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TrackNotes: Dragging The Derby

Just like I can't separate an egg, it's the same with sports.

When strikeouts outnumber hits and two-dollar hitters are appreciated, it's not baseball. When a touchdown catch becomes a Zapruder exam, it's not football. And it's pop-a-shot, not basketball.

There's corollary with Thoroughbred horse racing, even though 20 jockeys each straddling a nearly three-quarter ton critical mass of power and speed has really never changed and it demonstrates much more simplicity. The lords of racing are the real drag.

On the eve of the 145th Kentucky Derby, we can't separate the races from the reality that the game faces a defining moment of its five-century existence, potentially staring down its very mortality. It almost happened early in the 20th century when teetotalers and puritanical ideologues nearly shut down racing. Only the development of parimutuel wagering and governments' thirst for tax money brought racing back.

In 2019, this age of laser-fast, tidal wave demand by people who want EVERYTHING they want and want it immediately, the deaths of 23 horses through the first quarter of the year has unleashed a torrent of the all-or-nothing outlawing of racing demanded from people ranging from I-never-knew-but-now-I-hate-horse-racing to I-always-knew-and-have-always-hated-horse-racing and everyone in between.

Just days ago, I was fully jazzed, in the racing sense, for this Derby and Kentucky Oaks weekend, with a Derby field brimming with legitimate depth if not identifiable greatness. Like a jock checking his ride on the far turn, the full state of the game re-entered the conversation, reminding those who care that it's all always there. Much like a tennis match. We can see the entire court, but this week, the races hold serve. Next week, I promise, the other side of racing will have TrackNotes advantage.

In the early handicapping, we had all kinds of news: good, bad and part-of-the-game. And once again, a professional and spiritual letdown by humans, a wolf named Wolf and a man named Smith.

In an evenly matched field, Omaha Beach, the impressive Arkansas Derby winner and son of War Front, was installed the 4-1 favorite and drew a good post in the 12-hole. Just Wednesday evening, 'Beach was scratched from the big race with an entrapped epiglottis, an inflammation of tissues in the back of the throat that obstructs breathing passages and affects swallowing mechanisms. He underwent a minor procedure Friday morning. He'll be back.

Chilling without a gig, 'Beach was downright flirting with NBC's Britney Eurton as she interviewed a clearly shaken Richard Mandella.

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These things happen, and this scratch is not as big as that of I'll Have Another scratched out of the third jewel of his Triple Crown miss.

Good news is that automaton announcers, Aaron Rodgers and all the ladies with hats will be truly baffled and not have the chance to bet Omaha' into oblivion. And the rest of the tote board should be fair and attractive.

One downer will be the weather. Coming off the wettest Derby in history last year, there will be lots of rain both days. The track will be off all weekend. The turf course will be problematic.

So let's ring the bell on this Kentucky Derby (Grade I, three-year-olds10 furlongs, 1-1/4 miles, $3,000,000). Morning line odds are adjusted for the scratch and taken off the TV screen because Churchill Downs is already too busy counting its filthy lucre to update its website.

1. War of Will. (Morning line: 15-1; Jockey: Tyler Gaffalione; Trainer: Mark Casse; Record: 8-3-1-1)

With pedigree more suited for the turf, this one is a Derby eligibility points accumulator with wins in the prep pyramid of the LeComte and Risen Star, and then a bomb out ninth in the Louisiana Derby, all at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Daily Racing Form is reporting that War of Will may have caught himself (kicked his own front leg with his back hoof). I dunno. His prep winning Beyer Speed figures were flat and I question the company he's kept. He's also in the dreaded one-hole. But his workout tab has been solid and he's won in the slop at Churchill Downs. I liked him once, but he'll have to go against the grain of his racing cycles so far to win.

2. Tax. (20-1, Junior Alvarado, Danny Gargan, 5-2-2-1)

Tax took the Big Apple route with a win in the Grade III Withers and sandwiched second in the Wood Memorial with Saturday gate mates Tacitus and Haikal. His Beyers have been firmly in the mid-90s, decent enough. He should have no problem with the distance and has in fact already run three races at nine furlongs already. This horse was once claimed for $50,000. Funny Cide was the last Wood graduate to win the Derby, in 2003. With the two-post, lots of questions here.

