I think his time may come. I think his horse may have come, too.

Bears watching.

Here’s what some of my best friends in the industry are thinking. And, their thinking may not be as flawed as mine.

Guest Commentator’s This Week:

(Scott Shapiro)

Scott Shapiro, Handicapper Deluxe for All Things Sports & Horse Racing

“To no one’s surprise it appears to be Bob Baffert’s Derby to lose. Improbable is the horse to beat and Game Winner is impossible to not respect. Roadster and Mucho Gusto give the Hall of Fame conditioner some depth.”

(Jonathan Lintner)

Jonathan Lintner, Editor of the HorseRacingNation:

“With the emergence of eye-catching horses like Hidden Scroll and Global Campaign in recent weeks, this run down the Derby trail, as they all seem to go, is looking like an interesting one. It’s unlikely we can draw any significant conclusions until Bob Baffert’s Big Two of Game Winner and Improbable make their 3-year-old debuts.”

(Joe Kristufek)

Joe Kristufek, TV analyst for the Fair Grounds and Churchill Downs and one of the top public handicappers in the game today:

“Last year, Justify didn’t even debut until February 18 and he won the Triple Crown. They’re fun to put together, but in this day and age, Top Ten lists mean so very little this time of year. Horses will step up, others will regress, some will get hurt, and a few unknowns will pop out of the ground and wow us. It’s a windy Road to the Kentucky Derby, not a straight one, but that’s what makes it so much fun!”

Dan Liebman

(Dan Liebman)

Dan Liebman, former Editor-in-Chief of “The Blood-Horse;” former Columnist for “The Daily Racing Form,” and one of the best handicappers I have ever met:

“I’ve always thought over the years my best advice to handicappers at this stage of the 3-year-old campaign is this: ‘Don’t assess yet whether the horse can win the Kentucky Derby, assess whether the horse can win it’s next start. It is a progression to the Derby. Take it one step at a time.’”

(Ryan Dickey)

Ryan Dickey, an ultimate Thoroughbred racing fan; a faithful “voice of reason” on all Social Media platforms, and handicapper deluxe who is now moonlighting for “The Pressbox”:

“I’m most interested to see Mucho Gusto run next time out. I hope Baffert enters him in the San Felipe against Game Winner. If the track is dry and the two finish anywhere near each other, Mucho Gusto will represent plenty of value should he and all the top-tier three year olds get a Derby gate.”
“I will get to see Improbable run in person when I attend the Rebel, and as of now he’s my Derby pick—even over Game Winner. Improbable’s Rebel and Mucho Gusto and Game Winner’s San Felipe are the two most important upcoming Derby preps for me.”

 

The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

    Full Bio >

More From Gene McLean