The 145th Kentucky Derby – aptly nicknamed “the most exciting two minutes in sports” – will take place this Saturday at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. Since the first race in 1875, the Derby has drawn millions of spectators and remains America’s longest running sporting event.
What Happened Last Year?
The 2018 Kentucky Derby launched the historic season of Justify – who won the race by two-lengths on a waterlogged track. Justify went on to claim victories at the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, earning him the coveted Triple Crown.
Now a full year has passed. Justify has since retired to a Kentucky farm where he spends his days greeting fans, grazing and producing (expensive) offspring.
What’s Happening this Year?
Known for its pageantry and drama, the 2019 “Run for the Roses” is already living up to its reputation – and the race hasn’t even begun.
This year, the early-odds favorite was Omaha Beach. The bay-colored thoroughbred entered the Derby on a three-race winning streak and fresh off a one-length victory in the mud-soaked Arkansas Derby. His natural ability to break from the competition and maintain the lead had experts buzzing.
Many drew similarities to previous Derby winner American Pharoah; and considered Omaha Beach a legitimate Triple-Crown contender. On Tuesday, he was installed as the Derby favorite at 4-1 odds.
However – as his namesake might suggest – Omaha Beach was in for a tough fight.
On Wednesday afternoon, the favorite was scratched from the race due to an “entrapped epiglottis” – an uncommon respiratory issue which would severely hinder his ability to breathe while running.
The weather looks to add drama as well. The current race-day forecast shows a 90% chance of rain from 6am to midnight. A track exposed to an extended downpour will change the race entirely. Many horses who normally excel on dry dirt struggle in wet conditions. Even past favorites have fallen out of contention in muddy races.
With Omaha Beach gone and a rainstorm looming, the 2019 Derby has become an unpredictable and wide-open race.
Who is the new favorite?
Trainer Bob Baffert could seize the opportunity. The renowned coach brings three horses into the 2019 Derby: Game Winner, Roadster and Improbable. Currently Game Winner holds the best odds in the field (5-1), with Improbable and Roadster tied for the second best (6-1). All three horses have legitimate potential win the race.
History seems to agree: over his career, Baffert’s horses have won five Kentucky Derbies. In the last five years alone, his barn has produced two Triple-Crown winners (Justify in 2018, American Pharoah, 2015). Baffert has built a dynasty in the racing world.
By Saturday’s post-time, Game Winner will likely remain the lone favorite. In 2018, the dark brown horse won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile race, and was later crowned the 2-year-old male champion by a near-unanimous vote. In his six career races, the thoroughbred has not finished lower than 2nd place.
Favorites have won the Derby for six straight years.
Other Potential Winners?
Another contender is Tacitus – trained by Racing Hall of Fame inductee Bill Mott. Although currently holding at 10-1 odds, the horse quietly sits at #1 atop the Derby leaderboard rankings, leading by a solid margin with 150 points; with notable wins at Aqueduct and the Tampa Bay Derby.
By all accounts, Tacitus has been an imposing competitor during training and his endurance around the track is exceptional. His win at Aqueduct was plagued by rain, yet Tacitus appeared unphased.
Bill Mott will also be chasing history: despite a decorated career, he has never won the Kentucky Derby.
Maximum Security is the only undefeated horse in the field. His impressive breaking speed and steady leading pace won him the Florida Derby in March. This speed shows particular promise in poor surface conditions; as he overcame a sloppy track and sealed a commanding win at Gulfstream Park in January.
He is ranked #6 on the Derby Leaderboard with 100 points. His current odds sit at 10-1.
Look for Maximum Security to grab an early lead on Saturday. If he can hold the pace long enough, we might just see an upset.
What about the long-shots?
One long-shot to consider is Win Win Win, currently at 15-1. He is basically Maximum Security in reverse; slow-starts paired with incredible closing ability.
Falling behind early seems to benefit this horse: in March he closed an impressive lead on fellow Derby competitor Tacitus despite having a much tougher trip around the track due to position. And his speed is deceptive: he set the seven-furlongs track record at Tampa Bay Downs in January.
Churchill Downs will prove especially beneficial to this horse: the additional distance will give him more time to close and potentially overtake competitors. Look for Win Win Win to make a late run on Saturday.
If you’re really feeling lucky, check out War of Will, trained by Mark Casse. His current odds are poor (20-1). His Leaderboard rank isn’t particularly impressive (#11). He will start the race in the always-difficult 1st position and likely trail early. So why does this horse standout?
War of Will has a knack for bad weather.
Not only has he won races in the rain, he’s done it at Churchill Downs (November 2018). Should the weather become a factor on Saturday, he could be poised for a surprising finish.
But wait, I’m still worried about Omaha Beach…
Me too. I picked this horse to win the Derby even before he was officially qualified to compete. But his situation isn’t dire. According to his trainers, the horse was scheduled for “minimally invasive” corrective surgery on Thursday. After a two-week rest, he will resume his regular training schedule and likely return to competition in time for the summer races – such as the Pacific Classic.
What are your picks?
This is a close field, maybe the closest in a decade. Races with no clear favorites tend to produce surprising results. And with a potential downpour in the mix, the 2019 Derby may yield some wild and unpredictable finishes.
But whatever, let’s pick some horses.
Winner: Game Winner
2nd Place: Tacitus
3rd Place: Improbable
4th Place: Maximum Security
5th Place: Roadster
Wildcard: By My Standards
Long-shots: Win Win Win & Tax
Any Betting Suggestions?
In a race this tight, ‘boxed’ exactas and trifectas are the best way to go. I’ll be using a 5-horse combination of Tacitus, Maximum Security and all three of Baffert’s entries – bet over multiple tickets. And I’ll toss the occasional long shot in the mix for extra flavor.
If I had to bet one horse to win, I would pick Tacitus. I’m not confident he can do it. But his odds (currently 10-1) would be a solid payout for the risk and the speedster certainly seems capable of pulling off an upset.
For my long-shot picks, I will be betting Win Win Win and Tax to ‘place’ (finish 1st or 2nd). The payout on a ‘place’ bet isn’t quite as lucrative as a straight up ‘win’ bet. But with odds like 20-1, you can still expect a sizable profit.
If you’re betting winners at a house party or just picking a horse for an office pool, try to stick with the favorites.
Any interesting facts I can quote to make me look cool at parties?
Plus Que Parfait enters the race at 30-1. Translated literally, Plus Que Parfait means “more than perfect.”
How to Watch?
Post time for the 145th Kentucky Derby — 6:50 pm ET — NBC
Under-card Races Coverage — Noon ET — NBC Sports
Coverage switches to NBC at 2:30 pm
*All odds used in this article were accurate as of 7AM, Friday. Odds are subject to change.*