Handicapping Saturday’s Kentucky Derby

Code of Honor, listed at 15-1, had a workout with an exercise rider at Churchill Downs Tuesday.
Code of Honor, listed at 15-1, had a workout with an exercise rider at Churchill Downs Tuesday.Charlie Riedel/AP/Associated Press

Even if the favorite wins the Kentucky Derby Saturday there will be a decent return for those who bet on him. Favorite is a relative term for the 145th edition because no horse will be the definitive top choice, especially since Omaha Beach was scratched Wednesday.

Favoritism will most likely fall to one of three entrants from trainer Bob Baffert, who won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018. Baffert has Game Winner, Improbable, and Roadster in the race.

Tacitus, a late-developing horse, was an impressive winner of the Wood Memorial in his most recent race.

Omaha Beach was the morning-line favorite after victories in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, but was scratched. Haikal also was a late scratch.


The uncertainty means long shots will be enticing propositions because there are some who have legitimate chances.

There’s always a “wise guy’’ horse. That is one who interests serious gamblers and clockers, the people who time the early-morning workouts. This year it’s By My Standards.

Here’s a look at this year’s field in post-position order:

1. War of Will

Jockey: Tyler Gaffalione

Trainer: Mark Casse

Odds: 20-1

Breakdown: His Euro-centric breeding suggests grass rather than dirt, but he had two impressive dirt victories in New Orleans before injuring himself in the Louisiana Derby. He has been working quite well and seems to have recovered.

2. Tax

Jockey: Junior Alvarado

Trainer: Danny Gargan

Odds: 20-1

Breakdown: Gargan usually deals in cheaper horses, and he claimed this one out of his first race. He was a determined second in the Wood Memorial but has won only one race in his career.

3. By My Standards

Jockey: Gabe Saez

Trainer: Bret Calhoun

Odds: 20-1

Breakdown: He won the Louisiana Derby at 22-1 and has been getting raves for his morning workouts at Churchill Downs, which means his odds could drop.

4. Gray Magician

Jockey: Drayden Van Dyke


Trainer: Peter Miller

Odds: 50-1

Breakdown: The trainer is new to the Derby, but he wins a lot of races. The jockey is a rising star. Gray Magician finished second in the UAE Derby in Dubai in his most recent race, a route to Louisville that has no history of success.

5. Improbable

Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Odds: 6-1

Breakdown: This ownership group is the same as last year’s Triple Crown winner, Justify. Improbable has been a close second to Omaha Beach in two races this year. His sire, City Zip, does raise distance questions.

6. Vekoma

Jockey: Javier Castellano

Trainer: George Weaver

Odds: 20-1

Breakdown: Much like a golfer without a victory in a major, Castellano is the best jockey without a Derby win. His mount is 3 for 4 lifetime, however, and looked good in winning the Blue Grass. Vekoma’s stride is not fluid; it’s obvious even to the non-experts.

7. Maximum Security

Jockey: Luis Saez

Trainer: Jason Servis

Odds: 10-1

Breakdown: Saez might be the next great jockey; he showed that with a great ride in the Florida Derby, slowing the pace and preserving energy to notch a surprising victory. He’ll look to do it again. Servis has prepared the horse in an unorthodox manner with long, slow gallops.

8. Tacitus

Jockey: Jose Ortiz

Trainer: Bill Mott

Odds: 10-1

Breakdown: A regally bred colt (Tapit-Close Hatches) trained by a Hall of Famer who has never won the Derby and usually doesn’t focus on it. He’s coming off impressive victories in the Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial. He’ll be rallying in the stretch.


9. Plus Que Parfait

Jockey: Ricardo Santana Jr.

Trainer: Brendan Walsh

Odds: 30-1

Breakdown: He had to be sent to Dubai, where he won the UAE Derby with an impressive late run; otherwise he wouldn’t have qualified for the Derby in the points system. Most of the winter he ran far behind the best in Louisiana.

10. Cutting Humor

Jockey: Corey Lanerie

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Odds: 30-1

Breakdown: Seems like he should be 100-1. His only victory of note was the Sunland Park Derby (that’s where Mind That Bird, who won the Derby at 50-1, came from). It’s notable that none of Pletcher’s usual jockeys are aboard.

11. Haikal


Breakdown: He finished third in his most recent start, the Wood Memorial, but was a late scratch because of an infected foot.

12. Omaha Beach


Breakdown: The morning favorite was diagnosed with an entrapped epiglottis. It would affect his breathing and might lead to surgery.

13. Code of Honor

Jockey: John Velasquez

Trainer: Shug McGaughey

Odds: 15-1

Breakdown: In an interview last fall, the Hall of Fame trainer said he wanted to get more involved in the Triple Crown. Here he is. Code of Honor was impressive winning the Fountain of Youth in Florida and then was compromised chasing a slow pace while finishing third in the Florida Derby.

14. Win Win Win

Jockey: Julian Pimentel

Trainer: Michael Trombetta

Odds: 15-1

Breakdown: Trombetta prepared him in isolated Fair Hill, Md., using a jockey who can only be described as minor league. That being said, he has never been worse than third in four starts, all stakes races.


15. Master Fencer

Jockey: Julien Leparoux

Trainer: Koichi Tsunoda

Odds: 50-1

Breakdown: Might as well make it 200-1. This horse is here because Churchill Downs is attempting to expand the race’s international profile and invited this horse from Japan, where he was a cut below the best there.

16. Game Winner

Jockey: Joel Rosario

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Odds: 5-1

Breakdown: Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and champion has finished second while contesting only two races in 2019. He’s a grinding sort who will be gradually moving into contention looking to wear down exhausted opponents.

17. Roadster

Jockey: Florent Geroux

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Odds: 6-1

Breakdown: He needed throat surgery to correct a breathing problem and has returned to win two races, including the Santa Anita Derby. At one time, he was regarded as Baffert’s best chance to win the Derby, and that might be true again.

18. Long Range Toddy

Jockey: Jon Court

Trainer: Steve Asmussen

Odds: 30-1

Breakdown: I know a race fan who maintains that horses with undistinguished names can’t win the Derby. That applies here, although he did upset Improbable in a division of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn.

19. Spinoff

Jockey: Manny Franco

Trainer: Todd Pletcher

Odds: 30-1

Breakdown: Like Pletcher’s other entry, the top jockeys are not involved, which indicates the horse’s chances. He has not won a stakes race but finished second in the Louisiana Derby.

20. Country House

Jockey: Flavien Pratt

Trainer: Bill Mott

Odds: 30-1

Breakdown: He has had some impressive rallies, but the reason he has had to come from behind is problems in the starting gate. Chances are he will be the last one to leave the gate Saturday. He would need an extremely fast pace to have a chance.


21. Bodexpress

Jockey: Chris Landeros

Trainer: Gustavo Delgado

Odds: 30-1

Breakdown: Only got into the race because of the scratch of Omaha Beach. He has never won a race and probably should be 200-1.

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SELECTIONS: 1. Code of Honor, 2. Roadster, 3. Tacitus.