2019 Kentucky Derby Preview: Improvisation Reigns

Improvisation. It’s the engine that powers jazz. The catalyst for comedy. The enemy of the expected. And along the Kentucky Derby Trail this year, improvisation reigns supreme. I find it fitting, then, that I’m forced to improvise on the reliable handicapping methods I devised in The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby.

In The Lazy Bettor’s Guide I show that horses qualifying under my strictest criteria, the Gold Standard, won 9 of the 14 races in which they appeared from 1992 through 2013. With Gold Standard horses (American Pharoah, Always Dreaming and Justify) winning the three solid gold races since then, that record now stands at 12 for 17.

Lazy Bettor Silver Standard horses continue to succeed in years that no Gold Standard horses appear. California Chrome and Nyquist both met that standard prior to winning the Kentucky Derby.

The Lazy Bettor’s Guide to the Kentucky Derby has proven to be the clearest and most effective path to picking Kentucky Derby winners. Five winners in the five years since publication. And research pointing to 22 years of success prior to that. The decades-long positive ROI of this method continues to the present day.

But thoroughbred racing evolves continuously. Six years ago Churchill Downs changed the eligibility rules for the Derby. No more sprinters running wild in the opening furlongs. No more fillies taking a shot at glory against the colts.

Outside of this grand event, shifts occurred in breeding trends and trainer tendencies. Breeders experimented further with speed influences. Speed demons like Malibu Moon and Bodemeister produced recent Kentucky Derby winners. Top trainers now prefer just two Derby prep races rather than the standard three or four we’d typically see just a decade ago.

In my 2018 Kentucky Derby Preview, I stated the following:

The importance of being flexible with my published standards increases every year. Training patterns tilt toward fewer and fewer prep races. That leaves top contenders with fewer opportunities to race up to the high level of performance demonstrated by Derby winners of decades past. Bettors must fill in more blanks now than 10, 15 or 20 years ago

Picking Justify as my top selection last year required just a little tweak to the model I laid out in the book. My top choices this year demanded I improvise even further to squeeze them into my ultra-reliable models.

My courage to improvise is bolstered this year by several trainers who dared take a different approach.

Over the winter, trainer Richard Mandella pondered the repeated runner-up finishes of his turf star Omaha Beach. Rather than mapping out a turf campaign

for the colt’s three-year-old season, Mandella promptly switched him to dirt. Omaha Beach now stands as the likely Kentucky Derby favorite.

Trainer Mark Casse made a similar turf-to-dirt move with War Of Will, a horse also bred for turf success.

Brendan Walsh shipped overseas a three-time stakes loser in the U.S. and won a few million dollars in Dubai. Plus Que Parfait owned just a maiden win (by a nose) when he lined up for the $2.5 million UAE Derby. In addition to winning a pile of cash for his owners, the horse earned a starting berth in the Kentucky Derby.

Peter Miller pulled off a similar trick with Gray Magician. This maiden winner finished second to Plus Que Parfait in Dubai and earned a Derby berth in doing so.

Danny Gargan claimed Tax last year for $50,000 and immediately entered him in the Remsen Stakes. Despite losing that race, Gargan stuck to his guns and scored a victory with Tax in the Withers. With a second-place finish in the Wood Memorial, Tax collected a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby.

Taking my queue from these innovative trainers, I’m adjusting to the changing times and atypical Derby patterns. But I’m not abandoning my approach. The horses I recommend in this Preview fit the spirit of the methods I detail in my book. In short, they’ve demonstrated extraordinary talent in line with the parameters specified in The Lazy Bettor’s Guide.

Improvisation 1: Refining Silver

Using the standards from my book, this year’s Silver Standard qualifiers are Tacitus (Tampa Bay Derby at 8.5 furlongs) and Win Win Win (Tampa Bay Derby at 8.5 furlongs). If you review the results and raw times registered in the Derby preps held at Tampa Bay Downs since 2013, however, you’ll see that the track plays more like Gulfstream Park than it did in the past.

Tampa Bay Derby winners posted times under 1:43.00 three times in the past four years. That barrier had never been broken in the 35 prior runnings. The race’s most significant prep, the Sam F. Davis Stakes has played out similarly. The past three winners all broke that 1:43.00 time barrier, which no winner had surpassed previously. Top winning times for these races in the past five years resemble the top times for Gulfstream Park’s Fountain of Youth Stakes, which is held at the same distance.

I suspect the recent increase in the quality of competition, rather than any change in surface conditions, drove Tampa’s winning stakes times for three-year-olds to all-time highs. Regardless of the reason, the raw Tampa times need adjusting.

Applying the Gulfstream Park adjustments I list in my book to winners at Tampa Bay Downs knocks Win Win Win out of the Silver category. That’s improvisation number one, and it leaves only Tacitus as a pure Silver Standard star.

Improvisation 2: Assaying Gold

Only one horse qualifies for the Lazy Bettor Gold Standard. Cutting Humor earned that honor with his victory in the Sunland Derby. I’ve gone back and forth between making him my top selection and dumping him out of my top three.

