There will be one fewer horse and one more Hall of Fame jockey back in the field for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.
The Churchill Downs media team announced on a rainy Friday morning that Haikal (30-1 on the morning line, 30-1 at the Wynn Las Vegas) had been scratched from the race because of an abscess to his left front hoof. And jockey Mike Smith, who had been out of the race after the May Day scratch of futures favorite Omaha Beach, is back in with the announcement that he has replaced Corey Lanerie on board Sunland Derby winner Cutting Humor (30-1, 20-1).
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A two-time winner in 24 previous Derby rides, Smith’s presence is likely to move the betting needle toward a possible underlay on Cutting Humor, a colt trained by Todd Pletcher that was already used to Hall of Fame rider John Velázquez. But Velázquez long ago had decided to ride Fountain of Youth winner Code Of Honor (12-1, 10-1) for Shug McGaughey. Smith’s move means that 10 of the 19 horses in the Derby field will have different jockeys than they had for their most recent races.
The changes were announced about two hours before the 9 a.m. EDT deadline to have final, pre-betting scratches in the books. On-track, pari-mutuel Derby betting starts at 10 a.m. EDT Friday.
In the case of Haikal, it was not for lack of trying that connections finally gave up the idea of racing Saturday after the discovery of the abscess Wednesday.
“We put shoes back on him and jogged him, and he was still not 100 percent,” Haikal’s trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said Friday morning. “The horse always comes first. He will head home today and live to fight another day. We’ll have to see what else is there now after he recovers.”
The good news is that neither Haikal nor Omaha Beach, out with a throat problem, suffered a career-threatening injury. The bad news in both cases was bad timing.
“It was devastating to be honest,” Omaha Beach’s trainer Richard Mandella said in a Friday morning news conference. “I have done this for 45 years, so I have seen the movie and starred in it. That’s part of training horses.”
The configuration of the entire Derby field is affected. Bettors have to remember that program numbers and saddle cloths will not change, but the gate assignment will be different for every horse in the field. Numbers 1-10 will occupy gates 2-11, leaving the dreaded “1” gate open.
Already, the horses drawn outside of Omaha Beach at number 12 had been moved in one stall each to accommodate the also-eligible Bodexpress, the number 21 horse that will be in the outside gate. In other words, horses 13-21 will be in gates 12-20. The Japanese entrant Master Fencer (50-1, 60-1) is stuck in post 14, the one that runs into a bottleneck from the adjacent, auxiliary gate that starts with 15.
With Omaha Beach out, the Bob Baffert trio is likely to get most of the backing from bettors. The 2018 juvenile champion Game Winner is a tepid 9-2 favorite on the new morning line, even though he shortened from 5-1 to 4-1 in the Westgate future book. Roadster is an estimated 5-1 at the track, but he went from 6-1 up to 9-2 at the Wynn. Improbable is 5-1 on both the morning line and at the Wynn, up from 6-1 before Omaha Beach’s exit.
Baffert could not help but feel empathy for Mandella, his friend and neighbor in southern California.
“When I heard the news I felt this sickening feeling for Richard, because I know Richard was excited about it,” Baffert said. “I feel horrible for him, because I know what can happen. We’re all competitors. But at the same time we wanted to see each other do well.”
The most significant moves in the futures since Omaha Beach’s scratch came with the undefeated Florida Derby victor Maximum Security and Wood Memorial winner Tacitus. Maximum Security’s new 8-1 morning line matches where he was at the Wynn before the Omaha Beach news came down Wednesday evening. Now he is 6-1 in the future book. Tacitus shortened from 10-1 to 8-1 both here at Churchill Downs and in Las Vegas.
Aside from the odds, the biggest question since Omaha Beach’s exit is how his absence will affect the early pace of the race. With an “E 8” reading in the Quirin Speed Points, the question was whether he would have tried to set the pace early if he did not bide his time before making a big move on the backstretch. Either way, his career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 101 will be conspicuous by its absence.