3. By My Standards. (15-1, Gabriel Saez, Bret Calhoun, 5-2-2-1)

I railed against this horse after he won the Louisiana Derby less than a length over Derby runner Spinoff and my pick, Sueno, which could constitute good company. After slogging through four maiden races, his Beyer jumped 11 points to a very respectable 97 at Fair Grounds. He's not bred for this distance and might not be able to dodge traffic. But he's dangerous because some, including Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, say the light bulb popped on before and during the gumbo derby. I'd be anxious if his odds drop, but that's why we watch the tote.

4. Gray Magician. (50-1, Drayden Van Dyke, Peter Miller, 8-1-3-2)

Why is he even here? Because he finished second to Plus Que Parfait in the UAE Derby in late March. No distance breeding and no Derby winning.

5. Improbable. (5-1, Irad Ortiz, Bob Baffert, 5-3-2-0)

Baffert won the Triple Crown last year and has three Derby entries Saturday. After acting up in the gate, he finished a good second to Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby. Along with inattentiveness in the Rebel Stakes, where he got caught from behind, he's carrying a label of "green." His Beyers are as solid as can be, with a 99 in his last. Out of City Zip, he won't be known for distance. With so many horses in this race, he'll have a lot going on all around him and will be left behind if he doesn't grow up and act the professional. This isn't Oaklawn, where he didn't win anyway.

6. Vekoma. (15-1, Javier Castellano, George Weaver, 4-3-0-1)

This one's got a real chance, but he'll have to stay on the improve. He's run against a few of these, including Win Win Win and Code of Honor. He woke up too late in the Fountain of Youth, but the jockey change to Castellano paid off in the Blue Grass Stakes, where he won by almost four, although some have questioned that race's quality. He should be able to keep them close and would benefit from even a minor pace breakdown. At least include in the exotics.

7. Maximum Security. (8-1, Luis Saez, Jason Servis, 4-4-0-0)

The paper shows two triple Beyers, best in the field, and open lengths in all four races/wins. The Florida Derby was really weird as he popped out to the lead, put all the others to sleep on a slow pace, and wired the field, like the only kid on the merry-go-round. Now, he's in a real horse race. His odds will intrigue, even if they lock in at 8-1 all the way to post time.

8. Tacitus. (8-1, Jose Ortiz, Bill Mott, 4-3-0-0)

His odds will fall, based on big Beyer jump-ups in Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial wins. A decent improvement from 97 in the Wood would be plenty. You must include this son of Tapit, out of Close Hatches (First Defence). Anything 6-1 or better tantalizes.

9. Plus Que Parfait. (30-1, Ricardo Santana Jr., Brendan Walsh, 7-2-1-2)

So this one is stinkin' it up, bouncin' around south of the Ohio River. Then he goes to Meydan and wins the UAE Derby and an automatic bid to Saturday. But what's that? He was necked out of the win in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at two in November in the slop. At Churchill. For his top Beyer of 84, Oui? Non.

10. Cutting Humor. (30-1, Mike Smith (replacing Corey Lanerie), Todd Pletcher, 6-2-2-1)

Todd Pletcher and Starlight Racing's Jack Wolf are officially The Worst Persons of Derby Weekend. Friday morning, they replaced supremely Churchill-savvy Lanerie with Mike Smith, the Hall of Famer available because of the Omaha Beach scratch. This is a classic example of a chump owner who caught Derby Fever by entering through the back door, Sunland Park. Pletcher went along.

First, Wolf was happy to get Lanerie; then he said he was thinking of making a change anyway. Business is business, but keep in mind Lanerie's wife, Chantal, died last June of breast cancer. Who tells Lanerie's young daughter that, first, Corey deserved a Derby ride and, then, he didn't?

And nobody knows Churchill better than Lanerie. Instant karma's gonna get these men and nothing against the horse, but I hope they finish dead last.

Lanerie will get the same dollars Smith might win Saturday. Thanks a bunch, Wolfie. And what about Smith? A self-professed Man of God saved by his lord Jesus Christ, the money to Lanerie makes it alright? I just hate it when they talk the Christ, but don't live the Christian. I think jockey Jesus would have sat out this one.

