The road to the Kentucky Derby is about to get serious.
Even though the first leg of the Triple Crown is still 60 days away, the horses being pointed to Louisville are entering an important stretch of races that will help determine who will enter the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. With an important day of prep races set for this weekend, let's evaluate where things stand on the Derby trail.
Bob Baffert is Loaded
The five-time Derby-winning trainer, who also won the Triple Crown with American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in '18, once again has a strong hand of candidates to don the blanket of roses. The top two betting favorites to win the Derby -- 2-year-old champion Game Winner (9/2) and Improbable (6/1) -- are both trained by Baffert. The silver-haired trainer also conditions three others ranked in the top 20: Much Better and Mucho Gusto (both 12/1) and Roadster (15/1).
Much like snow melting and flowers blooming, Baffert in the Derby is a springtime staple.
West is Best
Four of the last five horses to win the Kentucky Derby have been based on the West Coast, and, so far in 2019, the west has proven to be best again. The top four Derby betting choices -- Game Winner, Improbable, Instagrand (8/1) and Gunmetal Gray (9/1) -- are all based on the left coast. Hidden Scroll had been the top East Coast-based candidate, but he faded to fourth in Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes after setting a blistering pace up front. That leaves War of Will (9/1), who has won two straight stakes in Louisiana, as the current beast of the east.
Things Change Quickly
Bettors bailed on the highly regarded Code of Honor, who is trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, after a fourth-place finish in his 3-year-old debut in January. But the chestnut colt rebounded with a resounding win in the Fountain of Youth, establishing him as one of the top Derby contenders. As Code of Honor proved, one poor effort doesn't necessarily knock a horse out of the Kentucky Derby picture, so don't be too quick to dismiss talented runners coming off a loss, such as Hidden Scroll.
Saturday is Big
On Saturday, the road to Louisville has its most important day yet, with four key races that should help clarify the Derby picture. There may not be a bigger race this prep season that the San Felipe at Santa Anita Park, which is set to feature a showdown between Baffert's dynamic duo of Game Winner and Improbable. Instagrand travels across the country and highlights a strong field for the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. The fast Win Win Win will try two turns for the first time in the Tampa Bay Derby, and Somelikeithotbrown is the most accomplished horse in the field for the Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park.