Keeler Johnson's Kentucky Derby Top 10: Things Are About to Get Serious

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February 25th, 2019

Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen, because the Road to the Kentucky Derby is going to feature hectic, non-stop action from here on out.

After weeks (months?) without any significant changes in my Kentucky Derby Top 10, expect to see some major shifts over the next couple of weeks as my top six contenders compete in races like the March 2 Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II), the March 9 San Felipe Stakes (gr. II), and the March 9 Tampa Bay Derby (gr. II).

Actually, there’s going to be a significant prep race every week from now until the Road to the Kentucky Derby wraps up with the April 13 Arkansas Derby (gr. I), so we’ll have no shortage of topics to discuss during the next month and a half.

In the meantime, here’s how my top contenders stack up….
  1. Game Winner

Seven furlongs in 1:25 flat. Six furlongs from the starting gate in 1:13.60. After a quiet January, Game Winner’s training has gotten serious in recent weeks; he’s been working in company with the graded stakes-winning six-year-old Dr. Dorr and is rapidly approaching his three-year-old debut.
  1. Improbable

Baffert has said that he might run both Game Winner and Improbable in the San Felipe, but Baffert is known for changing plans at the last minute, and judging from Improbable’s terrific work tab (including six furlongs in a bullet 1:12.00 on February 25), it seems entirely possible that we could see Improbable tackle the San Felipe while Game Winner waits another week for the March 16 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park.
  1. Instagrand

If both Game Winner and Improbable do start in the San Felipe, we’ll be looking at an epic three-way showdown between my top-ranked Derby candidates, as Instagrand is also targeting that 1 1/16-mile race. In his penultimate pre-race workout, he went seven furlongs in 1:26.60 on February 25, his longest workout so far this year.
  1. Signalman

I won’t be disappointed if Signalman loses the Fountain of Youth, given how he’s shown to be something of a “pick up the pieces” type so far. There’s also no guarantee that he’ll fire his A-game at Gulfstream Park, a track that plays a bit differently than Churchill Downs and Keeneland. As long as Signalman plugs away to finish a decent third or so, I think that will be an effort he can build on down the road. And if he runs better, I’ll take that as a good sign.
  1. Win Win Win

How many horses can blaze the final five-sixteenths of a 5 ½-furlong sprint in :16.78 seconds, and then come back two starts later at a different track to run the second quarter-mile of a seven-furlong sprint in about :21.40? Win Win Win’s pure speed is remarkable, and he displayed it yet again when breezing five furlongs from the Tampa Bay Downs starting gate in a bullet :59.20 on February 24. The second-fastest time of the morning was 1:00.40, more than a second slower.
  1. Hidden Scroll

He completed his preparations for the Fountain of Youth by working five furlongs in 1:00.00 on February 24 at Payson Park. With Harvey Wallbanger and Maximus Mischief skipping the Fountain of Youth, Hidden Scroll’s task has grown a bit easier, though he’ll still have to reckon with Signalman.
  1. War of Will

Despite his strongly turf-oriented pedigree, and the success of many of his siblings on grass, War of Will has shown a clear affinity for dirt that has seemingly come out of nowhere. That said, his dam did produce Tacticus, a son of A.P. Indy who won two long-distance stakes races on dirt, and War of Will’s sire, War Front, has produced a few quality dirt runners led by The Factor, Peace and War, Departing, and Declaration of War. Maybe War of Will’s dirt proficiency isn’t as far-fetched as it seems at first glance.
  1. Anothertwistafate

Anothertwistafate’s pedigree is little bit of a tough read. His sire and dam sire—Scat Daddy and First Defence—were both Grade 1 winners on dirt, but at stud they’ve proven versatile, siring major wins on dirt, turf, and synthetic. Obviously Anothertwistafate relishes the Tapeta track at Golden Gate Fields, but at least his pedigree suggests that a successful switch to dirt could be within his wheelhouse.
  1. Mucho Gusto

Baffert has Mucho Gusto penciled in for the Rebel Stakes, a race that the Hall of Fame conditioner has won six times since 2010. The local contingent at Oaklawn Park seems a bit slim this year, so the Rebel could be easy pickings for Mucho Gusto if he runs as expected.
  1. Roadster

In an ambitious move, Baffert has entered Roadster in a one-mile allowance optional claiming race on March 1 at Santa Anita. Never mind that Roadster has breezed just four times since the start of the year—it seems that Baffert is still thinking of the Derby for this highly-regarded colt, who will have Mike Smith in the saddle for Friday’s acid test.