Early Impressions on the Road to the 2019 Kentucky Derby

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

November 12th, 2018

With less than six months remaining until the 2019 Kentucky Derby, we’re about to enter what I like to consider the second stage of the qualification process.

The first stage included the major Breeders’ Cup prep races such as the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) and American Pharoah Stakes (gr. I) and culminated with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) on November 2nd, which awarded 20 Derby qualification points to the winner.

But since the Juvenile is a major goal in and of itself, I feel like the true Kentucky Derby prep races kick off after the Breeders’ Cup, and this second stage of prep races is set to begin on November 24th with the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs and the Cattleya Sho at Tokyo Racecourse in Japan. They’ll be followed by weekly prep races through the middle of December, after which the calendar will turn over to 2019 and we can enter the informal third stage of the qualification process.

With an eye toward all this upcoming action, here are a few of my thoughts, impressions, and observations on what we’ve seen so far and what we can expect to see during the next few months….

The Juveniles of 2018 Have Serious Talent

Speed figures are typically a good indicator of the overall strength of a group of horses, and the juveniles of 2018 have been a pretty fast group so far. Well over a dozen individual colts have already cracked the 90 Beyer barrier, including Vekoma, who raced to a 99 while winning the Nashua Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct. The promising sprinter Maximus Mischief isn’t far behind with figures of 94 and 98 in his first two starts, while Game Winner has surpassed the 90 mark three times with figures of 93, 97, and 93 in his three Grade 1 wins.

The overall strength and talent of the division at this early stage of the game bodes well for 2019—if this group keeps improving, we could see some very competitive and memorable races on the Derby trail.

Will Bob Baffert Win a Third Triple Crown?

Winning the Triple Crown in 2015 with American Pharoah was a spectacular achievement. Winning it again in 2018 with Justify was almost unprecedented. But could trainer Bob Baffert have yet another Triple Crown winner in his barn?

It’s much too early to even hazard a guess, but there’s no doubt that Baffert’s stable is incredibly deep this year. Case in point? Through November 10th, he’s gone 24-for-43 with his juveniles this year, which translates to an other-worldly 55% win rate… and three of his losses came in races that he won with other runners!

Led by the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner Game Winner (the #1-ranked colt on my Kentucky Derby Top 10), the impressive Street Sense Stakes winner Improbable, the undefeated Golden State Juvenile Stakes winner Cruel Intention, and the Grade 1-placed Roadster, the Baffert brigade figures to make plenty of noise on the Derby trail this winter.

Todd Pletcher Still Waiting to Warm Up

Through November 10th, the two-time Derby-winning trainer Todd Pletcher has won just 36 races for two-year-olds this year. It’s a solid total, but down quite a bit from his own lofty standards. To put it another way, Pletcher is winning at just a 20% rate in juvenile races this year, and he hasn’t finished a season with less than a 24% strike rate in such races since 2008.

So what does this mean? Well, if last winter is any indication, it’s that Pletcher might be saving his best runners for the upcoming winter meet at Gulfstream Park, where he has traditionally prepped his most promising colts for the Kentucky Derby trail. Over the last couple of years, Pletcher has been more conservative and patient with his two-year-olds and the results have been promising (he scored classic wins with Always Dreaming and Tapwrit in 2017), so I expect to see Pletcher start unveiling some impressive Derby contenders over the next two or three months.

International Slots Up for Grabs in Japan and Europe

Once again, two slots in the Kentucky Derby starting gate will be held open for the top qualifiers on the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby and the European Road to the Kentucky Derby. It remains to be seen which colts will emerge as the top contenders from each region, though in Japan Chrysoberyl was an eye-catching seven-length winner of an 1,800-meter newcomers race at Hanshin in September. The son of Gold Allure looks like a promising runner for Hidetaka Otonashi, one of the leading trainers in Japan.

On the European front, trainer Aidan O’Brien conditions three of the top four horses on the early leaderboard, though they’re all bred like turf horses and it remains to be seen whether any have serious Derby aspirations. In contrast, the fourth horse atop the leaderboard—Godolphin’s Group 1 winner Royal Marine—is a son of Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) winner Raven’s Pass out of a mare by Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) winner Singspiel, a pedigree that offers considerably more potential for success on dirt. And with Godolphin still seeking their first victory in the Derby, trainer Saeed Bin Suroor told the Racing Post that the UAE Derby (UAE-II) and the Kentucky Derby are definitely under consideration for Royal Marine.

What are your early impressions on the Road to the 2019 Kentucky Derby and the top contenders?