Say what you want about Baffert, but he came out and said he'd make no rider changes when Smith, who he tag-teamed with last year to win the Triple Crown, became available. Baffert said he talked to Geroux and Florent asked him if he was off the horse. "No, I'm all in (with Florent). I could never do that."

As for the horse, there's a difference of opinion here by some touts, but he'll take some civilian money because of Smith.

Totally blah, he ran his top Beyer, 95, in a close win in the Sunland Derby over Anothertwistafate, the best horse he's faced. But it was Sunland.

I wouldn't be surprised if this isn't a horse who shouldn't be here and will do better as a miler, either on dirt or turf.

11. Haikal. (30-1, Rajiv Maragh, Kiaran McLaughlin, 5-3-1-1)

Haikal was scratched Friday morning with a foot abscess that wasn't going to heal in time. There will not be another also-eligible allowed to get into the Derby. With this, stewards might leave the one-post empty, which is fine. Because the track layout can't frickin' accommodate the one-horse, who has to angle right to avoid the damn rail a few steps out of the gate.

12. Omaha Beach. SCRATCHED.

(From here on, Derby runners will shift left one spot in the starting gate with the also-eligible gating from the 20-hole. Program numbers remain the same.)

13. Code of Honor. (12-1, John Velazquez, Shug McGaughey, 5-2-1-1)

Eddie Olczyk just picked him on NBC. This one's had some weird races. He romped in race one, did a face plant at the start of the juvenile showcase, the Champagne, but still finished second. He was ill and missed the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He won the Fountain of Youth over then-wiseguy Bourbon War, but was a victim in the merry-go-round Florida Derby. Shug seems to have him ready vis a vis the work tab. He'll need to jump up from the 91-95 Beyers in his two last. His breeding seems enough. Now, he just has to go out and do it.

14. Win Win Win. (12-1, Julian Pimentel, Mike Trombetta, 6-3-2-1)

Waiting for this one to strike. In the two important races he's run, it was third in the Tampa Derby and second in the Blue Grass, at an average 88.5 Beyer. Grandsire Sunday Silence and damsire Smarty Jones, both Derby winners, are the appeal here, but WWW has to do the running. A monster workout last Saturday has the Vulcan wiseguy ears perked. I don't like him, especially at 12-1.

15. Master Fencer. (50-1, Julien Leparoux, Koichi Tsomuda, 6-2-2-0)

He's got so much going against him, coming from Japan because Churchill is jonesing for international cred. He's never run in a group or graded race, had to make the long trip from Japan and last won in a cheapie in Kyoto in January. Leparoux will keep him safe.

16. Game Winner. (9-2 favorite, Joel Rosario, Bob Baffert, 6-4-2-0)

This looks like Baffert's best chance. The son of Candy Ride won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile here in November. He lost the photo to Omaha Beach in the second division of the Rebel Stakes and used up too much real estate while losing to Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby. People are calling that run a winning effort, even though he didn't. He ran a 93 Beyer in his first stakes at two, but seems to have flattened out in his three-year-old season, although his figures are near the top of the field. Baffert has put longer workouts into Game Winner, so that could be an admission that he needs foundation. His routine was disrupted when Santa Anita was closed by the horse deaths and the San Felipe was cancelled. That's why he went to Hot Springs for the Rebel. Don't be surprised by this horse. Win or lose.

17. Roadster. (5-1, Florent Geroux, Bob Baffert, 4-3-0-1)

Then again, maybe this is Baffert's best chance. His 81-89-93-98 Beyer progression is sweet as can be. Mike Smith opted to ride Omaha Beach, so Geroux gets a tremendous chance. Roadster displaced his soft palate and had corrective surgery, the similar neighborhood Omaha' finds himself in. Losing the savvy veteran Smith will hurt at least some. This Quality Road colt also has the hot breeding for now. The 17-post could enable Roadster to avoid more of the mud splash than many of the others. Brad Free of the Racing Form wants 10-1 or better. I don't see it. If Geroux can understand what's going on around and underneath him, you know Baffert will have him ready.