After Cutting Humor’s impressive Sunland win, trainer Todd Pletcher made no attempt to secure a jockey for the horse’s Kentucky Derby bid. In fact he seemed to give a green light to his main riders to secure Derby mounts with other trainers. Pletcher’s top guy, John Velazquez, rather quickly opted for Code of Honor. Javier Castellano committed to Vekoma, and Luis Saez stuck with Maximum Security. When given a choice of Pletcher horses to ride, Manny Franco opted for Spinoff.

Despite Cutting Humor’s recent sharp workouts, I suspect something was amiss in Pletcherville. Was Pletcher considering scratching this horse at some point? It would explain why he didn’t want to prevent his loyal riders from finding other horses to ride.

Ultimately Humor’s workouts improved tremendously and Pletcher didn’t scratch him. His record-setting time at Sunland Park prompted me to make greater adjustments to his raw time than I usually do for Sunland Derby winners, but he still remains well within the Gold Standard parameters.

I’ll stick with this Gold Standard star, especially at likely odds of 30-1 or higher.

Improvisation 3: Creative Prospecting

Sometimes prospectors discover gold seams in copper mines. Or silver veins in nickel deposits. Handicappers should treat a race like this year’s Kentucky Derby, in which top competitors show just one or two prep races, like a mineral deposit in need of further prospecting.

Two possible gold veins exist in this pile of copper, nickel and tin. Both Tacitus and Maximum Security deserve consideration as Gold Standard qualifiers. Additionally, Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards deserves a promotion to Silver Standard status.


After setting a new stakes record in the Tampa Bay Derby, Tacitus won the Wood Memorial with one of the slowest final times in the past 35 years. The Wood was his only shot at qualifying for the Gold Standard, and he fell far short.

Tacitus has a legitimate excuse, though. Shortly after the start of the Wood, he got body slammed sideways. After regaining his momentum and a position among the leaders, Tacitus got sandwiched between horses and was forced to check stride sharply. These early-race troubles robbed him of any chance to post a fast early pace figure or final time.

In light of his record-breaking time at 8.5 furlongs and his persistence in winning the Wood, I’m promoting him to Gold Standard status.

Maximum Security

Most Gold Standard horses that won the Kentucky Derby showed prep-race improvement when stretched out to a mile and an eighth. The former sprinter Maximum Security shares that characteristic.

He followed his 18-length win at 7 furlongs with a dominating victory in the Florida Derby. Max Sec inherited the lead in that race in soft fractions. Rather than fault him for running slowly in the early stages, which seems to be the prevailing opinion, handicappers should credit him for showing patience and cooperating with his rider. The result of his more relaxed style was a sizzling final five furlongs, superb winning time and wide margin of victory.

Can Maximum Security handle a faster early pace and still survive the extra furlong of the Derby? That’s a significant unanswered question with him, but the Gold Standard requires a horse to show exceptional speed and a willingness to ration that speed over a long distance. Maximum Security fits that description and deserves Gold Standard status.

By My Standards

The Louisiana Derby winner posted the fastest winning time for that race in the past 21 runnings at 9 furlongs. He pressed a solid, but not Gold-level, pace and extended his leading margin from mid-stretch to the finish.

Although he ended up just a few ticks below the Gold Standard, By My Standards appears to be improving. His workouts after the Louisiana Derby rank as superb. Like Maximum Security, he clearly improved with a stretchout to 9 furlongs. He deserves a promotion to at least Silver Standard status. His long odds make him a tempting play.

A Few Words About Other Contenders

The likely Derby favorite is Omaha Beach. I fear this horse.

In the Rebel Stakes, Mike Smith rode with confidence. He waited for Game Winner to draw near before asking Omaha Beach for his best. The winning margin of just a nose is deceiving. Game Winner failed to get past him despite a huge late-stretch momentum edge. In the Arkansas Derby, Omaha Beach went unchallenged early and easily held off Improbable. In both of his Oaklawn preps, the Beach ran slow early.

But my research into 26 prior runnings of the Kentucky Derby unearthed only a few horses who successfully transitioned from slow-early types (with no demonstrated sprint speed to ease that concern) to Derby winners. None of them defeated Gold Standard horses. For that reason I’m eliminating Omaha Beach and all the horses he defeated (Game Winner, Improbable, Country House, Long Range Toddy) from consideration.

Game Winner and Improbable finished second in both of their prep races this year. That’s the pattern shown by Baffert’s first two Kentucky Derby winners, Silver Charm and Real Quiet. The similarity ends there, however. Prior to their Kentucky Derby victories, Silver Charm and Real Quiet exhibited top-level speed early and late. None of Baffert’s entrants this year can claim that. So out the window go Game Winner, Improbable and Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster.

Why Trust the Lazy Bettor Approach?

Prior to the book’s publication in 2013, Gold Standard horses yielded an ROI of more than 200 percent if you bet them all equally. Post-publication results strengthen those figures.

Prior to 2013, the Silver Standard produced a higher ROI than the Gold Standard despite showing a lower win percentage. With Silver Standard horses winning in the two post- publication years without a Gold Standard qualifier, that level of accomplishment still holds strong.

Betting the 2019 Kentucky Derby

Top Pick: Cutting Humor
2nd Best: Tacitus
3rd Choice: Maximum Security Honorable Mention: By My Standards