Kentucky Derby Prep School: so who is top of the class now Omaha Beach is out?

It is no surprise that Saturday's running of the Kentucky Derby will be a highly competitive affair. Photo:

After three months on the Kentucky Derby trail, James Willoughby has examined the candidates’ work in fine detail ahead of the great race at Churchill Downs on Saturday. Here is his final assessment.    


It’s exam time for the Prep School graduates! After a fascinating series of trials, grades have been dished out and – most importantly – qualifying points have been earned. Now the talking must stop and theory must become practice: bring on the Triple Crown.

The Kentucky Derby never fails to excite. It is one of the world’s great races and the qualifying system offers the chance for the rest of the world to run. One horse - the Japanese-trained Master Fencer – will be taking up that offer this time, but countless more have tried and failed to earn their place.

Among the domestic aspirants, seven races worth the maximum 100 points have been run and seven different horses have annexed them. It’s no surprise that we have the usual highly competitive affair, but one horse arguably deserves the title of ‘most likely to end up with a famous resume’ alongside his picture in the yearbook.

As usual, in this series, this horse will be identified under the title ‘Top Choice’ with a second horse nominated in the ‘Value Play’ section being worth betting at the likely odds.

We kept a running record of these selections, as follows:

  • Limonite (G2 Risen Star) 5th, 17.5-1
  • Bourbon War (G2 Fountain of Youth) 2nd, 4.3-1
  • HAIKAL (G3 Gotham) WON, 4.4-1
  • Outshine (G2 Tampa Bay Derby) 2nd, 6.1-1
  • Galilean (G2 Rebel Stakes Div 1) 3rd, 3.6-1
  • OMAHA BEACH (G2 Rebel Stakes Div 2) WON, 4.4-1
  • Spinoff (G2 Louisiana Derby) 2nd, 4.3-1
  • MAXIMUM SECURITY (G1 Florida Derby) WON, 4.8-1
  • Hoffa’s Union (G2 Wood Memorial) 7th, 8.7-1
  • Somelikeithotbrown (G2 Blue Grass) 4th, 9.8-1
  • Nolo Contesto (G1 Santa Anita Derby) 4th, 16.2-1
  • Galilean (G1 Arkansas Derby) 5th, 6.9-1

12 bets, 3 wins, +4.60 units, +38% return on investment


RACE: $3 million G1 Kentucky Derby
TRACK: Churchill Downs, Kentucky
DISTANCE: One mile, two furlongs
DESCRIPTION: The ‘Run for the Roses’ is one of the world’s great races

Top choice: IMPROBABLE

Following the scratching of Omaha Beach, IMPROBABLE just got more probable.

The G1 Arkansas Derby is the best form of any trial. In that, Omaha Beach made a move to boss the race running down the back straight, and from that point he was always going to be very difficult to beat. But, watch how well Improbable stuck on his wake, which you can review here.

Going into that contest, TRC Global Rankings data internal to the way we rate races and horses had Improbable’s triple G1 winning-stable companion Game Winner in front of him as a Kentucky Derby prospect. That was largely because Game Winner’s sire, Candy Ride, is much more likely to get a Derby winner than Improbable’s sire, City Zip, and, given this prior, the fact that Improbable had not proven his stamina beyond eight and a half furlongs was sufficient reason to downrate him.

The Arkansas Derby finished that argument off forever. City Zip, while undoubtedly an influence for speed, is also a half-brother to Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Ghostzapper, himself currently our #36 sire overall. It could be that Improbable is more typical of that one’s stock. Either way, he was strong at the end of the Oaklawn race and is clearly peaking at just the right time. It is the view here that there simply isn’t anything in this line-up as good as Omaha Beach in his way this time. For this reason, Improbable looks sure to give a good account: it is likely we have not seen the full extent of his capabilities yet, and he is training with great freedom and exuberance.

As well as Improbable and Game Winner, Bob Baffert sends out a third G1 winner in Roadster. This one graduated in the Santa Anita Derby under a terrific ride from Omaha Beach’s jockey, Mike Smith. The Hall of Fame rider took back from a fast pace down the back straight and pounced late on Game Winner, who had covered ground on the turn.

