2019 Kentucky Derby preview: With Omaha Beach out, field is wide open

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This year’s Kentucky Derby suddenly became wide open after morning-line favorite Omaha Beach was scratched on Wednesday with a breathing issue.

Omaha Beach’s trainer, Richard Mandella, said it was a “bitter pill to swallow,” but they’ll move forward and address the issue with surgery on Thursday. Omaha Beach has an entrapped epiglottis, which would affect his breathing if he tried to run in the race.

Fresh off a win in the Arkansas Derby, Omaha Beach seemed to be the horse to give Mandella his first Derby win.

“We came flying in here like we had it written on us, and it didn’t work,” Mandella said.

With Omaha Beach out, one of Bob Baffert’s three horses — Game Winner, Improbable or Roadster — will be the likely favorite on Saturday, with 2-year-old champion Game Winner the logical choice.

To get you prepared for the 2019 Kentucky Derby (post time, 6:50 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC), here are some handy links to get you caught up, followed by info on all 20 horses in the race (in order of original post position/race number).

What You Need to Know

Previews and betting info:

Latest 2019 Kentucky Derby odds

Betting guide for the 2019 Kentucky Derby

Kentucky Derby 2019: The lapsed fan’s guide

In the Gate Podcast: Handicapping the Derby


The one-track mind of Kentucky Derby favorite Game Winner

Why Triple Crown champs Justify and American Pharoah remain stars


Derby favorite Omaha Beach scratched from race

Omaha Beach to have surgery for breathing issue

Jockey Mike Smith on Cutting Humor after Omaha scratched

Haikal (30-1) scratched from Kentucky Derby

Serengeti Empress cruises to Kentucky Oaks win

Horse-by-Horse Breakdown

No. 1: War of Will

The No. 1 post hasn’t exactly been favorable in the modern era. Only two horses have won from it since 1963, and none since 1986, which is why trainer Mark Casse was praying he didn’t draw it. Of course, he wasn’t that lucky. The No. 1 post is almost a death sentence in the Derby due to the 20-horse field. Horses there often encounter traffic problems because most of the field is trying to immediately save ground and get to the rail.

However, Casse sat down and watched the past 20 runnings of the Derby before coming away with a better attitude. War of Will can get out of the gate very quickly, so expect him to gun it to the front to escape the traffic and set the pace. If he doesn’t, his chances to win won’t be great.

“If he’s more than four or five behind going into the first turn, we’re in trouble,” Casse said.

Keep in mind that War of Will finished ninth in the Louisiana Derby, his final prep. No Kentucky Derby winner since 1940 has finished worse than fifth in their final prep. But considering he came out of the gate awkwardly and his hindquarters almost hit the ground, he might get a pass.

No. 2: Tax

Tax was originally bred and raced by Claiborne Farm and partner Adele Dilschneider in the maiden claiming ranks before he was claimed and eventually ended up with trainer Danny Gargan.

Tax didn’t exactly get a great post either, as the No. 2 post will also come with traffic problems. He prefers a stalking type of style, and he’ll have to get out quickly as well to get to the front.

No. 3: By My Standards

It’s hard to know quite how good By My Standards is after his Louisiana Derby win considering War of Will ran so poorly due to a bad start. By My Standards is certainly getting better as the spring goes on, but it’s hard to tell if he’s quite at the level needed to win the Derby. His jockey, Gabriel Saez, was the jockey on ill-fated 2008 Kentucky Derby runner-up Eight Belles.

No. 4: Gray Magician

Gray Magician will be one of the longest shots in the race, and for good reason. He has yet to win a stakes race and his Beyer numbers haven’t been impressive.

No. 5: Improbable

Improbable is known as the “troublemaker” around the barn, and it’s hard to know what to make of him as he matures.

“He can be a little bit feisty,” Baffert said. “He’s got a bigger engine on him, he gets excited a bit, but that’s just him.

He’s certainly shown he has talent, but he acted up in the gate with blinkers on in the Arkansas Derby. Baffert is taking the blinkers back off for this race. Improbable is owned and trained by the same connections as 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify and even looks a little like him. Improbable may not be Justify, but if he puts his mind to it, he certainly has talent. He’ll likely be up near the pace.

No. 6: Vekoma

Vekoma has become known for his odd running style, with his left leg appearing to paddle the air as he runs. It hasn’t hurt him yet, as he recently won the Blue Grass Stakes by 3 lengths. However, his slow finish in the Blue Grass is pretty concerning considering he’ll have to run even farther in the Derby.

No. 7: Maximum Security

This colt is coming into the Derby undefeated, much like winner Justify last year. Maximum Security has been impressive in his four starts and won under restraint, but the Florida Derby is his only stakes experience. If War of Will sets the pace, expect Maximum Security to sit just off him so they don’t get into a speed duel and burn out in the early stages. If War of Will isn’t up there, Maximum Security is likely the leader.

