It’s time for the 148th annual Run for the Roses — The Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Now’s when the exhilaration comes. For hard-core horse racing bettors, it’s also when the torture begins.
After months of discussion, workouts and races, we have the most exciting two minutes in sports on Saturday. The day is expected to be cool and clear. There’s no clearcut favorite (not that it matters) so it’s up to the bettors to establish one.
Many tend to over-think the race (that’s where the torture comes in) — and it’s hard not to with a 20-horse field. Historically, speed has been the deciding factor (not necessarily tact). With speed — and a commonsense jockey — the horse doesn’t necessarily have to work out a great trip. He leads the trip.
Suspended trainer Bob Baffert tended to use this strategy more often than not. He has no entries on Saturday, obviously, but did train a few who are entered, particularly the visually impressive Messier (it is Stanley Cup playoff season, right?) and Taiba — sure to be a “buzz” horse in days leading up after a strong showing in the Santa Anita Derby.
This leaves bettors wondering if Baffert won Derbies with legit speed horses or ones benefitting from “enhancements.” We’ll find out a little before sundown Saturday in this Grade 1 race at 1 ¼ miles – the first leg of the Triple Crown.
The Derby Dozen, week 12
- (No Change) Epicenter (trainer Steve Asmussen): Sport’s all-time winningest trainer finally takes the Run for the Roses, based on his high-quality speed. There is a sense that Epicenter’s prep wins were claimed by getting “perfect trips,” however his speed keeps him out of trouble.
- (NC) Zandon (Chad Brown): Super consistent horse with enough of a foundation to stay in the hunt the entire way – including at the wire.
- (+1) Messier (Tim Yakteen): Baffert is all smiles and is the first to send a congratulatory tweet to his training partner Hakteen if this horse puts it all together – and he could. Side bet: NBC’s hockey-horse racing analyst Eddie Olczyk picks this horse based on the name.
- (+2) Mo Donegal (Todd Pletcher): Playfecta’s Andrew Champagne chose Mo Donegal as the winner in a column earlier this week. He says the horse will take advantage of a hot pace and come from behind – and did we mention it gets the top jockey in the world Irad Ortiz Jr.?
- (+2) Cyberknife (Brad Cox): This is Cox’s home course and analyst Jeremy Plonk predicts this will be the week’s “steam horse as the longshot to fear” based on a 20- second clip of his workout last Saturday “that has folks abuzz.”
- (-3) White Abarrio (Saffie Joseph Jr.): This is Andy Beyer’s horse. And he knows a little bit about “Speed Figures,” right? Some suggest the horse won’t be able to get the distance.
- (NR) Crown Pride (Koichi Shintani) It’s been a strong season for Japanese horses. International shippers typically are quite the wild cards in Louisville. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
- (+2) Smile Happy (Kenny McPeek): Mattress Mack will bet big on this horse, so keep that in mind when trying to rationalize his post-time odds.
- (-1) Tawny Port (Cox): His prep works suggest he likes a synthetic surface, but he performed well in the Lexington Stakes three weeks ago on dirt at Keeneland.
- (-5) Simplification (Antonio Sano): He ranked ninth on the Kentucky Derby points standings and that’s about where he should finish on Saturday.
- (-2) Taiba (Yakteen): He beat Messier in his most recent race (Santa Anita Derby). What does he have left? He’s the only undefeated horse in the field (two starts) and looking to top Justify’s path to winning the Triple Crown by running just two preps before capturing the Kentucky Derby. Justify needed three.
- (+1) Zozos (Cox): This horse is a fighter. So, he’ll likely take some money from the Gunnevera fan base. We’ll see how much that matters.
Long-shot pick not on this list: Classic Causeway (Brian Lynch): Has this horse figured it all out after a dud his last time out, or is his decision to get in the gate based on an owner who simply wanted a horse to Run for the Roses? Classic Causeway has the fourth-best Equibase Speed Figure in the field at 104.
Dropped out: No. 12 Tiz the Bomb