Given the hours of training and the poring over of handicapping notes since January, you’d think it was a mystery how to win the Kentucky Derby. But maybe not.
For the past several years, speed has gotten it done, especially given the race’s extremely crowded 20-horse field and random — and often detrimental — post position draw that can quickly bury even the most accomplished 3-year-olds on that First Saturday in May.
Trainer Bob Baffert, a six-time winner of the race, has made a living on speed. However, he’s ineligible to compete at Churchill Downs, among other places, having lost his multiple legal appeals after last year’s winner Medina Spirit was disqualified after failing a post-race drug test.
This week, Pimlico, home of the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness, also upheld Baffert’s ban.
The horses to watch in the Kentucky Derby
Top-ranked Epicenter has been brilliant when racing out in front. There is other speed in the race as well. Handicappers, you see, rely on estimating the pace of the race when placing their bets.
On Saturday, the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland might have thrown a wrench into everyone’s thinking when Zandon ran a beautiful race, coming off the pace, weaving between several entries in the 11-horse field to win. With Flavien Prat on board, it was a sight to see, the horse going last to first — and racing analysts took note.
The question is: Was it such a rugged and strenuous effort that the horse might be compromised four weeks later? Or did it provide a valuable foundation for when Zandon bids to claim the 148th running?
A deep closer has won the Kentucky Derby only twice in the modern points era.
Prat will go for his second career Derby win (he won three years ago aboard Country House after Maximum Security was DQ’d by the stewards for cutting off horses down the stretch). Chad Brown has never won Derby in five starts.
The Derby Dozen, week 10
- (No Change) Epicenter (trainer Steve Asmussen): Epicenter, coming off his victory two weekends prior in the Louisiana, and Messier, a two-time Grade 3 winner, are still the best-priced co-favorites at 6-1, the odds they carry at Caesars Sportsbook at William Hill Nevada. Epicenter, who holds the top position on the Kentucky Derby Leaderboard, worked five furlongs in 1:01 on Sunday. Epicenter is the 9-2 favorite in Pool 5 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager, which closed Saturday prior to that day’s prep races. He will enter the Kentucky Derby with four wins from six starts.
- (+1) Zandon (Chad Brown): Zandon won the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths over Smile Happy. According to the Daily Racing Form, he triumphed with a 98 Beyer Speed Figure. Zandon drew off in the final furlong from Smile Happy, who had taken over for front-running Emmanuel in the upper stretch. It was a visually impressive triumph contested over a muddy track amid mid-40s temperatures. Prat said after the race, “It’s going to be a bigger field (in the Kentucky Derby), but it was already a good field today. It’s just a matter of getting a clean break and getting yourself into position. That’s always key.”
- (+1) White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph Jr.): This horse has four wins in five starts, all of the victories at Gulfstream Park. His jockey, Tyler Gaffalione has never finished better than seventh in four tries at the Kentucky Derby, and Joseph is 0-1 in the race.
- (Not Ranked) Messier (Tim Hakteen): An imposing physical specimen for sure, Messier was chased down in the stretch in the Santa Anita Derby. It was not unlike what happened in the Los Alamitos Futurity in December when Slow Down Andy did the same. Optimists would say “second off a layoff” for Messier come May.
- (+1) Simplification (Antonio Sano): In the Florida Derby, after dueling with Grade 2 Classic Causeway and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Pappacap through fractions of 23.67, 47.24 and 1:10.68, Simplification battled on gamely to finish third, beaten by only 2 1/4 lengths.
Simplification, who finished second to White Abarrio in the Holy Bull before winning the Fountain of Youth (G2), “will never embarrass himself and has a versatile running style that can be beneficial in a 20-horse free-for-all,” according to racing analyst Jeremy Plonk.
- (NR) Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher): Joel Rosario rode Mo Donegal to victory in Saturday’s Grade 2 Wood Memorial. However, Pletcher anticipates that Irad Ortiz Jr. will be aboard the horse in the Kentucky Derby, the trainer said Sunday. “The performance he gave today is even better than it looked to the naked eye,” the head of Donegal Racing told DRF. “I’ve been here for two days, and not one horse has closed on the dirt in two days. … He had to be not just the best today, but much the best in order to prevail.”
- (+1) Cyberknife (Brad Cox): America’s Best Racing reports that Cyberknife has earned a 100 Equibase Speed Figure twice. His first was as a 2-year-old and second in his allowance-optional claiming win following the Lecomte defeat. He declined five points to a 95 for the Arkansas Derby. According to DRF, Cyberknife earned a career-best 92 Beyer Speed Figure for the Arkansas Derby, a five-point increase from his previous top.
- (+1) Early Voting (Brown): Early Voting is 16th on the Kentucky Derby Points Leaderboard. As of publication, trainer Brown has not declared his intentions to run the horse in the Derby.
- (NR) Taiba (Yakteen): Yakteen, who previously had started only one horse in the Santa Anita Derby, ran 1-2 with former Baffert runners. Messier, the slight second choice, put away front-running favorite Forbidden Kingdom on the second turn after pressing the pace. In the end, he could not hold off Taiba and Hall of Famer Mike Smith in the final 200 yards. Taiba is now 2-0.
- (-8) Smile Happy (Kenny McPeek): The aura around Smile Happy has disappeared, HorseRacingNation wrote. “He still belongs in the Kentucky Derby, and maybe he can work out a trip, but there is nothing special about him.” He has not won in two starts as a 3-year-old but is now set to return to the racecourse (Churchill Downs) where he scored his only win in a graded-stakes race, the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes in late November, a race in which third-ranked White Abarrio finished third.
- (NR) Zozos (Cox): He’s No. 17 on the Derby Standings board by virtue of his second-place finish a few weeks back in the Louisiana Derby. No word yet on who might ride him. HorseRacingNation speculated that it could be Colby Hernandez, who rode him in his debut, a maiden win in January at Fair Grounds. Hernandez has never ridden in a Kentucky Derby.
- (NR) Tiz the Bomb (McPeek): Tiz the Bomb has two stakes wins on the synthetic surface at Turfway Park. Additionally, he placed seventh in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream.
Dropped out: No. 5 Forbidden Kingdom, No. 7 Emmanuel, No. 11 Classic Causeway, No. 12 Morello