Last Updated Aug 30, 2021, 9:59 AM
Derby Contenders - Part 2
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 second 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 New York and Kentucky, primarily, led by the highest points-earner on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, Tacitus.
Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who is seeking his first win in the Derby, Tacitus finished fourth in his debut going 1 1/16 miles at Belmont in early October before breaking his maiden going a mile at Aqueduct one month later in his two starts last year. He showed tactical speed in both efforts just off a couple of honest paces, especially in the early going.
After a winter in which Mott had to plot the course for several sophomores pointed towards Louisville, he decided to bring Tacitus back in the G2 Tampa Bay Derby in early March. Tampa Bay’s racing surface has historically been one of the trickiest and quirkiest around and figured to provide a solid acid-test for a horse with just two starts under his belt. Tacitus answered the call.
Under his regular rider Jose Ortiz, Tacitus was much farther off the pace than usual from post 10 and faced a double-digit length deficit when the field made its way to the far turn. He began to launch a bid with a little over a quarter of a mile to go and passed horses swiftly while racing along the inside. He made the lead in deep stretch and held off a couple rallying with him to score by just over a length at just under 9-1.
Tacitus returned to the site of his maiden tally four weeks later to run in the G2 Wood Memorial.
The post time favorite at 5-2 from post 3, Tacitus broke alertly but quickly encountered traffic trouble on the first turn when the longshot front-runner crossed over from his outside draw and caused a chain reaction that led to several runners getting bounced around and bumped.
Tacitus found himself in fourth going down the backstretch of the Wood Memorial behind a speed duel some seven or eight lengths ahead of him. Ortiz waited until the far turn to launch his bid, this time going outside of the front runners, and Tacitus finally got to the lead in mid-stretch before drawing away to win by a similar margin to the one in his prior start.
Like Tacitus, Vekoma will be making just his fifth start in the Run for the Roses, for trainer George Weaver, who’ll give Javier Castellano a leg up once again in the Derby.
Vekoma broke his maiden going six furlongs at Belmont in his debut by almost two lengths, stopping the clock in a sparkling 1:08 4/5, back in late September. Weaver stretched him out and tried him in stakes company on Breeders’ Cup weekend at Aqueduct where he won the G3 Nahua going a mile in almost identical fashion as his maiden score.
Nearly four months later, Vekoma made his seasonal bow in the G2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream. It would be his first try around two turns, something several people thought would be an issue for him. His effort did nothing to answer those questions.
Perfectly placed behind a sharp early pace in fourth, Vekoma did little running in the second half of the Fountain of Youth going 1 1/16 miles around the short stretch in those races at Gulfstream and actually lost ground in the late stages where he ultimately finished third nearly three lengths behind the winner.
Weaver changed riders to Castellano for his final prep, the G2 Blue Grass, where Vekoma put the two-turns question to rest. Placed just off of the early pace by Castellano, Vekoma made the lead midway on the far turn then accelerated away nicely through the stretch to win by an expanding 3 ½ lengths.
Both his margin of victory and awkward running action had people talking about Vekoma after the Blue Grass, a race many felt was the most authoritative prep-effort put forth this season.
Win Win Win has finished behind both Tacitus and Vekoma in his last two starts, respectively, though there are some out there that were more enamored with his effort as opposed to the winner’s in the Blue Grass.
Trained by Mike Trombetta, whose lone Derby starter prior to this year, Sweetnorthernsaint, was the lukewarm favorite back in 2006, Win Win Win made his first four starts in sprints, with the first three coming at Laurel near the trainer’s mid-Atlantic base.
A couple of wins followed by a second in a minor-stakes in Maryland as a juvenile were followed by a sensational, track and stakes record effort in the seven-furlong Pasco at Tampa Bay Downs, where Win Win Win stopped the clock in 1:20 4/5. The performance earned him a chance to get on the Derby Trail.
In the Tampa Bay Derby, Trombetta replaced regular rider Julian Pimentel with Irad Ortiz, Jr. despite Pimentel’s performance on Win Win Win. He was never far from Tacitus throughout but was eventually forced five-wide on the far turn and lost some ground before rallying to get third.
In the Blue Grass, Win Win Win had just one on his thirteen rivals beat in the early running and passed most of the them before the far turn before finding a good deal of traffic trouble/ He was bumped a couple of times then forced to steady a bit before resuming his rally in deep stretch when Vekoma was long gone. He managed a runner-up performance that got him into this spot.
With Ortiz opting to ride Improbable in the Derby, Trombetta has given the mount on Win Win Win back to Pimentel.
Tax earned every one of his 52 Derby points at the Big A for trainer Danny Gargan, who claimed him just his second start out of a $50 maiden claimer victory going 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland, last October. Gargan ran him back six weeks later in the G2 Remsen at nine furlongs and Tax rewarded his faith with a solid third place finish less than three lengths behind the winner.
Two months later in the G3 Withers going the same distance as the Remsen, Tax stumbled a bit at the start under his new rider Junior Alvarado but recovered quickly and took advantage of the inside bias that day at Aqueduct and never left the rail. The hole opened up along the inside in mid-stretch and after briefly battling with a couple of rivals, Tax edged away and held off a re-rally from the pacesetting Not That Brady to score by just a head.
Not wanting to cut back to the one-turn mile distance of the G3 Gotham, Tax had another brief freshening and returned two months later in the Wood Memorial. Leaving the gate from post 1 again, Tax was one of those bothered going into the first turn and was actually considered to be one of the culprits by some for some dramatic actions taken by his rider going into the clubhouse turn run. Tax moved in tandem with Tacitus on the turn and mustered a nice rally but couldn’t stay with the winner in the final stages.
Speaking of Aqueduct, the Derby will be the first start Haikal makes outside of the South Ozone Park, NY oval for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
Editor's Note: Haikal was scratched on Friday
Haikal flew home through the stretch to miss by just a neck while racing wide in his November debut before riding the rail to victory when cutting back to six furlongs under Rajiv Maragh for the first time some five weeks later.
Haikal made his stakes debut in the seven-furlong Jimmy Winkfield where Maragh took advantage of a pronounced inside bias and rallied him up the rail again to win by a neck.
Stretching out in the Gotham, Haikal went from looking like a prototypical, one-run closer to a racehorse when he took advantage of a pace meltdown to get up by a length. The Gotham win not only earned him 50 points but showed some people his ability to listen to his rider and alter course effectively, two things one-run closers often cannot do.
Haikal still had the two-turn question to answer and certainly proved he could handle it in the Wood Memorial, where his lack of early speed may have actually helped his cause going into the turn because he didn’t get into any trouble while others did. That can be taken as a negative as well when you consider the fact that the top two were affected and Haikal was only able to manage a third-place finish, four lengths behind Tacitus.
Still, the Haikal camp has to be happy with the fact that the distance of the Wood Memorial didn’t seem to hinder him. He was still making up ground at the end of the nine furlongs and in fact is one of only horse pointing to the Derby who can say he’s improved position in the second portion of all of his starts.
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