Keeler Johnson's Kentucky Derby Top 10: Game Winner Challenged By His Stablemate?

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December 10th, 2018

For the first time this season, a horse has emerged to challenge Game Winner for the top spot in my Kentucky Derby Top 10, a position that the son of Candy Ride has tenaciously held since September.

Ultimately, Game Winner narrowly retained his leadership spot, but the fact that a horse as talented and accomplished as Game Winner isn’t first by a mile speaks volumes about the talent of the up-and-coming Improbable, who moves up to second place after ranking third on my list last week.

Meanwhile, dropping off my list—at least for the time being—is Preamble, who has not posted a workout since his October 19th allowance victory at Keeneland. He’ll be a candidate to rejoin my list once he resumes serious training, but in the meantime, here’s how I rank my Top 10…
  1. Game Winner

Is Game Winner even the most talented Derby contender in trainer Bob Baffert’s barn? That’s open to debate following Improbable’s impressive victory in the Los Alamitos Futurity, though in terms of actual accomplishments to date it’s no contest as Game Winner’s three Grade 1 wins this year have made him an overwhelming favorite to be voted champion two-year-old male at the Eclipse Awards.

One performance in particular is keeping Game Winner at the top of my list, and that is his gutsy victory the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), in which he raced very wide every step of the way but still gamely wore down the Grade 1 winner Knicks Go to win going away. In my opinion, that was a sensational and perhaps underappreciated performance.
  1. Improbable

“Improbable has a long stride like Justify. He’s just a smaller version. I’m not saying he’s at Justify’s level yet, but he’s a really good horse.” That’s what Bob Baffert told Los Alamitos following Improbable’s five-length triumph in the Los Alamitos Futurity, and if Baffert is already comparing Improbable to the 2018 Triple Crown winner, then we need to sit up and take notice. Los Alamitos is a track pretty conducive to fast finishing fractions, but nevertheless, I was impressed with how Improbable flew home the second half-mile in about :47.30 seconds, faster than his opening half-mile in about :47.50. Much like Game Winner, Improbable is shaping up to be a very serious runner and a major contender for victory on the first Saturday in May.
  1. Instagrand

Instagrand’s lengthy absence from the races has allowed Game Winner and Improbable to steal the spotlight on the West Coast, but even still, you can argue that neither of Baffert’s colts have been quite as flashy and brilliant as Instagrand was this summer. In both his debut at Los Alamitos and in the Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) at Del Mar, Instagrand, went from a length in front at the quarter pole to ten lengths in front at the wire, showcasing a breathtaking turn-of-foot that is the mark of a very special horse. But can he produce that same finish going two turns against tougher competition? Only time will tell.
  1. Signalman

Purchased for just $32,000 as a yearling, Signalman has already earned more than fourteen times his purchase price, making him one of the greatest bargains you’ll find on the Derby trail this winter.
  1. Roadster

He’s continued to train steadily at Santa Anita, posting half-mile workouts in :48.60 and :49.40 on December 4th and 10th, respectively.
  1. Code of Honor

Much like Instagrand, it’s hard to gauge Code of Honor since he didn’t compete in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile or the post-Breeders’ Cup Derby preps, but he did run well in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) against a quality field that included the next-out stakes winner Call Paul and also Trophy Chaser, who came back to run second behind Improbable in the Street Sense Stakes.
  1. Maximus Mischief

Based on Beyer speed figures, Maximus Mischief is indisputably the fastest colt of his generation thus far this year with figures of 94, 98, and 97 in his first three starts; the 98 actually ranks as the highest number earned by any member of his foal crop.
  1. Coliseum

This speedy son of Tapit threw down a bullet half-mile workout in :47 flat on December 4th, but it’s unclear when he might make his much-anticipated second start. He wasn’t nominated to Sunday’s Remington Springboard Mile, so the next logical spot for Coliseum would be the January 5th Sham Stakes (gr. III), which is still four weeks away. Will Bob Baffert train him up to the Sham, or will he find something like an allowance race a bit sooner on the calendar?
  1. Vekoma

He’ll be down in Florida this winter and could potentially face off with Code of Honor and Maximus Mischief in races like the Holy Bull Stakes (gr. II) and Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), which should help clarify how all three are progressing (or regressing?) as the Derby draws nearer.
  1. Network Effect

Network Effect couldn’t match strides with Vekoma in the Nashua Stakes (gr. II), and he couldn’t keep up with Maximus Mischief during the fast second half-mile of the Remsen Stakes (gr. II), but he did plug away gamely to finish second in both races while earning solid Beyer speed figures of 93 and 94. Trained by Chad Brown, Network Effect is a pretty young April foal with the potential to improve a lot during the coming months, and judging from the fine work Brown has done with some of his past Derby contenders, I’m expecting Network Effect to show excellent progress over the winter.