The physics of the issue – Roadster distributed his energy more evenly – suggests Game Winner will reverse the form in a fair fight, but there will not be much in it. Indeed, it could be that Roadster – finally living up to his big reputation – is now improving after having a veterinary tweak.

G1 Florida Derby winner Maximum Security cannot be rated as high as Omaha Beach, Improbable and Game Winner yet, but he too is going the right way. He was impressive at Gulfstream Park, storming clear on the turn and readily holding Bodexpress and the G2 Fountain of Youth winner Code Of Honor in the straight. The problem is that he hasn’t yet met opponents of truly elite calibre, and it is fair to say he enjoyed the run of the race last time. Still, he remains unbeaten and we will see what he can do here.

Tacitus – the leading points-earner in the field – is also entitled to consideration. He is a big, galloping grey who was less well regarded than his Bill Mott stablemate, Hidden Scroll, earlier in the year, but, while that one fell by the wayside as race distances increased, Tacitus thrived. He is the kind of horse easy to underestimate, given that he doesn’t look pretty doing it out there, but he overcame trouble to win the G2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and can easily add more muscle to his frame.

If the winner was determined by the aesthetics of a horse’s movement, G2 Blue Grass winner Vekoma would be last, but on talent he is likely nearer first. In full flight, his forelimbs remind one more of swimming legend Michael Phelps than Secretariat, but he is improving at the right time, judged by a strong-staying Keeneland win, which saw him draw clear late and hold the charge of Win Win Win. (The latter is a colt to keep an eye on further down the road, by the way.)

The concern with Vekoma is the standard of the opposition he has faced. Prior to the Blue Grass, he was well held in third by Code Of Honor in the Fountain of Youth.


When a horse wins a Derby trial at better than 22/1 odds, it usually pays to be circumspect. The odds of a horse condense the prior information available about it, so when performance departs so sharply from expectation, this often implies something negative about the rest of the field. Was the result a pace-aided fluke? Did several of the winner’s rivals run poorly?

The more you look at the G2 Louisiana Derby, the more you study the data, the more impressed you become with BY MY STANDARDS. Far from winning because of the run of the race, it really seems as if he won in spite of it.

Going into that Fair Grounds race, wildly impressive allowance winner Spinoff came out well on our figures and we made him a strong recommendation in his favour here. His performance did not disappoint; his raking stride took him into the lead in the straight, and it looked as if he had to win. But, despite Spinoff pulling further and further away from the field, By My Standards came home even stronger and beat him in cold blood.

Why, then, was such a talented colt 22/1? Well, perhaps his trainer, Bret Calhoun, is less fashionable than some – even after more than 2,600 wins. The main factor was probably his horse’s lack of seasoning, however, for, after four starts, he had won only a maiden, for all that it was a really impressive four-length win.

But surely this only means he is open to further improvement heading into the Derby. He ought to have picked up more conditioning too. When you review his performance, it is possible to rate him above the bare result, given that he was only angled to daylight in the straight after Spinoff was already in full flight.

The Fair Grounds track was slick that day, so the fact that By My Standards stopped the clock at 1:49.53 for the nine furlongs – the fastest time in a 9f running of the race since 1977 - has to be put into context: other times on the card were significantly faster than their pars also.

But the collateral form is interesting too: note that fourth-placed Country House was beaten almost exactly the same margin by Omaha Beach at Oaklawn subsequently. Moreover, six-length third Sueno was beaten half that distance when occupying the same place in the G3 Lexington Stakes. 

By My Standards is a really easy mover – just watch him work here. And he seems to be more than standing up to the increased intensity of his training and racing schedule.

While his pedigree isn’t that of a Derby horse – in terms of what fast miler sire Goldencents implies in the way of stamina – it could be that a relaxed way of going helps By My Standards exploit his distance potential better than other horses. Note how the splits of the last three furlongs at Fair Grounds (from the Equibase chart) of 25.30 and  12.69 (pro-rated 25.38) prove he wasn’t stopping.

Previously in this series

Who might have learned enough to shine in the Risen Star?
Hidden Scroll must show he’s up to it between the ears
Can Instagrand repay some welcome independent thinking?
Is this a Bob Baffert benefit?
Now the better stayers start to come into their own
Can Hidden Scroll take his second chance?
Analysis of a crucial weekend
Omaha Beach looks to have that crucial quality

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