Game Winner warming up for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Will he be a game winner or lose to his Improbable stablemate?
Game Winner warming up for the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Will he be a game winner or lose to his Improbable stablemate?|Associated Press

Kentucky Derby: Garrity handicaps the entire field and predicts the pace and a Baffert-trained duel for the Roses

Post time for Race 12 is 6:50 pm

Chris Garrity

It's Derby day; no introduction is needed.

The weather is an issue. At press time on Saturday morning, the main track at Churchill was fast, and the turf course firm, but rain was likely. We are hoping that whatever rain will fall will be minor, and will not impact the races. We'll look at the Derby here, and the undercard in a separate post. Let's go.

This field is noteworthy for its lack of front-runners. The only horse who won a prep race on the front end is Maximum Security, and his win in the Florida Derby was aided by a marshmallow-soft early pace; he was allowed to set the pace through a first half-mile in nearly 49 seconds. Allowance horses can win under those conditions. We don't think Maximum Security will even get the lead today.

But while someone will get the lead, the absence of any horses with real early speed should ensure a moderate pace. This greatly compromises the chances of late-runners, especially Tacitus, who is a good horse we might have picked if the pace scenario looked different.

We think that this race will be run more like a "normal" race, with sane early fractions, and the likeliest winner coming from a stalking position. It will not be the kind of race we used to see almost every year in the Derby, with a suicidal early pace, and the come-from-behinders mopping up after the front-runners all collapsed.

With the pace scenario looking normal, we think that this means we can look at the ability of the horses entered, and see who looks the best. Because an aberrant pace scenario will not overly influence the ability of these horses to run, it will come down to which one is best.

This Kentucky Derby field reminds us of the field in 2015. Four years ago, there were two horses who looked superior to the rest of the field, and they were both trained by Bob Baffert. One, of course, was American Pharoah, who went on to win the Triple Crown; the other was Dortmund, who ended up finishing third.

We mention this because we think Baffert again holds a pair of aces: this year he's got Game Winner, last year's juvenile champion, as well as Improbable. We think these are the best two horses in the race. And we think that Improbable is better, and we are picking him to win the Kentucky Derby.

We think Vekoma, Maximum Security, Bodexpress, and perhaps Gray Magician, in some order, will set the pace. We expect them to run legitimate, but not overly fast, early fractions. We figure something like 23 4/5 for the first quarter mile, 47 4/5 flat for the first half-mile, and 1:11 4/5 for the first six furlongs. This will virtually eliminate the horses at the back of the pack, but it will set up the race perfectly for the stalkers.

We think that Improbable and Game Winner will both be in the stalking group. We think that they will both move for the lead on the far turn, and make the lead at the top of the stretch. We think from there, Improbable will best Game Winner, as Improbable looked stronger in the stretch in his prep races than Game Winner did, especially in the Arkansas Derby, where Game Winner was caught by stablemate Roadster.

We will predict an all-Baffert exacta, with Improbable first and Game Winner second. And since a longshot always hits the board in the Kentucky Derby, we'll pick Cutting Humor, at 30-1, to complete the trifecta.

We will make only one bet today, and it will be to win. And it will be on Improbable. The bet: Churchill Downs, Race 12, $75 to win on 5-Improbable.

It will be a wonderful race. Enjoy it.

Here's our breakdown of the field:
War of Will:
Winner of the Risen Star's star has fallen since. Too slow.
Tax: Could mature into a nice stakes horse, but won't win here.
By My Standards: Winner of the Louisiana Derby could be live longshot, but we prefer others.
Gray Magician: Possible pace factor; otherwise, no chance.
Improbable: The pick.
Vekoma: A good horse with an odd gait; could be dangerous if loose on an early lead.
Maximum Security: Was gifted the Florida Derby by being allowed to gallop on the lead. Will crack under the much greater pressure today.
Tacitus: A good horse who will be compromised by the likely pace scenario. A threat in the exotics.
Plus Que Parfait: No shot.
Cutting Humor: Hard to endorse a horse as winner the Kentucky Derby when he can't win a Derby in New Mexico.
Code of Honor: Way too slow.
Win Win Win: Today it will be lose, lose, lose.
Master Fencer: The X factor from Japan. His presence in the race is a joke. No shot.
Game Winner: The juvenile winner last year has not improved enough as a 3-year-old. A chance, but we think a minor placing is his ceiling.
Roadster: Got an absolutely perfect trip in the Santa Anita Derby, but won't get that today. Pass.
Long Range Toddy: Might need long-range binoculars to find the finish line; no chance.
Spinoff: Shows nice progression of races, but doesn't look good enough.
Country House: Will be too far back early; no shot.
Bodexpress: Could be pace factor, but he's a maiden Saturday morning, and will still be a maiden Sunday morning.

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