Horse racing’s Triple Crown season gets underway Saturday at Churchill Downs with the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby. The expectation is that there will be no limits on crowd size, unlike the last two years. But even with more than 100,000 people expected, one mainstay won’t be there: Bob Baffert.
The six-time Derby-winning trainer has been barred from entering any horses into races at Churchill Downs until mid-2023 after Medina Spirit tested positive for a banned substance after last year’s race. Mandaloun would end up being crowned the winner; Medina Spirit died later in 2021.
So with no Baffert, who is the trainer to beat this year?
Steve Asmussen has won every big race in his career except the Derby, and has to be in consideration with his #3 horse Epicenter. Meanwhile, Todd Pletcher and Doug O’Neill each have two Derby victories to their credit, and we’ll see whether Brad Cox can follow up his first Derby victory last year (albeit via DQ) with a strong performance out of one of the three horses he’ll be running. There’s also Baffert mentee Tim Yakteen, who will run a couple of horses with shorter odds.
Then there’s Chad Brown, the trainer of the current favorite, Zandon. Brown has one Triple Crown victory in his career (the 2017 Preakness, with Cloud Computing), while the jockey who will be aboard the #10 horse, Flavien Prat. was ruled the winner of the 2019 Derby after Maximum Security was DQ’d.
Two disqualifications in three years — hopefully we’ll see a nice clean race this year sans Baffert, and we get a crowd that is enthusiastic. We’ll even have Louisville’s own Jack Harlow doing Riders Up!
The 20-horse field with the current odds:
|1||Mo Donegal||Todd Pletcher||Irad Ortiz Jr.||10-1|
|2||Happy Jack||Doug O’Neill||Rafael Bejarano||30-1|
|3||Epicenter||Steve Asmussen||Joel Rosario||7-2|
|4||Summer Is Tomorrow||Bhupat Seemar||Mickael Barzalona||30-1|
|5||Smile Happy||Kenny McPeek||Corey Lanerie||20-1|
|6||Messier||Tim Yakteen||John Velazquez||8-1|
|7||Crown Pride||Koichi Shintani||Christophe Lemaire||20-1|
|8||Charge It||Todd Pletcher||Luis Saez||20-1|
|9||Tiz The Bomb||Kenny McPeek||Brian Hernandez Jr.||30-1|
|10||Zandon||Chad Brown||Flavien Prat||3-1|
|11||Pioneer of Medina||Todd Pletcher||Joe Bravo||30-1|
|12||Taiba||Tim Yakteen||Mike Smith||12-1|
|13||Simplification||Antonio Sano||Jose Ortiz||20-1|
|14||Barber Road||John Ortiz||Reylu Gutierrez||30-1|
|15||White Abarrio||Saffie Joseph Jr.||Tyler Gaffalione||10-1|
|16||Cyberknife||Brad Cox||Florent Geroux||20-1|
|17||Classic Causeway||Brian Lynch||Julien Leparoux||30-1|
|18||Tawny Port||Brad Cox||Ricardo Santana Jr.||30-1|
|19||Zozos||Brad Cox||Manny Franco||20-1|
|20||Ethereal Road||D. Wayne Lukas||Luis Contreras||30-1|
This week I interviewed horse racing analyst and longtime Philadelphia Inquirer writer Dick Jerardi, who is in Churchill Downs for his 34th Kentucky Derby. Dick talked about the illustrious chase of holding a winning Superfecta ticket and how it is considered “The Holy Grail” of betting the Kentucky Derby. So, let’s predict how the Top 4 will shake out:
Win: #12 Taiba
Jerardi is also part of the Beyer speed figure team, a system that was designed by legendary Washington Post racing columnist Andy Beyer. For the purpose of this particular preview we’ll just point out that it is very impressive to get a score in the 100s. Taiba has done it twice, and check out the elite company he is in:
I know Taiba’s circumstances are different given his lack of experience, but this is the list of horses dating back to 2012 who had at least two consecutive 100+ Beyer Speed Figures entering the Kentucky Derby and where they finished in the Derby itself: pic.twitter.com/r6ANwP0WSZ
— Matt Bernier (@bernier_matt) April 25, 2022
About that lack of experience Bernier points out: Taiba has only raced twice but was victorious in both races; most recently by 2 ¼ lengths in the Santa Anita Derby. While it may seem nerve-wracking to back Taiba considering only one other horse has won the Kentucky Derby in his third career start, and that was all the way back in 1883, jockey Mike Smith pointed out that with a good trip, inexperience won’t matter much.
Speaking of “Money” Mike Smith, the 56-year-old is hoping to become the oldest jockey to win the Kentucky Derby. He’s already accomplished the biggest triumph in horse racing, capturing the Triple Crown aboard Justify in 2018.
Smith has teamed with trainer Tim Yakteen, who has more than 250 career victories and purse earnings of more than $12 million. That seems like a match made in the Winner’s Circle. Even with the weather conditions looking iffy, I expect the speedy Taiba to spoil Steve Asmussen’s best shot at winning his first Derby late in the race.
PLACE: #3 Epicenter
Asmussen is the leading trainer in North America when it comes to wins and he has collected victories in Triple Crown races on three occasions: twice in the Preakness (Curlin in 2007, Rachel Alexandra in 2009) and one Belmont (in 2016 with Creator). Epicenter also was selected to the #3 post, which Jerardi suggested could be a favorable position as it forces the horse to be more aggressive.
Speaking earlier this week, Asmussen did not seem as enthralled with the idea of starting out of that gate:
Thank you trainer Steve Asmussen for taking time to speak with @gabby_gaudet_ following today’s draws for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks!
Listen in here for his thoughts on Epicenter drawing the #3 post in the Derby & Echo Zulu drawing post #7 in the Oaks! pic.twitter.com/rNT1RrAHOq
— TVG (@TVG) May 2, 2022
Joel Rosario’s hand could certainly be forced, especially if the track conditions are not ideal with the weather. But will he be able to come out of that first turn at the top of the pack? I don’t believe so. Epicenter ran past Zandon in Risen Star Grade 2 back in February, and I expect that to happen once again, but it won’t be enough to finish first.
SHOW: #10 Zandon
I was tempted to go with the horse with the shortest odds as favorites have won 35% of the time in the Kentucky Derby. My fade with this horse is because of trainer Chad Brown’s history.
Only Good Magic, back in 2018, has finished in the money out of Brown’s six previous entries, and while the odds may suggest this is his best chance, I’m not so sure, given Zandon’s unproven pedigree. The #10 post has produced nine winners in Derby history and I don’t foresee this 10 horse becoming the 10th.
Fourth place to fill out your Superfectas: #15 White Abarrio
The Florida Derby winner did not have the easiest trip last month according to trainer Saffie Joseph Jr., but was still good enough to win. Joseph pointed out that he does need to improve a bit to finish first at the Derby and it’s curious to see how he’ll perform on the big stage away from the Sunshine State — all four of his career wins have come at Gulfstream Park.
Jerardi pointed out that while Tyler Gaffalione has never won the Derby in four rides, he’s had multiple exceptional performances in other races at Churchill Downs for years – he just hasn’t had the right horse to win the Derby. I am not so sure this will be the year either, but I liked enough of what I saw out of White Abarrio to consider him on my Holy Grail tickets.