This year’s Kentucky Derby, at least on paper, is one of the most competitive in many years.
You’ve got Bob Baffert’s trio of Game Winner, Roadster and Improbable, all within half-a-tick of each other on the morning line.
You’ve got undefeated Florida Derby winner Maximum Security and Wood Memorial winner Tacitus, who jumped to first and second in early betting.
You’ve got the always present “buzz horse,” who this year is By My Standards, winner of the Louisiana Derby.
And, you’ve got Sunland Derby winner Cutting Humor getting some second looks after Mike Smith replaced Corey Lanerie as the jockey.
But the real deciding factor of who wins the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday could be, to steal a line from the Masters, a tradition unlike any other: lots of rain on Derby Day.
A vicious torrent of rain soaked Churchill Downs on Friday morning, subsided in the afternoon, but is expected to return just in time for the races Saturday.
Last year was the wettest Derby in history with around three inches of rain falling during the day. While it doesn’t appear as if Saturday’s totals will be record worthy, the past few years have had their share of precipitation.
Justify (2018) won over a sloppy track, Always Dreaming (2017) over a wet fast surface and Orb (2013) also over a sloppy track. Historically 44 Derbies have been run over a surface that was not listed as fast, leaving the other 100 on a fast track. Of course, when determining how to label a surface, most tracks tend to err on the side of making things sound better.
A track is labeled muddy if the water seeps into the dirt to create a mixture, which most people know as mud. A sloppy track is one that has usually been sealed — pressed down hard to keep the water from entering the dirt — keeping the water on top of the surface.
“I think I’ve got three nice horses, but it’s still a very wide-open race,” Baffert said. “There are 10 horses that I think are within a length of each other. It’s whoever gets the trip. And especially now that it’s going to rain, we don’t know what is going to happen. It’s too bad the weather is not going to work with us. We’ll just have to deal with it.”
Most trainers can figure a way to make it sound as if their horse would be undeterred by a wet track. But the bettors tend not to listen.
Game Winner, who was the 9-2 early morning-line favorite, slipped to the fourth-most bet horse in early wagering, no doubt because he has never run on an off surface.
Tacitus and Maximum Security were one-two in early betting, probably because they have won on a wet track. Maximum Security won by 6 ½ lengths on a muddy track under a hand ride.
“He won on an off-track,” trainer Jason Servis said of Maximum Security. “He’s checked a lot of boxes. He won a major prep — the Florida Derby. He won in the mud. He lay third and came off the pace. He’s undefeated. His mare is a half to Flat Out, who won the Jockey Gold Cup twice at a mile-and-a-quarter.
“It doesn’t matter what you like or don’t like, he’s checking a lot of boxes.”
An almost all-the-box-checker is Vekoma, winner of the Blue Grass Stakes. If you throw out a third in the Fountain of Youth, losing to Code Of Honor, he’s undefeated, winning at three different tracks. But he hasn’t run on an off surface.
“He is bred to handle it,” trainer George Weaver said. “I always thought [Churchill Downs] is one of the best when it was wet. He should be forwardly placed and hope he doesn’t have to eat too much mud.”
Vekoma’s pedigree shows parentage that won in the mud 21% of the time, which along with Game Winner is the highest in the field. Vekoma’s mother, Mona De Momma, won the Humana Distaff at Churchill in 2010 in the mud.
“I told him that his momma liked it,” Weaver said.
During Friday’s exercise, Plus Que Parfait, winner of the UAE Derby in Dubai, seemed to have an easier time over the slop than many of the other horses.
“I barely asked him to do anything,” said Tom Molloy, an assistant to trainer Brendan Walsh. “He didn’t mind the mud one bit as all.”
As difficult as it to predict how a horse will do on off tracks, there seems to be some compelling evidence on how horses do when they ship from Dubai to run in the Kentucky Derby. In 13 tries, the best a Dubai runner has finished was a fifth by Master Of Hounds in 2011.
“I would think that running any after Dubai on just 35 days is a little quick, but sometimes they surprise you,” Peter Miller said of his colt Gray Magician, who finished second in the UAE Derby. “I thought initially he would need 60 days because I’ve had some that even needed 90 days off, but with him I think it felt like a trip up the 405.”