War Story is hoping to prove that you don't have to win a stakes race in order to win the Kentucky Derby. Horses have, I'm sure, done it before - though they certainly don't jump to mind in bulk. The most extreme I can think of was Sir Barton. In 1919 he was a maiden (meaning he had never won a race) heading into the Derby, but went on to become the first Triple Crown winner.
In this case, at least, it's not like War Story has been lousy in his races. In fact, he has looked pretty solid - just not quite good enough to win. Is there upside here? He's at a juicy +3000 in early futures odds, so if you like him you won't complain about the price. One thing you have to like is that he headed to Churchill Downs right after his last race, and he will be preparing there right up to race day. He had his first work, and it looked to suit the track very well. Interestingly, the work was without the blinkers he has typically used. It will be worth watching if he puts them back on for race day or if he makes a change.
Louisiana Derby: This was his least impressive of his three prep races. In fact, I didn't like it very much at all. Some of my concern is directed toward the ride he got from jockey Joe Talamo - which makes it a bit concerning that Talamo will be on him again in Kentucky. He settled well off the pace early, and that was fine. Where it went off the rails was around the far turn. He went quite wide, and when that wasn't working he went even wider. It was far from the best way to save ground - especially because it wasn't particularly necessary. Down the stretch he was clearly tired. He was drifting and was flat when asked to chase down the front two horses. It wasn't a particularly inspiring effort. There are questions, then, about two things. Did he have a legitimate excuse? And will he improve on a different track?
Prior experience: The first thing that stands out in his past performances is that he won his debut last November at Churchill Downs. That impressive effort plus his first work back at the track now make it clear that the surface works for him. From there it was on to Fair Grounds - winning an allowance before the three-race prep path of the Le Comte, Risen Star and Louisiana Derby. In the first two races he was second to International Star both times. Both races were very similar. He was slow out of the gate both times, settled well off the early pace, went too wide on the last turn as he was moving forward, and engaged in a duel with the winner that he ultimately couldn't quite handle. There was quite a bit to like, but a few things are a concern. His consistent issues with the last turn are a problem. The fact that he has had four different jockeys in five races isn't very comforting, either. I also wish he hadn't raced his last four times on the same track. Since he has been beaten by International Star in three straight races, handicapping this horse really requires handicapping that horse. If International Star isn't good enough to win in Kentucky then it seems quite likely that War Story won't be, either.
Trainer: Tom Amoss has had a lot of success racing in Louisiana, with many meet titles to his credit. His success outside of the region has been spottier, though. He does have some Triple Crown experience - Mylute was fifth in the derby and third in the Preakness two years ago, and Backtalk was in the Derby in 2010, though he finished dead last. He is capable and not hugely outclassed here. He's not the biggest asset in the field but not a real problem.
Jockey: Joe Talamo has been given the nod in this race. Talamo, who is based in Southern California and is a solid competitor on that tough circuit, has ridden in the Derby only once. He finished way up the track in 2010 aboard Sidney's Candy. He was supposed to make his debut a year earlier, but likely favorite I Want Revenge was, crushingly, scratched on the morning of the race. Talamo is a fine jockey, though I don't always trust his judgment in a crisis - which is almost inevitable in the chaos of the Derby. I also wish he had had a better ride on the horse last time out. Still, it could be worse. I'd rather have Talamo on board than see Amoss make yet another jockey change for the horse.
Breeding: War Story is sired by Northern Afleet. That horse sired Afleet Alex, who handily won the Preakness and Belmont and should have been a Triple Crown winner, so we know the distance is in War Story's blood. As an interesting aside, Afleet Alex sired Materiality, the Florida Derby winner who is expected to be in the Kentucky Derby, so Northern Afleet's influence will be strong in the race. War Story's damsire is Pulpit, who won the Florida Derby and Blue Grass Stakes in 1997 before finishing a disappointing fourth in the Derby. Pulpit also sired very hot sire Tapit, who will be represented in the Kentucky Derby this year and is the grandsire of California Chrome. Add it all up and there is little doubt that he is bred for the distance - even if he hasn't always looked strong in the stretch in shorter races than the Derby lately.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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