The spotlight of the racing world is on Churchill Downs the first weekend in May, with the per-eminent races for 3-year-old colts and fillies, the 145th running of Kentucky Derby (G1) and Kentucky Oaks (G1), both proving grounds for divisional hierarchy.
The Derby has been won overwhelming by Kentucky-breds, with 110 to date. Only three times this century have horses foaled outside of Kentucky found the winner’s circle.
This year’s Derby field of 20 features 18 horses from Kentucky, with Japanese-bred Master Fencer and Win Win Win, from Florida, the only exceptions. After the scratch of favorite Omaha Beach, Bodexpress, by Bodemeister, drew in the race as the lone also-eligible.
Bob Baffert, winner of last year’s Derby and Triple Crown with Kentucky-bred Justify, inherited the favorite’s role with a trio of starters, all Grade 1 winners. A win by Baffert would tie him atop the Derby trainers’ standings with Ben Jones with six Derby wins.
Baffert’s group will certainly get tested by a very good field that includes the winners of nearly every major prep race on the road to the Derby. Undefeated Florida Derby (G1) winner Maximum Security has been brilliant in his four starts; Bluegrass S. (G2) winner Vekoma was very impressive at Keeneland; Tacitus has won three straight, including the Wood Memorial (G2) and Tampa Bay Derby (G2); and Louisiana Derby winner By My Standards has trained superbly at Churchill over the last month.
Since 1990, the Oaks has been dominated by Kentucky-breds, with 25 of the 29 winners coming from the Bluegrass State. With 13 of the 14 entries in this year’s renewal (Viriginia-bred Out for a Spin is the exception), the odds are in the state’s favor to take the top spot once again.
Bellafina, in post 4, is the morning line favorite and has done little wrong in her career, winning six of eight, most in dominating fashion, for trainer Simon Callaghan and owner Kaleem Shah. The bay daughter of Quality Road is one of just two in the field to have earned over $1 million.
The second is last year’s 2-year-old filly champion Jaywalk, who drew post 7 for D J Stable and Cash Is King Stable. Though the Cross Traffic filly hasn’t won this year, she’s hit the board in both graded starts and has trained extremely well for Friday’s race.
Others that figure prominently are Restless Rider, a daughter of Distorted Humor who already has two wins at Churchill Downs, but was unlucky to draw post 14 for trainer Ken McPeek. Champagne Anyone, in post 10, came on the Oaks scene late with her win the March 30 Gulfstream Park Oaks (G2), while Serengeti Empress showed her affinity for the Churchill surface last September when she destroyed the Pocahontas S. (G2) field by nearly 20 lengths.
The Friday/Saturday cards at Churchill are both loaded with graded stakes, including four Grade 1 events: The La Troienne for older fillies and mares on Friday’s Oaks Day card, with the Old Forester Turf Classic, the race just prior to the Derby; the seven-furlong Humana Distaff; and the Humana’s male counterpart, the Churchill Downs S., all running on Saturday.