With an unpredictable, entertaining prep season behind us, it's time to get down to the tense business of determining the best 3-year-old thoroughbred in the country on the most sought-after stage in American racing.
There's nothing quite like the Kentucky Derby, with its collision of 20 costly, hope-filled odysseys, all sorted out over two frantic minutes before a bellowing crowd of 150,000-plus.
For decades, the Derby arrived with a fresh set of questions about when, if ever, we'd see the next Triple Crown winner. But trainer Bob Baffert has completed the trick twice in his past four tries, with American Pharoah in 2015 and Justified last year. So we're back to the 1970s, when a devilishly difficult five-week achievement suddenly became almost commonplace.
Is there another modern superstar lurking this time around? As we wait to start finding out May 4, here are five storylines to watch for the 2019 Derby.
Can Omaha Beach extend the unlikely dominance of Derby favorites?
We tend to cast the Derby as an unpredictable exercise because of its swollen field and the presence of so many lightly tested competitors. But the truth is favorites have won the race each of the past six years. Trainers will tell you the main reason is the points-qualifying system, which has pushed quick-starting speed horses out of the field and led to more predictable race dynamics. Regardless, the mightiest will fall some year. Will Omaha Beach be the unlucky streak breaker?
First of all, he's not guaranteed to go off as the favorite, not with the Baffert-trained Roadster in the field, coming off victory in the Santa Anita Derby.
But Omaha Beach is a worthy choice, coming off his own impressive win over a stacked field in the mud-choked Arkansas Derby. He seems capable of running well from any position, a quality that's always played well in the 1 1/4-mile Derby. And it's noteworthy that jockey Mike Smith chose to ride him over Roadster.
Though Omaha Beach might enter the gate as the No. 1 betting choice, he also carries some charming underdog qualities. His trainer, Richard Mandella, is widely loved within the sport but has never brought this caliber of horse to the Triple Crown series. His owner, Rick Porter, fell in love with the sport as a fan growing up around Delaware Park and experienced tragedy at the 2008 Derby when his filly, Eight Belles, broke down after finishing second.
Can Bob Baffert prove he's the king of Louisville for a record-tying sixth time?
Derby week is simply more exciting when Baffert, the sport's most identifiable star, arrives with a real contender. He has three this year, so the wry, white-haired Hall of Famer will spend a lot of time holding court outside his familiar Barn 33 at Churchill Downs.
Baffert often talks about the unique tension of the Derby, a moment of truth for connections who've invested so many dollars and expectations in the top contenders. The trainer endured a 13-year drought, between War Emblem's victory in 2002 and American Pharoah's in 2015. But Baffert has since reminded us no one is better at preparing a talented 3-year-old for the rigors of the Triple Crown.
The question this year is not whether he can win, but which horse gives him the best chance. Roadster is the hot choice after returning from throat surgery to best stablemate Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby. But if he's to continue his rapid rise, he'll have to do it with a new jockey in Florent Geroux.
Game Winner, meanwhile, has finished second in both of his 2019 starts. But the 2018 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner always runs hard, inspiring comparisons to Baffert's 1997 Derby and Preakness champion, Silver Charm. Some expert observers still rate him the horse to beat if he can straighten out the wide trips that doomed him during prep season.
The last of the troika is Improbable, who has struggled with focus going into the gate and during his stretch drives. He nonetheless gave Omaha Beach a formidable challenge in the Arkansas Derby and has the talent to turn the tables if he gets the right trip under Irad Ortiz Jr.
So Baffert will show up with quite a hand as he seeks to tie Ben Jones for the most trainer wins in Derby history.
Who are the other top contenders?
Here's where it gets interesting because of the unpredictable results we saw in several important prep races.
The Wood Memorial has not been a launching pad for Derby champions in recent years, but it's hard to argue with the resume of Tacitus, who overcame early bumps to win New York's top prep race as the favorite. That followed a Tampa Bay Derby victory in which the Bill Mott-trained colt put to rest questions raised by a four-month layoff and uneven winter workouts. He's gone nowhere but up this year, and in another testament to his talent, Jose Ortiz chose to ride him over Improbable.
The advanced metrics say Maximum Security is also a serious contender after he won the Florida Derby in his first start against top-notch competition. Skeptics say the Jason Servis-trained colt remains a bit of a mystery because he took the lead so easily in that race, without having to call on his impressive speed. But Justify showed last year that talent can trump inexperience in the modern world of the Derby, with so many lightly raced contenders packing the field.
Along the same lines, By My Standards delivered a career-best performance at the right time in the March 23 Louisiana Derby. The six-week wait for the Derby has not been kind to past winners of the Fair Grounds prep (Grindstone in 1996 was the last to capture both races). But By My Standards has raised eyebrows with his impressive morning workouts at Churchill Downs. He'll be an option for bettors looking past the favorites.
Others will gravitate to Vekoma, the Blue Grass Stakes winner with the funky stride. His unusual style has not kept him from performing well in each of his four career races, and the deeper you dig into the numbers, the more he looks like a solid second-tier contender.
Which long shots are worth your interest?
Maryland racing fans have a contender to root for in Win Win Win, trained by Mike Trombetta and based at Fair Hill Training Center. The metrics say he'll struggle to handle 1 1/4 miles, but he made a furious charge to overcome a poor start in the Blue Grass Stakes and earn enough points to qualify for the Derby field. Trombetta hasn't taken a horse to the Derby since 2006, when he had the post-time favorite in Sweetnorthernsaint, who finished seventh.
This has been an unusually quiet prep season for trainer Todd Pletcher, who usually leads the pack in Derby entries. He'll have Cutting Humor and Spinoff in the race, and neither will be top contenders. But the speed figures say Spinoff is a viable long shot, even though By My Standards caught him in the Louisiana Derby. The six-week layoff won't bother Pletcher, who rarely opts to work his Derby contenders too hard.
War of Will was considered a high-end Derby contender after winning graded stakes at Fair Grounds in both January and February. But he hurt himself with an awkward step and finished ninth in the Louisiana Derby. It's reasonable to toss that race out and focus instead on his superb recent workouts. Questions abound, but for those seeking a talented horse at long odds, this Mark Casse-trained colt cannot be ignored.
Is there a potential superstar in this class?
Thoroughbred racing could certainly use an exciting on-track story after a season of anxiety prompted by the spate of 23 horse deaths at Santa Anita. We saw the limits of such thinking in 2015 and 2018, when American Pharoah and Justify generated tremendous excitement but, predictably, could not wipe away deeper concerns about failing tracks, inconsistent doping regulations and the loss of casual fans.
At first glance, the 2019 class does not seem to include a physical specimen on par with Baffert's Triple Crown champions. But the presence of six or seven legitimate contenders could make for a thrilling Derby, and anything is possible after that.
With Baffert in strong position to make more history and horses such as Omaha Beach and Maximum Security carrying narrative punch to go with their racing talent, the first Saturday in May should be plenty interesting for racing fans.