Kentucky Derby kicks off Triple Crown trail on Saturday

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Ted Black

May 2nd, 2019

This coming Saturday afternoon millions of novice and serious horse racing fans alike will gather at home, race tracks or simulcast outlets to watch the 145th edition of the Grade I, $3 million Kentucky Derby, the famed "Run for the roses" known as America's most famous horse race.

Saturday afternoon well over 150,000 spectators will gather at spacious Churchill Downs for the Derby and millions more be watching on television when the full field of 20 sophomore colts, one gelding and one ridgling will break from the starting gate and seek to navigate the one-mile and one-quarter distance for the first time.

Saturday's Kentucky Derby card starts well before noon, but the serious stakes action gets under way just prior to the midway point of the program when fillies and mares will clash in the Grade I, $500,000 Humana Distaff.

Marley's Freedom, a five-year-old daughter of Blame trained by Bob Baffert, began the year by taking the Santa Monica at Santa Anita then was second in the Beholder Mile. A winner eight times from 16 career tries with just over $1 million to her credit, Marley's Freedom has been the odds-on choice in each of her last four tries and could garner that same role again in this spot.

The two most serious threats to Marley's Freedom in the Humana Distaff are actually no stranger to one another. Spiced Perfection and Amy's Challenge were one-two in the Grade I Madison Stakes at Keeneland last month and both four-year-old fillies are capable of upsetting the choice. Spiced Perfection won the Madison after running a sharp second to Late Night Pow Wow in the Barbara Fritchie Stakes at Laurel, while Amy's Challenge had her win streak snapped by Spiced Perfection in the Madison and seeks to atone here.

Then two races later in the Grade I, $500,000 Churchill Downs Handicap for older males at the same seven-furlong distance, Mitole will look to continue his sharp winning ways for trainer Steve Asmussen. The four-year-old son of Eskendreya has won five straight starts, all at odds-on, including the recent Grade III Count Fleet Stakes at Oaklawn Park. He has won six of nine career outings and banked over $700,000, so a win in this event would vault his lifetime earnings past $1 million.

Mitole will face several tough customers in the Churchill Downs Handicap. Limousine Liberal sports a 9-6-7 slate and earnings of $1.8 million lifetime, but he has won six of nine tries over the strip and earned roughly $850,000 at CD. Promises Fulfilled was recently fourth in the Dubai Golden Shaheen after running fourth in the Breeders Cup Sprint and boasts six wins and $1.1 million banked from 12 career outings. Whitmore boasts a 12-8-2 slate and earnings of nearly $2.6 million for trainer Ron Moquette and rarely runs a subpar race. Uncontested won the General George Stakes at Laurel last out, while Maryland-bred Still Having Fun is still in quest of his first score since capturing the Grade II, $400,000 Woody Stephens Stakes on Belmont Stakes day last June.

Then two races later in the Grade III, $400,000 Pat Day Mile for three-year-olds traveling one mile on the main track, Instangrand will look to regain his winning ways for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Winner of his first two starts by a combined 20 lengths, Instagrand was third in the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct then third in the Santa Anita Derby last out and tackles a modest group here. Last Judgment has won both of his starts this year for trainer Todd Pletcher and could be a late bloomer.

Then two races later in the main event, a full field is expected to go postward in the Grade I, $3 million Kentucky Derby. The "run for the roses" already lost one of its primary contenders when Omaha Beach, hero of the Arkansas Derby in his last start, was scratched from the event by trainer Richard Mandella following a breathing issue that will require minor surgery and a brief respite. Mandella has yet to win the Derby, having actually saddled the two best West Virginia-breds of all-time, Soul of the Matter and Afternoon Deelites, in the run for the roses.

With Omaha Beach out, post time favoritism will almost assuredly fall to one of three Baffert trainees - Game Winner, Improbable or Roadster. Game Winner won the Grade I, $2 million Breeders Cup Juvenile over the track last year en route to being juvenile champ, but he has been second in each of his two starts this year at two different ovals. Game Winner was second to stablemate Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby last out and second to Omaha Beach in the divided Rebel.

Like Game Winner, Improbable arrived unbeaten at the start of his sophomore campaign but he has also since been second in both sophomore outings. This Baffert trainee was second to Long Range Toddy in the Rebel then was second to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby. Of all the Derby preps the Arkansas Derby looked the most formful as that race went in 1:49.91 for the nine furlongs an hour before Quip won the Oaklawn Handicap for older horses in 1:50.21.

Roadster was perhaps the forgotten Baffert trainee heading into this season. Although he was the beaten favorite in the Del Mar Futurity won by Game Winner, Roadster has since won both of his starts this year, including the recent Santa Anita Derby over his esteemed stablemate. All three Baffert trainees are heading into the Derby in good form, so it remains possible that either one of them could be the 9-2 or 5-1 favorite at post time on Saturday evening.

A trio of other sophomores who won their prep races will also get plenty of attention. Vekoma captured the Grade II Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland for trainer George Weaver, but his front left leg action cannot be beneficial at an added distance. Tacitus was roughed up early in the Wood Memorial, but the Bill Mott trainee overcame the early trouble to win that event. Maximum Security arrives unbeaten in four career outings, including a wire-to-wire score in the Grade I Florida Derby. But that effort was suspect considering he was permitted to stroll through leisurely fractions - usually not the case in Louisville - and runner-up Bodexpress, who scratched into the field when Omaha Beach opted out, is still a maiden from five tries.

Several others who are just below the radar could have an impact on Saturday. Win Win Win was a good second to Vekoma in the Blue Grass and Fair Hill, Maryland-based trainer Michael Trombetta has already saddled one Derby favorite in Sweetnorthernsaint who returned to run second in the Preakness. Plus Que Parfait won the Grade II, $2.5 million UAE Derby at Meydan, while By My Standards took the Louisiana Derby following an ideal trip.

Several runners who will get overlooked because they did not win their most recent prep include War Of Will, badly beaten favorite in the Louisiana Derby, Tax and Gray Magician. But the most notable sleeper in the field is Sopinoff, who endured a very wide journey on both turns in the Louisiana Derby and still took the lead at the head of the lane before settling for second to By My Standards. The Todd Pletcher trainee will be a generous price and could have a serious impact on the Derby.

As a whole, this group looks above average at best and my guess is the winner need only navigate the one-mile and one-quarter distance in 2:02.56 in order to prevail. In my estimation, Improbable exits the best prep while second to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby, so I look for him to prove best of his stablemates and edge Spinoff and Win Win Win to garner the run for the roses on Saturday evening at Churchill Downs.