Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:59 AM
Derby Contenders - Part 1
This week, Anthony “the Big A” Stabile will preview the 2019 Kentucky Derby on VegasInsider.com, culminating on Friday, May 3 with an extensive analysis of every runner that steps into the gate for the Run for the Roses. On both May 3 and May 4, Kentucky Oaks and Derby Day, you’ll be able to purchase Stabile’s Pick Packs, full of selections and plays for two of racings’ most exciting days of the year. To purchase Anthony Stabile products, click here!
Part 1 · Part 2 · Part 3 · Part 4
The first of our four-part Kentucky Derby preview will focus on the horses who earned their way into the Kentucky Derby starting gate by way of the Arkansas or California prep races.
Three of them – Game Winner, Roadster and Improbable - are trained by five-time Derby winning trainer Bob Baffert while the other two are conditioned by a couple of fellow Hall of Fame trainers looking for their first win in the race, Omaha Beach for Richard Mandella and Long Range Toddy from the Steve Asmussen barn.
Editor's Note: Omaha Beach was scratched on Wednesday
The likely favorite in the Derby, Omaha Beach came in to the year having never even run on the dirt. He finished third in his debut then second in his two subsequent starts in turf races around two turns as a juvenile before missing by a half-length in his dirt debut going a flat mile in his first start of this year. He’s won three straight races since.
Omaha Beach broke his maiden in his lone sprint try, romping by nine lengths in the slop at Santa Anita going seven panels before Mandella shipped him to Arkansas for the Rebel.
Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith climbed aboard Omaha Beach for the first time in the Rebel. Omaha Beach pressed the pace from the start and found himself on the lead by the time they left the clubhouse turn. He was able to set sensible fractions before opening up a two-length lead in the lane and holding off Game Winner in a thrilling deep-stretch duel.
Mandella brought Omaha Beach back to Oaklawn for the G1 Arkansas Derby for a bout with another Baffert for in Improbable. It poured down rain the days prior and of the Arkansas Derby and Omaha Beach loved the sloppy ground again. In a trip reminiscent to the one in the Rebel, he broke, pressed and made the lead soon after straightening down the backstretch and galloped along to the turn before Improbable came calling but never got closer than a length, the final margin of victory.
Smith, who could have ridden others in here, announced he would stay with Omaha Beach when the final preps had been run and will be looking for his third Derby tally having scored with longshot Giacomo in 2005 and last year with the Justify, the betting favorite.
2018 Eclipse Award winner for Outstanding Two-Year-Old Game Winner will be one of the three runners trying to get Baffert his record-tying sixth Kentucky Derby winner. His prior winners were three who eventually failed in their Triple Crown bids - Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002 – along with the two who succeeded, American Pharoah in 2015 and last year with Justify.
An undefeated, 2018 season that included G1 wins in the Del Mar Futurity, American Pharoah at Santa Anita and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill, after a debut win at Del Mar, Game Winner entered this year as the winter book favorite for the Derby.
Game Winner’s plans were altered almost immediately after he began preparing for his return when the San Felipe was cancelled due to surface issues and such at Santa Anita. He was set to face off with stablemate Improbable in that heat. Baffert opted to ship both to the G2 Rebel at Oaklawn, a race that was run in divisions due to an overflow of entries, thus separating the two.
In his Rebel, Game Winner fell towards the back of the field and was in a similar position as to the one he rallied from to gut out his win in the Juvenile some four-and-a-half months earlier. The result was different in Arkansas, however, as he fell a nose short of Omaha Beach after the stretch duel.
Back home in California for the G1 Santa Anita Derby just three weeks later, Game Winner and his regular rider Joel Rosario, who won this in 2013 with Orb, broke a bit sharper and was more forwardly paced but still raced wide as he had in the Rebel. He made the lead off of the far turn but couldn’t hold off Roadster in the very late stages and finished second.
While they’ve never faced off, Improbable and Game Winner can be linked in several ways. Improbable was also perfect as a two-year-old. He managed to win by just a neck in his sprint debut at Santa Anita a few hours before Game Winner’s romp in the American Pharoah, then showed dominance when stretching out to take the Street Sense at Churchill by over seven lengths going a mile on B.C. Friday several races before the Juvenile. He took down his biggest win of the season when he romped by over five lengths in the G1 Los Alamitos Futurity going 1 1 /16 miles in early December.
Like Game Winner, Improbable has finished second in both of his starts this year. He even got beat in his own division of the Rebel when he was kept extremely wide throughout before making the lead off of the turn only to get snatched on the line by Long Range Toddy.
Baffert made a rider change to Jose Ortiz, marking the first time the pair would team up, and put a pair of blinkers on Improbable for the Arkansas Derby. Breaking from the rail, he was taken off the pace despite the equipment change and post draw and was once again wide on the far turn. Still, he had dead aim on Omaha Beach but could not make up the length or so needed to get the money for over a quarter-mile.
Improbable will get another rider change for the Derby as Jose Ortiz committed to ride Tacitus. His brother, Irad Ortiz, Jr. will have the mount.
Oddly enough, Roadster is the least seasoned of the Baffert trio and figures to be the biggest price on the tote board of the three in spite being the only one of them to win this season.
Like a handful of SoCal juveniles last year, Roadster turned in an eye-catching debut tally early on in the season, romping by over four-lengths as the 4-5 chalk in a late July race at Del Mar. He disappointed some five weeks later when he finished two lengths behind Game Winner when third in the Del Mar Futurity before being laid up for almost six months.
Roadster returned in an entry level allowance/optional claimer on March 1. Sent off as the second choice at 4-5 (you read that correctly) he sat just off the early pace before making the lead and defeating the chalk by over two lengths.
In the Santa Anita Derby, Roadster was taken a bit more considerably off of the pace and launched a move on the far turn that eventually got him past game winner just before the wire to win by a half-length.
Perhaps the real action for Roadster came off of the track when Smith, his pilot in all of his starts, decided to stick with Omaha Beach, leading Baffert to grab a guy considered by many to be one of the top riders in Kentucky, Florent Geroux.
Long Range Toddy hasn’t had more six weeks between starts in an eight-race career that began at Remington Park on the final day of August last year. After finishing in a dead-heat for fourth in that sprint, he finished off his juvenile season with three consecutive wins, including both the Clevor Trevor going seven furlongs and the Springboard Mile where he won by a head and earned his first Derby points in the process.
After making his first four starts at Remington, Long Range Toddy made all four of his starts this year at Oaklawn, finishing a tough-luck second in the Smarty Jones before making up some ground late to be third in a strangely run edition of the G3 Southwest.
Rider Jon Court climbed aboard for the first time in the Rebel and gave what was one of the best rides in a Derby prep race one could give when Long Range Toddy broke on the lead before Court eased him off the pace and to the outside. He came and got Improbable in the last few jumps to get the money, points and lock up a Derby berth all at once.
In the Arkansas Derby, Long Range Toddy did not do much running. He broke alertly and pressed the pace a bit but never seemed to grab hold of the track and finished a non-threatening fifth.
Anthony “the Big A” Stabile can be heard regularly on the Horse Racing Radio Network from 3-6:00 p.m. ETon Wednesday and 3-7:00 p.m. ET Thursday and Friday. Tune in on Sirius 219, XM 201 or streaming live at horseracingradio.net. He also is a contributor on NYRA-TV as the co-host of Talking Horses and a backup racetrack announcer. Follow him on Twitter @thebigastabile