How is Keeler Johnson Playing the 2019 Kentucky Derby?

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

May 1st, 2019

While I’m still plotting out my wagering strategy for the 2019 Kentucky Derby, I’ve essentially nailed down my overall opinions of each horse and have determined whether I’ll be using them on my tickets.

The Tuesday morning post position draw helped clarify my position on a few bubble contenders, including War of Will and Spinoff. I’ve sorted the 20 horses into four self-explanatory categories denoting how I plan to use each horse.

Do you agree or disagree with my category assignments? Read on, then share your thoughts!


#1 War of Will

Winner of the Lecomte Stakes (G3) and Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds, War of Will has trained sharply since his troubled ninth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby (G2), but drawing post 1 leaves him with no choice but to gun for the lead or risk getting swallowed up in traffic.

#2 Tax

The Withers Stakes (G3) winner has done little wrong in five starts, but he couldn’t match strides with Tacitus in the homestretch of the Wood Memorial (G2), and overall he strikes me as a grinder who could have trouble working out an ideal trip in this huge field.

#4 Gray Magician

The UAE Derby (G2) runner-up has generally found stakes company to be a little too tough, and he’ll be facing his sternest test yet at Churchill Downs.

#6 Vekoma

A talented colt and a two-time graded stakes winner, but he finished slowly in the Blue Grass Stakes (G2) despite pressing a modest pace over a speed-favoring track.

#9 Plus Que Parfait

He’s wheeling back just five weeks after shipping halfway around the world to win the UAE Derby. That’s a long, tough trip, and the UAE Derby has never produced a top-four finisher in the Kentucky Derby.

#10 Cutting Humor

He stepped up his game to win the Sunland Derby (G3), but he also benefited from getting a clean outside run, while the eventual runner-up was trapped behind horses. I think Cutting Humor was lucky to win the Sunland Derby and will face a tougher task in the Run for the Roses.

#11 Haikal

He enjoyed a nice pace setup in the Wood Memorial (G2), but could only rally mildly to finish a distant third. Haikal gives the impression of being a miler at heart and benefited from a pace meltdown when winning the Gotham Stakes (G3) two starts back.

#15 Master Fencer

Dirt racing is second-tier in Japan, and I’d rank Master Fencer only fifth- or sixth-best among the 3-year-old dirt runners in his home country. With his deep-closing style, he’ll have to hope for a pace meltdown to have a chance.

#18 Long Range Toddy

He did defeat Improbable in the first division of the Rebel Stakes (G2), but that effort seems like an outlier in his past performances, and he also benefited from a perfect trip while Improbable raced wide in his first start off a layoff.

#19 Spinoff

I wanted to use Spinoff based off his close runner-up effort with a wide trip in the Louisiana Derby, but drawing post 19 virtually ensures he’ll race even wider in the Derby, and I’m not sure he’s good enough to overcome such a trip.

In the Superfecta

#3 By My Standards

The improving Louisiana Derby winner will be facing tougher company, but fits well enough on the speed-figure scales and doesn’t mind racing inside horses, an asset in a race like the Kentucky Derby. Post 3 should be perfect for him.

#5 Improbable

He ran well to finish second against Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby (G1), but has suffered more than a few imperfect trips in his career. I believe a big reason is because he’s sluggish to get going and sacrifices tactical position in the opening stages of his races. The talent is there, but if he’s sluggish again from post 5, he’s bound to get buried in traffic.

#8 Tacitus

On paper there’s no reason to knock Tacitus, who overcame a rough trip to win the Wood Memorial, but my gut feeling is he’s benefited from facing against less than the cream of the crop this year. Can he hold his own against the four favorites from California?

#13 Code of Honor

The Fountain of Youth (G2) winner was compromised by the race shape of the Florida Derby (G1), but stayed on to finish third and has trained up a storm since then. With a better setup in Louisville, he could be sitting on an improved performance.

#14 Win Win Win

This slow-starting colt has yet to win around two turns, but he’s bred to relish the Derby distance and was closing fast after a troubled trip in the Blue Grass. His final workout at Churchill Downs was eye-catching.

#20 Country House

He finished third behind Omaha Beach and Improbable in the Arkansas Derby, and while Country House has a habit of breaking slowly, he’s proven over wet going (which could turn up on Derby Day) and strikes me as a Lookin At Lee/Golden Soul/Make Music for Me type—a Derby longshot who could rally from way back to hit the board at a big price.

Use in Multi-Race Wagers

#7 Maximum Security

He got an easy lead in the Florida Derby, but he also sprinted home the final three furlongs in a blazing :35.96. He’s the only clear frontrunner in the Derby field and might just work out another cushy trip setting or stalking a modest pace.

#16 Game Winner

The 2-year-old champion is winless in two starts this year, but he endured wide trips while facing tough company in both defeats. Trainer Bob Baffert seems to have tightened the screws since the Santa Anita Derby (G1), and Game Winner’s third start of the season could be his best.

#17 Roadster

He might have gotten a better trip and pace setup than Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby, but give credit to Roadster for finishing relatively fast over a slow track. This lightly raced colt is clearly a talented individual.

Top Choice

#12 Omaha Beach

He’s fast. He’s tactical. He’s the Arkansas Derby winner, the Rebel Stakes winner, and a deserving favorite to win the Kentucky Derby. Omaha Beach is a rapidly improving colt with the ability to make a move early in a race, settle back down and re-break in the homestretch. With a perfect draw in post 12, outside of all the other speed horses, I expect him to work out a clean trip and cruise to the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May.

My recommended wagering strategy for the Kentucky Derby will be finalized later on. In the meantime, !