18. Long Range Toddy (30-1, Jon Court, Steve Asmussen, 8-4-1-1)

Pros: Plenty of foundation with eight races. At 58, Court would become the oldest jock to win the Derby, which would also be his first. Bill Shoemaker was 54 when he won in 1986 aboard Ferdinand in one of the greatest rides I ever saw. Beat Improbable in the first division of the Rebel with a career high 95 Beyer. Cons: Seems one-dimensional as an Oaklawn horse for the course. Despite that, finished a bad sixth in the Arkansas Derby to three other Derby runners. That race was in the slop, as is expected Saturday. Thursday, on national TV, Asmussen said "Who knows?" when the topic of mud came up. The bet: At no less than 20-1 or maybe 30-1, your angle is his battle-tested experience, that's all.

19. Spinoff. (30-1, Manny Franco, Todd Pletcher, 4-2-1-1)

He's another one with a sweet Beyer sweep in four races with 60-75-84-95. The son of Hard Spun shows classic races on both mom's and pop's side, so distance looks gettable. His two wins were at $75,000 and below, but he had a tougher trip than By My Standards in Louisiana before that one ran him down. If you look at that one as a toughener, you're in business. The rider is a downgrade from Velazquez, but Pletcher has won this race. Get yourself some tote and a flyer maybe.

20. Country House. (30-1, Flavien Prat, Bill Mott, 6-1-2-1)

Big Brown won from the 20-hole, but this one is no Big Brown, even from the 19th door. His only win was a $43K maiden special weight at - ugh - Gulfstream. He ran a mere 91 Beyer in Arkansas. He's run against five of these, but it's got the distinct feel that he may have had to buy a ticket to get in. As mentioned previously, he's had Maragh, Alvarado, L. Saez and Rosario aboard before and Prat is a very fine jockey. But, his fevered connections will give him a shot here and then Mott will find better things for him to do, if he continues training him.

21. Bodexpress. (30-1, Chris Landeros, Gustavo Delgado, 5-M-3-0)

This one's a maiden! The last maiden to win the Derby was Brokers Tip in 1933. His Beyers do tick up, including a 96 in his Place finish in that merry-go-round Florida Derby. He's the son of Bodemeister (Empire Maker) who finished second in both the Derby and Preakness, both to American Pharoah as we fondly remember. Bodemeister also sired 2017 Derby winner Always Dreaming. But, geez, either his connections didn't put him in a position to win or he has seconditis. He flailed in the slop at Gulfstream three back and doesn't even know what winning feels like - going into the Kentucky Derby. It's Back to Miami for him.

I'm liking By My Standards (never thought I'd say that), Roadster, Spinoff, Tacitus and Game Winner. Also, reluctantly, I will look at Improbable, War of Will, Tax and Maximum Security. Flyers on Vekoma, Code of Honor and Long Range Toddy. It's a process, driven by prices.

If you take in both days, Friday you'll enjoy Newspaperofrecord, the fine Irish filly in the Edgewood. Bellafinia is the belle of the ball in the Oaks, the 2-1 favorite. Look out for Chocolate Kisses and Champagne Anyone too.

Your chance to voyeur the Churchill party comes via NBC. Corporate TV wonks the world wide see events like this as an opportunity to cross-program and promote. So it's become hugely more the extravaganza to exploit and monetize than just a day at the races, albeit a big one. Therefore, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be roaming the grounds, sticking his nose in. If he plays the wide-eyed racing newbie, that would be fine. New drinking game: Every time Earnhardt asks a celebrity why they like a certain horse, it's a shot of Kentucky whatever. We will be suffering Rutledge Wood, just another hairdo transplanted from the jiffy lube pit at NASCAR. I have one question: When you look at a guy like this rocking styles that are at least six years old, how are we supposed to take him seriously?

Do pray Ahmed Fareed stays in the anchor chair throughout. He's good. Mike Tirico would be a real Debbie Downer.

Your local listings:

Friday: Kentucky Oaks undercard coverage NBCSportsNet 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and the Oaks from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Saturday it's pre-race at 11 a.m. on NBCSportsNet and then full boat from 1:30 to 6:15 p.m. on NBC 5.

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Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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