“It does change things a little bit,” Maximum Security’s trainer Jason Servis said. “I’m not talking speed or not speed. I’m just talking one live horse is out of there.”
But if as his connections suggested that Omaha Beach was not going to need the lead, then which horse is going to set the pace Saturday? Mark Casse has already gone on record saying that War Of Will (15-1, 20-1) will try to overcome his rail draw by surging to the early lead, even though he has never been out front at the first call since he was switched from turf to dirt last fall.
“We’ll probably be on the lead and play catch-me-if-you-can,” Casse said this week. “At least we have the shortest way around.”
But if War Of Will gets crushed along the rail the first time past the grandstand, a slow, early pace could develop and tilt the race even more toward whatever early speed there is. That is especially true if the forecast of rain turns the track into a basin of slop that will end up in the faces of closers. The most likely beneficiaries based on the Quirins might be Maximum Security and Todd Pletcher’s Louisiana Derby runner-up Spinoff (30-1, 30-1), both candidates to grab the early lead.
“He’s won on an ‘off’ track,” Servis said of Maximum Security. “He won a major prep – the Florida Derby. He won in the mud. He lay third and came off the pace. He’s undefeated. His mare is a half to Flat Out, who won the Jockey Club Gold Cup twice at a mile-and-a-quarter. It doesn’t matter what you like or don’t like. He’s checking a lot of boxes.”
Bellafina is favorite to win speedy Oaks
With a perfect record in three races this year, Bellafina (2-1) is the morning-line favorite to emerge from a field full of early speed and win Friday’s $1.25 million Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks on what figures to be a wet main track here at Churchill Downs.
Sired by Quality Road out of a Malibu Moon mare, Bellafina has progressed impressively as each race gets longer and the odds on her seem to get shorter. Paying only $2.60 on a $2 win ticket, she ran off to a 5¼-length victory last month in the Santa Anita Oaks.
With minor injuries making news in the Derby, it seemed strangely appropriate that there would be one at the Bellafina barn. But in this case it was trainer Simon Callaghan who showed up with his arm in a sling Thursday after he said he fell down the stairs at his rental house Wednesday.
“If I’m in the sling I’m good,” Callaghan said. As for Bellafina and how she might be affected if an 80 percent chance of rain comes true Friday, he said, “the Quality Roads all seem to do well on wet tracks. I’m not that worried about that.”
Only two of the 14 fillies in the field would be considered something other than an early-speed horse like Bellafina or a pace chaser like co-second choice Restless Rider (6-1).
One of them, though, is keyed on my Oaks tickets. Champagne Anyone (6-1) may be taken back in her second race with blinkers. Trainer Ian Wilkes added them for the Gulfstream Park Oaks and was rewarded with a victory March 30. With Chris Landeros riding, the thought here is that the speed in front of her burns out, and Champagne Anyone will pick up the pieces.
The obvious value play is Flor De La Mar (20-1), a $500,000 Godolphin filly that Baffert was confident about when she made her debut for him at Santa Anita in January. The hope here is that the track does not disintegrate to slop, which she did not take to when she ran up the track in a disappointing second race. She was then a distant second to Bellafina in the Santa Anita Oaks but has since sharpened in training, firing a bullet work last week at Santa Anita.
The Kentucky Oaks is scheduled for 6:12 p.m. EDT.
Ron Flatter’s racing column from Louisville is posted daily at VSiN.com during Kentucky Derby week. You may also hear a horseplayers pop-up edition of the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Wednesday at VSiN.com/podcasts with the focus on handicapping all 19 horses left in the Kentucky Derby. Vinny Magliulo, Dave Tuley and Patrick McQuiggan were joined by DraftKings’ Johnny Avello. Friday morning’s regularly scheduled RFRP features By My Standards’s trainer Bret Calhoun and XBTV’s Zoe Cadman. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available through Apple, Google and Stitcher.