This week’s announcement that the Kentucky Derby will be postponed to Sept. 5 due to the coronavirus pandemic was certainly a disappointment to horse racing fans who had already been counting down the days to the first Saturday in May.
But it was a necessary delay for an event that hopes to draw 150,000-plus spectators to Churchill Downs, and the extra four months will surely be a boon to several Kentucky Derby contenders.
The normal Derby timetable can lead to rushed schedules and small margins for error for connections trying to get their horses in the starting gate. One minor injury or illness can disrupt an otherwise talented colt’s training and knock him off the trail completely.
And then there’s the late-bloomers, those horses that have transcendent talent but don’t have the opportunity to really show it until it’s too late to accrue Derby qualifying points.
All of that is out the window now. Sure, some of the currently healthy Derby contenders could have a setback between now and September, but this new schedule gives trainers a larger window to plan up to the big race, and it gives the sport more time to build some new stars.
The Keeneland spring meet is canceled, which means no Blue Grass Stakes, but the other major Derby prep races are still on for this spring. And the existing Derby points system will be changed to allow for more qualifying races later in the calendar.
That’s good news for those late-bloomers.
The 2016 and 2017 3-year-old champions were Arrogate and West Coast, respectively, two horses that didn’t make their on-track debuts until relatively late in the process and weren’t ready for the Derby starting gate.
Arrogate and West Coast both won the Travers Stakes — run on the last Saturday in August — and Arrogate went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic later that year. Not bad for a horse that didn’t win his first race until June 5 of his 3-year-old season.
Here are 10 possible contenders for the 2020 roses that might have seen their Derby chances go up with this week’s postponement:
There’s probably no one that benefits more from the prolonged Derby prep season than Maxfield, who came into the calendar year as arguably the top Derby contender but still has not made his 3-year-old debut. The winner of the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland last fall missed the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile with an injury and underwent ankle surgery in November. He hasn’t raced since, but he did return to training earlier this year, and trainer Brendan Walsh — an Ireland native now living in Louisville — has apparently been pleased with his progress. Maxfield — a son of 2007 Derby winner Street Sense — almost certainly wouldn’t have made the starting gate on May 2. Now, he has a chance to be one of the race favorites.
Trained by Bob Baffert, the five-time Kentucky Derby winner, Nadal seemed poised to be one of the Kentucky Derby favorites even if the race was run May 2 as originally planned. The son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame has been so impressive — especially in this past Saturday’s Rebel Stakes victory — that it’s easy to forget he didn’t make his racing debut until Jan. 19. Eventual Triple Crown winner Justify broke the Apollo Curse two years ago, becoming the first horse to win the Derby since 1882 without running as a 2-year-old. Justify showed it can be done, but that’s still an awful lot of history against Nadal, who now has even more time to gain experience before he enters the Derby starting gate.
Another Bob Baffert-trainee unraced as a 2-year-old, Charlatan is even more unseasoned than Nadal, though he’s been even more impressive in his first two starts. The son of Speightstown — an accomplished sprinter — has left his competition in the dust in each of his first two races, a 6-furlong maiden victory on Feb. 16 and a victory in a $57,000 allowance race at 1 mile this past Saturday. He earned 105 and 106 Beyer speed figures, respectively, in those wins, and the Justify comparisons began before he even made his second start. Charlatan probably would’ve had just one more start before the Kentucky Derby — and just one chance to earn Derby points — if it had been held on May 2. Justify, Big Brown, and Regret are the only three horses to win the Derby with three or fewer career starts. What will happen when Charlatan faces stiffer competition? What will happen when he has to run beyond a mile? Who knows what four additional months of seasoning could bring. This one could be special.
Anyone who watched this month’s Tampa Bay Derby with no previous knowledge of its participants would’ve figured that King Guillermo was the odds-on favorite, right? The way he took over the race in the stretch and romped home from there made for one of the more visually impressive Derby prep runs this year. In fact, he was 49-1. And at the time, he wasn’t even nominated for the Triple Crown series. King Guillermo came out of nowhere to win that Tampa Bay Derby — earning a 99 Beyer in the process — and the plan for the colt with just four career starts was to train him up directly to the Kentucky Derby, which would’ve meant a layoff of 56 days between races. Going back to 1929 — the first year where complete records on this statistic exist — no horse has won the Derby with a layoff of more than 42 days. Only three horses in the past 100 years have won with four or fewer career starts. And King Guillermo — a son of Uncle Mo — would’ve gone into Derby day having never run more than 1 1/16 miles. More time should only help his cause.