No. 8: Tacitus

Tacitus certainly has the breeding, being out of Close Hatches, a champion dirt mare who could grind out distances. However, closers haven’t fared as well in the Derby lately after the switch to the points system, which has made for less cheap speed (or horses that set a fast pace and tire). While that’s not in his favor, something to like about this colt is how he handled being bumped around and clipping heels with another horse in the Wood Memorial. He’ll need that experience in the Kentucky Derby, where he’s sure to be jostled around as well.

No. 9: Plus Que Parfait

The UAE Derby winner has never gone on to do much in the actual Kentucky Derby, and that likely won’t change here. This colt hasn’t done much on American tracks. He can either stalk or close, and he’d probably need to be closer to the pace in the Kentucky Derby to have a shot.

No. 10: Cutting Humor

Jockey Corey Lanerie does some of his best work at Churchill Downs, having won several riding titles there. But will Lanerie stay on the mount with Mike Smith (who was Omaha Beach’s jockey) now available? (UPDATE: Smith will indeed pick up the mount on Cutting Humor, it was announced Friday.) Cutting Humor is a rare overlooked Todd Pletcher horse, and there’s not much to his resume yet. His best win was the Grade III Sunland Park Derby in March, when he set a track record for 1 1/8 miles.

No. 11: Haikal (SCRATCHED)

Haikal is looking like a probable scratch after a foot abscess was discovered this week. One of the longer shots in the race, he likely won’t be a factor, even if he does end up running. (UPDATE: Haikal was scratched from the race on Friday morning.)

No. 12 Omaha Beach (SCRATCHED)

No. 13: Code of Honor

Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey doesn’t run many horses in the Derby, so it’s obvious when he thinks he has a real shot, like he did with Derby winner Orb in 2013. Code of Honor showed his potential early when he won the Champagne Stakes as 2-year-old, but a fever kept him out of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He has had some perplexing missteps, like a fourth-place finish in the Mucho Macho Man. It’s possible he’s not as talented at 3, but he’ll certainly be in the mix. Jockey John Velazquez has won two previous Kentucky Derbys.

No. 14: Win Win Win

Win Win Win has turned a few heads at Churchill Downs after an interesting final workout. Two of Bill Mott’s runners, Country House and Tacitus, were working in company. Win Win Win, trained by other connections, ended up working alongside them in an unusual scene, and actually overtook them down the stretch, showing a nice competitive streak. While he has yet to beat anything of note, he does look sharp for the Derby. He’ll be coming from behind in the Derby.

No. 15: Master Fencer

Master Fencer got his bid via the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby, despite placing fourth in those standings (the connections of other three horses in front of him declined to go). He’s an extreme longshot due to a trip across the world and a different track than he’s seen before. He has a closing kick and could maybe pass some tiring horses, but it’s unlikely he’ll make much noise in this race.

No. 16: Game Winner

It’s common for precocious 2-year-olds to fall behind the curve at 3. It’s hard to tell if that’s the case with Game Winner. He won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and was named champion 2-year-old colt, but he has yet to win a race in two tries this year, losing to stablemate Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby and Omaha Beach in the Rebel. He’ll still be the probable favorite on Saturday morning, and he’ll likely turn in a good performance at minimum, but whether he can take the next step is a big question.

No. 17: Roadster

Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith chose Omaha Beach over Roadster, despite riding Roadster in all four of his races, including a win in the Santa Anita Derby. (Smith is now on the mount for Cutting Humor after Omaha Beach’s scratch.) That’s an indication he thought Omaha Beach was the better horse. Whether he’s right remains to be seen.

“I think if Mike Smith would’ve stuck to Roadster, he might’ve been the favorite,” Baffert said. “These jockeys, they’re right about 90 percent of the time, so we’ll see what happens. That’s what I’m afraid of.”

No. 18: Long Range Toddy

Jockey Jon Court, 58, will set a record for oldest jockey to start in the Kentucky Derby. He hasn’t had a Derby mount since 2013, when Will Take Charge finished eighth. Long Range Toddy will be on a longshot Saturday.

Trainer Steve Asmussen said the colt’s calm personality will help him handle the massive Churchill Downs crowds, and he did beat Improbable. But while he almost always shows up, outside of a sixth-place finish in the Arkansas Derby, that doesn’t seem to be enough to actually get in the winner’s circle.

No. 19: Spinoff

This was a pretty bad draw for a horse that likes to be close to the lead. He’ll have to use a lot of energy getting to the front from the No. 19 outside spot since that requires moving in front of a lot of horses. He could be done before they even hit the homestretch.

No. 20: Country House

This horse always seems to be right there, but he hasn’t actually beaten his best competition. This is the lesser-known Mott trainee compared to stablemate Tacitus. The outside post helps his closing running style, but the talent doesn’t appear to be there to compare with the better horses in the crop.

No. 21: Bodexpress (ALSO ELIGIBLE)

Bodexpress will draw into the race now that Omaha Beach is out and start from the No. 20 post unless another horse scratches (each horse will move inside one post toward the rail). While he did finish second in the Florida Derby, he has yet to break his maiden and would be an extreme longshot.

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