Keeler Johnson's Kentucky Derby Top 10: The Calm Before the Storm

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December 31st, 2018

Just as we’re on the verge of entering 2019, we’re also on the verge of entering a new stage on the Road to the 2019 Kentucky Derby.

Things have been quiet over the last couple of weeks, but that will change when the two-year-olds of today turn three years old on January 1st. The Derby prep races will kick off immediately thereafter with the January 1st Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, the January 5th Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita, and the January 5th Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Two of the horses in my current Top 10 will be racing, so expect to see some changes to my rankings next week. In the meantime, here’s how I view the top Kentucky Derby contenders as 2018 draws to a close….
  1. Game Winner

He’s still taking things easy at Santa Anita and will probably continue to take things easy for a while yet, since Baffert is tentatively planning to run Game Winner just twice before the Kentucky Derby. That means we might not see Game Winner return to the races until early March, in which case he probably won’t return to the work tab until mid-January or so.
  1. Improbable

Improbable wasn’t in any great demand as a youngster, selling for just $110,000 as a weanling and $200,000 as a yearling, but he’s already earned $269,520 on the track, and with a Grade 1 win under his belt, his future as a stallion is probably guaranteed. Not bad for a horse whose greatest accomplishments might still be to come!
  1. Instagrand

He made his much-anticipated return to the work tab on December 30 at Santa Anita, breezing three furlongs in an easy :38.80. It wasn’t much in the scheme of things, but it’s a starting point as he eases back into serious training.
  1. Signalman

An imposing specimen measuring more than 17 hands tall, it’s not surprising that Signalman is seemingly able to intimidate his rivals and bull his way through traffic. Just as interesting is seeing such a large horse display the athleticism and ability to start, stop, and start again that Signalman has showcased on several occasions throughout his career.
  1. Roadster

He hasn’t posted a timed workout since December 19th, a break in his training that is getting a bit concerning. If he hasn’t returned to the work tab by next week, I may have to rethink Roadster’s current ranking on my list.
  1. Code of Honor

After breezing a half-mile in :48 flat on December 29 at Palm Meadows, trainer Shug McGaughey revealed that Code of Honor will make his three-year-old debut in the January 5 Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The one-turn mile of that race—the same conditions as the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) in which Code of Honor finished second—should be a perfect starting point for this promising son of Noble Mission.
  1. Maximus Mischief

Thanks at least in part to his son Maximus Mischief, 2018 was a banner year for the stallion Into Mischief, who finished the season in fourth place on the general sire list compiled by The Blood-Horse. Despite a reputation as a sprinter/miler, Into Mischief has turned out to be a fairly versatile stallion capable of siring major winners over a wide variety of distances, including the 2017 Kentucky Derby third-place finisher Audible.
  1. Coliseum

He threw down six furlongs in 1:12.40 on December 30 at Santa Anita, his third straight bullet move over the distance. With six sharp workouts under his belt since his debut, Coliseum looks ready to roll in Saturday’s Sham Stakes (gr. III), which will mark his stakes and two-turn debut.
  1. Vekoma

Just how deep was the six-furlong Belmont maiden race that Vekoma won on debut in September? Well, five of the horses he beat have run since then, and every last one improved their performance, led by the next-out maiden winners Epic Dreamer and Mihos. Plus, Vekoma’s two closest pursuers in the Nashua Stakes (gr. III)—Network Effect and Call Paul—have come back to finish second in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) and first in the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes, respectively. You certainly can't knock the caliber of competition that Vekoma has beaten thus far.
  1. Network Effect

Like Instagrand, Network Effect returned to the work tab on December 30, breezing a half-mile in :49 flat at Palm Meadows. That was his first move since shipping to Florida from New York, though it remains unclear where he might run next.