Keeler Johnson's Kentucky Derby Top 10: No Changes (For Now)

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December 18th, 2018

As the racing year winds down, the final Kentucky Derby prep races of the season are wrapping up.

On Sunday, Long Range Toddy forged to a narrow victory in the Remington Springboard Mile, earning 10 qualification points toward the 2019 Derby. Still to come on Wednesday is the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, the second leg of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, in which the California-bred filly Make Happya decisive winner of first leg of the series—is among the main contenders.

But for the time being, my Kentucky Derby Top 10 rankings remain unchanged, and pending a sensational performance by the winner of the Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun, that will likely remain the case until the Derby preps kick off again in January.

In the meantime, here’s how my top-ranked contenders stack up with two weeks left in the year….
  1. Game Winner

Don’t expect to see Bob Baffert firm up plans for Game Winner and Improbable any time soon—Baffert isn’t opposed to changing plans at the last minute, so until they actually show up in the entries, it’s hard to predict when or where they’ll return. One thing is for certain, the major prep races at Santa Anita and Oaklawn Park are surely on the agenda, since they’re traditionally the events that Baffert targets with his top Derby contenders.
  1. Improbable

Improbable’s style of running is very different than that of Game Winner. Whereas the latter has a relentless, grinding style that served him well in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Improbable is a bit flashier, with more early speed and push-button acceleration. It will be interesting to see how their styles compare and contrast during the next 4 ½ months.
  1. Instagrand

Will Instagrand target Santa Anita’s Derby prep races or take his game on the road? Since he’s based in California it seems logical that he would compete at Santa Anita, but trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has been known to take his Derby candidates to Fair Grounds for prep races, and with Baffert seemingly having Santa Anita’s prep races surrounded, maybe a road trip or two could be in the cards for Instagrand.
  1. Signalman

The form of his Kentucky Jockey Club victory received a slight boost when the ninth-place finish Dunph returned to run a much-improved third in the Remington Springboard Mile, though the winning Beyer for the latter race (82) was on the slow side.
  1. Roadster

I don’t think we should underestimate how much talent and professionalism Roadster displayed in his much-hyped debut at Del Mar. Breaking from the rail in a large field isn’t easy for many two-year-olds, but Roadster overcame the obstacle with ease, casually settling in third place before rallying smoothly, with authority, to pull away and decisively defeat a quality group of rivals.
  1. Code of Honor

Although he missed the Remsen Stakes after failing to train well enough to warrant running, it didn’t take Code of Honor long to get back on the work tab. After shipping to Florida and settling in at the Payson Park Training Center, Code of Honor breezed three furlongs in an easy :39.20 on December 9th, followed by a half-mile in :50.20 on December 15th.
  1. Maximus Mischief

Remarkably, Maximus Mischief went through the auction ring four times before his racing career began. After selling for $165,000 as a weanling, he failed to reach his reserves when bid up to $170,000 as a yearling and $245,000 as a two-year-old in training. Finally, at a second sale for two-year-olds in training, Maximus Mischief brought a price of $340,000 and the rest is history.
  1. Coliseum

If ever a horse were bred to be a Grade 1 winner, it’s Coliseum, right? His sire Tapit was a Grade 1 winner, his dam Game Face was a Grade 1 winner, and his damsire Menifee was a Grade 1 winner and Kentucky Derby runner-up.
  1. Vekoma

If Vekoma has the good fortune to reach the Derby starting gate, perhaps he’ll take after his dam, Mona de Momma, in showing a distinct affinity for the Churchill Downs main track. After all, Mona de Momma’s signature victory came in the Humana Distaff (gr. I) at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day in 2010.
  1. Network Effect

Normandy Invasion, Practical Joke, Good Magic… when trainer Chad Brown has a high-class two-year-old Derby contender, he knows how to prepare them for a career-best effort on the first Saturday in May. Normandy Invasion and Practical Joke were essentially milers, yet they outran expectations to finish fourth and fifth in their respective Derbies. Good Magic ran well enough at Churchill Downs to win many Derbies, but had the misfortune to come along in the same year as Triple Crown winner Justify and settled for second place. The main takeaway? Even if Network Effect disappoints during his winter/spring preps (Normandy Invasion, Practical Joke, and Good Magic were beaten in five of their six pre-Derby trials) there’s a good chance Network Effect will step up his game in the Derby itself.