Trained by Kentucky Derby winner John Shirreffs — who also trained Zenyatta — and ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Honor A.P. was another who came into 2020 highly regarded but lightly raced. The son of Honor Code broke his maiden in October, but a foot injury forced him to the sidelines. He finally came back to finish an impressive second to Bob Baffert’s undefeated Authentic in the San Felipe Stakes two weeks ago, but he could surely use a little more time and foundation — just three starts so far — before attempting the Kentucky Derby. Shirreffs now has four additional months to get him ready.
Seemingly the best Derby bet in two-time winner Todd Pletcher’s barn this year, Gouverneur Morris had a chance to be one of the race favorites May 2. He also had a chance to miss the Derby altogether. The runner-up to Maxfield after a troubled trip in the Breeders’ Cup Futurity at Keeneland last fall was perfect in his other two races, but neither one of those earned him any Derby points. Pletcher chose an allowance race at Tampa Bay Downs last month for the Gouverneur’s 3-year-old debut, and that path left little room for error. The plan was to make just one more start — in a 100-point Derby prep race — and hope to finish well enough to make the starting gate. That basically meant that the Gouverneur would need at least a second-place finish in that one race, and another troubled trip could have prevented that from happening and left him out of the Kentucky Derby picture. Now, he’ll get more time (and opportunities) to prove he belongs.
Past Kentucky Derby prep seasons are littered with stories of possible contenders who were knocked off the trail with minor injuries or illnesses. Just last year, would-be Derby favorite Omaha Beach was scratched the week of the race with an ailment and came back later in the year to earn two Grade 1 victories. Mr. Monomoy wasn’t quite at Omaha Beach levels in this 3-year-old crop, but he did look the part of a top contender after his victory in the more competitive division of the Risen Star Stakes last month. The son of Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice — and half-brother to recent Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl — was knocked off the trail a few weeks ago with what his connections called “a relatively minor ankle injury,” according to the Daily Racing Form. The plan then was to get Mr. Monomoy back in training later this spring. If that happens, he should have plenty of time to get healthy and make the Derby gate for trainer Brad Cox, a Louisville native who has never had a Derby starter.
Undefeated in three starts — including a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf — for trainer Chad Brown, there are still some big question marks surrounding Structor, who hasn’t raced since that Breeders’ Cup win on Nov. 1 and has never raced on dirt. That was supposed to change with the Fountain of Youth Stakes three weeks ago, but Brown took him out of consideration for that one after a setback a few days before the race. Dating back to last year, Brown — the trainer of 2018 Derby runner-up Good Magic — has been talking up Structor as a horse that should thrive on the dirt, and he was training well before last month’s setback. That interruption likely ended his chances of making the Derby on May 2, but with four additional months to train, maybe we’ll see Structor at Churchill Downs after all.
The form of top 2-year-old colts often doesn’t carry over into their 3-year-old season, and that might be the case with Dennis’ Moment. Or, perhaps, he just needs another chance? Trained by Louisville native Dale Romans — still looking for his first Derby winner after 10 previous starts — Dennis’ Moment seemed set for a championship coronation as the odds-on favorite in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic before stumbling badly out of the gate and finishing last. His comeback start in the Fountain of Youth Stakes last month was one of the most anticipated debuts of 2020. He finished last again. Something might have been off with him that day, and he was making his first start in nearly four months. Maybe Dennis’ Moment never re-enters the Derby conversation, or maybe a little more time will get him right again.
Bob Baffert would’ve already been flush with Derby talent on May 2. Could the Hall of Fame trainer have even more top contenders on Sept. 5? It seems so. Cezanne — the son of Curlin with Bernardini as his damsire — hasn’t even made his racing debut yet, but he’s been a buzz horse in Baffert’s barn dating back to last year, when he sold for $3.65 million(!) in the spring and was working toward a fall debut before a setback halted his training. At the time, Baffert said it was “nothing serious” and Cezanne would be ready for a 2020 debut, possibly as early as January. He still hasn’t run a race, but he has been training (impressively) at Los Alamitos. It’s now safe to say that Cezanne wouldn’t have been ready for a May 2 Derby. If he’s as good as he looks, a Sept. 5 Derby could be a different story. And consider this: Arrogate didn’t make his racing debut until April 17 of his 3-year-old season. On Aug. 27 that year, Arrogate won the Travers Stakes in one of the most impressive performances we’ve seen from a horse of any age over the past few years. There’s still plenty of time for Cezanne to make his mark.